I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

In the Bleak Midwinter


A beautiful cold morning in Dublin today, five days before the main event, with frost on the grass and roofs and a light mist hanging above nearby playing fields: something for all those who have been finding recent mild days to be distressingly “not a bit Christmassy”.

The parson-naturalist Gilbert White, in the final letters of his classic work The Natural History of Selborne (1788), made a number of observations about severe winter weather he had experienced in various years in the East Hampshire parish where he served as curate (just a few miles, incidentally, from Chawton, where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life).

We had steady frost on to the 25th, when the thermometer in the morning was down to 10 with us, and at Newton [nearby Newton Valence] only to 21. Strong frost continued till the 31st, when some tendency to thaw was observed, and by January the 3rd, 1785, the thaw was confirmed and some rain fell.
A circumstance that I must not omit, because it was new to us, is, that on Friday, December the 10th, being bright sunshine, the air was full of icy spiculae, floating in all directions, like atoms in a sun-beam let into a dark room. We thought them at first particles of the rime falling from my tall hedges; but were soon convinced to the contrary, by making our observations in open places where no rime could reach us. Were they watery particles of the air frozen as they floated; or were they evaporations from the snow frozen as they mounted?
We were much obliged to the thermometers for the early information they gave us: and hurried our apples, pears, onions, potatoes, etc., into the cellar, and warm closets; while those who had not, or neglected such warnings, lost all their stores of roots and fruits, and had their very bread and cheese frozen.
I must not omit to tell you, during these two Siberian days, my parlour-cat was so electric, that had a person stroked her, and been properly insulated, the shock might have been given to a whole circle of people.

White’s The Natural History of Selborne is available in two paperback versions, the Penguin Classic, edited by his biographer, Richard Mabey, and a new Oxford Classics edition published this year.


Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, was published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is also available to order online at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is an account of a relationship between a young man and a married woman (and the young man’s mother) which created a scandal which ended in a Dublin court ninety years ago. Here is an extract:

Whether acting on information gleaned from the letters or from another source Mrs MacKenzie learned that her son was to visit the Grafton Picture House with Mrs Henry. One afternoon in the late summer of 1926, she pressed her – perhaps unwilling – daughter (also called Frances) into service and the pair made their way into town and slipped into the row behind the lovers in the cinema. The whole business might still have been dealt with privately were it not for what transpired outside the cinema.
Outside on Grafton Street Frances senior approached Simone and told her that if she didn’t accompany her across the road and into South Anne Street she would call a policeman. Simone asked Rubin who the woman was, to which he replied “She is my Mother.” Simone crossed with Frances, agreeing with Ruben that they would meet five minutes later in the Shelbourne Hotel. It was to be a long five minutes. In fact all four crossed the road, stopping at the third parked car.
It is interesting that Mrs MacKenzie confronted Simone rather than Rubin. A sense of unquestioning righteousness is reflected in her strange threat to “call a policeman”. She could, figuratively speaking, have taken Rubin home by the ear and demanded an end to the relationship on pain of severe financial penalty. Indeed she could have done this at home, saving herself and her daughter the train journey. But she was aware that in Rubin’s case it was more than an inappropriate dalliance which could be rationally challenged and that it was less a case of her son being bad than having fallen into the power of “a bad woman”; her Rubin had been bewitched by a Jezebel.

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