Burning Questions

William Strutt, artist. Black Thursday, February 6th |85|. Oil on canvas, 106 x 343 cm. H280049. La Trobe Picture Collection.
William Strutt, artist. Black Thursday, February 6th |85|. Oil on canvas, 106 x 343 cm. H280049. La Trobe Picture Collection.

As the state of Victoria faces a severe bushfire alert in temperatures of almost forty degrees today, it seems timely to blog about my research project, which will form part of the ‘Shaping the Modern’ program at Melbourne.  I’m just embarking on an examination of how bushfires were represented by nineteenth-century settlers, both in fiction and in fact.  This work marks something of a transformation of my research interests, since my background is in Victorian studies, (I trained as a Dickens scholar) but it is also a shift into a field that has moved me more than any work I’ve ever done before.

On many different levels, this project is, for me, a deeply emotional one.  It is partly an affective response to the otherness of the Australian landscape and the fear that it can inspire in me through its vastness and seasonal hostility.  As a British migrant myself, I feel an extraordinary connection to those nineteenth-century colonists who were drawn to Australia by promises of verdant splendour, but who found themselves battling to defend their new homes on a semi-annual basis.  Rebecca Greaves, a twenty-three-year-old settler in the Plenty River area described the horror of a bushfire in a letter to her uncle, written in November 1851:

[T]he heat here is so great in summer that the grass takes fire and it sometimes was for forty or fifty miles becoming tree horses and cattle[,] as when it once begins all attempts to escape are in vain [.] [T]he fire last summer buried many Mothers and children and all the cattle on the stations where the fires raged.  I myself saw to [sic] gentlemen that the heat of the sun as they were coming down the bush set fire to their coats… so from that I leave you to guess how powerful the sun is here.

[My, parentheses, my ellipses, full letter here]

Greaves’ letter captures both the breadth and intensity of the bushfire, while at the same time, her rather fantastic description of the coats spontaneously combusting reveals the imaginative possibilities that it evoked.  What Greaves show us so effectively, I think, is just how unprecedented this type of fire was for her and settlers like her.

My own interest in fire began to emerge early in 2009.  The seaside suburb where I live was dogged by arson attacks for several weeks that summer and, one Thursday morning, a particularly aggressive blaze took hold.  While my home and family were never in any danger, fire-fighters took the blaze very seriously indeed and before too long no fewer than five helicopters were mobilized to quell the blaze.  As a lapsed Romanticist, I’ve of course always understood the sublime on an intellectual level.  However, it wasn’t until I found myself standing in my back yard, looking up to the sky in awe at the terrible beauty of five perfectly choreographed choppers dipping and bowing in sequence, that I finally felt the wonder of what the sublime might be.

Just a few days later, on February 7, the catastrophic burns that came to be known as the ‘Black Saturday’ fires took place.  The temperature swelled into the mid forties.  With so many people across the state, I shared that horrible mixture of personal relief and collective fear when the cool change finally arrived in the late afternoon.  The temperature plummeted and offered relief to those who had been sweltering, but the wind had also changed direction and it was clear that people were going to die as a result.  In the days that followed everyone tried to understand what had happened in their own ways.  It would be irresponsible of me to try to represent the extraordinary grief and trauma of those who were immediately involved in the fires—their responses are complex and layered and no amount of empathy will enable me to represent them adequately.  As an academic, though, my own default position is to try to understand events through my work, and this is what I began to do.

In the aftermath of Black Saturday, I happened to be reading Richard Flanagan’s Neo-Victorian novel Wanting (2008).  While I was reading primarily for Flanagan’s rather hostile depiction of Charles Dickens, I was struck by a brief passage in which he describes the great bushfires of 1851:

The world was hennaed by a smoke haze that never ended, that brought the sky low and softened every view of the bleak and fantastic hills into something uncertain.  The sun was no longer solid and sure but red and shaking.  By day the air was full of the acrid smell of fire hundreds of  miles distant… (217-218)

Flanagan’s exquisite prose captures beautifully the destructive terror of the bushfire and the feelings of apocalypse that it so often evokes.  The novel’s historical setting also made me begin to wonder how early European settlers dealt with fire and how they responded to it on an emotional level, when often their only option was to stay behind and defend their homes.

Surprisingly, some of my earliest answers were closer to home than I expected, thanks to Katie Flack’s remarkable bushfires research guide at the State Library of Victoria (http://guides.slv.vic.gov.au/bushfires).  Charles Dickens had, in fact, commissioned a number of Australian articles by the writer William Howitt for his journal Household Words.  One of these pieces, ‘Black Thursday’ (May 10, 1856, pp.388-395) records the terrible fires of February 6, 1851, using anecdotes to capture the human interest in this large-scale disaster.  From there, resources like Austlit have yielded a treasure trove of novels, stories, poems and faits divers about fire.

As I have gathered more and more material over the months, what seems to be emerging is an argument about the role of the fire in settler folklore.  When fires are fictionalized–in a nineteenth-century context, at least—they mutate from a source of destruction to one of inspiration.  Imaginary bushfires (such as those depicted by the romantic novelist Ellen Clacy or the magazine writer Mary Fortune) raise questions about the gender politics of fire-fighting and fire-lighting, while other accounts create narratives of survival and heroism.

The research I will conduct from now until 2017 will examine how European ideas of fire and hearth are challenged in an Australian context.  Although my emphasis will be primarily on the bushfire, I’ll also pay some attention to camp fires and the role that a bushfire can play in encouraging ‘mateship’ in the bush.  I am especially interested in how the fire challenges the idea of the home as a sanctuary.  However, I’ll also spend some time examining how bushfire writings might contribute to rebuilding in the aftermath of a fire, paying particular attention to representations of marriage plots (which are often brought about through dramatic rescue scenes in the 1850s) and the construction of a tenacious settler identity.

Posted by Grace Moore

6 thoughts

  1. I think this is an interesting project, and if you think bushfires “mutate from a source of destruction to one of inspiration” you should also read Patrick White’s Tree of Man. Personally, I would stay away from fiction as a source of ideas on bushfires because the fiction diminishes the reality, which is far more interesting. I know there are some who say that all versions of the story are its history, and it is a nice idea that leads to lots of words, many papers and theses, but it gets us no closer to a bushfire than watching Elvis do his stuff on the 6 oclock news. You will see this difference in the ways people talk about Black Saturday compared to the way they talk about Ash Wednesday; in the ways the squatters wrote in their letters and diaries about Black Thursday when compared to the Melbourne newspaper reports of the time. I suspect Strutt owed his image to the latter, rather than the former. Black Saturday was made on the tv, and is still too close to filter out the experience from the depiction of it, and the reporting owes more to Strutt than to Rebecca Greaves, as do the findings of the Royal Commission, which ended up a scapegoating exercise on Christine Nixon and the head of the CFA. But then country people think about fire differently to city people. I moved out of Melbourne to the country last year, and this last summer reminds me that my city adulthood is a different experience of fire than I got in my country childhood and youth. Then, and now recently, I have noticed nearby fires are sensed through smell (grass and scrub have different smells) before being seen. Sight requires a different perspective: something to see the smoke against, or high ground, or clear sight lines etc.,change in the colour of the light. Living in the country also puts a different perspective on the policy of leaving early, because it also means leaving often, and often there is nowhere to go, so no one goes anywhere. And sideways from that, last year in April or May I was photographing Niel Black’s archive for a project I am doing and while in the manuscript room allotted to such tasks was talking to a young woman from Uni of West Australia who is interested in settler responses to bushfires. She, I think, was doing a PhD. If I can locate her email address I will send her to this blog. She may then contact you. Cheers Kevin Brewer

  2. I’m sorry for this delayed response, Kevin, but I’ve had some difficulties in leaving a comment. I think, though, that fictional and poetic accounts of bushfires do have a value and deserve some attention. What I’ve found thus far is that fiction is often used to fortify settlers who feel threatened by fire, or who have survived a major burn. The stories and poems I’ve looked at sometimes help to mediate responses like trauma, although sometimes fires are also used as a means of confronting questions of class or race. I’ve recently finished a small project on representations of arson and one of the papers I’ve written up from it argues that racial anxieties were often channelled into stories about fire-lighters. Stories can also provide comfort in the face of despair and, as I’m learning more about literary responses to fire, I’m discovering that both stories and poems had an important role in helping settlers to consider themselves fire survivors, rather than victims. I’m doing some work on hearths at the moment and what it means when the flames (sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically) jump out of the fireplace. I’ll try to post from this project soon. And yes, please, I’d be very interested to be in touch with the PhD student whose research you mention, if it is possible. Thanks for your comment!

    Grace Moore

    1. Grace, I am glad you are finding what you are looking for. Having spent a few years in various archives I am surprised when I find more than the barest account-let alone a poem- of any disaster be it flood, fire, pestilence (scab, thistles, rabbits, influenza), drought or the more personal like death, or ruin. I have noticed however, references to fire among settlers changed after they built fences (if burnt had to be rebuilt), although the practice of a late winter (August) fuel reduction burn didn’t. But all I have read on Black Thursday 1851 among their files was a simple get over it, kill the injured stock and save as much as they could of wool and skins, melt the stock that was injured, calculate how much the fire cost and how quickly the sheep could breed back up to their pre-fire numbers. No sonnets, not stories, no songs. Most of the early colonists were resilient, learning all the time the variability of the seasons, the climate and soil, and how their own fortunes were tied in. The bible seems to have been a great comfort (I wonder if not more for form’s sake than any other) and a lot of the do-gooder literature of the time was also read, with, I think less interest than the latest developments in agriculture, stock breeding and wool prices.

      Which all reminds me of a Michael Dransfield poem:
      The Sun but not Our Chldren

      west of the inland edge
      some odd survivals

      these are
      what is left
      of a subjective

      the Innamincka bottleheap
      the Tibooburra willow

      where Sturt came through
      a cairn was raised
      where Burke dies
      they fenced off a coolibah

      the air, museum dry, preserves memorials
      the sun but not our children will have honoured

      I suppose you have seem this:


      Kevin Brewer

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