University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > From Fog to Smog: A Literary Journey

From Fog to Smog: A Literary Journey

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If you have a question about this talk, please contact Marina Salorio-Corbetto.

London fog has been viewed as a nuisance since Tudor times, but it was the Victorian era that began to view it as a feature so characteristic of London life that it could provide both writers and artists with great metaphorical opportunities. Nineteenth century writers grappled initially with the naming of this problem: was it fog, mist or smoke? Could it best be described as a ‘pea-souper’ or a ‘London Particular’? These linguistic dilemmas not only provided an opportunity for metaphorical representation but also represented the reasons behind the delay in cleaning up London’s air. If nobody could agree whether London fog was natural or man-made, or, if it was man-made, whether it was the fault of the householder or the industrialist, then legal attempts to enforce the cleaner burning of coal, could not be pushed through. For this reason it took until 1956 to pass the Clean Air Act, even though earlier reformers, as varied as John Evelyn (1620-1706) to Michael Angelo Taylor (1757-1834), MP for Durham and even Lord Palmerston (1784-1865) attempted many times to pass Bills through Parliament which would improve the air breathed by Londoners.

In my talk I will not only look at fog as a signifier of London but also at the varied ways in which it was used metaphorically. It seems only right that in this bicentenary year of his birth that I should concentrate on Charles Dickens (1812-1870). I will take the example of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) to examine how he uses a natural fog to cause the death of the villain Quilp, who represents industrial pollution. I will move on to the way in which the popular novelist Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947) uses fog to convey mystery and murder in her novel, The Lodger, written in 1911, the first fiction based on the Jack the Ripper murders. I will then briefly look at ways in which visual medium of television have taken up fog as a signifier of Victorian London. Interspersed will be representations of fog by artists such as Monet, Whistler and Markino to show the very different attraction London fog had for artists.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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