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Book Review: British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment by Jan Golinski

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I've lived in three flats in London that have led me into regular, if short, contact with large numbers of neighbours whom I've barely got to know. Consequently, I've got very good at talk about the weather (although I remain extremely bad at predicting it.) The British talk about the weather, a lot, perhaps because theirs is so changeable, but also because they are such a polite race – politics, religion, etc are all distinctly "out".

And it seems from Jan Golinski's work that it was ever thus. In British Weather and the Climate of Enlightenment, he finds, however, that from the Enlightenment onwards, about the end of the 17th century, there was a significant change in the way in which people talked about the weather — or at least how educated people talked about it. Extreme events came to be regarded less as acts of god and more as natural phenomena to be explained (although as Golinski notes in the conclusion, even today, as in some discussion about Hurricane Katrina, some haven't managed to reach the stage of basic enlightenment).

As you might expect, the change was founded on science, or at least attempted science, which can be traced back to the efforts of the Royal Society in the 1660s. Robert Hooke published his "Method for Making a History of the Weather" in 1667, laying out the format that a daily journal should take. A few recorders, who more or less followed these methods – meticulously in the case of William Derham – were published in the Society's Philosophical Transactions. In the 1780s British efforts, which had been sporadic, were sharpened by efficient "competition" from France and Germany.

The efforts took a more popular form in The Gentleman's Magazine, which from 1751 began monthly accounts from the London physician John Fothergill, while later Thomas Barker in Rutland and the famous naturalist Gilbert White (whose The Natural History of Selbourne has just been republished) also contributed.

The notion of climate had, Golinski records, once meant simply a zone of latitude and later extended to mean the conditions of a place, including its atmosphere. Classical writers, including Caesar and Tacitus, had begun a familiar refrain about the British damp, but during the Enlightenment period, the trope gradually shifted: the weather was part of what made Britain great.- moderate and only gently variable in temperature and precipitation – indeed "civilised" (ironically when you look on a longer scale such as I recently did with Homo Britannicus.)

Studying the weather in the 18th century meant doing so politely – having a cultural marker that set you off from the common mass – John Pointer dismissed claims that storms represented armies fighting in the air as "barbarous" or "vulgar". Another commentator complained that "in the last Century it as …a prevailing Opinion among the Vulgar that the Winds were in some measure, under the direction of the internal spirits". Appropriate records and scientific investigation and explanation could, these men (and they were nearly all men – Margaret Mackenzie of Delvine, Perthshire, who kept a meticulous temperature record at her home from 1780 to 1802 being a rare exception about whom Golinski unfortunately tells us no more) banish such misunderstandings.

Although, of course, the science was far from up to the job. The great summer haze of 1783 cause, we now know, by a dust and gas plume from a volcanic fissure in Iceland, was beyond 18th-century science's powers of explanation, although Benjamin Franklin did get it right, but it seems no one believed him. One newspaper called it a "universal Perturbation in Nature".

While this is clearly a solidly grounded academic work, Golinski provides plenty of colour to leaven his account, which is interesting enough in its own terms (and he's blessed short on academic jargon). So he tells us about Thomas Barker (1722-1809), squire of Lyndon Hall in the county of Rutland, who took his dedication to weather recording, as to other scientific experiments. "Twice a day, month after month, year after year, Barker read his thermometer and barometer, at times that he measure to the minute…" There were however occasional interruptions, as on his marriage in 1751 to the sister of Gilbert White. His recording here was less meticulous, however: he wrote in his diary "at Selbourne, etc". (What Anne White thought or perhaps wrote about the marriage unfortunately doesn't seem to have survived.)

But this scientific dedication soon became captured by fashion. In a chapter I found particularly fascinating, since in my Australian youth I recall the purchase of a barometer as being something regarded as a "classy", "upmarket" thing, Golinski charts how the instrument acquired this status within years of its invention. In 1766 it was described as "both in Regard of Curiosity and Utility .. the first in Dignity among the modern Philosophical Inventions". (What we now call science having then of course been called "natural philosophy".)

Golinski also looks into the (long) period when bad air was blamed for diseases such as cholera and malaria – in science that had the basics wrong, but was actually going in the right direction, her records efforts in "pneumatic chemistry" led by Stephen Hales, curate at Teddington in Middlesex from 1709 to 1761. He designed a machine for ventilating shops' holds, prisons and hospitals. Associated with this was a belief that "fixed air" (carbon dioxide) could cure diseases, including scurvy. So it was that the great Joseph Priestley invented a method of producing soda water – machines using his technique ("gasogenes") followed the barometer in racing into homes, so we can blame him for the modern curse of the soft drink…

If you wanted to be technical here you might argue that Golinski is straying rather far from the weather – but it is all good fun anyway… as is the excursion into the discovery of nitrous oxide in 1797 by the young chemist Humphry Davy. He had speculated about a "sublime chemistry" that could leave the entire world intoxicated, without suffering a hangover – a very early Brave New World.

But Golinski does get back to the weather, at least climate, as he looks at how the 18th-century tried to understand the link between climate and society. The great proponent of this view was Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, who argued that this explained why classical Athens or Renaissance Italy produced such outbursts of creativity – they sprang from the ground like well-nurtured crops (although he was vague on the specifics. As the century went on, however, Golinski reports, while the Baron of Montesquieu was keen on this, developing a more nuanced view, other writers came to view the approach as over-simplistic. Hume demolished it in an essay "Of National Characters" in 1748.)

There's much more here too about how colonial climates – particularly the West Indies – were regarded as aberrations compared to the British "norm", and how Americans thought that by clearing and "civilising" the land the climate could be made just like England's. Were I critiquing this book as an academic, I would feel that it was a bit unfocused – a collection of yarns rather than a monograph with a real thesis – but as a general thesis it is a fascinating introduction to how we've arrived at our beliefs about the weather today.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Great job. I enjoy reading work that inspires me to work harder on my own writing.

  • http://www.myspace.com/tinkie101 tink

    Interesting subject…your review was an ‘enlightening’ read.