London Fog: Background information when reading Smoke

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by Dan Vyleta

Smoke by Dan Vyleta X
Smoke by Dan Vyleta
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 448 pages

    Jun 2017, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

London Fog

This article relates to Smoke

Print Review

Vyleta's Smoke draws inspiration from the very real issue of smog in Victorian London, the result of fog off the Thames river mixing with smoke from early industrialization and coal-burning fires in homes. This is hinted at when the novel's young protagonists are briefly hidden in a coal mine before making their way into the city. Making the connection even more explicit, the book's cover features Monet's atmospheric painting, Houses of Parliament: Effect of Sunlight in the Fog.

Monet's Houses of Parliament: Effect of Sunlight in the Fog Historically, London fogs can be dated all the way back to the 13th century. Legislative attempts by authorities over the years to curtail — or even entirely ban — the burning of coal were ignored due to lack of any effective alternative. As population increased and industrialization began in earnest, the problem spiraled out of control. The results were cataclysmic, centuries of death from bronchitis and other respiratory ailments as well as countless coach accidents, drownings, and violent acts facilitated by the low visibility of the foggy atmosphere. The conditions were described evocatively in an 1849 article from The Illustrated London News:

It is something like being imbedded (sic) in a dilation of yellow peas-pudding, just thick enough to get through it without being wholly choked or completely suffocated...You fancy that all the smoke which had ascended for years from the thousands of London chimneys, had fallen down all at once, after having rotted somewhere above the clouds.

The foggy ambiance was frequently employed as a literary device by Victorian era authors, a tradition Vyleta evokes with his descriptions of London polluted by sinful smoke. In The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson uses fog to create an atmosphere of mystery and as a metaphor for the blurring of identities that occurs in the novel. Arthur Conan Doyle similarly used fog as a cloak of obscurity in the Sherlock stories, as did Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dickens employed fog most notably in Bleak House as a symbol of the city's (and by extension, the government's) corruption:

Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes – gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.

The poet Percy Shelley wrote that "Hell is a city much like London -/ A populous and a smoky city," associating London with sin, as Vyleta does. From a pop-cultural perspective, representations of Victorian-era murderer Jack the Ripper in film and television are generally infused with fog, most notably Hitchcock's The Lodger.

While the ill effects of smog were long commented upon, change was not enacted until the Clean Air Act of 1956, which among other measures, banned the emission of smoke from chimneys, trains and industrial furnaces. The legislation was largely a result of the "Great Fog" (or "Big Smoke") of 1952, an event where higher levels of coal-burning due to cold combined with a high pressure weather system resulted in a heavy and toxic cloud that killed an estimated 4,000 people.

Picture of Monet's painting from Brooklyn Museum

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Smoke. It originally ran in June 2016 and has been updated for the June 2017 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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