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The historical important 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.


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