Last week, I watched snow fall on the daffodils outside my window and wondered if 2013 will turn out to be a year without a summer.
It has happened before, you know. Almost two hundred years ago, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia caused miserable weather all over the United States, continental Europe and Britain, where I live. 1816 turned into The Year Without A Summer. Farmers lost their harvests, families went hungry. And writers? Writers created great works of literature.
Lord Byron, who was on holiday near Lake Geneva that non-summer, wrote Darkness: "The icy earth/ Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;/ Morn came and went -- and came, and brought no day..."
Lake Geneva was popular that year. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, later Mary Shelley, was also vacationing on its shores. Inspired by the summerless gloom, she, Byron and their friends told each other ghost stories -- and she wrote her first draft of Frankenstein.
In rural Austria, Joseph Mohr, a priest, tried to illuminate the great darkness with a poem: "Silent Night", now one of the most popular Christmas carols of all times.
Which leads us to a question to ponder as we warm our frostbitten fingers on a mug of tea and shove another chapter in the stove to heat the garret: Is bad weather great for fiction?
I decided to ask my friend and fellow writer Ceri Radford, who lives in an old stone house overlooking Lake Geneva. She spent much of last winter -- one of the worst on record -- working on her second novel. Rather fittingly, her novel is set in a ski chalet. Ceri believes the main advantage to being snowed in is that it makes you work.
"There's a lot of mystique around what helps you write - a special typewriter, the right pen," she said on the phone. "But a lot of it is pragmatic. It's about forcing yourself to sit down and do it. I'm less tempted to bask in the sun when it's cold, so I guess that helps."
So much for the page count. But what about the poetry?
Arguably, extreme weather always works well in fiction, be it a heat wave or a tempest. "Hot weather forces repressed characters to unbutton" is a classic theme in the English novel (see also: Atonement by Ian McEwan). Heat loves passion. Cold weather, on the other hand, loves melancholy. The snowflakes drift by, the tea cools in its mug, the old man sits by the window and considers the joys and sorrows of winters past. Roads become impassable, travellers find themselves stranded, lovers wait for a train that never comes.
"It was one of those March nights when winter seems to wish to resume its sway and scatters its last snows and storms with desperate fury," writes Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace.
The novel teems with doctors held up by black ice, lantern-holding princes fighting through the snow, and of course various Tolstoyan sleigh rides. It even features a brief discussion of whether the French lost the Battle of Borodino because Napoleon had a cold. The battle was fought in 1812, shortly before the Year Without A Summer, during a time of unusually cold weather. Let's call it the Literary Ice Age. Hence those snowy March nights.
During the Literary Ice Age, an ambitious boy in London braved the bitter winds and pelting hail, while the Thames froze over so thickly it could bear the weight of an elephant. Years later, he would pack all those details into a character so frosty he makes you shiver even in summer:
"The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice... External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him."
No wonder it takes the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come to thaw Charles Dickens' Scrooge.
Dickens was not just a master at summoning the snow-swept nostalgia of winter. He also showed its brutal ways with the poor. During the recent cold spell, I often thought of Bob the clerk with his single lump of coal. But nothing quite outdoes Hans Christian Andersen's The Match Girl for winter misery. The little girl strikes match after match to keep herself warm, conjuring up visions of her dead grandmother. You won't be surprised to hear that she eventually freezes to death. Andersen, too, grew up during the Literary Ice Age.
Still not convinced that great literary treasures lurk beneath the freezing point?
Consider Proust. He was born after the Literary Ice Age. But he still occasionally got very cold. His narrator got cold, too.
"One day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take," he writes in In Search of Lost Time.
He declines, and then changes his mind. He is cold, you see. He does not ordinarily take tea, but it is winter and he has just come in from the cold. If it had been warm, she would have served him a glass of lemonade. But she serves him tea, because it is cold. And what does she serve with it?
"She sent out for one of those short, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines'".
Without winter, no tea, without tea, no tea-soaked madeleines, without madeleines, no seven-volume novel. I rest my case.
Do you feel inspired by winter? Is writing with numb, blue fingers the key to literary success? I look forward to hearing your stories.
Sophie Hardach's second novel, Of Love and Other Wars, comes out in August.