Home is Where the Hearth Was

I’ve just finished a small project on hearths and how their meanings shifted
for settlers moving from England to Australia in the nineteenth century.
This wasn’t what I thought I was doing when I began the work; it was
supposed to be a theoretical, philosophical piece for an ecological journal,
and I imagine that I’ll need to find a new home for it. Somehow the piece,
which is partially about establishing a sense of home in the bush, began to
mutate into something much more archival and perhaps a little global in
scope too.

I suspect that part of the work I have been doing has been, as much as
anything, an attempt to make sense of how I shifted from being a Dickens
scholar to working on Australian bushfires.  I take the Dickensian hearth as
a starting point and trace how settlers were forced to change their
attitudes to fire almost as soon as they boarded the ship that would carry
then to the Antipodes.  While within an English setting, the hearth equates
to warmth and conviviality, unauthorized fires aboard ships jeopardized the
safety of everyone on board.  The Reverend P. Dunne, who authored a handbook for migrants to Queensland in 1863, commented that “no punishment could be too severe” for those found abusing flames aboard ship (19).

This shipboard caution was good training for life in the bush, since it
taught emigrants about fire’s potential to burn out of control and to
destroy homes, floating and otherwise.  Notwithstanding the respect that
settlers had to learn for fire, the hearth remained an important gathering
place for families beginning new lives in Australia.  Letter-writers speak
of the importance of obtaining firewood, and it is clear that a roaring fire
was regarded as a quintessential component of domesticity.  A hearth fire
was a simple means of establishing a home away from home and a source of
continuity across the continents.

Examining a combination of migrants’ handbooks and Christmas stories (many
of which are Dickensian pastiches, albeit with a sunny setting), I’ve been
thinking about how settlers mourned the absent household fire at Christmas
time, often through writing about the oddness of Christmas in the heat.
I’ve also been considering why it might be that so many nineteenth-century
Christmas stories featured bushfires (Anthony Trollope’s Harry Heathcote of
Gangoil being one of the better-known).  Narrative was certainly a means of
asserting mastery over the often un-tamable bushfire and as I read through
more and more Christmas fire stories, I’m increasingly convinced that the
genre is speaking back to the festive hearth tale in the northern
hemisphere.  It is perhaps, because Dickens’s stories, and others like them,
represented an entirely manageable form of fire, while the Christmas story
genre offered a safe space in which to rehearse and overcome some of the
anxieties associated with fires south of the equator.

As Sue Martin and Kylie Mirmohamadi have argued in their recent book,
Colonial Dickens (2012), settlers used Dickens both to inform their
Christmas away from home, but also to understand the colonial landscape
(23).  So, while understandings of fire had to be reconfigured in the
colonial environment, local fires also had to be interpreted and understood
in a way that allowed recent migrants to feel in control.  As they
experienced catastrophic events like Black Thursday (1851) and the Great
Gippsland Fire (1898), Victorian bush settlers gradually came to accept the
devastating power of the annual threat posed by fire.  As a result, the
temporariness and vulnerability of their new homes was driven home to them.
In a land where a chimney and hearth were often the sole survivors of an
intense blaze, the fireplace provided one of the only durable remnants of
home in the north that could withstand the ravages of the Australian summer.

Chimney - 'The Uplands', Kinglake, 07 Feb 2009 (Bushfire Damaged). Melbourne Museum (http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/1487715/chimney-the-uplands-kinglake-07-feb-2009-bushfire-damaged).
Chimney – ‘The Uplands’, Kinglake, 07 Feb 2009 (Bushfire Damaged). Melbourne Museum (http://museumvictoria.com.au/collections/items/1487715/chimney-the-uplands-kinglake-07-feb-2009-bushfire-damaged).

Posted by Grace Moore

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