- The Year Without Summer, by Guinevere Glasford. Hachette. $32.99.
The Year Without Summer focuses on a volcanic eruption in 1815 that had profound effects around the world. It caused the seasons to change so much that there seemed to be no summer in the Northern Hemisphere in 1816.
This ambitious novel follows the stories of characters plunged into the crisis, some very well-known and historical figures, others fictional creations caught up in various events and social uprisings at the time.
The voices of those nearest to the eruption are largely unheard back in Europe, where most of the novel is set. Ship surgeon Henry Hogg, sent to Sumbawa Island in what is now Indonesia, witnesses the horrific deaths and injuries of local people, but their accounts are largely unrecorded. The captain of Henry's ship says, "What value a native account is to the record, I cannot comprehend".
This acknowledgement of the suffering of the people who took the brunt of the explosion, and the rejection of the importance of their perspective, provides a counterweight to the tales of those back in Europe, who cannot know what causes the terrible weather of 1815-16.
Mary Shelley creates the first draft of Frankenstein during the year without summer, and her famous story of visiting the Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva is recounted, emphasising themes of selfishness (mostly Byron's) and the difficulties faced by women due to the exigencies of pregnancy, and social expectations. Her famous creature is not born of woman, of course, and is a result of the experiments of the scientist occurring without any regard for the well-being of the individual created.
The novel is written in engaging and lively prose, dotted with some wonderful and sometimes humorous imagery. For example, Mary reflects that, "The few bright days in May that had greeted their arrival seemed long gone and the season had fallen in on itself like discarded bagpipes dropped to the floor at a party's end".
Another well-known figure in the book is John Constable, whose fortunes and ability to marry depend not just on his painting, but on his father's mill, at a time of expensive prices (driven up by restrictions on imports), enclosures and widespread poverty. Glasfurd shows how art is always linked to wider society, through showing how the creator of sometimes idyllic rural scenes was implicated in the rising cost of living for the poor. Constable reads a newspaper recording the value of all grain "...soaring in price. The cost could be passed on and he felt relief at knowing it".
Mary Shelley, with more awareness, asks of herself and her circle; 'Did they believe that poetry could inure them from tragedy, that clever conversation could hold life's harsh realities at bay?'
That marginalised and exploited in society are represented by a soldier returned from fighting overseas to find his family home lost to the enclosure of formerly common land, a female farmworker who risks starvation despite working as much as possible, and an Irishwoman with knowledge of the effects of colonialism in her home country. The injustice of the class system operating in England is laid bare in the pages of the novel. Inevitably, there is an attempt to organise to bring about change, and a brutal response by those in power to the movement. The novel captures all this without didacticism, through the stories of the characters engaged in these struggles.
One character is transported to Botany Bay, although the effects on Australia of the volcanic explosion lay outside the novel's representation of the crisis. However the extremes of weather described throughout the book will sound very familiar to Australian readers, particularly those who have lived through the recent bushfires, floods or hail.
The geographical setting of the novel does extend to America, with the story of a preacher, his romantic pursuits, and the fair of crops there. This section, while capturing the widespread effects of the catastrophic weather changes, is perhaps the least successful part of this remarkable novel, as the themes of selfishness and gender expectations are explored so thoroughly elsewhere.
In the Afterword, Guinevere Glasfurd explicitly talks about the effects of climate change, some of which are not unlike those experienced by Europe in the wake of the volcanic eruption of 1815. The novel seeks to bring home the horrors of the loss of 'normal' seasons to atmospheric pollution, and provides a fascinating insight into this phenomenon.
The Year Without Summer is a vivid and multi-faceted novel, bringing to life the social unrest and disorder that followed in this brief period where the seasons did not follow their usual pattern. It is hard to think of a more pressing concern, in the current climate.
- Penelope Cottier is a poet who writes as PS Cottier, and her forthcoming book 'Monstrous' contains a suite based on 'Frankenstein'.