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British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment

By Alexandra Harris | Posted 18th April 2012, 15:57
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British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment
Jan Golinski
University of Chicago Press 284pp £18.50

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Readers of The Lady’s Preceptor in 1743 were advised to prepare subjects of conversation in advance of social visits, thereby ensuring that they need not fall back on that perennial topic of last resort, the weather. But anyone who followed this advice was missing out. Jan Golinski reveals that attitudes to weather in the 18th century were one of the great test cases for the project of Enlightenment in Britain. To talk about the weather was to venture into the realms of religion, science, politics and pathology.

In an age of new scientific rigour many thinkers aimed to pin the weather down. Measuring the water in rain-gauges, tapping barometers, recording the direction of the wind, they determined to make sense of it all. The weather refused to comply, however, and kept producing more surprises. Where precise understanding failed at least it could be argued that the temperate English climate was polite and civilised, well-suited to the fostering of 18th-century ideals. But such notions were thrown into doubt by severe weather events of the period, from the Great Storm of 1703 to the cloud of ash that blocked the sun all through 1783 and which was subsequently attributed to an Icelandic volcano. Even the most avowedly rational of thinkers felt the old currents of superstition and fear of divine punishment rising up.

Golinski turns to sources that lie ‘off the path that has been recognised as leading to modern scientific meteorology’. Wellknown figures, like Robert Hooke and Joseph Priestley, appear but the foreground is populated by people we won’t have heard of talking in the street after a gale or pondering the best climate for their ailments. An alarming chapter on national climates describes the efforts of American colonists to improve their weather by cutting down trees.

Most fascinating of all are the weather diarists to whom Golinski devotes a great deal of attention. There is John Rutty with his Spiritual Diary, probing the divine order of nature. There is the Rutland squire Thomas Barker, keeping up objective observations for 60 years. But the presiding spirit is an anonymous diarist, probably Thomas Appletree of Edgiock, who allowed himself to be more subjective. For this young man in Worcestershire, writing urgently and passionately throughout 1703, the weather is personal. A misty rain in August seems to him ‘a distillation of divine juice’. His weather records are about mood and perception; he pushes at the limits of expression as he tries to find a language for ‘ye various notions’ of weather.

Taking up the cue, Golinski feels his way between the languages of empiricism and emotion, science and superstition. It is a motley but recognisable picture that emerges. ‘We still live in the house of enlightenment’, Golinski argues, ‘and we can still hear the wind and rain rattling at its windows.’

Alexandra Harris is the author of Romantic Moderns (Thames & Hudson, 2010)


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