Fog has played a defining role in some of our favorite movies, instantly setting the stage for either romance or menace. In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart always seems to be shrouded in fog or cigarette smoke, while Fred Astaire, in his first film without Ginger Rogers, A Damsel in Distress, woos Joan Fontaine by singing the Gershwins’ romantic “A Foggy Day (in London Town).” In the original production of Oklahoma!, Agnes de Mille used dry-ice fog in her revolutionary “dream ballet” to evoke subconscious romantic yearnings. Yet fog has also played a dramatically scary role, as when it rolls past 221B Baker Street to signal that, for Sherlock Holmes, “the game’s afoot.”
Wonderfully malleable as a theatrical trope, the idea of fog has strong roots in literature and art as well, and Christine L. Corton explores this very fertile subject in London Fog: The Biography. She has researched deeply a subject that has been written about extensively since “fog” became an issue of note in the 17th century. The rising impact of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, along with the explosive population growth of metropolitan London, made fog a fact of everyday life.
Coal fires were common and necessary. High in sulfur, they created a yellow fog that became increasingly thick and persistent as London became an economic hub in the 19th century. Responding to a crescendo of public concern, Parliament began to pass bills aimed at reducing smoke in the 1820s, but as Corton writes, “it was difficult to interfere with the right of the householder to use coal for heating and cooking, and there were no satisfactory alternative sources of energy.”
Because it was omnipresent and unavoidable, fog was continually written about—providing a descriptive record that evocatively delineated London fog’s “biography.” In 1853, one Londoner described it as “grey-yellow, of a deep orange.” By 1901, it had become “brown, sometimes almost black.” Corton, a scholar at Wolfson College, Cambridge, tracks the different appellations given London’s fog: In its innocent 18th-century youth, fog was described as a “mist.” By the mid-19th century its uglier character had emerged under the guise of a “pea-souper,” since that’s what its color resembled. Visiting London in 1849, Herman Melville wrote in his journal of “the oldfashioned pea soup London fog—of a gamboge [orange-yellow] color.” Newspaper accounts also described how the city’s population was “periodically submerged in a fog of the consistency of pea-soup.”
An inescapable presence, fog appeared as an active force in Victorian literature. Charles Dickens, Corton notes, used fog “as a metaphorical expression” of city life. In the mid-1820s setting of The Old Curiosity Shop, he portrayed London’s fog as a natural force of imagination; by the time he was writing Bleak House, he refashioned fog as a medium of menace and confusion:
Fog everywhere. . . . Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards. . . . Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds.
Dickens’s change of attitude reflected the emerging idea, Corton suggests, that “Nature itself has been perverted.” Instead of soft white snow, Dickens writes of a “soft black drizzle.” As a natural force, the more menacing and dark fog of midcentury London also came to symbolize a threatening alternative to the social hierarchy that ruled civilized life: “It dissolved moral boundaries and replaced reassuring certainties with obscurity and doubt,” Corton writes, and allowed “the criminal, the deviant, and the transgressive to roam the streets unhindered and unobserved.” It also created, as Nathaniel Hawthorne would comment in 1857, a sense of anonymity: “It is really an ungladdened life, to wander through these huge, thronged ways . . . jostling against people who do not seem to be individuals, but all one mass.”