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When Weather Meets Fiction

Trivia, or The Art of Walking the Streets of London

By John Gay, 1716

Gay's satirical three-book poem is a guide through the streets of London — including advice on surviving falling masonry and mud splashes. The poem also includes an account of a winter so cold that the Thames River froze solid. The river froze often, including in 1716, the year the poem was published. Fairs were organized to celebrate the event. The icy river also appears in Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando, written in 1928. According to UNC-Chapel Hill literature professor James Thompson, unusual weather in the early modern period — heavy storms or high winds that blew down trees — was usually reported in terms of portent, or some mark of God's disfavor.

The changing Weather certain Signs reveal.
E'er Winter sheds her Snow, or Frosts congeal,
You'll see the Coals in brighter Flames aspire,
And Sulphur tinge with blue the rising Fire:
Your tender Shins the scorching Heat decline,
And at the Dearth of Coals the Poor repine;
Before her Kitchen Hearth, the nodding Dame
In Flannel Mantle wrapt, enjoys the Flame;
Hov'ring, upon her feeble Knees she bends,
And all around the grateful Warmth ascends.

Full text, 'Trivia'

The Mill on the Floss

By George Eliot, 1860

After running away to elope with her cousin's fiance, Maggie Tulliver sees the error of her ways and returns to life in exile in the fictional town of St.Oggs, losing contact with her extended family and her best friend-like brother, Tom. Her brief seclusion ends when the Floss River floods. After struggling through the waters in a boat to find Tom, she sets out with him to rescue family members. Just after brother and sister are reunited, their boat capsizes and the two drown in an embrace. Some say George Eliot's inspiration was the flooding of the Trent River at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, England.

In the second week of September, Maggie was again sitting in her lonely room, battling with the old shadowy enemies that were forever slain and rising again. It was past midnight, and the rain was beating heavily against the window, driven with fitful force by the rushing, loud-moaning wind. For the day after Lucy's visit there had been a sudden change in the weather; the heat and drought had given way to cold variable winds, and heavy falls of rain at intervals; and she had been forbidden to risk the contemplated journey until the weather should become more settled. In the counties higher up the Floss the rains had been continuous, and the completion of the harvest had been arrested. And now, for the last two days, the rains on this lower course of the river had been incessant, so that the old men had shaken their heads and talked of sixty years ago, when the same sort of weather, happening about the equinox, brought on the great floods, which swept the bridge away, and reduced the town to great misery.

— From Book VII—The Final Rescue V. The Last Conflict

Full text, 'The Mill on the Floss'


By Lord Byron, 1816

Lord Byron found inspiration in the same icy summer that influenced Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Affected by the unusual weather caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in modern-day Indonesia one year earlier, the poet reflects the mood caused by the ash cast into the atmosphere, thick enough to hide the sun and cause abnormal weather patterns across America and northern Europe. Due to the abnormally cold conditions of May 1816, the period was known as the "Year Without a Summer."

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went — and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:

Full text, 'Darkness'

The Grapes of Wrath

By John Steinbeck, 1939

The Joads, a sharecropper family, are forced off their Oklahoma plot because of extreme drought and a changing agricultural industry during the 1930s Dust Bowl era. More promising weather conditions in the orchards of the West urge the Joads – and thousands of others — on a migrant journey to California.

The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

Contributions from: Nathan Hultman, assistant professor of Science, Technology and International Affairs, Georgetown University; James Thompson, professor & chairman, Department of English and Comparative Literature, UNC-Chapel Hill.


— "Trinity and All Saints, Leeds" in the Mill on the Floss entry of the Literary Encyclopedia by Nathan Uglow, June 2002.

— "River Imagery as a Means of Foreshadowing in The Mill on the Floss" in Modern Language Notes by Larry Rubin, January 1956.

— "The Thames," a historical section of the Jane Austen Society of Australia Web site, by Dennis Nutt, January 2004.

— "The History of the River Thames," a historical section of the Thames' icy past, from The River Thames Guide Web site

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Alejandra Garcia