by Nan Harrison, author of Any Fair Interference
March 7, 1814 Letter from Jane Austen in London to her sister Cassandra in Chawton:
Monday. Here’s a day! – The Ground covered with snow! What is to become of us? – We were to have walked out early to near Shops, & had the Carriage for the more distant. – Mr. Richard Snow is dreadfuly fond of us. I dare say he has stretched himself out at Chawton too.
In Any Fair Interference, cold, stormy weather and closed roads create the story’s narrative as Darcy and Elizabeth are confined to their respective homes, each dreaming of the other, and waiting for spring.
Was that likely, or was it artistic license on my part as the author of their love story? It’s actually a little of each. The dreadful winter of 1811-12 as depicted in the story is a bit of exaggeration for that calendar year. It was indeed a very cold winter. In January 1811, the Thames did freeze in reality, as it did again shortly after during one of the most infamous winters in British history, that of 1813-14.
Winters were harsh through the entire Regency era, 1811-20, with an average monthly temperature of 3 degrees Celsius/37 degrees Fahrenheit. They were the waning years of a much larger climate event, the Little Ice Age. Climatologists generally mark the years of the Little Ice Age from the early 14th century to the middle of the 19th century. Winters then were more severe than they are today, even without factoring in global warming, and weather extremes were not uncommon.
But in the centuries before furnaces, polar fleece and snowplows were common, the cold presented challenge of many kinds, especially to those who were underprepared or forced to attempt travel.
Bad weather regularly disrupted travel. While snow removal was not the norm in the countryside, cross-country travelers, such as mail coaches and stagecoaches, needed help with blocked roads. The poor of the local environs were sometimes hired to help clear the snow if at all possible. Other times, roads were simply closed for travel. Travelers were forced to take shelter, if they could find it, and wait for better conditions. Heavy snowfall at times persisted into spring when the thaw would lead to severe floods.
It was common sense, then, for the denizens of Regency England to avoid winter travel unless necessary, and stay home or within their neighborhoods. A town such as Meryton could hold an assembly and neighbors could host card parties, but weather was always a factor in any event occurring as planned. Not unlike today (in our pre- and post-Covid days), when we shovel our driveways and scrape our windshields so we can follow massive snowplows down the streets to work, appointments, and gatherings.
In the Regency era, rural families did what amounted to settling themselves in for the winter. Farms and country estates were more or less self-sufficient. During the summer and autumn months, it was vital to preserve and store the harvests of the fields, gardens, and orchards. Without access to fresh fruits and vegetable, preserved produce was key to preventing scurvy and other health woes. At prosperous estates with good outbuildings and shelters, the introduction of winter feeding for cattle ensured a plentiful supply of meat. At others, some—and in some cases all—livestock was slaughtered and the meat preserved. Paths would be flattened (not shoveled) through the snow between the house and outbuildings so any animals could be cared for.
Beyond food and shelter, warmth was a basic necessity. Today, we rely on our furnaces to keep us comfortable. In the Regency era there was no expectation of staying comfortably warm, just warm enough to function and stay healthy. Layers of clothing were the order of the day, and in cold weather, more layers were worn, even indoors. Most of all, as autumn chill deepened into winter freeze, people simply became accustomed to colder temperatures.
Though the Rumford fireplace had been developed in the late 18th century--producing a circulating flow to drive smoke up into the chimney rather than into rooms and lungs-many houses were still heated by inefficient fireplaces. Lighting fires in multiple rooms was an extravagance for the wealthy. Fires were lit only in necessary rooms and only during the day. The kitchen, with its large hearth, often became the evening sitting area for all members of a household, including the servants. Here, books and newspapers were read aloud, as part of the tradition of shared entertainment. After all, it was too expensive for everyone who could read to read their own book on dark winter evenings, because each person would need a candle.
To direct and manage the heat given off by coal or wood fires, a variety of specialized household implements was used. Screens of all shapes and sizes protected people from cold drafts or hot blasts. Bed warmers preheated beds and thick bed curtains kept the heat in. Heated stones, bricks or boxy footwarmers were used in carriages and in church.
Temperatures tended to be slightly warmer in cities, with so many buildings so close together. (It was the urban heat island effect, even then.) Only the heaviest snowfalls lasted long enough to cause inconvenience. Any snow removal that occurred was on the initiative of the property owner, there were no laws requiring snow to be cleared. Merchants and tradesmen, who especially needed their places of business to be accessible to their customers, would often sweep away snow as it accumulated; domestic servants and wives maintained the walks in front of houses. For heavier amounts, the wealthy might hire men to remove excess snow from their neighborhoods. The hired workers relied on shovels more commonly employed in gardens and farmyards.
Snow was not the greatest danger in London’s winter season—it was the density of fog. The great city had more than a million residents by 1801 when the first modern census was taken. Warming that growing population meant hundreds of thousands of fires were lit, all burning wood or coal, and all emitting smoke into the air.
On March 5, 1810, Louis Simonds, author of An American in Regency England, wrote:
“It is difficult to form an idea of the kind of winter days in London, the smoke of fossil coals forms an atmosphere, perceivable for many miles, like a great round cloud attached to the earth. In the town itself, where the weather is cloudy and foggy, which is frequently the case in winter, this smoke increases the general dingy hue, and terminates the length of every street with a thick grey mist, receding as you advance.”
Historical accounts of the aforementioned winter of 1813-14 discuss a fog that was so thick, coachmen couldn’t see the streets, leading to wrong turns, collisions, and overturnings. Hackney drivers got down from their boxes and led their horses but still took the wrong paths or suffered collisions. Pedestrians were no better off, as street lamps gave off a faint light or no light at all. Enterprising shopkeepers provided lamps of their own to shine on their goods, which was helpful during dark winter evenings. Those outside however, had to watch carefully for carriage traffic and for other pedestrians. To avoid accidents or collisions, they had to call out “Who is coming?” or “Take care!” as they felt their way along. Still, many pedestrians got lost in their own neighborhoods.
By winter’s end, after months of heating and lighting with wood, oil, gas, kerosene and tallow candles, everything in the house was coated with a malodorous layer of grease and grime. Hence the custom of spring cleaning—which could be a metaphor for the lightening of hearts and the new beginning achieved by Darcy and Elizabeth in Any Fair Interference.
Ltr. 98 5-8 March 1814, p. 270 [Le Faye, 4th ed]
Adkins, Roy and Lesley. Jane Austen’s England. Viking, 2013.
Hart, Stephen. “British Weather From 1700 to 1849.” Website of Pascal Bonenfant. www.pascalbonenfant/18c/geography/weather.html.
Kane, Kathryn. “Snow in the Regency.” The Regency Redingote. November 25, 2011. regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/snow-in-the-regency/
Vic. “Keeping Warm in the Regency Era, Part One.” Jane Austen’s World. January 21, 2009. janeaustensworld.com/2009/01/21/keeping-warm-in-the-regency-era-part-one/
Vic. “London Fog.” Jane Austen’s World. February 18, 2007. janeaustensworld.com/2007/02/18/london-fog/
Vic. “Ways to Keep Warm in the Regency Era, Part 2.” Jane Austen’s World. February 3, 2009. janeaustensworld.com/2009/02/03/ways-to-keep-warm-in-the-regency-era-part-2/
Walton, Geri. “Winter of 1813-1814: The Great London Fog and Frost.” Geri Walton Unique Histories From the 18th and 19th Centuries. January 3, 2018. www.geriwalton.com/winter-of-1813-1814-the-great-london-fog-and-frost/