Monday, 9 November 2015

The Ghost of Mud or a Poetic Veil? Fog in Victorian London

           Reading nineteenth-century texts, it is easy to think that the descriptions of fogs are shamelessly overdramatic as people become unrecognizable, buildings vanish, and lamps are lit in the middle of the day. But modern-day London fogs are but feeble shades of the monumental mists that haunted Victorian London. If anything, the fogs we encounter in literature are making light of the situation. ‘Fog’ in the nineteenth-century capital was not merely a meteorological occurrence; it was a unique and dangerous combination of real fog and air pollution from factories, gasworks and home fires. It was at times so dense that it became a political and medical problem. Even as it penetrated into public buildings and private lives, so it made its way into the greatest works of literature and art. Fog is indelibly associated with London through the novels of Dickens and Stevenson, the paintings of Turner, Whistler, and Monet.  

Nocturne in Grey and Gold – Piccadilly (1881-1883) – James Abbot McNeill Whistler
            While England in general is extraordinarily prone to fogs, there have been records of London having its own pollution-induced ‘extra’ mist since the sixteenth century. By the early nineteenth century, this was a cloud around thirty miles across, which often formed over the city. This phenomenon was due to the dramatic urbanisation and industrialization, producing enormous amounts of air pollution. The problem worsened with each passing decade, the 1880s seeing the most extreme fog. The word ‘fog’ means a white mist to us, but Victorian ‘fog’ was an extraordinary array of colours, nicknamed a ‘peasouper’ due to its hue and consistency. Varying with the composition of the day’s pollution, this fog could be ‘grey-yellow, of a deep orange, and even black at the same time’. Visiting London, Nathaniel Hawthorne described it as ‘…more like a distillation of mud than anything else; the ghost of mud, the spiritualised medium of departed mud, through which the departed citizens of London probably tread in the Hades whither they are translated’. Actual flakes of soot drifted through this mist, coating buildings and statues. This ‘ghost of mud’ was accompanied by an awful stench, a ‘nauseous compound flavour of all the sulphates and phosphates’, as it was described in Illustrated London News in 1867.
Besides its disagreeable appearance and smell, the fog was a very real hazard. People who already suffered from respiratory disorders such as asthma regularly died because of the complications the fog brought on. Public health records show that deaths due to respiratory problems doubled in one particularly bad week of fog. The low visibility proved fatal to many; people stumbled off obscured pavements into the paths of carriages or walked off the docks into the Thames. During 1873 alone, nineteen deaths resulted from people falling into the river due to the fog. In fact, it seems that ‘fog’ is a generous term to apply to the poisonous miasma that regularly appeared in the streets of the world’s greatest urban centre.
So why was nothing done? The main reason was simply apathy and adherence to traditions. Although the fogs were dreadful, they were an infrequent occurrence. While London always suffered from some degree of pollution, fog only became acute during a few weeks in the year. The severe ones were seasonal, starting in the autumn and ending in the spring. People with healthy lungs remained almost completely unaffected, it was only those already prey to disease who suffered. Perhaps the most important reason for nothing being done was that a huge percentage of the air pollution came from household fires, and Londoners refused to sacrifice the comfort of the hearth to public safety. There were political campaigns undertaken to improve the atmosphere, but all of them were largely unsuccessful, because while several managed to put limits on pollution from factories and gas-works, the problem of home fires remained.

Etching by famous illustrator John Tenniel from the 13 November 1880 edition of Punch weekly magazine. Respiratory diseases such as pneumonia and asthma are spread by the ‘Fog Demon’ over London.

So fog became a ‘London particular’ and writers and artists began to not only include it in their works, but often praise it. Charles Dickens wrote of the foggy city in his usual exaggerated and satirical way in Bleak House; ‘…gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas, in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold as street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke)…’ Byron described it as a ‘huge, dun Cupola’. In 1805, Benjamin Robert Haydon already saw the fog in terms of grandeur, calling it a ‘sublime canopy that shrouds the City of the world’. Later artists were similarly rhapsodic in their descriptions. James Whistler, describing a trip to the sometimes-fatal docks, wrote ‘the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairy-land is before us…’ Monet was also fascinated by the fog’s visual power; ‘It is the fog that gives [London] its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak’.

Artistic fascination with the beauty of London’s fogs: Houses of Parliament: Effect of Sunlight in the Fog (1904) by Claude Monet.

This strange mist has a darker side in literature. Fog is one of the primary ways Robert Louis Stevenson creates an atmosphere of obscurity and horror in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In the novel, the way fog alternately conceals and reveals areas of London (especially the more sordid areas) parallels the way parts of the human psyche are concealed and revealed.

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours… for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with it muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful re-invasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare. The thoughts of his mind, besides, were of the gloomiest dye… the fog lifted a little and showed him a dingy street, a gin palace, a low French eating-house, a shop for the retail of penny number and twopenny salads, many ragged children huddled in the doorways, and many women of different nationalities passing out, key in hand, to have a morning glass; and the next moment the fog settled down again upon that part, as brown as umber, and cut him off from his blackguardly surroundings. (Stevenson, p 29-30)
Dickens also sees the fog as transforming the world into something supernatural in A Christmas Carol, when the fog ‘was so dense… that… the houses opposite were mere phantoms.’
The association of the deceptive nature of the fog with other types of deception and criminality runs through Victorian literature. In Bleak House, Dickens describes court proceedings in relation to the impenetrable mists;
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth… On such an afternoon, some score members of the High Court of Chancery bar ought to be – as here they are – mistily engaged in one of ten thousand stages of an endless cause, tripping one another up on slippery precedents, groping knee-deep in technicalities…  
The author of the Victorian sex-scapade My Secret Life testified that ‘Foggy weather is propitious to amatory caprices. Harlots tell me that they usually do good business during that state of atmosphere… Timid men get bold and speak to women when they otherwise would not…’ Fog wreathes the city in mystery for all but those who are familiar with its every aspect, therefore in The Sign of Four ‘…what with our pace, the fog, and my own limited knowledge of London, I lost my bearings, and knew nothing, save that we seemed to be going a very long way. Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets.’ It is only Holmes, intimately familiar with the criminal side of the city, who can trace the way through the fog. It is on a particularly foggy night that in The Portrait of Dorian Grey, Dorian has his fateful meeting with his painter ex-friend Basil, exclaiming that ‘In this fog… I can't even recognize Grosvenor Square. I believe my house is somewhere about here, but I don't feel at all certain about it.’ Dorian ushers Basil inside, saying ‘Come in, or the fog will get into the house’, as if trying to prevent the evil the fog conceals from entering their interactions.

Photograph of London by Leonard Misonne, 1899

One of the most dramatic appearances by fog in Victorian literature is in the novella The Doom of the Great City (1880) by William Delisle Hay, which has been mercifully forgotten today. In it, the smog becomes so thick that the citizens of the London perish by the thousands, and the narrator returns to a post-apocalyptic scene of horror. Fog is again associated from the first with crime, as Hay ascribes the large number of prostitutes to its presence. The novel culminates with the idea that thus London has been punished for its crimes; ‘O London! surely, great and manifold as were thy wickedness, thy crimes, thy faults, who stayed to think of these in the hour of thy awful doom, who dared at that terrible moment to say thy sentence was deserved?’ Although it is for the most part a remarkably bad example of the most overdramatic sort of purple prose, this work shows the association of fog with criminality, sexual promiscuity, and the dangerous parts of human nature that had better remain concealed.

Victorian London had its own breed of fog, next to which today’s is nothing, and knowing the nature of which gives us a better understanding of contemporary texts. Our modern mists cannot be compared to the Victorian miasma which caused men to wander off into rivers or lose themselves hopelessly in familiar streets, and keeping in mind its density, its unnatural colour and repulsive smell, it is not surprising that ‘fog’ provoked fear, horror, fascination, dark thoughts and dark actions.

Jackson, Lee. Dirty Old London: The Victorian Fight against Filth. New Have: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.

Hay, William Delisle. The Doom of the Great City: Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942. Newman & Co: London, 1880. Print.

Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London. Atlantic Books: London, 2012. Print.

Dickens, Charles. A Christmas Carol. Penguin: London, 2007. Print

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Everyman’s Library: London, 1991. Print

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Penguin: London, 1994. Print.

Ackroyd, Peter. London: The Biography. Chatto & Windus: London, 2000. Print.

Sutherland, Daniel E. Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Print.

Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Sign of Four. Penguin: London, 2007. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Wordsworth Classics: Ware, 1992. Print.

Image sources:

Whistler, James Abbot McNeill. Nocturne in Grey and Gold – Piccadilly. Digital image. National Gallery of Ireland. National Gallery of Ireland, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Tenniel, John. "Old King Coal" and the Fog Demon. Digital image. Heidelberg University Library. Heidelberg University, n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Monet, Claude. Houses of Parliament: Effect of Sunlight in the Fog. Digital image. Wikiart: Visual Art Encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.

Misonne, Leonard. London, 1899. Digital image. The Red List. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.


  1. Wow! I never realized fog was such a catalyst in Victorian stories. I can't decide if knowing it was true, that London was sometimes covered in such thick fog, is more or less scary than the stories! I really liked how you showed the fog through literature and art. It illustrates how the fog was a part of the culture and time period. Well done!

  2. I found really interesting your blog entry because I have never imagined how a "simple" thing as fog was so an important aspect for Victorian authors in writing their novels. Very interesting indeed! Thanks for your blog!