The London Fog in Literature

I stumbled across this article in The Guardian about how the dramatic fogs that used to plague London have seeped not only into literature, but also our collective imaginations.

Being a complete British literature nut, particularly for things set in London, I can think of several books straight away that involved the fogs; most recently, Sarah Water’s Affinity captured the fog in a way that made me feel like I could see it swirling around me. Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth also has a scene in which the fog makes an appearance and further complicates a hazardous delivery.

Having never experienced a proper London pea souper, all I can say is that the one fog in London that I have experienced was bad enough, and that was just a very dense regular one. The yellow or black fogs must have been terrifying, and I can definitely see how they have become so important in scene setting in literature.

The most vivid depiction of the great fogs of London, I think, is in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot.

“…The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea…”

Can you think of more? Have you ever experienced a proper fog in London? Let me know!

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9 thoughts on “The London Fog in Literature

  1. The Sherlock Holmes stories sometimes mentioned it – that’s when is was at it’s worst because of all the factories pumping out their smoke and the lamps were coal gas fired.

  2. This is such an interesting topic! The fog might have been pretty intimidating, but it inspired so many brilliant British gothic stories through the years, that it’s difficult to imagine any of those stories without it.

  3. Fabulous quote! I’m sure some of the Graham Greenes I’ve read have had foggy London, but alas can’t recall which one….. :s

  4. Great post! I have a review copy of the London Fog book referred to in the article – looking forward to it even more now! My favourite description of the London fogs is also mentioned in the article – from the beginning of Bleak House. It goes on for quite a long time (it is Dickens, after all!) but it starts…

    “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich
    pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck.”

    I love the Prufrock quote too – great poem.

  5. Iris Murdoch’s “The Time of the Angels” is set in a vicarage attached to a destroyed church with the fog pressing in all around and almost becoming a character in the novel.

  6. I think the fog gets mentioned in The Forsyte Saga and of course, lots of Dickens. Wilkie Collins also.
    I believe that the famous yellow/brown pea-soupers of old no longer occur because they were related to the smog from chimneys. Now that most households & factories no longer use open fires, the fogs have decreased in severity and occurence.

    • Ooh ooh, with the Forsyte saga, am I right in thinking it’s a family saga? Is it at all similar to the newer “literary” genre family sagas eg. Cloudstreet? I have been interested in reading it but was a bit worried coz I don’t really like family sagas generally.
      Yes, you’re right, it was a lot of factory smoke and shipping smoke etc, all the pollution mixing up into one hot mess.

      • The Forsyte saga is a family saga but not in the big, fat, relationships and marriages way of the traditional ones you find written by women authors – it examines society and its changes through the first half of the 20th century. It’s really good and if you look at my blog you’ll find reviews of the first 8 books (one to go!). It’s available on ebook on Amazon but make sure you get the full copy with all the Interludes that come between individual volumes.

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