RNZ: Cyclone Gabrielle closes in on Aotearoa (11/2/2023)
As we start to settle into - hopefully - the cleanup and recovery from the floods and other ravages of Cyclone Gabrielle here in the North Island, it got me to thinking about some of the great storms of literature.
Flooding in Mairangi Bay
[photography: Bronwyn Lloyd (27/1/2023)]
Joseph Conrad's Typhoon, yes, most people have heard of that, but there are some other equally impressive ones which may be less familiar.
There's Daniel Defoe's pioneering piece of journalism recording the progress of the great storm of 1703, for instance - or the shipwreck at Yarmouth in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield. John Masefield and Richard Hughes are two seafaring authors who appear to have set out deliberately to challenge Conrad at his own game.
And then, to mention a couple of more recent examples, there's British Sci-fi writer John Christopher's The Long Voyage, an intense and poetic narrative of a ship lost at sea; not to mention (to bring things full circle) the evocation of the UK's great storm of 1987 - which I remember well - at the end of A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance.
Wolfgang Petersen, dir. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Sebastian Junger. The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea. 1997. London: Fourth Estate, 1998.
Daniel Defoe. The Storm. 1704. Ed. Richard Hamblyn. London: Allen Lane, 2003.
Daniel Defoe was certainly a man for firsts: the first major English novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719); the first substantive non-fiction novel, or 'faction': Memoirs of a Cavalier (1720); and the first 'substantial piece of modern journalism', The Storm, his blow-by-blow account of the great storm of 1703, compiled from numerous eye-witness accounts.
It was, as he described it, "The Greatest, the Longest in Duration, the widest in Extent, of all the Tempests and Storms that History gives any Account of since the Beginning of Time. ... No pen could describe it, nor tongue express it, nor thought conceive it unless by one in the extremity of it."
Most People expected the Fall of their Houses. ... Whatever the Danger was within doors, 'twas worse without; the Bricks, Tiles, and Stones, from the Tops of the Houses, flew with such force, and so thick in the Streets, that no one thought fit to venture out, tho' their Houses were near demolish'd within.Defoe's book may, unfortunately, have been a bit ahead of its time, given its poor sales, but it remains a lively read, and certainly anticipates the skill with which he would blend factual details with fiction in later works such as the classic Journal of the Plague Year (1722).
- Daniel Defoe, The Storm. 1704. The Novels and miscellaneous works of Daniel Defoe. 6 vols. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1855. vol. 5: 260-421.
Daniel Defoe: The Storm: An Essay (2005)
Phiz: Frontispiece to David Copperfield (scanned by Philip V. Allingham)
Charles Dickens. The Personal History of David Copperfield. 1850. Ed. Trevor Blount. Penguin Classics. 1966. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.
Here are Charles Dickens's original notes for the 18th monthly part of his most personal and, indeed, largely autobiographical novel David Copperfield, serialised from May 1849 to November 1850 by his London publishers Bradbury & Evans:
Ham and Steerforth. Steerforth in a sinking shipThe co-authors of Dickens at Work, the first book to give close attention to the 'notes-to-self' number plans which have survived for some (not all) of his novels, comment thus on his preparations for the portrayal of the great Yarmouth storm:
in a great storm off Yarmouth Roads. Ham goes
off in a life boat, - or with a rope around his waist? -
through the surf. Both Bodies washed ashore together?
a mighty wind.
- John Butt & Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens at Work. 1957. London & New York: Methuen & Co., 1982: 168.
No scene in the book was given such careful presentation as the storm scene. ... The labour involved ... is conveyed in a letter to Forster of 15 September: 'I have been tremendously at work these two days', he writes; 'eight hours at a stretch yesterday, and six hours and a half today, with the Ham and Steerforth chapter, which has completely knocked me over'. Two days later he told Wills that the 'most powerful effect in all the Story is still on the Anvil'. Thus the writing of this chapter occupied at least four days. 
Fred Barnard: The Storm (1872)
Portraying this scene adequately seems to have been a bit too much for the matter-of-fact Phiz, his usual illustrator, so it wasn't till Fred Barnard provided some new pictures for Chapter LV, "Tempest," in the posthumous Household Edition of David Copperfield, that any real attempt was made to show Ham Peggotty preparing to swim out to the wreck in an effort to save the unfortunate souls left aboard.
It certainly seems preferable to Harry Furniss's later version, below, of the 'the last parting' between David and Steerforth - "he was lying easily with his head upon his arm": the one detail Dickens marked "To remember" in the number plan for this chapter.
Harry Furniss: The End of Steerforth (1910)
Joseph Conrad. Typhoon and Other Stories. 1903. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.
Joseph Conrad's great novel Lord Jim (1900) hinges on an emergency at sea: not a storm, but a collision between a pilgrim ship bound to Mecca and some kind of floating debris, possibly an entire submerged ship floating just below the surface of the water.
The main character Jim's failure to measure up to the disaster dictates, inexorably, the rest of the tragic action of the story.
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim (1900)
One can't help feeling, though, that Conrad may have thought that he'd missed a trick by not including, in Lord Jim, the sheer unbridled energy of a Pacific typhoon (the same thing as a hurricane, essentially, except that different names are used for these storms in the Atlantic and the Pacific).
"Typhoon" is not exactly a light-hearted work: it portrays a state of things so far beyond the normal expectation of what might happen, even at sea, that it can literally drive people insane. Nevertheless, it's true to say that it showcases Conrad's trademark irony rather more centrally than Lord Jim.
Just as Jim's romantic illusions about life are the crucial factor that destroys him, so Captain MacWhirr's complete lack of imagination is the thing that saves him and his crew from the immeasurable devastation of the storm. MacWhirr understands objectively that his ship might sink, but he cannot really see it in his mind's eye.
It therefore never occurs to him to do anything but continue with the normal business of the voyage. And so, bizarrely, he and most of the others are saved.
Joseph Conrad: Typhoon and Other Stories (1903)
John Masefield. Victorious Troy, or The Hurrying Angel. 1935. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1935.
A Long time ago I wrote a Masters' thesis about the novels of English Poet Laureate John Masefield - or, rather, his early novels: he wrote 23 of them in all.
Victorious Troy is one of the later ones, and one of the few to be focussed entirely on the sea.
John Masefield: The Bird of Dawning (1933)
The first of his purely 'seafaring' novels, The Bird of Dawning:
... is the remarkable story of a crew and the principal hero, Cruiser Trewsbury, between shipwreck and triumph. When their clipper, participant of the annual tea race from China to London, sinks on its home journey, Cruiser takes command of the only boat which escapes the disaster. A gruelling journey of 700 miles across the Atlantic in an open boat awaits the small crew. The discovery, soon to be made, that they have an insufficient quantity of both water and food on board, dashes all hopes. Passing ships which fail to spot the shipwrecked and sharks greedily approaching the boat contribute to the picture of doom. By remarkable circumstances, however, they discover a ship, one of the other tea clippers, drifting on the sea with its crew gone. With the crew back in the race for the coveted price of being the first tea clipper of the season to dock in London ...The book includes a marvellous set-piece passage describing the effects of a single great wave on a ship at sea. Perhaps it was this that persuaded Masefield to go the whole hog and devote an entire novel to the description of a great storm.
Victorious Troy, published two years later, is:
... Set during the grain race of 1922. ... The ship from which the novel gets its title is struck by a cyclone in the South Pacific and it is Dick Pomfret, the senior apprentice, who valiantly saves the vessel.It's certainly far more detailed than "Typhoon", but lacks the latter's focus and psychological acuity. As an unabashed adventure story and rattling good yarn, though, it's well worth reading by those addicted to the likes of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brian.
- Philip W. Errington, John Masefield: The "Great Auk" of English Literature. A Bibliography. London: The British Library / New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004: 420.
John Masefield: Victorious Troy (1935)
Richard Hughes. In Hazard. 1938. London: Chatto & Windus, 1948.
In 1932 the Phemius, a Holt Line steamship, was caught in a hurricane for six days. Hoping that his captain’s report could be turned into something, the chairman of the shipping line sent a copy to Masefield and then to Hughes, whose first novel, A High Wind in Jamaica, had been set at sea. In 1938 Hughes used the incident as the basis for In Hazard, his second novel.Once again, this is a case of an author who'd had great success with one description of a storm or a shipwreck, deciding to extend the trope into a complete work of fiction.
- Richard Hughes, "Securing the Hatches". Lapham's Quarterly (1929)
Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)
The account of a hurricane at the beginning of A High Wind in Jamaica is justly famous: impossible to forget, in fact. The rest of the novel takes a completely different tack into the psychology of young children left up to their own devices - in a manner somewhat prophetic of Golding's Lord of the Flies - and is also very successful in its own way, but the novel as a whole does seem to separate into these two disparate parts.
In Hazard is not so famous. In fact, the only reason I've actually read it is because I happened to pick up a battered second-hand paperback copy when I was in my teens. It's been damned with descriptions such as "allegorical of the Second World War" or "limited in its range", but I suspect the most of these comments come from people unfamiliar with it.
It may be because I've read it so many times that I practically know it by heart, but it still seems to me a staggeringly good novel. The storm it describes is apocalyptic, seemingly incredible, and yet - based entirely on an actual event, as the quote above records.
It is by far my favourite book among the very few that Richard Hughes gave us. He, too, seems to me a severely underrated writer, who definitely deserves resurrection. There's a good biography by Richard Perceval Graves, published in 1994.
Richard Hughes: In Hazard (1998)
John Christopher. The Long Voyage. 1960. London: Sphere Books, 1986.
Before he became the beloved author of such YA classics as the Tripod books and The Prince in Waiting trilogy, "John Christopher" (whose real name was Samuel Youd) was mainly known for a series of grim survival stories, some SF, some not, more or less in the mode of John Wyndham and the early J. G. Ballard.
John Christopher: The World in Winter (1962)
The World in Winter and The Death of Grass are probably the best known of these. Both are uncompromisingly pessimistic, and (indeed) would fit more comfortably into contemporary lists of post-apocalyptic literature than they did into the literary landscape of the 1950s and 60s.
He was by no means a one-note writer, however, and The Long Voyage (known in the US as The White Voyage) is probably my favourite among all of his books.
It depicts a long struggle for survival by a few passengers and crew left on a derelict ship in the North Sea as it drifts ever northwards towards the Arctic Circle. The Shackleton-like spirit displayed by the Captain and (to a lesser extent) by his First Mate is balanced by the careful character depiction of the less heroic others.
It's hard to describe why the result seems imbued with such precision and truth. It's one of those rare novels I always feel like rereading the moment I finish it. It has a curious depressing charm which I can only compare to Philip Larkin's equally bleak A Girl in Winter, a dark background against which the few moments of epiphany shine out with surprising depth.
John Christopher: The White Voyage (1960)
A. S. Byatt. Possession: A Romance. 1990. London: Vintage, 1991.
The Great Storm of 1987 is one of the worst recorded weather events in British history, claiming 18 lives in the UK and uprooting 15 million trees. ...In the late 1980s I was living in the UK, as I worked on my Doctoral thesis at the University of Edinburgh. I didn't have much access to news, as the television room in my local Halls of Residence seemed to be perpetually occupied by darts fans who resented any attempt to change the channel. But even I was aware of the great storm of 1987.
During a lunchtime weather broadcast, in a moment which proved pivotal to the public's perception of the coming storm, the BBC's Michael Fish made an offhand comment which was misunderstood to mean there was no hurricane coming.
The storm then hit in the early hours before dawn with a ferocity which no one had been prepared for, ripping through the country from the west near Cornwall and advancing with every hour ...
Though it mostly affected the south of England rather than Scotland, where I was based, I can still remember those images of whole forests of downed trees. For a dendrophile such as myself, the sight was particularly devastating.
The Great Storm of 1987 (2022)
Years later, when I read the sensation of the season, A. S. Byatt's Booker-Prize winning novel Possession, I was very impressed by the way in which she managed to weave the great storm into her preposterously entertaining tale of two nineteenth-century poets' hidden affair, and the nefarious attempts by various scholars to steal all the details for their own devious purposes - a dastardly scheme foiled finally by our two present-day heroes.
The novel has been described as "historiographic metafiction", and it gave rise to a whole slew of - mostly less succcessful - imitations. There was, however, a wonderful serendipity in reading it in 1990 as an obscure graduate student, like Roland Michell in the novel, and to feel the part-fictional, part-truthful events rhyming one by one with my own lofty fantasies of Academic success.
It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Byatt was influenced by David Copperfield in her decision to set the denouement of her novel during a great storm. But then, who wasn't she influenced by? Her novel may seem less unusual now, thirty years on, given it's been so often emulated, but it remains a wonderful yarn, and certainly one I would recommend to anyone who's not yet encountered it.
At all costs ignore the horribly bad movie adaptation, though.
A. S. Byatt: Possession (1990)
@MonteChristoNZ/via REUTERS: Auckland Floods (31-1-2023)
So will what we've just experienced here in New Zealand go down in history as the great storm (or storms) of 2023? It seems very probable. It's hard to avoid the thought that both the weather forecasters and the civil defence authorities were to blame in not reacting more quickly to the events of Frday 27th January, but they certainly tried to make up for the deficiency in their warnings about Cyclone Gabrielle.
No doubt there are many more lessons for the future to be learnt from all this. For the moment, though, our concentration has to be on starting to repair as much as possible of the damage that's been done. And to mourn for the dead.
Brett Phibbs: Colwill Road, Massey (5/2/2023)