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From Atonement to The Go-Between: why British novelists love a heatwave

Keira Knightley in the film adaptation of Atonement
Keira Knightley in the film adaptation of Atonement

"I love England in a heatwave,” says Leon Tallis in Ian McEwan’s Atonement. “It’s a different country. All the rules change.” As the summer of 2018 continues to break records, it’s worth asking whether this year, like 1976 and 1914, will enter the fictional consciousness as well as the national one. There’s no doubt that, while ordinary Britons swelter and flop, our novelists perk up wonderfully when exposed to a period of prolonged heat.

Atonement, McEwan’s best novel, begins in 1935 and draws heavily on LP Hartley’s 1953 classic The Go-Between, set in the sweltering dog days of 1900. Both tales involve the sexual awakening of adolescent protagonists, who betray transgressive adult lovers swept away by passion one summer. It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that “heat” can mean sexual arousal as well as a rising thermometer. We British like to think of ourselves as mild and temperate, much like the perennial drizzle and grey skies that form a backdrop to our lives for most of the year. But when the mercury creeps past 27, all bets are off.

In children’s fiction, from Arthur Ransome’s Pigeon Post (1936) to T H White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose (1946), a heatwave means the chance for unsupervised adventure. In novels for adults, though, they tend to cause misery as well as transgression. Dickens used them to emphasise the oppressiveness of the city: take Hard Times, where “the sun was so bright that it even shone through the heavy vapour drooping over Coketown, and could not be looked at steadily… The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere.”

Plenty of authors in other countries – particularly America – use summer heat as a metaphor for hellishness. Think of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its “broiling noon”, “simmering” rooms and allusions to Hades, dust, stifling and combustion. What is particular about a British heatwave, however, is how often it becomes the embodiment of the adage “be careful what you wish for”. We think we long for blue skies, but in British novels, a glorious summer is always going to go wrong.

We know this will happen because (as an essentially Puritan nation) it is hard-wired into us that we must, at some point, pay for our fun. The long, hot summer of 1914 has only made us more certain of this. The ultimate expression of how “the one perfect summer idyll I ever experienced” came to a tragic end is Vera Brittain’s 1933 autobiography, Testament of Youth. But the trope is there in novels such as The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson’s 2016 elegiac comedy set in Rye, which depicts the final flowering of a doomed generation, and J L Carr’s 1980 novel A Month in the Country, about two recovering Great War veterans.

That heatwave arc from bliss to horror feels so inevitable that many novels use an exceptional summer as a wink, to signal imminent disaster. Helen Dunmore set her superb 1996 psychological thriller, Talking to the Dead, about two rivalrous sisters who have murdered their baby brother, in the heat of 1976, “the hottest summer in a century”. Ruth Rendell’s 1987 A Fatal Inversion, written under the pseudonym Barbara Vine, is also set in 1976, in a “Garden of Eden… not as a haven to live in but as a paradise to be expelled from”. Once the summer ends, so does the house party – but not everyone leaves it alive.

Even with less sinister fictions, heat always seems to involve personal loss, as if people as well as water can evaporate into thin air. Iris Murdoch used heatwaves to this effect in so many of her novels, from The Sea, The Sea (1978) to The Philosopher’s Pupil (1983), that the device became over-familiar. Maggie O’Farrell’s 2013 bestseller Instructions for a Heatwave begins with the mysterious disappearance of the father of a family; Joanna Cannon’s 2015 debut The Trouble With Goats and Sheep also starts with the disappearance of a neighbour, and a parallel loss of inhibitions. In the heat, our famous British reserve and love of privacy melts into an alien expansiveness; friends and families spill out into the street; doors and windows are left open; a populace becomes vulnerable, exposed and volatile. All of which is, of course, perfect for setting plots in motion.

Until this year, it did not occur to me how much I, too, have used extreme summers to (literally) turn up the heat for my own characters. But time and again, I have; in A Private Place (1991), when a progressive public school that was once a neoclassical stately home sees the ghostly outlines of a lost formal structure emerge in its parched grounds; or In a Dark Wood (1998), when the narrator tips over into mania. Even my most recent novel, The Lie of the Land (2017), about a couple who can’t afford to divorce and must move to Devon, has them confronted with murderous violence in their new home at the end of a particularly stifling spell of summer.

The shimmer of heat in the air suggests that a kind of unnatural glamour, or magic, has been unleashed on the everyday world. The end of it can also presage a transformation, and release. 

Jilly Cooper’s 1977 romantic comedy, Octavia (a delightful updating of The Taming of the Shrew), has its snotty heroine and ill-tempered hero stewing together in a hellish holiday on a barge, in the “white hot heat”. When it seems that Octavia must succumb to her final degradation – being photographed for a pornographic magazine in order to pay her brother’s blackmailer – she makes her way to the studio through the stench of “rotting food and vegetation”. Her climactic rescue by the hero, “in a storm of fury”, comes just before the real storm that breaks the arid, corrupting heatwave, and leads to the discovery of true love.

Unlike those in less fortunate countries, we know our heatwaves will always end. Our ecstasy – or misery – will never last long, and it’s a relief to know that ordinary life will resume its course. However, I can’t be the only one hoping that this year’s exceptional summer will live on in fiction for many decades to come.

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