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Friday, October 5

The Year Without a Summer

Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been. - Jane to Anna Austen Lefroy, June 23, 1816

Jane Austen’s last summer before she died was a miserable one in terms of weather. Popularly known as “The Year Without a Summer,” 1816’s unusual weather pattern began half a world away. On April 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. There had been a great deal of volcanic activity in the region between 1812 and 1817, but the gigantic eruption that blew the mountain’s top off on April 12th, 1815 spewed an enormous amount of volcanic debris into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun with tiny particles of dust and affecting global temperatures.

After a major explosion, volcanic gas and dust remain in the upper atmosphere. These particulates are then steadily spread around the globe by winds. A catastrophic volcanic event, even a minor one, are “enough to delay the arrival of spring thaws, enough to project killing frosts into the growing season, and enough to shorten the growing window.” (Wickens)

That year the British experienced the third coldest summer since records were kept in 1659. Crops failed in SW England, and the price of rye and wheat rose, which resulted in food riots. An epidemic of typhus broke out in SE Europe, killing between 10,000-100,000 people, depending on which account one chose to believe.

What was Jane Austen’s reaction to the third worst summer weather in recorded history? She remained matter of fact as far as I can tell. Jane took no unusual note of the weather in her letters to family and friends, and perhaps for an Englishwoman a few more days of wet, miserable, and cold weather were nothing to write home about. Still, it is disheartening to know that during the last full summer of her short life, Jane experienced unusually cool temperatures all summer long. She had already begun the downward spiral in health that would lead to her death. The dreary cold and damp climate could only have added to her flagging energy and general sense of malaise.

  • Illustration: The Squall, James Gillray, 1808, Princeton University Library Collection

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