Weather plays an important function in Gothic literature, and remains one of the keys in decoding the inner landscape of the protagonists. Often present in Gothic novels not only as a form of sympathetic background, certain elements of weather are typically used to mirror and magnify the feelings of the protagonist, to establish moods, and to underscore the action of the story. For instance, the use of fog within the Gothic novel is a convention often used to obscure objects by reducing visibility and changing the outward appearances of truth; and storms, when they make their appearance, frequently accompany important events and characters. Bad weather, in particular, is often associated with the supernatural, as well as being the birthing landscape of the imagination. Storms are perceived as harbingers of evil, and often present both a reflection and refraction of the inner self of the protagonist, an externalization of internal fears and conflict. Weather can also function as a site of displacement of fears, when they are projected onto the storm itself. In Le Fanu’s novel Uncle Silas, Maud’s fears for her future after her father’s death are both underscored by the approaching storm, and also displaced onto it.
Weather has also acquired a certain predictability of roles in Gothic literature; a feature that has often been parodied. There is the sense that readers are habitually lured into reading the weather as codes signifying the protagonist’s inner landscape, and are ultimately unable to resist assuming heavily overdetermined meanings in the relationship between the weather and the inner self, thereby illustrating the Gothic nature of the text by tempting one to oversimplify its reading, and yet simultaneously contributing to the destabilizing sense of Gothic unease by having its meaning perceived through a different set of codes that are ultimately arbitrary. Jane Austen's infamous pastiche of the Gothic in Northanger Abbey pokes fun at the weather in Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho, when Radcliffe fan Catherine Moreland says, "Oh! That we had such weather here as they had at Udolpho, or at least in Tuscany and the south of France!—the night that poor St. Aubin died!—such beautiful weather!" Catherine's romanticizing of Udolpho is particularly silly in this case, since the vast majority of the weather described in Mysteries of Udolpho is stormy, gloomy, or otherwise awful.
Perhaps the most famous influence of Gothic weather occurs in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's novel Paul Clifford(1830). This novel diverges from Gothic conventions by making the main character and hero a criminal. A smash success in its day, Paul Clifford has mostly fallen to obscurity, except for its opening passage, which is perhaps the most Gothic part of the text:
"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness..."
This passage is one of the most famous lines about weather in English literature, commonly used by English teachers as the prime example of Victorian 'purple prose,' and often imitated in jest. Madeleine L'Engle opens A Wrinkle in Time(1962) with "It was a dark and stormy night." Nonetheless, the weather and the dismal portrayal of London in Paul Clifford is only a small sampling of Bulwer-Lytton's Gothic fanaticism; he lived in a neo-Gothic home comparable to Strawberry Hill, kept a real human skull in his study, committed his wife to a lunatic asylum, and surrounded himself with a collection of stone monsters. It is ironic he would be remembered for a single line in a relatively non-Gothic crime novel, when in fact he penned a number of Gothic works, including Falkland (1827), Zanoni (1842), and Lucretia; or, The Children of the Night (1846).
Courtesy of Chang Keng Mun, National University of Singapore and Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Mulvey-Roberts, Marie. "Edward Bulwer-Lytton." Gothic Writers: A Critical and Bibliographical Guide Edited by Douglass H. Thomson, Jack G. Voller, and Frederick S. Frank. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2002. Pgs. 83-89.
Ethelred & Lidania; OR, The Sacrifice to Woden [Transcript], Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson