A lesson from Dickens
When I looked out of my window the other day, everything was shrouded in white mist. It muffled the view, turning buildings and trees to blurred shapes – an alien world. But not untypical of January weather in the U.K! It reminded me of one of my favourite passages from Dickens, the beginning of Bleak House. I’ll quote it in full here:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
The passage is a wonderful one for all sorts of reasons: the rhythmic prose, the vivid picture of a fog-bound London, the appeal to the different senses, the specific detail set against sweeping landscapes. Here is Dickens at his most mature, poetic and intense. It’s a wonderful, atmospheric start to a novel. But it’s not just there for scene setting. A few paragraphs later, Dickens writes:
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.
Why does Dickens want to tell us that the fog is at its thickest around the Law courts? Is this a weather forecast or a clever metaphor? Well, the fact that the novel goes on to tell us about lengthy, ponderous and obfuscating legal cases in Victorian London suggests that Dickens has an ulterior motive. Wonderful though the description is for its own sake, it becomes even more powerful when it operates as pathetic fallacy – the attribution of human moods and conditions to inanimate objects. For it isn’t just the landscape that’s foggy – it’s the process of law itself. So the whole description foregrounds the plot of the novel which, in part, operates as a critique of the English judiciary system.
Descriptions of weather in novels can be intense and memorable. But when they operate as metaphors, they can convey powerful messages that go beyond scene setting and tell us something fundamental about life itself.
I wonder if there is anything going on in Britain today we could use a fog metaphor for? Let me think now….