Tuesday, September 6, 2016

England is Not Hot. Ever. Well, Not Often. by Suz deMello (#iamreading #NicciFrench #CarlaKelly

I love England. I'm an unabashed Anglophile. Part of this is because my parents are English by birth, if not from eventual citizenship--both were naturalized Americans (or were, in my deceased father's case).

Yes, I know of the numerous crimes of England and the British Empire--they colonized or enslaved most of the world, starting with atrocities in Scotland and Ireland. But look at the good! What would we do without morning tea, the British Museum, and J.R.R. Tolkien?

I've been reading Regencies for pleasure as well as British mystery/suspense for work--I'm partway through writing a romantic suspense set in London, and find that reading in the genre I'm writing helpful for immersion purposes.

I've bumped into an interesting fantasy that some writers have about England.
what Earth used to look like
That it gets hot.

I have been to England many times, often for short trips but occasionally for sojourns as long as a couple of months, during all seasons of the year. I can state definitively that England does not get hot. EVER. 

Okay, maybe it was hot during the Neoproterozoic geologic period, between 600 and 800 million years ago. Earth at that time supposedly reached a global average higher than 90° fahrenheit toward the end of that era.*
Maybe, just maybe, England got hot during that time.

But in the modern era? Pfft. 

Granted, there have been heat waves during which the temperature in the UK exceeded 100 degrees fahrenheit: August 1990, August 2003, and in June and July 1976.* These events did not last long, and were certainly not the norm.

However, Nicci French's book, Beneath the Skin, was published initially in 2000, so a heatwave may have been distantly remembered, and surely not justification for prose like this:

"In the summer, their bodies catch heat. Heat seeps in through the pores on their bare flesh... Heat throbs on the pavement..."

This book is set in London. I assure you, heat has rarely if ever throbbed on a London pavement.

Don't get me wrong. I'm an immense admirer of Nicci French, which is really the husband-and-wife writing team of Nicci Gerrard and Sean French. Their prose is elegant, their plots unusual, their characters beautifully drawn (even if they did not explain in Beneath the Skin why the serial killer started killing--a frequently found fault in serial killer books and films).

The Frenches are not the only author to mistake Britain for Bahrain. At one point in Carla Kelly's The Lady's Companion, a Regency romance, a character described the weather as "hotter than Dutch love" (a great turn of phrase) while another is "sweating from the strange, wet heat."  And this is in the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds. Where, according to one online source, the average summer temperature from 19-22 centigrade--about 68-70 fahrenheit. And let's not get into the humidity. It's cool and damp.*

And to my everlasting shame, I also have made this error. Here's a selection from Lord Devere's Ward, published under the Sue Swift name:

She did not wear a tucker for modesty on this warm spring day, and the bodice of her thin, pink muslin dress was cut fashionably low. He could see gentle curves inside the fabric puffed over her chest. Her bosom rose and fell with her breath. Her creamy skin glistened with a slight sheen of moisture. 

A spring day in 1820 London, where this scene is set, would have been quite cold. The entire decade from 1810-1820 was unusually cold, with one site indicating that the summer in 1820 was very wet.* The likelihood of my heroine experiencing a warm spring day when her skin would "glisten with a slight sheen of moisture" from her sweat would not have been likely.

That's the joy of fiction writing. I can invent any world, any weather or event I please in order to advance the plot, even if it's merely the hero watching the heroine and thinking about licking off her summer sweat.

As a consumer, however, I find that incongruities can completely destroy my joy in a book or a movie. A lot of people thought that Blue Jasmine was one of Woody Allen's best works. It certainly was a triumph for Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the title character.

However, this book was set in San Francisco, a city I know well. That Jasmine's sister, who works in a grocery, could afford to live in The City is absurd. On top of that, the sister's boyfriend and his pals all sound more like New Jersey dockworkers than they do Californians.

That sort of thing throws me right out of a book or a movie. 

What other incongruities, whether they be anachronisms or other errors, do you find bother you?

*Of course I looked this stuff up. What am I, a geologist?


  1. What a great post, Suz!

    I might mention that it doesn't seem to get all that cold in England either, compared to places I've lived. I remember visiting Bath in January, to find that everything was brilliantly green. In New England, my home territory, nothing grows in the winter!

    I definitely get annoyed by authors who set a story in a place they seem to know nothing about. For instance, I recently read a paranormal romance featuring a gargoyle in Manhattan. The story totally lacked real local details. It could have been set anywhere. It also had the second hero attacked by a mugger in an alley. In general, Manhattan doesn't *have* alleys.

    But when we're talking about climate, I wonder if readers notice, or even care.

  2. I know what you mean about reality conflicting with minor details, Suz. Just critiqued a story where a family wants to rent a place in Atlantic City few blocks off the boardwalk. That's a shithole. No family would vacation there, I'm sure.

  3. England was mighty hot in 1995, although not above 100 degrees F as far as I know. I was traveling from south to north, ending in Glasgow for a World Science Fiction Convention, and everybody was complaining about the heat wave and relative drought. I was struck by how bed-and-breakfast places had lovely electric teakettles in the rooms, for hot tea, but no screens on the windows or fans or air conditioning. I'd insisted on a rental car with AC, which was hard to find, but my family was certainly glad of it. We were especially glad to find an updated inn near the coast in Wales, run by a gay couple, that had a swimming pool, although they told us it almost never got used. That was almost as much of a treat as the breakfast option of yogurt and granola and fruit. Much as I do like a full English breakfast that makes lunch pretty much unnecessary, by that time I'd had as much as I could take.

    Ahem. Sorry for the irrelevancy. On another tack, I've noticed that some British people I know seem to think weather is extra hot at temperatures that here in New England would seem merely pleasant, which isn't that strange because we think it's hot when folks in Florida would think it was sweater weather. Personal (and communal) thermostats are, like so many things, relative. I have wondered, though, about the thin muslim dresses with the very low necklines so often worn in Regency times, at least in the books I've read (mainly Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer), and especially about the reported habit of some ladies of scant virtue of "damping" their dresses to make them more clingy and revealing. Sounds pretty chilly.

  4. I, like Sacchi, was thinking about relative perceptions of heat. When I was a kid growing up in Hawaii, I put on a jacket anytime the temperature dipped below 70. Now, living in Rhode Island, I complain on the phone to my mother (who lives in Florida!) that's it's "so hot" anytime it's above 65. I'm curious what people in England would say about the heat.

    That said, I take the point about heat throbbing on the sidewalks. I've seen that in the American South, and nowhere else that I've been personally. There's a weight to the heat in Florida, where it feels like the sun has grabbed you by both shoulders, and I don't care how "hot" I think it is in New England, it never feels like that (and I'm so glad for it!).

    As far as things that throw me out of books or movies, I think one of my biggest peeves is scientists who don't seem to know any actual science or math. Like, if one scientist tells another to "speak English" when all that's happened is the first scientist said something about gravity that anyone with a high school education would understand. I get that this is usually there to help explain to the viewer/reader, but I wish they'd find a more plausible way to do it.

  5. Thanks for your comments. Yes, a person's internal thermostat is an individual thing. But I've never, for example, gotten used to the heat in Thailand, where I've spent quite a bit of time. My family used to have a vacation home in Lake Tahoe, where, regardless of what the thermometer said, I was always cold--there's a nasty little breeze coming off the snow-tipped mountains surrounding the lake, and IMO it's a sharp, cool breeze even in midsummer. Others, I'm sure, will differ in their perceptions.

  6. My late dad said that in Glasgow he could tell the difference between natives and tourists, because if it was above about 65, the tourists were putting on sweaters, complaining about the cold, while the natives were rubbing on suntan oil, for a beach outing. Having swum in Lake Superior on the Minnesota side, I guess I'm more like a native Scot. That water is so cold it feels like you're plunging into a cooler! And I enjoyed it!

    But before he passed on, Dad said that he'd read that even 10 years ago, sharks had been sighted in the North Sea. That water is supposed to be too cold for anything that likes warm water, like sharks, to live in. But then, to the anti-science folks, there's no such thing as climate change, right?


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