Monday, 18 April 2016

An unusual summer in Jane Austen's 'Emma'

In addition to Jane's well-known little (alleged) error in Emma of making apple trees appear in blossom too early in the year, she may also have slipped up in one other detail. Surely Frank should have explained, in his famous letter to Mrs. Weston, that he purchased the pianoforte for Jane during his visit to London, where he went presumably only on the pretext of having his hair cut.

In fact, some think Jane did not make a mistake about the apple blossom. There may have been a year at about that time when the climate was exceptional. Euan Nesbit in Nature [July 1997] says that in Emma meteorology shapes the novel. Day by day, the plot twists with the weather report. Is it bright? All is cheerful. Is it drizzling? Misery abounds. Or, beware, is it hot and sultry? Romance and danger loom. 

It is fascinating to read Emma alongside one of the founding texts of meteorology, Luke Howard's The Climate of London. Emma is set not far from London, perhaps near Painshill, where the eccentric Mr. Hamilton, related by marriage to Admiral Nelson's Emma, had created an experimental garden-farm, a ruined 'abbey' and artistic 'mill'. There was 'a sweet view, sweet to the eye and the mind'. (The site of the gardens is now disfigured by electricity pylons.)

On the warm evening of 22 July 1813, Howard records his visit to Alton, Hampshire. As he travelled through Chawton, just before Alton, he would have passed before Austen's dining room window. Whether he met Jane we do not know but it seems possible. Howard was a campaigning celebrity with links to the Lloyd and Barclay families, Quaker bankers. There were Barclays in Alton, and Jane's brother was a banker.

After this time, Jane Austen's letters seem full of weather. It is nice to imagine that the crux of the book, the trip to Box Hill, dates from this time. The lesser details may have been filled in as she wrote.

Suppose that the book records the weather of summer 1814 and winter 1814-15, day by day as she wrote, although the calendar may be 1813-14, when she began the plotting. With these assumptions, the course of the book fits beautifully with the weather recorded in The Climate of London.

If so, the story may begin on 25 September, pass through autumn to snow at Christmas (now a rare event, but it did occur at Christmas 1814), then to a post-Christmas period between frost and thaw (32-41 degrees Fahrenheit in Howard's record), and the late winter weather of early 1815.

The crisis in the book occurs just before midsummer's day. What are apple trees doing in flower in mid-June? But is this an error - or a clue? The weather was unusual in 1814. The annual mean temperature was one of the coldest in Howard's record, and in May and June the means were colder than in 1816, the 'year without a summer' after the eruption of the Tambora volcano in what is now Indonesia.

In the cool spring of 1996, mild in comparison to 1814, my local apple trees flowered as late as early June. Perhaps Austen herself saw apple blossom on two hot days, 14 June (85 degrees F) and 15 June (78 degrees F), at Painshill and Box Hill.

Then the weather broke. Only as June ended did summer reappear. In July came clouds of uncommon beauty. In Emma 'it cleared; the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off, the sun appeared; it was summer again'.