The Domestic Hearth: Writings by Dickens, Beeton, Stevenson, and Hodgson Burnett

It is a starting point rather than a truism that the Victorians’ vision of domesticity had ‘the domestic hearth’ front and centre. This post will discuss novels (or novellas) written in the 1840s to the 1880s, by Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. These authors explore the theme of the domestic hearth through characters whose experiences of states like warmth, comfort, mutuality, cold, want, and social isolation may be fixed, or undergo transformations. Meanwhile, Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management offers deceptively prosaic accounts of fire-making and fire-tending.

In Dickens’ ambitious, sprawling Bleak House, characters appear in domestic settings that span the social scale, from country-house aristocrats to orphans in garrets. In John Jarndyce’s comfortable establishment, it is taken for granted that fireplaces are stocked by contented servants managed beautifully by Esther Summerson. The ghastly Smallweeds may (through fraud) enjoy an ample fireside, yet give, and get, nightly blows and general abuse. Bleak House’s practically destitute tend their versions of the domestic hearth as far as they are able. Orphaned Tom and baby Emma are locked in a room with no fire for their protection while their sister Charley supports them by going out to work. In worst straits,  Jo the crossing sweeper is un-housed. Unlucky middle-class characters barely hang on in underheated lodgings. Nemo, the alias of Lady Dedlock’s lover Captain Hawden, dies all alone of opium abuse: ‘It is a small room, nearly black with soot, and grease, and dirt. In the rusty skeleton of a grate, pinched in the middle as if Poverty had gripped it, a red coke fire burns low’ (ch.XI). In startling contrast, the aristocratic Dedlocks arrive at Chesney Wold preceded by a heaping up of great fires in the mansion’s reception rooms and bedrooms. Whole trees are cut down to feed the aristocratic appetite for fires tended by invisible servants. Blazing fireplaces do not, however, relieve Lady Dedlock’s malaise. In a scene heavy with menace, Sir Leicester and Lady Dedlock occupy the breakfast room  in great chairs in opposite chimney corners while the sinister lawyer Tulkinghorn, Lady Dedlock’s  future accuser, stands before the fire ‘with his hand out at arm’s length, shading his face’ (ch.XII).  Lady Dedlock’s fate is to cut herself off from all material comforts and to die unsheltered, as Dickens puts it. The last person she speaks to is the Snagsbys’ unfortunate maid- of-all-work, Guster, who is given to fits: she may be found ‘with her head in the pail, or the sink, or the copper, or the dinner…’ (ch.X). She is revived on the floor of the Snagsbys’ back kitchen with Esther’s wet shoes drying by the fire.

Charles Dickens, The Cricket on the Hearth. ‘As he sat brooding on the hearth, she came close beside him, without his knowledge–in the turning of the rack in his great misery, he lost all other sounds–and put her little stool at his feet’. Contemporary illustration by John Leech.

Of five Christmas books published between 1843 and 1848, the obvious place to begin is Dickens’s third, The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home’. Dickens indulges in a semi-facetious, first-person narrative of an amicable competition between the kettle, no longer an inanimate object subject to human command but practically a musical instrument, and the Cricket ‘with a Chirrup, Chirrup, Chirrup of such magnitude, by way of chorus…took first fiddle and kept it’. The Peerybingle’s domestic hearth is blessed by the presence of a male of the species (crickets increase their rate of chirping with the warmth of their environment). The Peerybingles’ contentment – frailer than it appears initially – is based on marriage and parenthood; not so the toy-merchant Tackleton who so far has deprived himself of both (‘why don’t you kill that Cricket, I would!  I always do, I hate their noise.’). Tackleton’s barely housed employees form a third household blessed by familial love – Caleb and his blind daughter – and by guests who gather to eat, among other dishes, a great wooden bowl of smoking potatoes. Notably the guests’ presence changes the ambiance of the Plummers’ dank workplace to one warmed by a fire and provided with food and entertainment. It cannot last: before the evening is over, John the Carrier is convinced his young wife has a lover. Then it is the turn of the Peerybingles’ invisible guardian: ‘That Genius of the Hearth and home (for such the Cricket was) came out in fairy-shape…and summoned many forms of Home about him.’ The Carrier and the Cricket indulge in an exchange of tropes. ‘The hearth she has blighted’ from the Carrier becomes, from the Cricket: ‘The hearth she has – how often! – blessed and brightened’; ‘the Altar of your Home’; ‘the language of your hearth and home’. The Carrier discovers his mistake, the Peerybingles reaffirm their marriage vows, and another marriage is celebrated. ‘I have not so much as a Cricket on my Hearth, declares Tackleton, and begs to join the happy party.

‘Scrooge and Bob Cratchit’ or ‘The Christmas Bowl’, John Leech 1843. Credit: The Victorian Web. Scanned image by Philip V. Allington  “Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!” (A Christmas Carol, Stave V)

Scrooge’s counting house repels all efforts at material comfort and cheer:

‘Scrooge had a very small fire but the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn’t replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted it would be necessary for them to part’ (Stave One)

Scrooge returns to his rooms and makes his customary gruel over ‘a very low fire indeed; nothing on such a bitter night’. Scrooge is too parsimonious to keep a servant: his artificially puny fire is laid, presumably according to instructions, by the charwoman who steals the teaspoons after his putative demise. Dickens describes the fireplace grimly lined with Dutch tiles depicting scenes from the Old Testament. With the appearance of the second of the ghosts, Scrooge witnesses his fireplace transformed: ‘such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrification of a hearth had never known in Scrooge’s time, or Marley’s, or for many and many a winter season gone’. The theme of the domestic hearth, now that Scrooge’s is temporarily transformed, moves to generic hearths in anonymous houses, ‘the flickering of the blaze showed preparations for a cozy dinner’; glowing fires lit by tin miners and lighthouse keepers. The Ghost of Christmas Present exalted over ‘every house expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high’. The mutability of which Dickens is all too aware transforms the Cratchits’ cozy fireside in Stave Three into that of the mourning Cratchit family of Stave Four, sitting by the fire ‘as still as statues’.  In another reversal (deemed permanent), the coal-hugging miser of Stave One stokes up the office fireplace and brews up a bowl of smoking bishop (mulled port and wine).

Tin cinder bucket 19th century. Beeton’s Book of Household Management contains instruction for its use.

Esther Summerson, attempting to rouse someone at Mr. Skimpole’s  lodgings, ‘after a long parley gained admission from an Irishwoman, who was in the area, breaking up the lid of a water butt with a poker, to light the fire with, when I knocked’ (Bleak House ch.LXI). Mrs. Jellyby’s unnamed maid-of-all-work – swollen face bound up in a flannel bandage – tries reviving the drawing room fire by blowing on it and chokes ‘dreadfully’ (ch.IV). Isabella Beeton, writing in the late 1850s, anticipates no shortage of coals or wood or of the appropriate tools to deal with them. Fire-lighting, she says, requires some skill and the proper combination of wood, coals, paper and matches. Beeton’s comfortable assumption is that someone will be there to make up the fire who is not the writer of Household Management. Preparatory to lighting the fire, the housemaid takes up the hearthrug and lays a cloth to protect the carpet in front of the grate. On this she places her housemaid’s box, ‘containing black-lead brushes, leathers, emery-paper, cloth, black lead, and all utensils necessary for cleaning a grate, with the cinder pail on the other side’. A thorough grate cleaning follows. ‘Having blackened, brushed and polished every part, and made all clean and bright’, she lays the fire, making sure that there is air in the centre to allow the lit paper and wood to reach coal and cinders (Household Management sections 2296 & 2297). Beeton pays particular attention to the cinders: once the fire-maker sweeps up the ashes, she deposits them in her cinder-pail. ‘In this pail the ashes are sifted, and reserved for use in the kitchen, or under the copper, the ashes only being thrown away’ (section 2294). The writer amplifies her instructions with home brewed recipes for ‘Brunswick black’, an excellent varnish for grates: ‘Sometimes it is very difficult to get a proper polish to black grates’. Beeton assigns the fire-making chore to the housemaid, or in larger establishments, the under-housemaid. Fire-lighting in winter is the first order of the day preceded by the housemaid lighting her own fire and dressing herself. Her last task before going to bed is to make up the fire in her mistress’ dressing room (sections 2323-4).

Robert Howard & Co.’s catalogue (1842) lists Housemaid’s boxes on rockers, a relatively new item among its tin, iron, japanned, copper, and zinc wares. Among other sale items: different sized cinder sieves. The listing for coal baskets allows for different capacities to suit householders’ needs. Elsewhere in Howard’s catalogue: coal baskets lined with tin, coal scoops and hods, coal tubs, coal vases, etc.
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. ‘O God!’ I screamed and ‘O God!’ again and again for there before my eyes – pale and shaken, and half fainting….like a man restored from death – there stood Henry Jekyll!’ The scene at Dr Lanyon’s fireside imagined in a 1930 reissue.














Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has as a sub-theme a number of domestic hearths spread out over prosperous bachelor establishments belonging to Dr Jekyll, Mr Utterson, and Dr Lanyon. Stevenson immediately draws attention to the un-domesticity of the spaces occupied by Mr Hyde. The opening sequence of Utterson and Enfield taking a Sunday stroll directs attention to a sinister two-storey building. Enfield notes that while the facade is limited to a door (blistered and stained) ‘there is a chimney which is generally smoking; so someone must live there’. The evident absence of a servant fire-maker makes striking contrast to the prosperous bachelor establishment of Henry Jekyll, M.D., where visitors are admitted to a hall ‘warmed (after the fashion of a country house) by a bright, open fire’, and welcomed by the butler Poole and a phalanx of lower servants. When Utterson and a police officer visit Hyde’s official lodgings in the wake of Sir Danvers Carew’s murder, ‘on the hearth …lay a pile of grey ashes, as though many papers had been burned’. Utterson finds Jekyll in his cabinet, a room that serves its occupant as a laboratory and alternative living space: ‘The fire burned in the grate; a lamp was set lighted on the chimney shelf…and there, sat close up to the warmth, sat Dr Jekyll, looking deathly sick’. Afterwards, a mystified Utterson, restored to his ‘own hearth’, entertains his head clerk Guest in a room ‘gay with firelight’ and between them, ‘a bottle of particular old wine’. ‘The fog still slept on the wing above the drowned city’; the product of hundreds of thousands of domestic fires culminating in the great London fogs of the 1880s. In time Jekyll confines himself to his cabinet, sometimes sleeping there. The fireplace – fire evidently laid by Jekyll/Hyde -has a role in Jekyll’s suicide as an ironic reminder of what might have been had not the good doctor given way to those appetites ‘which I had long secretly indulged’: ‘There lay the cabinet…in the quiet lamplight, a good fire glowing  and chattering on the hearth, the kettle singing in thin strain’. Some paragraphs later, the kettle ‘with a startling noise, boiled over’. Jekyll, in the form of Hyde, lies dead, a crushed phial containing traces of arsenic in his hand.

Frontispiece to Sara Crewe drawing by Reginald B. Birch

Frances Hodgson Burnett created her riches-to-rags-to-riches Sara Crewe initially for Sara Crewe, or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s, published by Scribner’s in 1891.  A longish-short story, it moves rather awkwardly into the Edwardian era to become the much better known A Little Princess. Birch’s dramatic frontispiece imagines Burnett’s version of Cinderella crouched in her attic bedroom by a pinched-looking fireplace. Notably, the grate is empty. To survive her chill attic Sara falls back on a vision of her former room downstairs:

On a cold night, when she had not had enough to eat, she would draw the red footstool up before the empty grate, and say in the most intense voice: ‘Suppose there was a great, wide steel grate here, and a great glowing fire—a glowing fire—with beds of red-hot coal and lots of little dancing, flickering flames. Suppose there was a soft, deep rug…’

Burnett is at her best delineating the power of imagination children may call on at times of stress: the miraculously lit fire stands for shelter and human affection. Notably, Sara realises the vision’s limitations. She is wildly, improbably fortunate: the transformation of waif to heiress begins with the attic grate, tended by invisible hands, ‘which now was blackened and polished up quite respectably, there was a glowing, blazing fire’. Birch’s final illustration depicts Sara, now improbably wealthy, sitting with the ‘Indian gentleman’ whose servant transformed Sara’s attic; a blazing fire illuminates an ideal Victorian interior enhanced by touches of Empire, handmade rug, and incense burner. The story ends with the housing of Burnett’s version of the un-housed Jo of Bleak House: a ragged nameless girl Sara finds living in a doorway has found a home with the ‘bun-woman’.

In this necessarily limited survey, the domestic hearth is a conflict zone, a place to mourn, a place to rejoice, a symbol of greed, or dysfunction, or human kindness. It implies social inequality, social amelioration, Victorian ingenuity, and environmental nuisance. A complex history indeed.

Header image: A Parody of the Domestic Hearth: ‘Mr. Smallweed breaks the pipe of peace’ by ‘Phiz’: illustration for Bleak House, Chapter 34: A Turn of the Screw

Notes & references

Charles Dickens, Bleak House (London, Bradbury & Evans, 1853).

The Cricket on the Hearth: A Fairy Tale of Home (London, Bradbury and Evans, 1845).

A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas (London, Chapman & Hall, 1843).

Isabella Beeton, Beeton’s Book of Household Management edited by Isabella Beeton: (London, S.O. Beeton, 1861).

A Catalogue of Tin, Japaned, & Zinc Wares Sold by Robert Howard & Co. by Robert Howard & Co., 1842.

Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr  Jekyll and Mr Hyde (London, Longmans, Green, and Co, 1886).

Frances Hodgson Burnett, Sara Crewe, or What Happened at Miss Minchin’s by Frances Hodgson Burnett (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891).

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