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From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.
As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.
Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…
… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.
Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.
Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.
At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.
Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.