From my homey burrow I stare out at the deep freeze gripping Chicago. Not easy, given that the window glass is encrusted in a hard salty rime, courtesy of de-icer and gale-force winds. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando keeps whispering at me through all this white, forcing me to dig out the gorgeous passage detailing the coldest winter England had ever seen. It’s right there in Chapter 1. Here’s a bit of it.
“The Great Frost was, historians tell us, the most severe that has ever visited these islands. Birds froze in mid-air and fell like stones to the ground. At Norwich a young countrywoman started to cross the road in her usual robust health and was seen by the onlookers to turn visibly to powder and be blown in a puff of dust over the roofs as the icy blast struck her at the street corner. The mortality among sheep and cattle was enormous. Corpses froze and could not be drawn from the sheets. It was no uncommon sight to come upon a whole herd of swine frozen immovable upon the road. The fields were full of shepherds, ploughmen, teams of horses, and little bird-scaring boys all struck stark in the act of the moment, one with his hand to his nose, another with the bottle to his lips, a third with a stone raised to throw at the ravens who sat, as if stuffed, upon the hedge within a yard of him. The severity of the frost was so extraordinary that a kind of petrifaction sometimes ensued; and it was commonly supposed that the great increase of rock in some parts of Derbyshire was due to no eruption, for there was none, but to the solidification of unfortunate wayfarers who had been turned literally to stone where they stood. . . . [about the Thames:] Here and there burnt vast bonfires of cedar and oak wood, lavishly salted, so that the flames were of green, orange, and purple fire. But however fiercely they burnt, the heat was not enough to melt the ice which, though of singular transparency, was yet of the hardness of steel. So clear indeed was it that there could be seen, congealed at a depth of several feet, here a porpoise, there a flounder. Shoals of eels lay motionless in a trance, but whether their state was one of death or merely of suspended animation which the warmth would revive puzzled the philosophers.”
Wherever you are now, whatever your weather, what sends you back to books you fell in love with the first time you read them, authors whose words pop into your head seemingly from nowhere, until you have no choice but to comb shelves and pages to find that certain passage and savor it again?
I’d love to hear from you.