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

Abstract: This article focuses on the relationship between the domestic fire and the individual self in the works of Elizabeth Gaskell, with particular focus on Cranford and Mary Barton. The discussion draws from perspectives on the role and evolution of artificial light within nineteenth-century literature. As such, technologies of artificial light, and the materiality of light itself, as well as the atmosphere they create, are important. The article focuses on the notion of the hearth as the centre of domestic life and examines the potential psychoanalytic implications of such a relationship through the work of Gaston Bachelard. This French phenomenologist discusses ideas of an intimate link between fire and the individual, and the psychological process of fireside reverie. These ideas are examined with regards to Gaskell's work, and a number of themes are identified that pervade her texts and correlate with Bachelard's ideas on fireside reverie. Also taken into account is her Unitarianism, and notions of mind, self, and sensation. Contrasts and comparisons are drawn between the very different environments of Cranford's genteel domesticity and the harsher urban homes of Mary Barton's Manchester. The article also employs various contemporaneous sources in order to establish the worth of the fire within the period, such as the work of Friedrich Engels and James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth, and intertwines literary, psychoanalytic, and historical strands of analysis to explore the critical discourse on fire within the works of Elizabeth Gaskell.

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. …

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