Alexandra Harris: Weatherland

In a very thoughtprovoking lecture, Alexandra Harris used the framework of her book Weatherland to reflect on the seasonal shape of lives.

She suggested that there are times in the most immersive biographies when the reader can feel the weather through the subject. We live in the weather and the seasons, we change in relation to them. But indexes never refers to seasons or weather. Coleridge, for example, lived a very weathered life, but there is nothing in the index of his biography which would indicate that. Harris suggested that it matters that the seasons are considered in passing rather than as an arc. Shelley, for example, had a relationship with the wind and Turner with the sun. Bacon and Burton had very different relationships to the air. Perhaps you may only be able to tell a little of a life story that way but it may colour the rest. Ruskin, for example, had a passion for the weather and was horrified by what he saw as a new and dreadful climate.

Today, the idea that life is like a progress through the seasons is a cliché and a dead metaphor. But for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, it was the central metaphor. It even resonated for Woolf, who had originally planned to structure The Waves around the seasons.

People used to draw relationships between the humours and the seasons. Spring was thought to encourage the blood; Summer, the red bile; Autumn, the black bile or melancholy and Winter, the phlegm. There was thought to be a relationship between the seasons, health and mood. The move away from this way of understanding the body also changed the relationship between people and the seasons. Temperaments could no longer be explained with reference to temperature.

Sometimes, though, it is clear when things are out of season: as in Hardy, or Eliot. Larkin shows what happens when we cannot meet the expectations of a seasons: he has a sense of falling short in Summer. For Keats, time is both still and leaping ahead, and a poem can encompass a whole year.

Milton did not write much in spring or summer. Johnson, though, needed to believe that the rational human mind can rise above these external influences. But he protested too much. He was always telling people seasons don’t matter: but also wanted to work at all times and to be superior to the weather.

Why is it that the seasons and biography don’t sit more comfortably together? In other genres, it is satisfactory: for example, Persuasion, or A Winter’s Tale. Writing about nature and the seasons has been the surprise hit genre of recent years. The writer Tim Dee is following the spring around the world so that he is in continual spring for a year. Perhaps we might reflect on the idea that our seasonal selves have lives of their own: and that our winter selves might be different to our summer selves.

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