Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Summer Time

We’re in the middle of a heatwave here in the UK. The weather does affect our mood, as well as our bodies, but some authors manage to demonstrate this more successfully than others. In literature, of course, authors can reverse the relationship and alter the weather to suit the mood of the characters:
In literary criticism, the pathetic fallacy is the description of inanimate natural objects in a manner that endows them with human emotions, thoughts, sensations, and feelings. The term was coined by John Ruskin in his 1856 work Modern Painters, in which Ruskin wrote that the aim of pathetic fallacy was “to signify any description of inanimate natural objects that ascribes to them human capabilities, sensations, and emotions."
There are other ways in which the weather can be used to enhance the mood or drive a plot and romance writers are well aware of them. For example, Maria V. Snyder, a meteorologist turned romance-writer says that:
I discovered, much to my chagrin, that forecasting the weather wasn’t one of my skills and in order to chase tornados you had to find them first. Creating fantasy worlds where I have complete control of the weather is definitely more fun.
The most obvious examples of the use of seasons in romance are those anthologies of short stories which appear around particular holidays, such as Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Then there are the dramatic weather events, such as hurricanes or snow-storms which put the couple at risk, forcing them to work together to survive, or simply trap them and keep them together long enough for them to find their HEA.

Since we’re having a heatwave, I thought I'd discuss a seasonally appropriate romance, Barbara Delinsky’s 1987 Heat Wave. This was published in the ‘Temptation’ line, so the title was an indication not just of the weather, but also of the sexual ‘heat’ between the hero and heroine. The story begins with Caroline undressing, and from the context we deduce that she’s just got back home after a long, hot day at work:
Caroline Cooper untied the wilting bow at the neck of her blouse, released its top button and peeled the damp fabric from her sweaty neck. [...] Freeing the last of the buttons, Caroline carefully separated the blouse from her shoulders and arms. [...] Caroline breathed a sigh of relief when she stepped out of her skirt and an even greater one when she rolled the nylons from her legs. [...]
Clad in panties and bra, Caroline padded wearily to the bathroom. [...] she unsnapped her bra and let it fall to the commode before rewetting the cloth and dragging it slowly over those parts of her that hadn’t breathed all day – the insides of her elbows, the curve of her waistline, beneath and between her breasts. (1987: 5-6)
It isn’t till page 7 that we’re told that ‘The dog days of summer had arrived suddenly and with a vengeance, but it wasn’t even summer. It was the sixth of June. She shuddered to think what July and August would be like.’ The slow, detailed opening pages make us feel the heroine’s sticky hotness with her, and they may also make the reader feel just a little bit voyeuristic as we ‘watch’ her slowly peel of her clothes. If so, that’s no coincidence, since the hero has also been watching the heroine from his window, fifty feet away from hers, and their relationship (or courtship) begins with them watching and fantasising about each other across the courtyard. Hot, literally and metaphorically.

But even if we’re boiling in the summer heat, poetry and prose can conjure up the mood of different seasons. Here, for example, is autumn:
SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
(From John Keats’ Ode to Autumn)
Just reading that makes me feel the lazy, gentle warmth of that season.

Lydia Joyce’s The Veil of Night is a particularly good example of how weather can be used to set mood, assist in characterisation and drive the plot. There are examples of this throughout the novel, but I'll just give one example, from the very beginning, when Lady Victoria Wakefield arrives at a lonely mansion, ‘its saw-toothed crenellations pierced by random, unbalanced spires stabbing the slate-gray sky’ (2005: 3) . As she and her maid walk up the hill
A fat drop of rain fell squarely on her nose as a gust of wind caught the cage of her crinoline [...] Another drop splatted against Victoria’s cheek, then another soaked through the fabric of her wrap and the gown beneath to wet her shoulder. She pressed her mouth in a thin line of displeasure, wishing fifty hells on the arrogant duke. [...] They reached the door just as a peal of thunder shook the ground and the sky let loose, releasing a torrent of water over them. Victoria didn’t pause to knock. She jerked the iron latch down and threw her shoulder against the battered door, half stumbling inside as it opened. (2005: 6)
Victoria’s reaction to the weather gives us a clue to her resilience and determination, as well as to her unconventional side which prompts her imaginative curse and which is then demonstrated by her decision to open the door herself rather than wait for a servant to do it for her. The scene also works to create atmosphere, since it is decidedly gothic: the heroine arrives in near-darkness, accompanied by the roll of thunder, at a remote and imposing building. This is no mere pastiche of the gothic, however, instead it is a work in which appearances are shown to be deceptive, and the author, having created expectations in the reader, leaves many of them unfulfilled, thus reinforcing one of the themes of the book, about the need to look beyond the surface appearance of a person (or a book, or a house), if one is to truly understand it. Later parts of the book, which is set in September 1864, create the same impression of ‘mellow fruitfulness’ as Keats’ poem, particularly in the creative application of peaches, which the Duke uses to give Victoria her ‘just desserts’ (2005: 131) while she lies back, her blonde hair loose, like Keat’s autumn,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies
Anyone got any favourite weather scenes? And do you prefer to match the weather in the books you read to the weather you're experiencing?


  1. I know Suzanne Brockmann is somewhat...not upset, just slightly confused about her new Troubleshooter SEAL book, Into the Storm. It's set in the middle of a New England winter storm. Here's the blurb:

    "In a remote, frozen corner of New Hampshire, a Navy SEAL team and the elite security experts of Troubleshooters, Incorporated are going head-to-head as fierce but friendly rivals in a raid-and-rescue training exercise. Despite the frigid winter temperatures, tension smolders between veteran SEAL Petty Officer Mark “Jenk” Jenkins and former cop turned Troubleshooter Lindsey Fontaine after an impulsive night goes awry. And then, suddenly, Tracy Shapiro, the Troubleshooters’ new receptionist, vanishes while playing the role of hostage during a mock rescue operation.

    "Teaming up with the FBI to launch a manhunt in the treacherous wilderness, Jenk and Lindsey must put aside their feelings as a record snowstorm approaches, dramatically reducing any hope of finding Tracy alive. The trail is colder than the biting New England climate until a lucky break leads to a horrifying discovery—a brutally murdered young woman wearing the jacket Tracy wore when she disappeared. Suddenly there is a chilling certainty that Tracy has fallen prey to a serial killer—one who knows the backwoods terrain and who doesn’t play by the rules of engagement.

    "In a race against time, a raging blizzard, and a cunning opponent, Jenk and Lindsey are put to the ultimate test. Rising everything, they must finally come together in a desperate attempt to save Tracy—and each other."

    Notice how prominently the weather is almost a character in the story. It was originally scheduled for release in December 2006. Then November. It's being released next month: August 16, 2006. Height of summer.

    She's not quite sure how or if that will affect sales, but it will certainly be interesting to see if it does.

    There's LaVryle Spenser's Spring Fancy in which the spring is a big deal: "In Spring, young men's fancy turns to thoughts of love" (to paraphrase, I'm sure!).

  2. You're right, it would be interesting to see if the timing of the release affects sales (though will it actually be possible to tell if it's the wintery setting or other factors such as the cover which are affecting sales?)

    I've managed to track down the source of that quote. It's 'In the Spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love', from Locksley Hall by Alfred Lord Tennyson