‘Freezing winter gave way to frosty spring, which in turn merged to chilly summer,’ was how Jessica Mitford recalled her Cotswolds childhood in her memoir, Hons and Rebels.
Our inclement climes have rarely been as hard to bear as they have this year, with the unusually cold, grey spring — coupled with the prospect of another staycation — severely dampening spirits that were already low.
However optimistic the Met Office might be, we can never rely on a ‘barbecue summer’ in this country. So when weathering another rainy bank holiday or a soggy half-term in a damp cottage, try the literary equivalent of dressing for the job you want, not the one you have.
But be warned: golden summers rarely make for happy endings. Hot weather has ‘the mad blood stirring’ says Benvolio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, loosening stays and buttoned-up Brits.
‘I love England in a heatwave,’ declares Leon Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement (of which, more later). ‘It’s a different country. All the rules change.’
The Go-Between (1953) by LP Hartley
Young Leo Colston, sweltering in his stuffy Norfolk jacket, plays Mercury for a pair of doomed lovers as the mercury rises in what is — if not the first — then perhaps the ultimate heatwave novel. Set during the dogs days of the summer of 1900, the heat acts as ‘a liberating power’, encouraging behaviour that would have been unthinkable, had the weather stayed cool.
The Great Gatsby (1925) by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hot town, summer in the city/ Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty. Not Jay Gatsby, who always looks ‘so cool’, even on the most ‘broiling’ day of the year, when ‘every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life’. Pathetic fallacy heat in Fitzgerald’s slender masterpiece has become a classic of GCSE English Literature exams. But it’s rarely been put to better effect, fuelling (along with the mint juleps) the stifling showdown in the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Atonement (2001) by Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan has cited The Go-Between as the book that changed his life and the first third of Atonement, with its sweltering heat and liaison that transgresses the social divide, was in part his tribute to the novel. Possibly the only example of a pathetic fallacy roast dinner in the canon, the unpalatable meal that ‘nauseates’ the guests, accompanied by a ‘dessert wine at room temperature’ is an excoriating indictment of 1930s British cooking.
Relentless heat also permeates one of McEwan’s earlier works, the deeply disturbing, The Cement Garden (1978). Suffocating temperatures preside over the breakdown of order in the lives of four orphaned children, their claustrophobic world becoming, literally and figuratively, a ‘place of stench and clouds of flies’.
The Greengage Summer (1958) by Rumer Godden
‘On and off, that whole hot French August, we made ourselves ill from eating the greengages,’ begins Rumer Godden’s bittersweet coming-of-age tale. Based on an episode from her own adolescence, her descriptions of the still heat and ‘dustily green’ willows along the Marne are gorgeously evocative.
Heatwave (1996) by Penelope Lively
In a cottage named World’s End, deep in the English countryside, Pauline watches, helpless, as her daughter repeats her own mistakes in her marriage. The heat and strain mount over cumulative ‘tight, tense days… in which the sun pours down’, drying up reservoirs and wrecking the harvest, towards a violent, shocking, climax, as the weather finally breaks.
A Fatal Inversion (1987) by Barbara Vine
The heatwave of 1976 has provided febrile inspiration for many a writer. In Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, it is almost another character, inhabiting ‘the house like a guest’, while in The Seven Sisters by Alex Wheatle, the extraordinary weather encourages four boys living in a miserable children’s home to escape.
A Fatal Inversion by Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, sees some familiar tropes of the heatwave novel; a country house, a group of young people, the loosening of morals fostered by the rising temperatures. For Adam and his friends, creating a commune in the house he has inherited in Suffolk, the heat unleashes Bacchanalian behaviour, with terrible consequences.
A Month in the Country (1980) by J.L. Carr
This exquisitely-rendered, poetic novella is the perfect book to read whilst lazing in the garden on a hot day. Tom Birkin, a shell-shocked veteran of the First World War, finds refuge in the village of Oxgodby, where he is spending the summer of 1920 uncovering a Medieval mural in the church. ‘There was so much time, that wonderful summer,’ he recalls… ‘I had a feeling of immense content and, if I thought at all, it was that I’d like this to go on and on, no one going, no one coming… summer’s ripeness lasting forever.’ It doesn’t, of course, but unlike so many novels in this genre, the denouement is tender and melancholy, rather than explosive.