London Ivy. Fluid Ink. Pea-Souper, Poison Cloud, “chocolate-coloured” pall, the “Big Smoke”: these are just a few of the ways writers described the famous fogs of London over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. In this absorbing and original “biography” of the London fog, Christine L. Corton offers a timely and comprehensive account of the intertwined environmental, industrial, and social contexts that made fog, what Charles Dickens called the “London Particular,” such a powerful, and elusive urban phenomenon in British history.
Drawing on a wide range of popular and lesser-known sources from literature, art, comics, travelogues, legislation, environmental treatises, and film, Corton strives to bring her readers as close to the visceral experience of smog and smoke as she can. Chapter One, “The Birth of the London Fog,” begins in the Stuart period with the 1661 publication of diarist John Evelyn’s anti-smoke treatise, Fumigation; or, The Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake of London Dissipated. There, Evelyn first laments the “Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse” enveloping the “Glorious and Antient City.” While many were wont to attribute fogs to the dank geography of the Thames and the surrounding valley, in subsequent centuries, naturally occurring river mists were greatly exacerbated by the expanding metropolitan population and commerce. In Corton’s opinion, “True” London fog of the “pea-souper” variety, “thick, yellow, and all-encompassing,” was not born until the 1840s when “the city’s rapid expansion multiplied the number of domestic coal fires and mingled their smoke as it poured out into the atmosphere with the noxious emissions of factory chimney and workshops in the early stages of the industrial revolution in the capital.”
Fog was more than a minor inconvenience in the lives of urban dwellers. In the eight chapters that comprise Corton’s book, fog emerges as an active, even murderous protagonist in the city, enticing, disorienting, and even poisoning those caught in its grip. Descending suddenly and often lingering for days, fogs would periodically cast London in an inescapable cloud of chill and gloom. The December fog of 1952, for example, lasted almost six days. During that time, London was forced to cut itself off from the world, suspending all air traffic and local lines of transportation due to a lack of visibility. For others, the smoke was an opportunity to move about the city under the cover of darkness; between the fourth and the ninth of December, The Times reported an increase in burglaries and robberies . An increase in death rates in the following weeks led many to conclude that the air pollution was also sending many to early graves. The 1952 fog was so devastating that Londoners soon called it “The Great Killer.”
Corton is conscientious in documenting the lived experience of the fog, yet the shifting representations of fog ultimately take central stage in this remarkable and singular history. Indeed, under Corton’s pen, there is perhaps no single London fog, but only London fogs.
In an era characterized by rampant commercial development and socio-economic mobility, Corton shows how “fog became a symbol for the threat to the clear outlines of a hierarchical social order as it dissolved moral boundaries and replaced reassuring certainties with obscurity and doubt.” “Linklighters,” for example, brandished torches and lamps to guide pedestrians and motorists through unnavigable streets. Yet they would often betray those they were meant to lead, guiding unsuspecting patrons down alleys where they would then be mugged or beaten. Other threats were harder to combat. If there is a single villain in Corton’s book, it is perhaps not fog itself, but greedy businessmen more concerned with profits than public health. Many blamed unregulated industry for polluting the city. Yet 19th-century advocates of free trade successfully blocked anti-smoke legislation from passing in Parliament on the specious logic that a “dirty atmosphere” meant a “healthy economy.” A more persuasive tactic of capitalists was to point the finger back at city dwellers, specifically to the sooty emissions of domestic chimneys. In tragic reality, the London fogs were a mixture of both domestic and industrial fumes, and this political bickering left those most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of the fog (those living in the slums of East London) coughing and choking with no relief. In Corton’s view, there was no meaningful environmental reform in London until the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956.
Corton is conscientious in documenting the lived experience of the fog, yet the shifting representations of fog ultimately take central stage in this remarkable and singular history. Indeed, under Corton’s pen, there is perhaps no single London fog, but only London fogs. Many readers will already be familiar with Dickens’s famous foggy opening in Bleak House: “Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city.” Like many before her, Corton credits Dickens as “the creator of London fog in the popular consciousness” yet her account includes depictions of fog in lesser-known novels and journals of the age, underscoring her main point that “fog’s formlessness lent itself to a wide variety of representations and metaphorical usages” in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Corton is equally adept at visual analysis, peppering in nearly 100 illustrations, maps, comics, photographs, paintings, and film screenshots among literary and historical descriptions of the London fogs. One of the most delightful sections of the book to read (or really see) details the place of fog in late 19th-century painting. In the works of artists such as Jean Nicolas, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, James MacNeil Whistler, and William Wyllie, Corton shows how fog transforms from a source of sinister mystery to beautiful curiosity. As Claude Monet wrote, “London … is the more interesting that it is harder to paint. The fog assumes all sorts of colors; there are black, brown, yellow, green, purple fogs, and the interest in painting it to get the objects as seen through all these fogs.” One of the most compelling facets of this and other chapters in the book is the effort Corton makes to include voices of visitors and tourists outside the United Kingdom. In these inclusions, we get a sense of how the London fogs garnered their international reputation. The Japanese artist Yoshio Markino, for example, was so fond of painting the London fogs that he was eventually known in his home country as “Heiji,” the painter of fog. In his autobiography, Markino declared that the “dreadful” London fog was his “greatest fascination.”
In tragic reality, the London fogs were a mixture of both domestic and industrial fumes, and this political bickering left those most vulnerable to the pernicious effects of the fog (those living in the slums of East London) coughing and choking with no relief. In Corton’s view, there was no meaningful environmental reform in London until the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956.
Although film receives less attention than one would expect in a book otherwise so attuned to the visual, it is an important part of the history Corton wants to tell. In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 adaptation of Marie Belloc Lowndes novel The Lodger, for instance, an unassuming landlady comes to the slow realization that her gentleman lodger is actually “The Avenger,” a wanted murderer. In the pivotal scene where Mrs. Bunting first welcomes her lodger into her home, Hitchcock plays up the irony of the original tale by showing fog spilling into the foyer as the door stands ajar, illuminating the silhouette of a well-dressed man. “It isn’t safe for decent folks to be out in such weather,” Mrs. Bunting politely insists as she invites the murderer into her home and shuts out the fog.
Corton’s prose is generally accessible and easy to follow, although the thoroughness of her account can occasionally lead to pacing problems. Many claims, particularly those about how fog functions as a metaphor for uncertainty and moral ambiguity, are repeated more often than is necessary. At times, the power of the book would seem to lie rather in the sheer amount of information and historical anecdote Corton has compiled about the London fog than in any specific claim about what fog means in a particular context or why. Yet there are ample keen historical penetrations to make up for these rare lulls. In the Edwardian period, for example, Corton shows how dystopic stories of smoke-filled apocalypses wafted in xenophobic national sentiments. As Corton explains, “the literature of the era began to use fog in connection not with domestic social dangers but with the supposedly disruptive influence exerted on British society and politics from outside.” More disappointing, perhaps, are the places where fog seems to forget its role as protagonist, yielding to more predictable historical insights and trajectories. In the second half of the book especially, fog seems more reflective than productive of social and cultural change. In one chapter, for example, Corton writes that “the Roaring twenties were also the foggy twenties.” In a true “biography” of fog, one would have wanted this sentence to be written the other way around and followed up by Corton in such a way that fog could illuminate something new about the social condition in post-war England.
But perhaps what is most fascinating and artful about Corton’s book is precisely this unresolved question about historical perspective, scale, and causality: the admittedly difficult question, that is, of what a biography of fog is able to tell us about British history that we do not already know. At once substantive and atmospheric, cultural and material, in the background and the foreground, a matter of personal and public concern, the fogs of London illuminate a very particular sort of urban zeitgeist. In tracing the unpredictable comings and goings of this ghostly “particular” so dutifully, Corton tells a history not of London itself, but of what was “in the air” in this important city from 1840 to 1952. Like the London fog itself, this book is sure to linger in the minds of its readers for a long time.