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  • Writer's pictureMike Gould

New stories of the flood

Francis Danby's highly dramatic 1840 painting The Deluge apparently helped relaunch his career - although I'm not sure 'relaunch' was a term common among the intelligentsia of the mid 19th century - and whilst he is not generally regarded in the same rank as Turner, there is enough of that artist's sense of landscape and the power of nature to captivate us in this work.

Danby was responding to an event that would have resonated spiritually for the early Victorians but viewed now seems less a moral warning than an existential one. If floods bring to mind anything at all in these troubled times, it is nevertheless still one of the apocalypse - a vision of a world ended by our own stupidity and vanity; the sense that we can plunder nature without paying the costs of that exchange.

George Eliot famously condemns her heroine Maggie Tulliver to a watery death at the end of 'The Mill on the Floss'. Written almost contemporaneously with Danby's work, the narrative sees Maggie and her brother Tom set out from the mill to rescue another family - but in so doing they are swept up by the overflowing river and drown, albeit in an embrace that reconciles past differences.

In many narratives of the Flood, the abiding image is almost one of passion. The tumult of the storm that so often accompanies the rising waters suggests the force of not just God, but an elemental being unleashed on individuals or societies - a sort of cathartic cleansing, if you will. And there is no doubt that the speed with which the rising river Don (the Floss itself was probably the River Trent) overwhelmed Fishlake and other communities would have carried with it some of that biblical energy.

However, the reality gives us a very different painting of the flood. Not for us, the single moment of the mountainous peaks of water in Danby's picture. Instead, a dull, gloopy brown lake moulds itself to living room walls. Sofas and chairs sit soggily in the remains of front gardens. Politicians mumble platitudes in front of a church piled high with donated food and clothing.

As writers, we have licence to make of these pictures what we will. For some, the rain that continues to fall as I type this provides echoes of the Victorians' moral concerns writ large in nature's wrath. For others like me, I'm not sure I'm ready to turn water into writing - except in this brief contemplation.

If there is any writing to be done, let it be to to the politicians, the water companies, the agencies, and, yes, the climate deniers. This should be a priority for all nations, but for this small island it is an absolute necessity. If there is a new picture to be drawn, it should be one in which the jagged triangle of our kingdom disappears from a map of the world, and where we once were there are only the ever expanding ripples on the surface of water which has sucked us down. Look on our works ye mighty, and despair.

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