Sublime Science: Storms in the Victorian Realist Novel

Research output: Contribution to conferenceConference Paper


As a quintessential experience of the Romantic sublime, ‘vast cataracts, raging storms’ and ‘thunder’ (Burke, 1757) represented an encounter with wild, unquantifiable nature, producing ‘agreeable horror’: cathartic states of terror. The science of meteorology developed in the early Victorian era, and influenced novelists and their depictions of the weather in literature, as Justine Pizzo has explored (2016). This science of weather forecasting rendered storms measurable and predictable, potentially diminishing the sublimity and awe-inspiring effect of extreme natural phenomena.

This paper explores the function of the storm in the Victorian realist novel. While ostensibly rejecting Romantic literary tropes, instead aiming to depict life as it really is, the realist novel retains a fondness for raging storms, and their sublime and symbolic significance, suggesting the eruption of the Romantic aesthetic into the realist scene. Yet realist writers also responded to new scientific ideas about the weather; the predictive science of meteorology, and medical discourse around nervous disorder which insisted on the susceptibility of the nervous body to atmospheric changes.

This paper isolates a series of storm scenes in Victorian realist novels, from the Brontës through Dickens and Eliot to Hardy, to determine how the storm functions in these narrative spaces. Occurring as literal events which drive the plot forwards, and/or metaphorically representing devastation or revitalisation, realist storms consistently merge science and the sublime. Pinpointing these episodes challenges straightforward critical divisions between literary periods, suggesting a more turbulent, erratic use of influences encompassing both past and progressive literary aesthetics, science and medicine.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusUnpublished - 6 Apr 2018
EventBritish Society of Literature and Science Conference 2018 - Oxford Brookes University
Duration: 5 Apr 20187 Apr 2018


ConferenceBritish Society of Literature and Science Conference 2018


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