Wednesday, 30 June 2021


The historical importance of fire in British domestic life comes up over and over again in the background of older novels. The vital importance of fire as domestic heating is not so much asserted as assumed. It was a fact of life for readers. Britain is too cold for people to survive many winters without some kind of shelter and a way to keep warm. For most, that has meant a shelter against the worst of the weather and a fire.

Apart from its other uses, fire must have been the difference between life and death for thousands of years. Not necessarily an overnight death from hypothermia, but one way or another the inability to keep warm was likely to be at first debilitating then eventually fatal.

In David Copperfield, Charles Dickens paints a vivid contrast between fire and life, cold and death. To our modern eyes, a cheerful crackling fire is overlaid with nostalgia while the absolute necessity of keeping warm by fire has faded and perhaps almost disappeared. It is not so easy to grasp the harsh reality behind the sentimental writing, yet to his Victorian readers it must have been keenly apparent. A grim background spectre we cannot quite grasp, especially when distracted by the sentiment.

My father’s eyes had closed upon the light of this world six months, when mine opened on it. There is something strange to me, even now, in the reflection that he never saw me; and something stranger yet in the shadowy remembrance that I have of my first childish associations with his white grave-stone in the churchyard, and of the indefinable compassion I used to feel for it lying out alone there in the dark night, when our little parlour was warm and bright with fire and candle, and the doors of our house were—almost cruelly, it seemed to me sometimes—bolted and locked against it.

Charles Dickens – David Copperfield (1849-50)

In his novel Alice Lorraine, R D Blackmore writes about a bitterly cold winter of 1813/14 during the Napoleonic conflicts. Even the gentry were reduced to gossiping round the fire during a particularly heavy snowfall.

But, alas! even when the weather makes everybody cry, “Alas!” it is worse than the battles of the wind and snow, for six male members of the human race to look at one another with the fire in their front, and the deuce of a cold draught in their backs, and wine without stint at their elbows, and dwell wholly together in harmony.

R D Blackmore – Alice Lorraine (1875)

A little over seventy years after Dickens wrote David Copperfield, Edith Wharton described how an earlier generation of fashionable American ladies could not lower themselves to keep warm by the fire in winter. Some paid a heavy price. Wealth did not insulate them.

Grandmamma, of course, no longer received. But it would have seemed to her an exceedingly odd thing to go out of town in winter, especially now that the New York houses were luxuriously warmed by the new hot-air furnaces, and searchingly illuminated by gas chandeliers. No, thank you — no country winters for the chilblained generation of prunella sandals and low-necked sarcenet, the generation brought up in unwarmed and unlit houses, and shipped off to die in Italy when they proved unequal to the struggle of living in New York!

Edith Wharton – New Year’s Day (1924)

For most of its long history, fire must have been a basic survival necessity for the inhabitants of these chilly islands, yet that necessity faded remarkably quickly once other forms of domestic heating became commonplace. Only thirty years after Wharton wrote about the lethal possibilities of cold houses, Christopher Bush has his main character sitting cosily by an electric fire. The vital importance of a flickering fire was already fading into the past.

We’d eaten a service breakfast and she was running a quick duster over the lounge where I was cosily in front of the electric fire and ostensibly doing a crossword.

Christopher Bush – The Case of the Three Lost Letters (1954)

Looking back it was a huge change, not so much in the mechanics of domestic heating but in the importance of it to winter survival. I’m guessing here, but when the central heating boiler breaks down I don’t think we treat it as a potentially life threatening disaster. We don’t rush out and begin gathering wood. At least I don’t.


DiscoveredJoys said...

When I was a child the family home was heated by fires. We thought it was marvelous when we had a special grate fitted which kept the fire going slowly (under a layer of 'nutty slack') overnight.

Yes, it was filthy and needed tending. Yes, winter smelled of coal smoke and open fires. Yes, the fogs were far more severe. But bread and crumpets toasted on the open fire were much better than those done under a gas or electric grill.

Sam Vega said...

Wharton's reference to New York is interesting. In the UK, no fire meant misery and eventual sickness. In New York, the winters are far harsher and lack of heating would mean death in the first year.

Here in Chateau Vega we have a nice fireplace but it does throw some smoke back into the room. We burnt a small amount of coal last year, but I felt a bit guilty. There's lots of dead ash-wood lying around, and I keep telling myself that I ought to start collecting and sawing.

Our main heat source is fuel oil, and that's not half as much fun as I thought it would be. I pictured myself fiddling with valves and checking on flickering pilot lights, but it seems to need no intervention at all, beyond remembering to fill the tank.

Andy5759 said...

DJ, I also grew up with fire as a heating source. Even now in my seventh decade I have a living room stove. When my boiler broke down last winter I didn't notice any difference apart from needing to forego showers for a standing strip wash. I think the severe fogs we experienced were more a result of the local gas works than household fires. There was an immediately noticeable improvement when we went over to natural gas.

Sam, ash is the queen of woods. It saws beautifully, it splits easily and burns evenly. My only guilt was having a rush of joy when a large ash died in the woods opposite. Fortunately many trees are surviving the ash die back. I still have my bow saws, axes, mauls, wedges and other paraphernalia just in case.

Long live fire!

A K Haart said...

DJ - I still remember making toast by the fire using an old brass toasting fork. I also remember getting the fire to burn up by holding a sheet of newspaper across it to create a good draught.

Sam - as Andy says, ash is good for fires but you may have to burn quite a lot in an open fire. Enjoyable though.

Andy - we'd notice a difference if our boiler broke down in winter although the wood-burner would certainly keep us warm in the living room.

Penseivat said...

Growing up in a two up and two down cold water house (with an outside lavvy and a tin bath hanging from a nail in the back yard shelter, keeping warm in a North Eastern winter was a constant struggle with the living room fire the only source of heat. By using sea coal, tiny granules of coal tipped into the sea as spoil from the nearby coal mines, and washed up on the beach, Mam and Dad were able to keep the fire on during the night, by pouring the coal into paper cones which were placed on top of the fire just before bed time. This formed a crust which, when broken up with the poker, allowed larger pieces of coal to be put on the fire in the morning.
My brother and I spent many early mornings on the beach at low tide, raking up the sea coal, putting it into small hessian bags which were tied to the frames of our bikes. Excess bags were sold to neighbours for 6 pence each.
Of course, my grand children think I'm making up these stories as the coal mines were closed down before they were born.

A K Haart said...

Penseivat - that's quite a story and I can understand your grand children thinking you made it up, it's so remote from what they know. I recently told our grandkids about growing up in the fifties with only a coal fire to heat the house and no TV, car, fridge, phone and so on. I could tell they thought I must surely be exaggerating.

Penseivat said...

I forgot to add that my grandchildren suspected I was lying when I told them that, when we ran out of coal, my Dad used to suck an extra strong mint and we'd all sit round his tongue!

A K Haart said...

Penseivat - and that's how global warming really started.