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  • London Fog: The Biography by Christine L. Corton
  • Peter Stansky
London Fog: The Biography. By Christine L. Corton (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2015) 391 pp. $35.00

Fog was an important part of London life from the 1830s until the 1960s, although it existed earlier and has just recently returned. Fog outbreaks can still cause trouble—suspension of transport, accidents, and deaths through breathing its noxious pollution. But it is now far less devastating than the so-called “peasoupers” or “London particulars” of the earlier period. Nonetheless, the present fogs, which are apparently caused by automobile emissions, are hardly insignificant, though they are white rather than black or yellow, far less filthy, and not disposed to cover people and objects with black soot. The earlier great fogs were caused, at first, by the industrial use of coal, but increasingly, as the nineteenth century progressed, by coal’s domestic use. The friendly hearth was much valued and heavily resistant to change. Not until July 5, 1956, when an effective Clean Air Act was passed, did the air begin to clear; even so, a devastating fog arose in December 1962.

Reasons other than the coziness of a coal fire at home probably prevented action earlier. The economics of the situation may not be sufficiently explored in this study. Was it the decline of the coal industry that helped to fuel, so to speak, the interest in diminishing coal’s deleterious effects? Agitation about the need to do something about the really dreadful fogs certainly arose from time to time. After all, fog could bring London traffic to a virtual standstill and cause numerous accidents, and it had a reputation for encouraging crime and increasing the death rate. The only ones who seemed to profit from it were the boys who offered their services to guide people who had lost their way through the miasma—some of them probably pickpockets.

The major thrust of this enjoyable study, however, is not an analysis of the social and economic aspects of the London fog but rather its artistic and primarily literary representations. The book contains a surfeit of murky illustrations of figures and objects dimly perceived. Artists tended to love the aesthetic aspects of the fog, most notably foreign ones such as James McNeill Whistler and Claude Monet; authors tended to depict the fog more negatively as symbolic of evil and conducive to crime, most notably murder. The number of foggy days in London reached its highest number in the 1880s and its most horrific association with murder in Jack the Ripper’s killing spree, although his murders were actually committed on clear nights. [End Page 233]

What dominates this study is the discussion of great and minor texts in which London fog plays a major role. Indeed, Corton expounds on the plots of these novels and stories at greater length than is necessary to make her points. She has much to say, appropriately, about fog in Charles Dickens’ masterpiece Bleak House, as well as in some of his other novels. Particularly intriguing is the role of fog in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Relevant works by Henry James, Joseph Conrad, and John Galsworthy are also included, along with numerous comparatively unknown novels, detective stories, films, and short stories in which London fog plays an almost always malevolent role. This fog of legend made women especially vulnerable to harm, although sometimes it brought young lovers together.

In a passing comment, Corton claims that coping with fog may have made Londoners better able to cope with the Blitz—a proposition that seems highly unlikely even though Londoners treated both phenomena with a certain degree of stoicism. Corton fails to explain sufficiently why Parliament and the public ignored the serious consequences of fog in their daily life as long as they did. It must have been more than the love of a cheery hearth. She touches on the role of vested interests but fails to explore it in any depth, preferring to survey representations of London fog in art and fiction.

Peter Stansky
Stanford University


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pp. 233-234
Launched on MUSE
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