Girl on Fire

Girl on Fire


Victorian Women and Combustion

A black-and-white line drawing shows a woman in a dress with a voluminous skirt, which has caught fire at the back; she holds hands with a man with an alarmed expression, while her own pleased expression suggests she's not yet aware she's caught fire.
“The Dangers of Crinoline, 1858,” published by G. Vickers

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations share a horrific and peculiar spectacle: a combusting bride. Bertha Antoinette Mason, imprisoned in an attic by her husband, and Miss Havisham, abandoned at the altar by her fiancé, are troubled by unscrupulous grooms, dysfunctional marriages (the usual problems of womanhood in Victorian novels), and, finally, catching on fire (less usual). Why this similarity? To Brontë and Dickens, what did a woman’s body on fire symbolize? Situated within their historical contexts, the trials of Bertha Mason and Miss Havisham are surprisingly gendered, and fictional burning brides disclose real Victorian attitudes towards fire, women, and their incendiary combination. 

Cultural historian Stephen J. Pyne called the Industrial Revolution a “third age of fire.”1 From 1760 to 1840, inventions like the internal combustion engine and hot blast furnace harnessed fire and channeled it to “[drive] production and power within factories and mills” across Great Britain.2 By the Victorian Period, fire was a blazing emblem of advancement, mechanization, and modernity—and yet also figured, somewhat dissonantly, in the private sphere of Victorian domesticity. Lit by tallow candles and oil lamps, early nineteenth-century households were dependent on fire, too, for day-to-day necessities, and fireplaces especially were central to family life. Construed alternatively as an “extension of the ‘hearth and home’ . . . [resisting] an increasingly technologized era” or an “agent of industrial progress,” fire accumulated a range of associations psychological, historical, and religious in the Victorian imagination.3 Industrial and domestic, modern and old-fashioned, its fascinations and contradictions inevitably entered the period’s literature: with lantern and candle, Jane Eyre and Pip Pirrip navigate shadowed moors and marshes, the gloom of Thornfield Hall and Satis House, and final confrontations with fiery antagonists.

Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, published in 1847, is likely set between 1800 and 1820, late in the reign of George III. Besides a single reference to gaslight, the story predates widespread gas or electric lighting and is instead lit by fire.4 As Jane travels from Gateshead Hall, to Lowood School, to Thornfield Hall, she remarks on “fire” 145 times, and “flames,” another twenty-one. Collectively, those 166 instances represent a significant interest in fire—but not all 166 fires are alike. Instead, throughout the novel, Brontë seems to distinguish two distinct and opposite types. Jane Eyre’s first type of fire centers on the hearth. The novel’s very first scene is Jane’s childhood memory of Mrs. Reed reclining “on a sofa by the fireside . . . with her darlings,” Eliza, John, and Georgiana, “about her,” a portrait of genteel domesticity.5 “Fire’s uses within nineteenth-century domesticity were multiple” as families “[warmed] the home with its heat” and labored “by its light,” and the area around a fireplace “provided an ‘aura’ of safety and enclosure of warmth,” homey and benevolent.6 In Jane Eyre, this type of fire is often adjectivally “good,” “cheerful,”  “genial,” or “generous.”7 Moreover, the nineteenth-century fireplace was usually portrayed as a woman’s domain: “it was predominantly women, be they maid or housewife, who tended to the hearth fires,” and this social reality is reflected in Jane’s fireside encounters with female caretakers and nurturers.8  Gateshead’s housekeeper, Bessie, tends a fire in her room and one in the nursery, where she entertains a young Jane with bedtime stories and “fireside chronicles.”9 At Lowood School, Jane meets Helen Burns beside a fireplace, reading in its faint light, and Miss Temple hosts both girls for tea in her firelit office.10 At Thornfield Hall, Mrs. Fairfax greets Jane in a parlour with a fire.11 Indeed, Mrs. Fairfax, whose repeated invitations beckon Jane closer to the fireplace—“You must be cold, come to the fire” (91)—is the reverse of Mrs. Reed, who intentionally excludes Jane from the home sphere of the hearth; the red room where Jane is exiled notably “seldom [has] a fire.”12 When Jane is extended kindness, sympathy, or an invitation into a surrogate family, it is usually companioned by a hearth. 

Opposing this domestic fire is another kind, less benign and more daring: Jane’s inner fire. “Come, Miss Jane, don’t cry,” said Bessie . . . She might as well have said to the fire, “don’t burn!”13 This is not the fire of domesticity, but the fire of passion: the fury which Jane describes as “burn[ing]” in her soul, or the angry tears “scalding” her cheeks.14 It is the “life, fire, feeling” which kindles her cravings for purpose and spiritual fulfillment; the “fire of [her] nature” which pains her to “compel . . . to burn inwardly”; and the “imprisoned flame [consuming]” her from within, “unendurable.”15 It is the “force and fire” of her love for Rochester, and the fire that he recognizes in her: “I have seen,” he says, “what a fire-spirit you can be when you are indignant.”16 It’s the fire reciprocated by Rochester when Jane notices a “strange fire” in his “look,” too, or fire “[flashes]” from his eyes.17 Unmitigated, blazing passion like Jane’s, according to the religious authorities in her life—the passion of a poor governess—could even condemn her to the “pit full of fire,” hell.18

These two fires, domestic and passionate, reflect the element’s symbolic duality in the Victorian era. Machinery like internal combustion engines directed fire into manufacturing as fuel for industrial production, but this “new control over fire simultaneously reduced tolerance for ‘uncontrolled’ burning,” and induced an “almost obsessive need to prevent blazes and burns . . . apparent in medical, scientific, and industrial literature.”19 Likewise, Brontë expresses this tension between the controlled and uncontrollable, and the psychological toll of suppression, as Jane strains to “keep the fire of [her] nature continually low.” A large part of the novel’s suspense is this question of its containment. 20  To suppress her feelings. To quell their threat.

So, it’s fitting that the climax of Jane Eyre is an eruption of fire. Twice, Thornfield Hall is burned by Bertha Mason. The first fire only scorches Rochester’s bedroom, but the second engulfs the whole house: 

[Bertha] set fire first to the hangings of the room next her own, and then she . . . made her way to the chamber that had been the governess’s … and she kindled the bed there . . . And then . . . she was on the roof, where she was standing, waving her arms, above the battlements, and shouting out till they could hear her a mile off  . . . She was a big woman, and had long black hair: we could see it streaming against the flames as she stood . . .  and then, ma’am, she yelled and gave a spring, and the next minute she lay smashed on the pavement.21

Here, the reader can’t discern (and the narrator doesn’t consider) what Bertha is saying, only that she is “shouting,” “yelling,” and “waving,” meaningless noise and insensible motion. What is she shouting about? Waving for? Hair “streaming” like the flames surrounding her, Bertha is more fire than human, herself a motiveless natural disaster.22 In earlier chapters, she is even referred to as an it.23 Imperialist and colonialist ideology also contribute to Bertha’s dehumanization: because she’s from Jamaica, then a British colony, and ethnically English-Creole, the exoticized “firey West-Indian night” Bertha emerges from evokes an imperialist, colonial fantasy of savagery.24 

Critics have long noted Bertha’s potential to be Jane’s double, Bertha’s own “fiery eyes” a reflection of Jane’s. Certainly, Jane’s metaphorical inner fire is explosively literalized in Bertha. If Jane smolders inwardly—at the indignities of her childhood, injustices of the class system, or mistreatments by Rochester—Bertha ignites. Together, Jane and Bertha embody fire’s “paradoxical and competing values,” simultaneously representing “primitivism and modernity, vitality and destruction,” the (so-called) savage and civilized.25 This is a distinctly Victorian dichotomy, expressed in the fear of women’s unrestrained passion—that, if it emerges from the repressed, or escapes from the attic, it might incinerate the house.

Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations was published between 1860-1862, first released as monthly installments in the periodical All the Year Round, and afterward consolidated into a one-volume edition in 1862. Fire, like in Jane Eyre, is a recurring motif; it’s mentioned 167 times, and “flames,” nineteen. Here, too, fire can signify domestic comfort, as Pip’s guardian Joe is often pictured in the light of a fireside or blacksmith’s forge: “Many a time of an evening,” reminisces Pip, “I thought, after all there was no fire like the forge fire and the kitchen fire at home.”26 But Great Expectations’s most dramatic vision of fire is the combustion of Miss Havisham. After a long separation, an adult Pip returns to visit her at Satis House:

I looked into the room where I had left her, and I saw her seated in the ragged chair upon the hearth close to the fire, with her back towards me. In the moment when I was withdrawing my head to go quietly away, I saw a great flaming light spring up. In the same moment I saw her running at me, shrieking, with a whirl of fire blazing all about her, and soaring at least as many feet above her head as she was high.27

Saving Miss Havisham demands the destruction of her relics from her wedding day: the “great cloth” of her dining table snuffs the flames, and her decades-old dress is reduced from white silks into “patches of tinder,” “falling in a black shower.”28 But unlike Bertha, a habitual and foreshadowed lighter of fires, fire “springs” unexpectedly onto Miss Havisham. Undoubtedly grotesque, her combustion still appears a bit random, a bizarre whim of Dickens—but to its Victorian readership, maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so abrupt. Great Expectations’s serialization during the 1860s coincided with a national conversation in Britain, blazoned in newspaper headlines, pamphlets, and magazines, about a rising threat to Victorian women: flammable dresses.

“Another death by fire,” laments an 1860 issue of The Lancet, England’s premiere medical journal, “is a common heading by which modern readers are familiarized with the almost daily holocaust of women and children, sacrificed by the combustibility of their dress.”29 According to Alison Matthews David, a historian of dress and textiles, transformations in women’s fashion from the eighteenth to the early nineteenth centuries replaced “heavier yet more flame-retardant silks” with “fashionable, finely woven white cotton muslins, originally imported from India.”30,31 New styles featured several layers of lining, including the crinoline, a petticoat starched for stiffness—resulting in an incredibly flammable ensemble. Medical professionals advised that “current fashion in ladies’ dresses [increased] the probability of their wearers being burned to death,” and fretted for the young woman who “negligently approaches a fireplace” and “in one instant [find] herself in a general conflagration.” 32 Cases increased in the 1850s, and peaked in the early 1860s with several high-profile deaths-by-dress.33  In June 1861, Dickens published parts 26–30 of Great Expectations in All the Year Round, including Chapter 49, wherein Miss Havisham combusts; and in the very same year and journal, he lamented, “We fence about the machinery in our factories because it is dangerous, why do we not fence about the fires on our hearths, which are dangerous too?”34

However, the public outcry against crinolines and petticoats didn’t stem strictly from an altruistic concern for women’s health and well-being. In her book Fashion Victims, a history of dangerous style trends, Alison Matthews David finds that Victorians’ discourse around these female burn victims took on a distinctly misogynistic bent. The article “Petticoat Protection” in an 1859 issue of Punch—a journal which, David notes, “adopt[s] the conservative perspective of the middle-class male”satirizes the ongoing health crisis in “typically paternalistic and colonialist terms”35:

We never see a lady on the hearthrug, without fearing she will make an auto da fé [execution by burning] of herself. We had put down in India the practice of Suttee, but in England wives and daughters are consumed as well as widows. Clearly, if we wish to see advancement in our census, we must stop these female sacrifices to their idol Fashion’s altar . . . Fire-escapes should be provided in all drawing-rooms, by which ladies when alight might be rescued without scorching. As an additional precaution, the air-tubes of the petticoat might all be filled with water, and fitted with the means, when needful, to eject it. Every lady thus would, in fact, be her own fire engine.36

Punch, of course, is a satirical magazine, but even this parody betrays a real disdain for the victims, or “female sacrifices,” of these accidents, and the folly of their vanity. 

Another publication, a one-penny illustrated pamphlet called The Dangers of Crinoline, Steel Hoops, Etc.37 addresses the public health crisis. One episode, “The Fatal Crinoline,” recounts an accident at The Foresters’ Fête at the Crystal Palace in 1858:

[S]uddenly a young lady’s dress became ignited, probably from some cigar-light or fusee. The lady, finding her dress in flames, immediately ran off, but was rapidly followed by two young gentlemen, and was speedily overtaken and thrown down in the grass. One of them pulled off his coat and rolled her in it, while the other succeeded in tearing the dress from her waist. By this means they happily succeeded in extinguishing the flames, though not without being severely burnt about the hands … and the lady was removed in a fainting state.38

This episode bears remarkable structural similarities to Miss Havisham’s combustion. Pip, like the young gentlemen of The Foresters’ Fête, uses his coat to smother the dress-fire. Pip also “throws [the woman] down,” and his hands, like the Foresters’, are afterward burned.39 Claiming that Dickens based this episode of Great Expectations on The Dangers of Crinoline would be vastly overreaching and oversimplifying; but cheap publications like The Dangers of Crinoline were indeed sold on the same London bookshelves as issues of Great Expectations, and, moreover, when Dickens was writing, the combusting woman was an established subject of perverse interest. Miss Havisham’s abrupt ignition was perhaps less startling to a Victorian reader than to a contemporary one, whose clothing is, hopefully, fireproofed. How does the context of a national epidemic of burning women change a reading of Miss Havisham’s combustion? Beyond Great Expectations, her flaming dress fits into a broader cultural story, documented in satirical journals written predominantly by men, of the uniquely-feminine folly of firetrap clothing; of scorn for women who prioritized fashion over life, and whose “vanity . . .  overrode even obvious arguments for safety and self-preservation.”40 Miss Havisham, who lingers for years and years by her looking glass, seems to be a grotesque of these women and their supposed vanity.41

Two canonical novels arrive at the same image of a bride on fire. Their treatments of it vary—Jane Eyre juxtaposes the domesticated fire of the household and the savage fire which obliterates it, while Great Expectations registers a real-life phenomenon of flammable fashion—but both are attenuated to a national discourse, and embed it in fiction. Brides on fire, burning and being burned, Bertha Mason and Miss Havisham embody their period’s concerns and questions: can fire, or women, be fully domesticated? Can the boundaries between the civilized and uncivilized be maintained? Fire in Jane Eyre and Great Expectations, its beauties, threats, and terrors, is culturally-specific to the Victorian era, and Miss Havisham and Bertha Mason join a national epidemic of women, real and fictional, who burn, and burn to death.

  1. Stephen J. Pyne, Fire: Nature and Culture (Reaktion Books, 2012), 140.
  2. Richard Leahy, “Fire and Reverie: Domestic Light and the Individual in Cranford and Mary Barton,” The Gaskell Journal, vol. 28 (2014), 73.
  3. Anne Sullivan and Kate Flint “Introduction: Technologies of Fire in Nineteenth-Century British Culture,” 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century (2017), 1.
  4. Charlote Brontë, Jane Eyre (Dover, 2002), 133.
  5. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 7.
  6. Leahy, Leahy, “Fire and Reverie,” 73.
  7. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 52; 91, 368; 111, 316; 319.
  8. Leahy, Leahy, “Fire and Reverie,” 82.
  9. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 28; 39; 40.
  10. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 52; 67.
  11. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 91.
  12. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 14.
  13. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 21.
  14. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 70.
  15. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 104; 380.
  16. Brontë, Jane Eyre,  344; 246.
  17. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 142; 298.
  18. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 31.
  19. Alison Matthews David, “Inflammatory Fabrics: Flaming Tutus and Combustible Crinolines,” Fashion Victims: The Dangers of Dress Past and Present, (Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2015), 150.
  20. Brontë, Jayne Eyre, 380.
  21. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 399.
  22. Is Bertha a pyromaniac? In the 1800s, the concept of pyromania, or arson brought on by mental illness, was only nascent in English psychiatry. English-language sources of medical jurisprudence overlooked insane arson entirely until the 1842 edition of the Medical Lexicon included an entry for pyromania (Andrews 247). What early pyromaniac literature existed pre-1842, however, compiled by French, Prussian, and German physicians, “concurred in attributing the incendiary impulse” to irregular “psycho-sexual” development, which was often associated with “menstrual and reproductive disorders around puberty … especially common among young females” (257).
  23. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 274.
  24. Brontë, Jane Eyre, 288.
  25. Sullivan and Flint, “Introduction: Technologies of Fire in Nineteenth-Century British Culture,” 1.
  26. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, edited by Charlotte Mitchell (Penguin, 1996), 272.
  27. Dickens, Great Expectations, 401-2.
  28. Dickens, Great Expectations, 403.
  29. “Death by Fire,” Lancet, vol. 76, no. 1939 (1860), 418.
  30. David, “Inflammatory Fabrics,” 159.
  31. Technically, Miss Havisham’s dress is made of “satins, and lace, and silks (57), while a more flammable dress would’ve been muslin, cotton, or linen.
  32. David, “Inflammatory Fabrics,” 150.
  33. In 1861, an especially gruesome accident occurred at the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia when six ballerinas burned to death, their tulle tutus ignited by stage lights. The accident was an international sensation and scandal.
  34. Dickens, Great Expectations, 234.
  35. David, “Inflammatory Fabrics
  36. “Petticoat Protection,” Punch, 8 (January 1859), 19.
  37. Its delightful full title is actually The Dangers of Crinoline, Steel Hoops, Etc., Shown in the Fearful Account of A Lady Nearly Burnt to Death, Who Afterwards Retired into a Convent; Also, A Wealthy Father’s Daughter in Yorkshire who was Struck by Lightning, and Lost the Use of Her Limbs; Together with Many Other Startling and Interesting Narratives in Connection with Crinoline, Steel Hoops, &c.
  38. G. Vickers, The Dangers of Crinoline, Steel Hoops, Etc, 1858.
  39. Dickens, Great Expectations, 402.
  40. Rebecca Mitchell, “15 August 1862: The Rise and Fall of the Cage Crinoline,” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History, edited by Dino Franco Felluga, Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, accessed 20 Mar. 2020.
  41. Dickens, Great Expectations, 57.
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