Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Fire and Reverie: Domestic Light and the Individual in Cranford and Mary Barton

Academic journal article The Gaskell Journal

Fire and Reverie: Domestic Light and the Individual in Cranford and Mary Barton

Article excerpt

During the nineteenth century, the very nature of light changed. Where once people were obliged to obey the power of night and darkness, it became something to be challenged; gaslight changed the temporal geography of towns, cities and workplaces, the candle began to be mass produced, and electricity would provide brilliantly day-like light in the latter years of the century.

At the heart of these massive improvements in artificial lighting was the light of fire. It was at the centre of technological and industrial advances during the period, as furnaces drove production and power within factories and mills, and fire became the aspiration of the new forms of artificial light, as they tried to recreate the light and atmosphere of its flames. Fire's role in this instance, as it became the power that drove industrial living, was also mirrored on a much more domestic level. Home was where the hearth was. Fire's uses within nineteenth- century domesticity were multiple, as people could cook and warm the home with its heat and work by its light. A family could gain a sense of safety and life while enclosed within the fireplaces aura, a place where thought and self-reflection were enforced by its atmosphere. The light of the fire, especially in comparison to other newly-developed light sources of the period, began to gain a wide range of conno- tations, as layers of psychological, historical and religious associations began to build up. There was an enduring trust in the light and environment of the hearth that transcended social gulfs, as these qualities came to be valued as an essential part of life. However, it must be noted that, due to its widespread use, there were often ill effects of fire in the nineteenth century, such as smoke damage to bodily organs, strained eyes and poor eyesight. In fact, Elizabeth Gaskell later wrote of the effects of working by firelight on the sight of Charlotte Brontë and her father. In her biography of the author, Gaskell discusses the problems shortsightedness caused Charlotte and the effect the dim light of the fire had on her eyes as she worked on scraps of paper that would become the first draft of Jane Eyre.1 At home, smoke could damage furniture, walls and the body. This damage was not limited to the home, as the smoke that poured out of the rows of house chimneys and factory smokestacks was a boon to the growth of nineteenth-century visibility. The fact that no governmental lengths were put in place to ensure that smoke was controlled until the 1956 Clean Air Act was an indicator of nineteenth-century society's unwillingness to vilify what was often their only means of light, warmth and cooked food: the fire.

Gaskell's novels document a great number of these ideas and reflect the state of artificial light within the period, as fire comes to represent the intense varia- bility in terms of quality of life within her works, from the close-knit community of Cranford to the harsh realities of Mary Bartons Manchester. The light of the fire resides at the centre of her characters' lives and the environments she creates. The hearth was the centre of the home, irrespective of what kind of home it was. Not a great deal of scholarly criticism has been written on Elizabeth Gaskell and firelight, with only very brief mentions in texts such as Servants and Paternalism in the Works of Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Gaskell, in which Julie Nash suggests the impor- tance of the hearth in Gaskell's work as she states, 'Gaskell uses humble kitchen items - pots and pans, grate, dresser, and hearth - to symbolize the Victorian ideal of domestic private sanctuary'.2 Eirelight is often categorised as being merely a thing in the home within Gaskell criticism, yet it is too alive to be examined as just an object. Carolyn Lambert is one of the few who has explored the importance of fire to Gaskell's work, and she examines the value of fire as universal metaphor in her criticism. She notes that Gaskell herself preferred a basic wood-fire:

A wood-fire has a kind of spiritual, dancing, glancing life about it. …

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