Author Guinevere Glasfurd tells Historia how a local news story showed her the way to write her sweeping climate change novel, The Year Without Summer, which was shortlisted for the HWA Gold Crown Award in 2020.
Up until a couple of years ago, the impacts of climate change often seemed abstract, forever far away; set apart from, or at a distance to, our everyday lives. Certainly, in many Western societies – affluent, inured, complacent – there seems to have been a profound disconnect between what scientists consistently warned us of, the clear threats they articulated, and a willingness to engage or act.
Then came the devastating fires in the US and Australia and something, finally, began to shift. The Guardian and the Conversation announced changes in how they would report the climate. Gone was talk of global warming, replaced instead by climate crisis, climate emergency, climate breakdown: language that brought the crisis into the present, into the here and now, and expressed it with a new urgency.
I wanted to set this out because it provides some context for when I began writing my second novel The Year Without Summer – though I drafted it in 2016–17 before the media’s shift in editorial tone. I had read Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement when it was first published in 2016. In it, he takes novelists to task for failing to confront climate change, which he describes as the pressing challenge of our times.
Ghosh’s work had a profound impact on me. He writes of the Sundarbans, a mangrove in the Bay of Bengal, and the sea-level rise which threatens it. I live in the Cambridgeshire Fens, part of which is below sea level. The land is already under pressure from soil erosion and is expected to suffer major floods by 2050. I could see how climate connected the Fens and Sundarbans. But although I knew I wanted to write about climate, I still wasn’t sure how to approach it.
Quite unexpectedly, the way in came through a local, Fenland story of the Littleport riots in 1816, known as the ‘Bread or Blood’ riots – an overlooked episode in British radical history which highlights the desperate precarity of many people’s lives and which should be seen as a precursor to Peterloo in 1819. As I researched this, I came across a reference to the Tambora eruption of April 1815 and the ‘year without summer’ that followed in 1816.
Suddenly, this local story opened up a much larger story: a story of sudden climate breakdown that connected local events with an event many thousands of miles away, linking the near and far. The eruption triggered a global crisis of unprecedented magnitude in modern times, the effects of which would continue to shape the world for decades.
Mount Tambora is to be found on Sumbawa Island and is part of the Indonesian ‘ring of fire’. In 1816, the island was under British rule. The Tambora eruption is thought to have been ten times the size of Krakatoa (1883). It devastated Sumbawa Island and the wider region, killing tens of thousands of people. Global temperatures fell by 0.5C and by approximately 2C in the Northern Hemisphere.
As temperatures fell, the seasons failed. In North America, snow fell in summer, and was followed by drought and wildfires. Across Europe, weeks of incessant rain seemed to foretell the end of times.
Climate change is not simply a story of flooding or wildfires in isolation. It is many things at once, a series of cascading and interconnected events. The Tambora eruption caused more than a bit of bad weather: it led to Europe’s last subsistence crisis and precipitated the ‘great move westwards’ in North America.
I recommend Professor Clive Oppenheimer, Eruptions That Shook the World (2011) if you are interested in learning more about the eruption itself.
My novel fictionalises the events of 1815 and 1816 and tells the story from six main points of view, including that of Mary Shelley and artist, John Constable.
In May 1816, Mary Shelley embarks on a journey across Europe to a cottage just outside of Geneva with her lover Percy Bysshe Shelley, their infant son, Willmouse, and her step-sister Claire Clairmont. They are there to meet Lord Byron.
They set off with a certain English hubris, expecting a glorious summer ahead. Instead, they are met by a world changed beyond recognition; by what Gillen d’Arcy Woods describes as a famine refugee crisis which is unfolding across the region (Tambora: the Eruption that Changed the World).
Confined indoors by torrential rain, Mary Shelley begins a ghost story which she develops later that year into the novel Frankenstein. Byron, unable to rise to the short story challenge himself, nonetheless produces his bleak poem, Darkness. It is not hard to see the influence of that dismal summer on his work:
I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went — and came, and brought no day…
It is important to note that at the time no-one understood the connection between Tambora and the events they were living through. But whether it was a land labourer in the Fens, Mary Shelley writing Frankenstein near Geneva, John Constable painting extraordinarily vivid oil sketches at Weymouth Bay, or a soldier returned from the Napoleonic Wars and caught up with the Spencean Philanthropists, a revolutionary group in London that wanted to overthrow the King – they were all connected by the Tambora eruption. Even as they were unknown to one another, the climate crisis that unfolded that year connected them all.
But, as we see today, whilst many suffered, not everyone was affected equally. The events of 1816 laid bare and intensified existing inequalities. Those inequalities persist today, exposed not just by the climate crisis but by the Covid-19 global pandemic too. Then, as well as now, came calls for social justice. This time, let there be change. It seems hard to believe there will be not.
The Year Without Summer by Guinevere Glasfurd is published in paperback by Two Roads Books on 18 February, 2021. It was shortlisted for the 2020 HWA Gold Crown Award and has been longlisted for the 2021 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Guinevere Glasfurd’s first novel, The Words in My Hand (2016), was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel award, the Authors’ Club Best First Novel award, and longlisted for the Prix du Roman FNAC. She is a MacDowell Fellow and has been awarded several grants from Arts Council England and the British Council, and a Foundation award from the Society of Authors.
Weymouth Bay, painting by John Constable, 1816: via Wikimedia
Etchings by Georg Adam inside the 1816 famine medal made by Johann Thomas Stettner: via Wikimedia
Aerial view of the caldera of Mt Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, Indonesia: via Wikimedia
Extract from a letter written in the summer of 1816 in Peterborough, New Hampshire: ‘Our beautiful weather has all gone, but all hail to icy weather…’: supplied by author; photo credit: G Glasfurd
Part of a manuscript page from chapter seven of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, 1816: via Wikimedia