(Belknap)

During the Victorian era, the worst London fogs occurred in the 1880s and ’90s, most often in November. Yet as early as 1853, in the opening pages of “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens refers to “implacable November weather” and goes on to describe “smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle with flakes of soot as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.” There is, he says, “fog everywhere” — and not the soft, dove-gray cloudiness we might imagine: This was 19th-century air pollution: thick, malodorous, yellow or black and almost smothering.

As Christine L. Corton reminds us in “London Fog: The Biography,” England’s capital “has always been susceptible to mist and murk.” As early as the 17th century, the diarist and gardener John Evelyn was complaining about the increasing “smoke” problem, blaming lime kilns for poisoning the atmosphere. By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, dense fogs could make travel, whether by foot or horse-drawn carriage, almost impossible — and the adverse conditions could persist for days. An 1892 study concluded that between 1886 and 1890 there were, on average, 63 foggy days per year. During these periods of stygian gloom, “linklighters” — street urchins carrying homemade torches — would guide gentlemen and their ladies through the darkness for a charge. Sometimes, the well-to-do would be led helplessly into alleys and robbed.

London’s fogs mostly resulted from the gritty smoke of domestic coal fires and “the noxious emissions of factory chimneys,” coupled with the right atmospheric wet and stillness. Sulfurous elements gave the resulting miasma a yellowish tinge like that of pea soup (then usually made from dried yellow split peas, not green ones). A bad fog was consequently “a pea-souper” or, later, “ a “London particular” (originally a term denoting a kind of brown Madeira wine). Besides yellow and brown, fogs were described by Victorians as “gray yellow, of a deep orange, and even black.”

During severe and long-lasting fogs, animals found breathing so difficult that prize bulls at London animal shows would lie down and die. The atmosphere’s filth would enter people’s mouth and lungs, so that cabdrivers would spit out gobs of phlegm and drink whisky to clear their throats. The soiled air would seep into houses through doors and windows, coating furniture and clothes with an oily, slightly gritty smut. Plants withered. Corton points out that the plane tree became so popular in London in part because soot on its shiny leaves could easily be washed away.

By the 20th century, periodic attempts were underway to eliminate the emissions that gave rise to fog, but — then as now — industrialists resisted any technological changes that might cost them money, no matter what the harm to people or the environment. Only in 1956were sufficient laws passed to forestall further visits from “King Fog.” These days, London’s “particulars” are simply mists of water vapor.

Along with historical accounts of the city’s fogs, Corton’s “biography” looks closely at their representation in art and literature. Her book is packed with newspaper illustrations, reproductions of hazy “impressionistic” paintings by Whistler and Monet, many photographs, and even stills from films about Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. Above all, though, she tracks the metaphorical use of fog in English literature, beginning with a superb chapter on “Dickensian gloom,” in which she discusses “The Old Curiosity Shop,” “Bleak House,” “Martin Chuzzlewit” and “Our Mutual Friend.”

For many writers, she notes, fog “became a symbol for the threat to the clear outlines of a hierarchical social order as it dissolved moral boundaries and replaced reassuring certainties with obscurity and doubt.” In novel after novel, fogs led to “social peril, immorality, crime, and disorder”: In the blackness, proprieties fell away, while thieves and murderers could strike with impunity and simply vanish from sight.

Writers of early science fiction also used fogs as a method of mass destruction. Published in 1880, William Delisle Hay’s “The Doom of the Great City: Being the Narrative of a Survivor, Written A.D. 1942” depicts London’s population choking to death beneath a smog caused by rampant urban industrialism. In a similar short story, “The Doom of London” (1892), Robert Barr vividly compares a deadly fog to “one vast smothering mattress pressed down upon a whole metropolis.” In “The Poison Cloud” (1908), by Hugh Owen, London’s population is snuffed out by a kind of proto-mustard gas caused by foreign coal (doubtless from Germany). These apocalyptic fantasies, so characteristic of the fin-de-siècle, reached their apogee in a spectacular book that Corton leaves out of her study, perhaps because the extinction extends beyond London to the entire globe: M.P. Shiel’sThe Purple Cloud” (1901).

Corton does point to the hallucinatory effects of London fog in Arthur Machen’s visionary masterpiece, “The Hill of Dreams” (1907), the cataleptic cosmic dust of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Poison Belt” (1913) and the moral and psychological, as well as atmospheric murkiness, of Marie Belloc Lowndes’s “The Lodger” (1911), based on the Jack the Ripper murders. She also discusses — all too briefly — the book that Peter Ackroyd has called “the greatest novel of London fog,” Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1886).

In that horror classic, fog functions as a pall — the cloth that covers a coffin — both in concealing actual murder and clouding our minds to the dark truth about Dr. Jekyll. By contrast, “The Fog,” a 1908 story by Morley Roberts, reveals the moral superiority of a blind beggar who guides a group of upper-class Londoners through a city plunged in darkness and racked by growing violence. As social norms break down, the lowly Tom Crabb emerges as a natural leader, both noble-hearted and heroic.

More playfully, Des Esseintes, the aesthete-hero of “Against Nature” (1884) by the French writer J.K. Huysmans, uses a foggy day in Paris to pretend, quite effectively, that he is actually in London, thus saving the cost and bother of traveling there. Huysmans’s English admirer Oscar Wilde later insisted that writers and painters had in fact created English weather: “At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects.” The phrase “mysterious loveliness” aptly describes Henry Green’s “Party Going,” a 1939 allegorical novel — about class, the coming of war and death as the ultimate departure — that focuses on a group of bright young people trapped in a London railway station by a dense pea-souper.

Today, we think of London fog mainly as the atmospheric backdrop to late-Victorian ghost stories and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes: “It was a September evening and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city.” So writes Dr. Watson, as we settle back to enjoy “The Sign of the Four” (1890) and learn the mystery of the great Agra treasure. What could be better reading for a late fall evening? But without the fog, the novel wouldn’t be half as much fun.

Dirda’s reviews appear in Book World on Thursdays.

LONDON FOG
The Biography

By Christine L. Corton

Belknap/Harvard Univ. 391 pp. $35