“I love England in a heat-wave” says Leon Tallis in Ian McEwan;’s Atonement, “It’s a different country. All the rules change.”
As the summer of 2018 continues to break records for its prolonged absence of rain (last month was the driest June on record), it’s worth asking whether this year, like 1976 and 1914, will enter fictional consciousness as well as national one. There’s no doubt that, while ordinary Britons swelter and flop, English novelists perk up wonderfully to a period of prolonged heat.
McEwan’s best novel drew heavily on LP Hartley’s classic The Go-Between – it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that the word “heat” can mean sexual arousal as well as a rising thermometer. We British like to think of ourselves as mild and temperate, much like the perennial drizzle and grey skies that form a backdrop to our lives for most of the year. Yet once the thermometer rises to above 27’, all bets are off.
Where classic children’s fiction from Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post to TH White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose sees a heat-wave as the opportunity for unsupervised adventure, novels for adults tends to focus on exceptional summer weather as the cause of both misery and transgression. Dickens frequently used it to emphasise the misery and oppressiveness of the city: take Hard Times, where “the sun was so bright that it even shone through the heavy vapour drooping over Coketown, and could not be looked at steadily…. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere.”
Plenty of other authors in other cultures (particularly America) use summer heat as a metaphor of hellishness – you only have to think of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to see this. What is particular about an English heat-wave is how often it becomes the embodiment of the adage, Be careful what you wish for.
We think we long for blue skies but in English novels, a glorious summer is always going to go wrong. We know this will happen because (as an essentially Puritan nation) it’s hard-wired into us, especially since the legendary summer of 1914. The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson’s elegiac comedy set in Rye, used this fact to depict the final flowering of a doomed generation, and JL Carr’s A Month in the Country reminds us of it too: the ultimate being Vera Britten’s autobiographical account, Testament of Youth, in which “the one perfect summer idyll I ever experienced” will come to a tragic end.
The arc from bliss to horror is so inevitable that many novels use an exceptional summer to build tension. Helen Dunmore set her superb psychological thriller, Talking to the Dead, about two rivalrous sisters who have murdered their baby brother, in the heat of “the hottest summer in a century”. Equally deadly is the country house summer in Barbara Vine’s (Ruth Rendell) A Fatal Inversion, also set in 1976 in a “Garden of Eden… not as a haven to live in but as a paradise to be expelled from”. Once the summer ends, so does the house-party – but not everyone leaves it alive.
Even with less sinister fictions, heat always seems to involve personal loss, as if people as well as water can evaporate into thin air. Iris Murdoch used heat-waves repeatedly in so many of her novels, from The Sea The Sea to The Philosopher’s Pupil, that the device became over-familiar. Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave begins with the mysterious disappearance of the father of a family; Joanna Cannon’s best-selling The Trouble With Goats and Sheep also starts with the disappearance of a neighbour. Our famous British reserve and love of privacy melts into an alien expansiveness; friends and families spill out into the street, doors and windows are left open, and a populace becomes vulnerable, exposed and volatile.
Until this year, it did not occur to me how much I, too, have used extreme summers to literally turn up the heat for my own characters too. But time and again, I have done so; in novels such as A Private Place, where a progressive public school that was once a neo-Classical stately home, sees the ghostly outlines of a lost formal structure emerge in its parched grounds once rivalry between pupils turns deadly, or when the narrator of In a Dark Wood tips over into glittering mania after a period of depression. Even my most recent novel, The Lie of the Land, about a couple who can’t afford to divorce and must move to Devon, has them confronted with murderous violence in their new home at the end of a particularly stifling spell of summer.
The shimmer of heat in the air does suggest a kind of unnatural glamour, or magic, being unleashed on the everyday world. Yet despite our love for the dark side of summer, the end of a heat-wave can also presage a transformation, and release. Jilly Cooper’s romantic comedy, Octavia (a delightful update of The Taming of the Shrew) has its snotty heroine and ill-tempered hero stewing together in a hellish holiday on a barge.
The evocation of a “white hot heat” is integral to a story set among the rich and spoilt. When it seems that Octavia must succumb to her final degradation – being photographed for a pornographic magazine in order to pay her brother’s blackmailer – she makes her way to the studio through the stench of “rotting food and vegetation.” Her climactic rescue by the hero, “in a storm of fury” comes just before the real storm that at long last breaks the arid, corrupting heat-wave, and leads to the discovery of true love at last. With her puns and jokes, Cooper is an unabashed writer of commercial fiction but in this novel, pathetic fallacy is beautifully worked in.
Unlike many less fortunate countries we, too, know that our heat-waves will always end. Our ecstasy – or misery – will never last long, but the existence of an exceptional summer will live on in fiction for many decades to come.