Cool Britain: Jane Austen triumphs again

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It is a subject that has always puzzled literary scholars. What possessed Jane Austen, that most precise of writers, to refer to apple trees blossoming in June in her masterpiece, Emma?

The uncharacteristic slip has become known as the novelist's famous literary error. But it is now being suggested that Austen's description of the orchard, far from being a mistake, derived from her acute powers of scientific observation. Furthermore, it reflects just the kind of `'weird weather'' Britain has been experiencing this summer.

The contention is made by Euan Nisbet, professor of geology at Royal Holloway College, London University, who has reviewed the book in the latest edition of Nature magazine.

Noting that it was written in 1814-15, Professor Nisbet points out that according to climatic records kept by Luke Howard, a contemporary of Austen's, the summer of 1814 was exceptionally cool.

Here may lie the clue to her reference to apple trees in unseasonably late bloom when Emma and her party make their celebrated expedition to Box Hill, in Surrey, shortly before Midsummer's Day, he suggests.

But Professor Nisbet goes even further. Not only did Austen accurately record a rare phenomenon of nature that she had witnessed, he speculates, but she may have actually met Howard herself.

Howard was a chemist, a campaigner against slavery and author of the, The Climate of London (1833), a founding text of meteorology. He invented the terms cumulus, cirrus and stratus for the clouds.

On a warm evening in July 1813, he paid a visit to friends in Alton, in Hampshire. As he travelled through Chawton, a neighbouring village where Austen lived, he would have passed before the novelist's window.

Professor Nisbet says it seems likely that they met that day. Both Howard and Austen - "his equal in meticulous observation" - had links with the local banking community. After that period, he muses, the novelist's letters seem "full of weather".

Professor Nisbet enthuses about Austen's success in blending scientific knowledge and literary skills. Meteorology shapes Emma, reflecting the twists and turns of the plot, he says. Drizzling rain signals impending misery; when the weather turns hot and sultry, romance and danger loom. Perhaps the novel is an allegory on nature itself, he suggests.