restricted access The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf by Jesse Oak Taylor (review)
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The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. Jesse Oak Taylor. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2016. Pp. xii + 272. $65.00 (cloth); $29.50 (paper).

Jesse Oak Taylor’s The Sky of Our Manufacture is the latest book in the University of Virginia Press series Under the Sign of Nature, which has been publishing books of ecocriticism since 1998. The series is a fine example of the attempts now being made to make ecocriticism extend its range beyond thematic reading. Ecocriticism is still awaiting the book that can do for it what Fredric Jameson’s The Political Unconscious did for Marxist literary criticism in 1981. Taylor’s is not quite that book, but it is most certainly a step in the right direction. The project it enjoins—to discover the ways that climate penetrates the deep structures or forms of literary fiction—is well-articulated, compelling, and necessary to the evolution of ecocriticism as a practice of literary criticism. The readings of literature it offers are uneven, however: many of them are convincing and elegant, while others strain this reader’s credulity and patience. That said, I admire what Taylor is trying to do in this book, and I would rather have the flawed published attempt before me now than wait until all the problems are solved, since the problems are part of what is interesting and exciting about the enterprise. They are what will drive the field forward in the wake of Taylor’s intervention. Moreover, one must admire the sheer scope of Taylor’s project, unusual for a first scholarly book: from the Victorians to the modernists, with chapters on Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, and Virginia Woolf.

Taylor’s starting point is where literary atmosphere meets literal atmosphere, specifically where Dickens’s Bleak House meets the London Fog. The London Fog was a combination of soot and sulfur dioxide produced largely by the domestic burning of coal for heating and cooking (it is an important and counterintuitive point, emphasized by Taylor, that the London Fog was caused mainly by domestic carbon combustion as opposed to industrial uses, because it complicates an otherwise easy narrative vilifying industrialization for the bulk of environmental degradation). Also sometimes referred to as “pea soup,” “pea souper,” “killer fog,” or “black fog,” Londoners were habituated to it in Dickens’s time, but it persisted as an anthropogenic climatological feature of the city for a hundred years until, for four horrific days in December 1952, it sat malevolently over the city and suffocated it, leaving over four thousand people dead (213). The opening pages of Bleak House—an extended description of the noxious fog published in 1852—and the 1952 smog disaster make an ingenious frame for Taylor’s argument that ecocritics will need to read fictions for their atmosphere the way that literary critics have previously read for character or plot, and that the result of such readings will be a defamiliarization or anamorphosis that reveals climate actively shaping narrative in ways we have not yet properly perceived. As Taylor demonstrates so powerfully over the course of the book, one “of the consequences of an atmospheric reading . . . is the doing away with the notion that setting is by definition passive, a mere container in which events take place, while nominally human characters provide narrative action. Instead, settings, atmospheres, and environments can become agents in their own right” (36).

The best of Taylor’s analyses are driven by productive interdisciplinary pairings of literary texts with historical events, technological advances, or popular discourses. In the chapter on Daniel Deronda, Taylor offers a fascinating account of the historical birth of predictive meteorology alongside one of its technological instruments, the “tempest prognosticator,” and connects that discourse-world to Eliot’s narrative interest in the “mythos of the everyday” (93). A chapter on Sherlock Holmes compares Holmes’s sleuthing to Victorian meteorological methods, from snow sampling to apparatuses for measuring sulfurous acid in the air. In another, on Stevenson’s Strange [End Page 213] Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Taylor connects the monstrosity of Hyde...


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