Top 10 depictions of British rain

If April showers are keeping you indoors, English literature from Shakespeare to Hilary Mantel provides a vivid idea of what you’re missing – with no need to get wet

For the last decade or so I’ve been devouring writing old and new about the British countryside – but recently it struck me how few of the books I love feature good old-fashioned rain. Given the fact that precipitation is something of a national obsession, it seemed remiss that the country we see through the eyes of our psychogeographers and botanists, our naturalists, travel writers and landscape historians, is largely a fair-weather one. So I set out to remedy that, in a small way, by going on a series of deliberately rainy expeditions and writing a book of my own about them.

In contrast to our non-fiction, though, you don’t have to look far in novels, plays and poetry to find a bit of familiar British weather. In fact, rain patters and drums and trickles its way from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Austen, Alice Oswald and beyond. Here, in no particular order, are 10 great rainy moments set on these weather-beaten isles:

1. Westron Wynde
Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
The smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayn

The source for this anonymous lyric is a Tudor manuscript that may have belonged to a musician in the court of King Henry VIII. With no punctuation, there has been much scholarly debate about whether the “western wind” is being asked to blow the rain away, or to bring it. Victorian versions often edited it to clarify one way or the other (and sometimes bowdlerised it, too). Either way, who hasn’t stood shivering in the “small rain” and thought: “Christ, if only my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!”

2. After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry
This justly celebrated, deeply atmospheric 2014 debut takes place during a long, hot drought, with a consequent sense of something vital being withheld. Near the Norfolk house in which the seven characters gather lies a reservoir full of dark water with a poorly maintained dam, leading the reader to wonder from whence the title’s flood will come. The biblical rain that eventually falls is both a natural phenomenon made eerily strange, and an indistinctly allegorical event.

3. King Lear by William Shakespeare
It’s impossible to list literary rainstorms without including poor old Lear on the heath, every English teacher’s favourite example of what Ruskin called “pathetic fallacy” in which human emotions and aspects of the natural world become inextricably linked. As Lear rages at his treatment by his daughters, the weather rages around him – as it must sometimes have raged over the heads of the theatregoers at the open-air Globe.

4. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
The night Bathsheba marries the dastardly Sergeant Troy, Gabriel Oak tries to warn the drunken groom that a downpour is coming – to no avail. When it comes, “stretch[ing] obliquely through the dull atmosphere in liquid spines”, Gabriel spends all night staunchly thatching all the ricks to save Bathsheba’s wheat and barley. Both his weather-wisdom and his hardiness are no small proof of his suitability for her.

5. The Hawk in the Rain by Ted Hughes
The title poem from Hughes’s first collection, published in 1957, is a physical, kinetic piece of writing which contrasts the “drumming ploughland” that “clutches my each step to the ankle” with the hawk’s effortless flight, “steady as a hallucination in the streaming air”. As a rallying cry for a new breed of English poetry – not to mention an evocation of rain that’s proper “siling down”, as they say in Yorkshire – it’s unsurpassed.

Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear in 2009.
Pete Postlethwaite as King Lear in 2009. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

6. If It Keeps on Raining by Jon McGregor
Everyone knows that Jon McGregor is one of our best living writers, and this short story, from the collection This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You, shows him at his subtle and unsettling best. A man has a house by a river, and each day he works on the treehouse and the raft he’s building. He thinks about the water, and what will happen when it rises, and plans for the time when the rains start. It doesn’t fall, but he knows it will. Or will it?

7. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The rain in Wolf Hall isn’t so much about downpours as a constant dampness, a pitter-patter that seems to seep through the entire book. When Wolsey is turned out of York Place and dismounts his mule to kneel in the mud with Norris, the drizzle creates an extra layer of pathos. Elsewhere, without being foregrounded, it acts to create a subtle sense of chilly discomfort, powerfully but subtly evoking the harsher, less coddled world of the Tudors.

8. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The night Heathcliff disappears from the Heights, having overheard Cathy say that to marry him would “degrade” her, a violent thunderstorm adds to the novel’s already high foul-weather count. Cathy stays up all night, “bonnetless and shawlless”, calling for him in the rain. The next day she comes down with a fever that nearly kills her. The association between Heathcliff and bad weather persists – when his body is discovered, the window open, “his face and throat were washed with rain; the bed-clothes dripped, and he was perfectly still”.

9. From Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Notebooks: October 21st 1803

Friday Morning. – A drisling Rain. Heavy masses of shapeless Vapour upon the mountains [O the perpetual Forms of Borrodale!] yet it is no unbroken Tale of dull Sadness – slanting Pillars travel across the Lake, at long Intervals – the vaporous mass whitens, in large Stains of Light / on the Lakeward ride of that huge arm chair, of Lowdore, fell a gleam of softest light, that brought out the rich hues of the late Autumn… the Birds are singing in the tender Rain as if it were the Rain of April, & the decaying Foliage were Flowers & Blossoms.

This lovely, keenly observed journal entry is included here to represent the Romantic poets’ fascination with all forms of weather, including rain. Weather was – if you’ll pardon the pun – very much in the air at this time, and the era’s two greatest artists, Constable and Turner, were drawn to paint rainclouds and other meteorological phenomena, like drizzle and mist. The natural world in all its forms was beginning to be seen as beautiful – not just those aspects of it that were convenient, or conventionally pleasant. It was a vital and important shift.

10. The Sea, the Sea by Iris Murdoch
It’s not just the sea, but water in all its forms that flows through this strange and profound novel. Theatre director and astonishing narcissist Charles Arrowby has retreated to a house by the North Sea which he fills with psychodrama to rival Murdoch’s own intense passions. Shruff End leaks and floods and groans as storms blow in and over, the sea raging below; the rain comes down “straight and silvery, like a punishment of steel rods”. Murdoch, of course, was familiar with Carl Jung, and the connection he makes between water and the subconscious is richly fertile ground for her in this Booker-winning book.

• Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison is published by Faber, with the National Trust, priced £12.99. It is available from the Guardian bookshop for £10.39, with free UK p&p.


Melissa Harrison

The GuardianTramp

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