The Year Without Summer / Klingaman and Klingaman. 2013
Here's something a little different that I read last month. I'm highlighting it because I'm one of those long-time readers of Regency historicals who actually prefers some real history in those books, not the "wallpaper" kind that all too often shows up. For years I've been a member of the Regency Yahoo loop, although I pretty much just lurk there now. Anyhow, one of the members posted a link to this book review and I was intrigued enough to check it out from the library. While I thought parts of it dragged toward the end, I found this to be a fascinating look at a year that suffered some of the most dramatic weather patterns in modern history.
Over the years I've read a number of Regencies that have referenced the cold summer experienced in England in 1816. Sometimes those books will even refer to the food shortages and the depressed economy. Between the end of the war with France, which saw a decline in manufacturing and an increase in unemployment, and the failure of many crops, England was in a bad way during the winter of 1816-17. And so was most of the rest of Europe, as well as Canada, the United States, and parts of Asia.
The cause of all of this misery was the massive eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia (then called Java). The volcano erupted in April 1815, directly killing over 10,000 people. In the region it's estimated another 70,000-80,000 died due to starvation from the ash fallout. The volcano also sent into the air an aerosol cloud just dense enough to reflect sunlight back out into space and slowly cool the earth's temperatures. The full effects weren't felt until nearly a year later, but when it happened, it was devastating.
Using modern analysis of weather patterns (the younger Klingaman is a meteorologist) and quotes from newspapers, journals, and letters (the older Klingaman is a historian), the authors put together an interesting account of how bad the weather was in 1816 and how it influenced the economy, politics, and even literature in Europe and North America. The extreme cold brought snow to New England in late June and killing frosts in August. Few crops survived. In between there was a drought, and forest fires swept the region. The authors say that this fueled the westward migration to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. In Europe it rained incessantly. There were terrible floods in Switzerland. Byron and the Shelleys spent the summer there and the rain kept them indoors all the time. To pass the time, they told ghost stories which led to Mary Shelley's creation of Frankenstein. It makes you wonder if she would have written that book had they been able to do the hiking and boating they'd planned to do. Religious revivals were common as people sought an explanation for the unusual extremes.
I would have liked to read more about how the weather affected Asia and the southern continents, but in many cases it's fair to assume records don't exist. In other cases there is probably a language barrier. Still, I found the book interesting, although heart-breaking. So many people suffered.
If you like this era of history and enjoy non-fiction, this might be a good book to try out. The weather explanations were not overly technical and the history portions gave me a nice background for all of my Regency reading. So reader beware! If you see the date 1816 used in a novel, the author better mention the cold.