In this new historical novel by Glasfurd the years presented are 1815-16 and she melds known historical facts and people with her fictional interpretation. In April 1815 Mount Tambora on Sumbawa Island (Indonesia) erupted, HMS Benares nearby was ordered to investigate “explosions” only to find the central volcano had virtually disappeared as a result causing massive destruction of the local environment and the inhabitants. It is said that this occasioned a huge spread of dust and debris into the air that spread to the whole of the Northern Hemisphere. The loss of natural light caused extremes of temperature change in many areas, crops failed and people went hungry for many years.
Glasfurd presents the tale as a series of vignettes starting with “reports” by the ship’s surgeon Henry Hogg (in fictional letters to his wife at home in Britain) of what their investigations showed and the desperate attempts to “treat” the injured with inadequate medical supplies or knowledge. For 1816 we have intermixed tales of a number of people both real and fictional in Europe and North America.
In Vermont we are introduced to a preacher Charles Whitlock who persuades his congregation to stay and face the failing weather instead of moving “west”. His love and marriage to a reluctant wife is graphically depicted against the unnatural weather and the failure of crops, animals and eventually people. His religious authority is challenged as things get worse and his view of himself and his God is altered forever.
In Switzerland we are given the tale of Mary Wollstonecraft Goden who is with her step sister Claire, partner Percy Bysshe Shelley and her newborn son. They will, of course, meet up with poet Lord Byron and his friend Polidori. The weather is extreme, food shortages are starting to abound, and Claire will end up pregnant to an uncaring Byron. And there will be the well known challenge among the bored writers to write something appropriate to their times. Mary, struggling with household difficulties in straitened finances and coping with a new baby (and the loss of her previous daughter) is at a disadvantage as she is not a writer of poetry – the highest art in the eyes of the men. She will of course start working on her novel Frankenstein and Glasfurd quietly links the developing tale to Mary’s understanding of increasingly “unnatural” physical conditions about her.
Back in England we see the developing artist John Constable. From a rural Suffolk he derives a private income from a mill on the family estate run by his brother. But still has insufficient income to marry his fiancée in the face of her family’s disapproval. His father is dying; with poor crops the mill income is uncertain. But his choice of landscape style is not popular (or easily saleable) even as the landscape around him is evolving through chances due to land enclosure and weather deterioration. But his is the relatively “wealthy” perspective.
Offset against this is a small cluster of other people Sarah Hobbs an agricultural worker in the Fens. With enclosure the medieval system of small/holdings has been swept away and most people increasingly relied on wages from daily farm labour – with uncertain weather and crops, daily rates fall and people can be exploited. 1816 is the year, too, when a lot of soldiers are returning from service in the Napoleonic Wars. They are damaged in many ways and have often lost contact with their families and communities. They are returning as the established “war economy” is being overturned, another financial disruption. “Hope Peter” an ex-soldier is trying to reach his village in Essex before having to return to London in desperation. Collectively these characters show the deep hardships people face, their attempts to assert their rights to a decent living wage – and how of course so many of them failed. All of this is shown in a sympathetic but pulling no punches detail.
So a historical novel, but also massively relevant one to now. People extraneous to “economic” policy need. Increasing poverty against excessive consumption, environmental failure, and people trying to fight for a decent life against the controlling and unsupportive establishment and overwhelming odds. The melding of the real with fictional characters really punches home the message to any socially minded person. It also teaches the lesson that “cultural icons”, many of them from wealthy backgrounds; may have been “struggling” creatives but that needs to be set against the grim lives of real people. It is written so well it all seems very real – the only criticism is the intermingling of the people cuts across the flow of the tale, but against the success of the whole that is something that can be tolerated.
Hilary White 4/5*
The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd
9781473672291 John Murray Two Roads Hardback February 2020