Weatherland: Writers & artists under English Skies, by Alexandra Harris, book review: Origins of the moody blues

How the weather has played a critical role in the art and literature of England
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Thames & Hudson, £24.95. » Order at the discounted price of £21.95 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

The English obsession with the weather may be a running joke, but in our age of denial – in which political blindness about climate change is reflected at a less apocalyptic level by equal myopia regarding the value of the humanities in education – Alexandra Harris's new book stands as the latest beacon in the dark.

In a back-to-nature reaction against our decadent and pessimistic times, writing about landscape has become trendy. All today's Cambridge English undergraduates want to be taught by Robert Macfarlane, the don famed for his books Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. He provides a well-deserved puff for Harris, herself a young academic teaching in Liverpool and already established as a respected writer on 20th-century culture, author of the prize-winning Romantic Moderns and an engaging short biography of Virginia Woolf.

Harris's impressive new study takes her much farther afield. She charts the effects of atmospheric pressures on English writers and artists from time immemorial to the present. Here, we find shivering Roman legionaries writing home on wafer-thin wooden tablets, myth-making Anglo-Saxon poets, and every major figure from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Dr Johnson to Jane Austen, from Shelley and the Brontës to Benjamin Britten and Ted Hughes.

Harris offers literary scholarship at its life-enhancing best, and is equally alert to art history, as this beautifully illustrated volume reveals. In addition to well-known images such as Constable's exquisite cloud studies and a vibrant Howard Hodgkin, we are shown a range of intriguingly recherché visuals: a charming medieval illumination of a man warming his naked toes at a fire, for example; or a tiny glass goblet sold as a souvenir from one of the many stalls which arose on the frozen Thames during the ice-fest of 1683-4. The Victorian critic John Ruskin wished that he could bottle clouds, but this frosted artefact seems to embody its moment.

Harris is ever-sensitive to the subjective moods of writers, and equally alert to objective historical data when it comes to climate conditions in times long past. It is, she points out, amazing that we can actually know from original sources what the weather was like, say, in March 1321. She is at her best, however, when the sources allow her to integrate analysis of emotional and meteorological conditions.

Keats wrote "Ode to Autumn" after a walk near Winchester in September 1819, two days before the autumn equinox. He created a poem which defined the poise between the seasons but which also reflected his own equivocal state, as a lovesick consumptive who knew he was hovering between life and death.

"I hope you are better employed than in gaping after weather. I have been at different times so happy as not to know what weather it was," he wrote to his friend John Reynolds a day or two after completing the ode. His own pervading sense of vulnerability was what, in his own view, sensitised him to his natural surroundings.

Yet the emotional meaning of weather has always been up for grabs. For the poet of the melancholic Anglo-Saxon masterpiece The Wanderer, cold symbolised man's tragic, fallen, lonely state. The Tudor dramatist John Heywood, on the other hand, delighted in winter as a catalyst for naughty boys' games ("O, to se my snow ballys lyght on my felowes heddys!"), although his Play of the Weather also allowed him to make some underhand comments on the political instability of the Henrician state.

Apparently, modern scientists have now proved what has always been known by literary writers: that rain or shine affects human states of mind. Read end to end, this scholarly yet accessible book offers a literary historical education in itself. But it works just as well if you open it at random in search of something to match your mood – or the weather.