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In his masterwork The Great Tradition (1948), F.R. Leavis agreed with George Santayana’s claim that “in every English-speaking home, in the four quarters of the globe, parents and children would do well to read Dickens aloud of a winter’s evening” (Leavis 19). But he did so with a tone of disparagement wholly lacking in Santayana’s description: Dickens’s fiction was suitable for family consumption around the fireside because “the adult mind,” as Leavis put it, “doesn’t as a rule find in Dickens a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness” (19). Nonetheless, as Leavis well knew, the association of Dickens’s fiction with orally delivered tales often shared around a fireside, which had been cultivated in Dickens’s own public performances of his work, was longstanding.[1] Dickens’s 1840s Christmas books had contributed to the mid-century Victorian genre of fireside tales, such as Mrs. Ellis’s Fireside Tales for the Young (1849) and Elizabeth Sheppard’s Round the Fire Stories (1856); thirty years after Dickens’s death an edition entitled Fireside Dickens (1903-07) explicitly marketed Dickens’s work through the image of what Karen Chase and Michael Levenson have described as the Dickensian “fireside idyll” (14). If Robert L. Patten sees Dickens’s novels “increasingly incorporate within an urban community the power of renewal traditionally associated with the natural countryside,” by centring themselves around the “hearth, where country and city virtues alike find a local habitation and a name” (157), for Alexander Welsh “if the problem that besets” Dickens “can be called the city, his answer can be named the hearth” (142).

In his astute marketing of his novels as fireside tales belonging to a familiar tradition of oral narrative, of course, Dickens never failed to press the material conditions of Victorian fireside reading into symbolic service. For many working- and lower-middle-class readers the light and warmth of the fire was likely to be a necessary precondition for any act of reading: for families who worked during the day, reading hours were restricted to the darker hours of the evening, and the use of tallow candles for the mere purpose of entertainment may have been an unnecessary and inconvenient extravagance. Regardless of whether they required the fire for light, however, all winter readers would have used it for heat. Because the hearth’s light and heat extended only so far, such conditions forced participants and performers into closer physical proximity with one another, drawing families into the uncertain pools of light the fire threw out. Moreover, addressing the reader, reveling in the materiality of spoken language through alliteration, assonance, and rhythm, and creating a polyphony of idiosyncratic voices, Dickens’s prose blurs the boundaries between the potentially private practice of novel-reading and the oral performance of a story experienced collectively by a group of performers and their audience. Within the texts themselves, orphaned, displaced and disowned individuals yearn towards the blazing fires kept by maternal figures like Clara Peggotty in David Copperfield or which Ebenezer Scrooge first reserves from his clerk Bob Cratchit by keeping “the coal-box in his own room” (6) and later triumphantly restores to him: “make up the fires,” he exclaims near the end of the novel, “and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!” (165).

In these assorted ways, then, Dickens represented the fire as emblematic of shared experience, of the domestic harmony which could be engendered by the act of fireside reading. Not only was the light and heat of the fire a material constituent of the reading experience itself. The implied group of fireside readers communally experiencing the Dickens text also functions as a living symbol of the rewards available to Dickens characters at the close of his plots: such readers already possess the fireside and the family grouped about it which those characters move towards. This interplay between the scene of reading and the domestic conclusion of the text actively works to bind text and reader in mutual relation. The text endorses and reproduces the material environment in which its readers are assumed to experience it; but in turn the text requires of its readers that they share its values in order that their possession of this material environment may be justified. If there really were readers of Dickens who read him clustered in familial groups, then the shared experience of the Dickens text might become for them a performance of the ideological values of virtuous domesticity that the text expresses. In his use of the image of the fireside as both a marketing tool and a motif of domesticity, Dickens therefore drew on the material conditions of reading, both on the visceral quality of the spoken or performed word and on the glow of coals which lit and heated the scene of reading itself, in order to reproduce—or perhaps to produce—domestic harmony in the world outside the text.

The Blazing Hearth

In many ways Dickens’s investment in the image of the hearth, no matter how much it drew on the materiality of language and reading, also mitigated the troubling possibility that the material environment had a perceptible impact on the people living within it. Dickens’s essentialism, his representation of characters as essentially wicked or virtuous no matter what their station, often excluded consideration of the impact of environment or circumstance on the formation of character. A Christmas Carol again exemplifies the point. The members of the Cratchit family retain their dignity in the face of extraordinary hardship—hardship that Dickens is obsessed with cataloguing in detail. The few material objects the family possesses are insistently described: the Cratchit women are “brave in ribbons, which are cheap and make a goodly show for sixpence” (88), and the paltry Christmas goose is “eked out” by a judicious use of “apple sauce and mashed potatoes” (93). Perhaps even more importantly, the goose is made to feel adequate not only by Mrs. Cratchit’s seemingly innate thriftiness with sauce and potatoes and her excellent household management skills, but also by the family’s determination to see a feast where there is barely a meal (93). Their goodness is unaffected by their poverty. In fact, their goodness enables them to survive it.

Dickens’s desire both to engender his reader’s sympathy for his characters’ poverty by describing their material hardship in detail and to suggest their worthiness for such sympathy by depicting them as virtuous has particularly interesting consequences for his depiction of the fireplace. After all, the fireplace is both material (requiring never-ending supplies of wood or, more commonly coal or coke, to keep burning) and symbolic, in the ways described above. The “hearth” is also a concept which could be associated with traditional wood fires burning in rural cottage homes, pastoral emblems of traditional England, though in Dickens’s writing it is most frequently invoked in descriptions of the coal fires burning in the homes of Dickens’s impoverished city-dwellers. In A Christmas Carol Dickens is as equally assiduous in his cataloguing of coals and fireplaces as in his descriptions of ribbons and mashed potatoes: Scrooge stokes only “a very low fire indeed” in his home, using “only a handful of fuel” (23) before he is visited by Marley’s ghost (see fig. 1), and in his offices keeps “a very small fire.” Worse still, “the clerk’s fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal.” Not allowed to replenish it, Bob is forced “to warm himself at the candle, in which effort, not being a man of imagination, he failed” (6). As the narrator puts it, “darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it” (22). And yet, though we know the prices of the sixpence ribbons and see Mrs. Cratchit making much out of little in all other respects—the actual cost of coal as a particular material object is never described. And the Cratchit fire somehow manages to burn cheerily as if coals were free.

Figure 1

John Leech illustration to A Christmas Carol (colour plate inserted between pages 24 and 25).

-> See the list of figures

Of course, coals were not free. Good figures are notoriously difficult to come by, but Samuel Richard Bosanquet’s admittedly trenchant and propagandist account of The Rights of the Poor and Christian Almsgiving Vindicated (1841) does include well-researched accounts of the incomes of working-class families, drawn from reports put together by the Mendicity Society, which gave bread, soup, cheese and money to applicants for its charity, and helped street beggars to find work. There is no evidence that Dickens read or knew about Bosanquet. But as the historian John Burnett writes, Bosanquet’s “examples, harrowing as they were, were fully authenticated,” and they included the real-life accounts of poor families living in London in the Decembers of 1839 and 1840, just three years before Dickens published A Christmas Carol (54). Though Bosanquet and Dickens wrote independently, then, both were observing the same deprivation in the same city at the beginning of the same decade. Bosanquet tells his readers that, on good authority, “it is impossible for a man, his wife, and three children to subsist on less than 15s. a week earnings, without assistance” (97). This is the exact amount that Bob Cratchit earns: not only does Scrooge acknowledge, without remorse, the paltriness of this wage (11) but the point is re-emphasised by the narrator, who notes in punning pathos that “Bob had but fifteen ‘Bob’ a-week himself,” surviving on this meagre sum not with three children but with six (87). This was less than that earned on average by journeyman bakers, shoemakers, plasterers, carpenters, mechanics, or factory workers, according to Bosanquet (96). Bosanquet listed the typical expenditures of a family of four on this income: 3s 6½d. on bread, 2s. 6d on rent, 2s. 1d on meat, 1s. 4d on potatoes, 4d on schooling, and, among other expenditures on very limited amounts of porter, tea, sugar, butter, soap, and candles, 9 ½d. on half a cwt. (66lbs) of coals (98). Though coal, in this estimation, incurs only 5% of the family’s total income, this comes at the expense of milk, clothes, vegetables, and medicine. On such a tight budget, such a cost cannot be considered negligible, and we might note that medicine is a luxury the Cratchits cannot afford for Tiny Tim. The wages of Martha, a poor apprentice milliner, are not disclosed, but are undoubtedly miserable, though Bob “had a situation in his eye” for his son Peter, “which would bring in, if obtained, full five-and-sixpence weekly” (98), taking the family total to just over 20s. According to Bosanquet, a family on this income could increase its expenditure on coal to 1s. 7d (97-98).

But Dickens is no Scrooge, and he refuses to stint the Cratchits a roaring fire. Intent on providing examples of the Cratchits’ material wants, he does not do so when it comes to the image of their fireplace. So powerful is the fire as a symbol of domestic virtue—signifying the family’s innate moral goodness—that its symbolic value is of greater significance to Dickens than its physical cost. This is not hypocritical or myopic: Dickens feels deeply that the poor possess virtues, symbolised by the hearth, which the rich often lack. They deserve the creature comforts suggested by the fireplace. And so Dickens must overlook the cost of coal in his desire to keep his characters warm. The extent of this feeling is clear in a passage in which, despite his uncle’s miserliness, we are told that, as Scrooge’s nephew walks to visit his uncle on Christmas Eve, he “had so heated himself with rapid walking in the fog and frost […] that he was all in a glow; his face was ruddy and handsome, his eyes sparkled, and his breath smoked again” (7). The young man heats himself, glows, sparks, and smokes. By sheer goodwill and effort alone he has turned himself into the very material object Scrooge denies himself and others—he has become a glowing, smoking, burning lump of coal. He has made metaphorical warmth become literal—become material. Just by thinking or deserving a thing, it seems, one is able to create it. Similarly Scrooge’s moral choices slowly penetrate his body: his physical constitution is “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire,” so that his eyes are red and “his thin lips blue” (3): “he carried his own low temperature always about with him” (3-4). This is more than metaphor. In Dickens’s account, material conditions can be transcended, can even be changed, through a moral and creative act of the imagination: the Cratchits fill their bellies because they have the goodness and imagination to will a larger goose into existence; Scrooge’s nephew turns himself into a lump of blazing coal on a freezing December night through his hearty adoption of the Christmas spirit; Scrooge is cold as flint no matter how many coals he may or may not stoke his fire with. It is not simply that character is essential, then, in Dickens, existing independently of external circumstances. In Dickens’s plot the material world is shaped, both metaphorically and literally, by the imaginative resources of the individual.

In A Christmas Carol a hearty fire is never an index of wealth, but of character. Fires are stoked as an act of generosity against the odds of poverty, or left to dwindle despite their owners’ riches: at Christmas “every house” is “expecting company, and piling up its fires half-chimney high” regardless of the poverty of its inhabitants (101); poor miners “who labour in the bowels of the earth” manage to assemble “round a glowing fire” on Christmas Eve (102); and labourers repairing gas pipes on the same night “had lighted a great fire in a brazier, round which a party of ragged men and boys were gathered,” keeping warm in a “rapture” which defies the cold (15). Again and again, families Scrooge has rejected, or who have rejected him, gather around fireplaces in harmonious tableaux from which he is debarred, the sight of which slowly melt his icy heart. As the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals, Scrooge was frequently left at school while his friends celebrated the holidays, “a lonely boy […] reading near a thin feeble fire,” in a travesty of communal fireside reading and the domestic bliss it both reflects and produces (50). One concludes that, though Scrooge is miserly with coal because of its cost, the point is rather that Scrooge is miserly because he has so rarely had, or has so rarely accepted, a place around a domestic fireside. As such, his conversion is encapsulated in John Leech’s illustrations for the first edition of the novel: in fig. 1, Scrooge sits alone by a freezing fire; in fig. 2, he exhorts Bob Cratchit to “make up the fires” and buy a coal scuttle, and the transformation is complete: Scrooge’s superficial iciness has been melted through his exposure to the fires which burn in the homes of lost loved ones, revealing the essential goodness within.

Figure 2

John Leech illustration to A Christmas Carol.

-> See the list of figures

Coals, the Blazing Hearth, and Narratives of Transformation

Such representations have two contradictory consequences for the structure of the narrative itself. On the one hand, the material constitution of coal itself embodies vitality, the potential for change and transformation. As Patten puts it, “the power of the hearth can be incorporated in the heart, so that external setting chimes with internal condition. And the power of man to effect this transformation means that the locus of goodness can be anywhere where warm hearts and hearths can be found or made” (157). But the hearth’s symbolic status as a marker of domesticity also means that in narrative terms it signifies closure and resolution. Without the family fire to which Scrooge is restored at the end of A Christmas Carol, there is no conclusive triumph. The fireplace signifies both the scene of storytelling and the endpoint at which the aim of the story—the restoration of broken families—is reached. In this way, moreover, the domestic space of the fireside contains narrative, limits its boundaries, and renders it safe. The Dickens novel allows its readers and listeners both to experience the story and to imagine themselves as distanced from it, already situated at the happy point of closure.

Franco Moretti’s narrative analysis of Dickens’s work suggests that the principal mode of a Dickens novel is precisely this form of resolution. As Moretti puts it, plot is often generated in Dickens by a “villain,” whereas “for the hero and his allies the plot affects them as a merely ‘negative’ force. Plot is violence and coercion, and they only agree to take part in it to aver the total disappearance of the violated order” (201). So, for example, the plot of David Copperfield is generated by the villainous actions of Uriah Heep but is focalized through David’s innocuous perspective. The villain is dealt with, order is restored, justice dispensed, and David is returned to the beginning, to the domestic happiness he experienced in childhood. The plot may as well not have happened. Such readings implicitly complement feminist criticism of the Dickensian investment in the hearth as a space of conflict-resolution, a site in which the narrative agency of women is suppressed and their virtue is simultaneously validated, in which they are rendered both static and good. Women like Mrs. Cratchit or like Lizzie Hexam or the converted Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, keeping the home fires burning, preserve the fireside as an ahistorical space in which the monstrous distortions of plot may be realigned, and which give the characters strength to endure the stories which afflict them.

So, on the one hand, we have a Dickens who effaces the materiality of coal—and particularly its status as a commodity with an economic value—in order to preserve a politics of the text that is domestic, static, and confirms essential truths. In this figuration, it is not coal that is important but what it stands for. And yet, in the second part of this essay I want to suggest that there is, on the other hand, a Dickens for whom the materiality of coal is vitally important, and for whom that very materiality is a critical producer of narrative and transformation. As Andrew Miller has noted, “the habit of mind that sees in objects the labor required for their manufacture produced the many articles in Household Words and All the Year Round […] that explain to readers the manufacture of common objects” (123). And coal, perhaps the commonest Victorian object of all, had as uncanny a background as any. So both Dickens periodicals included accounts of visits to coal mines, summaries of government reports into pit labour conditions, histories of the use and taxation of coal, reports on pit explosions, and stories recounting the geological history of coal and the human history which had made it accessible on an industrial scale.[2]

In many short works of fiction published in the Dickens journals, the form of the lump of coal itself embodies and produces narrative. The form of coal had been produced by a series of incredible transformations: the lump of coal started life as primeval vegetation, was compressed for millions of years by layers of rock building above it, and was mined and transformed into fuel, finally transformed again by burning into heat, gas, and tar. This transformative history of coal often provides the structural basis for fictional plots of transformation in Household Words. “The King of the Hearth,” for example, is narrated by a cheerful miner named Philip Spruce, “one of sixteen who sat about a tap-room fire” telling stories (Morley, “King” 229). Philip explains to his audience that his transformation from a misanthropic fool into a cheery fireside storyteller occurred some months previously when he fell into a disused coal pit and met the “King of Coals.” The King, weirdly enough, offers him a role as a fellow “spirit” of the hearth, a position providing “free admission to a snug private box, the coal-box,” from which “the scenes enacted round the hearths which we enliven” may be witnessed. “I must say,” the King tells him, “that whenever I look out upon the men and women in the world, I see them warm and cheerful.” “That’s nothing wonderful,” says Philip, “it’s just because you see them sitting round your blaze” (Morley, “King” 229). But Philip’s lesson is that material objects do not produce human character—warm fires do not create warm people. In fact, the King of Coals is unable to enliven a fire if those at its hearth are unworthy of it. The characteristics of the material object are instead produced by people themselves. This conforms to the logic of A Christmas Carol. Once again, the characteristics of the material object are created through language, through desire, and through the imagination of its observers.

But here the narrative does not imply stasis or suggest that goodness is essential, something to be confirmed by narrative rather than produced through it. The King tells Philip: “if you had shone out cheerfully when you were in the world, if you had put a little kindly glow into your countenance, you would have been surrounded always as I generally am” (233). Human beings create their material surroundings, but in doing so, human beings also have the power to create themselves. Philip’s transformation from a misanthropic miner to a happy-go-lucky storyteller takes its cue from the material form of the object of a lump of coal, and its ability to transform itself from one state into another. Ending his encounter with King Coal, Spruce has not yet changed into his future self, but has been endowed with self-awareness, with a realization that self-transformation is possible. Spruce is therefore empowered to enact the transformation himself that Scrooge is somewhat unconsciously submitted to. Similarly, another Household Words story written by “The True Story of a Coal Fire,” narrates the conversion of a “fast” (Horne, “Coal Fire”, 27) young man named Flashley, whose “mind had sustained” its “greatest injuries” “from a certain species of ‘fast literature’” (Horne, “Coal Fire”, 26). Flashley is transformed into a useful worker having been projected through the fireplace into a scene of “the grand history of the early world, the period of antediluvian forests, and their various transmutations” so that he can witness the history of coal firsthand (26). In a series of panoramic shifts he also visits a working mine of fifty years ago, where he witnesses a pit explosion, and a ship transporting coal to the countryside. Again, it is the transformative potential embodied in these multiple histories of the lump of coal that enables Flashley to enact his own transformation. In this tale, too, and in many others like it, human figuration creates the material object so that people are not moulded by their environments but are essentially good or bad. Equally, nonetheless, the form of the material world itself provides a model for narrative, for the transformation of the world and oneself.

In Household Words, the transformational history of the formation and burning of coal therefore underpinned narratives of personal transformation or maturation that stressed the importance of individual responsibility in enacting change. But the history embodied in its material form also generated more widespread cultural narratives with overtly political or national dimensions. Contemporary geological writing, and particularly that glossed with natural-theological overtones, frequently extolled the divine purpose embodied in the millions of years it had taken for stores of steam-producing coal to be laid up beneath the earth’s surface. The geologist William Buckland’s influential and widely-read Bridgewater Treatise, Geology and Mineralogy Considered with Reference to Natural Theology (1836), is indicative of this position in its description of the “Proofs of Design in the Dispositions of Strata in the Carboniferous Order”: “The presence of coal”, Buckland wrote,

is in an especial degree the foundation of increasing population, riches, and power, and of improvement in almost every Art which administers to the necessities and comforts of Mankind. And, however remote may have been the periods, at which these materials of future beneficial dispensations were laid up in store, we may fairly assume, that, besides the immediate purposes effected at, or before the time of their deposition in the strata of the Earth, an ulterior prospective view to the future uses of Man, formed part of the design, with which they were, ages ago, disposed in a manner so admirably adapted to the benefit of the Human Race.


In this view, coal could be considered as a “beneficial dispensation” “laid up in store” by a divine intelligence with “an ulterior prospective view to the future uses of Man,” so that the exploitation of mineral resources constituted part of an ordained “design.” But the “Black Diamonds of England,” as one article in Household Words described them, were also associated with the national character: “the ‘great diamonds’ of Eastern, Northern, Southern, and Western potentates” might be worth millions of pounds, “but not a syllable has ever been breathed of their utility” (Horne, “Black”, 105). Nothing but “ornamental luxuries,” they are to be contrasted with “the diamonds indigenous to England,” which “are the converse of these brilliant usurpers of the chief fame of the nether earth (to say nothing of the vain-glories of the upper surface),” for “in place of deriving a fictitious and fluctuating value from scarcity and ornamental beauty” they do so “from the realities of their surpassing utility and great abundance”:

They certainly make no very striking figure in the ballroom dress of prince or princess; but it is their destiny and office to carry comfort to the poor man’s home, as well as to the mansion of the rich; they are not to be looked upon as treasures of beauty, they are to be shovelled out and burnt; they are not the bright emblems of no change, and no activity, but like heralds, sent from the depths of night, where Nature works her secret wonders, to advance those sciences and industrial arts which are equally the consequence and re-acting cause of the progress of humanity.

Horne, “Black” 105

Cheery, hardworking emblems of practical utility, these specifically English lumps of coal are pitted against the showy and superficial nature of the exotic diamond, which represents “no change, and no activity.” Such celebration of coal extended even to coal-smoke, for as environmental historians have demonstrated, the proliferation of coal-smoke in British industrial cities was for many considered neither as unhealthy or unwanted, but as comforting proof of prosperity and well-being (Mosley; Thorsheim). The notion that plentiful coal supplies and an ability to exploit them on a grand scale were proof of a divine plan favourable to British industrial and imperial expansion was only a step away: as All the Year Round put it, “without coal we could hardly call ourselves a people” (“How Long Will Our Coal Last” 488). Coal, emblem of progress and of the ability to enact transformation given a long enough span of time, emblem of divine history and industrial expansion, was central to the British imagining of its national identity.

This imagining took an anxious direction in 1865, however, with the publication of William Stanley Jevons’ The Coal Question. With an argument based on the classical economics of John Stuart Mill (an orthodox position that no doubt helped Jevons secure some fame for his theory [Peart 36]), Jevons argued that the rapid expansion of British industry in the nineteenth century had meant that coal consumption was increasing at an unsustainable rate. If consumption continued to grow so quickly, Britain’s coal seams ran the risk of running out within 100 years. Jevons stopped short of predicting such a calamitous event. Instead, as coal began to become less plentiful, it would have to be mined in ever-greater depths and from seams of ever-poorer quality. This would raise the cost of production, meaning that British coal would no longer be competitive with the more abundant and more cheaply mined coal from America and elsewhere. Jevons recommended the immediate reduction of the national debt, a burden which would contribute to national economic decline in such an event, and William Gladstone, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, wrote to him that his “masterly review” of the subject “makes a deep impression upon me, and strengthens the convictions I have long entertained, but with an ever growing force, as to our duty with regard to the National Debt” (qtd. in Black and Könekamp 203). When Mill raised Jevons’ findings in the budget debates at the House of Commons on April 17, 1866, Britain engaged in its first extended public discussion of the limits of free trade: global free trade was widely expected to produce communication between nations, engendering peace and prosperity. But if Britain lost its monopoly on the coal trade, and was reduced to a dependent state struggling to pay its debts, what results would free trade have then? As The Times reported on June 26, 1866, “the disappearance of coal in Great Britain” would lead to “diminution of population” (now too large to be sustained by agriculture alone), “decrease in wealth,” and “declension in power. We may dislike to contemplate these gloomy consequences, yet come they will, as surely as sunrise to-morrow.” As there was “nowhere” a “store of force to be compared with coal,” the question which remained unanswered was, “how long is our coal likely to last?” (“The Coal Question” 12).

For The Times, the question centred not only on Britain’s debt to posterity, but constituted a challenge to its place in history, too: we may “owe much […] to the inborn energy of our race, yet we owe much more to the possession of vast stores of coal,” it wrote. And,

we may boast of the mental and bodily qualities which distinguish the Anglo-Saxon, and glory in the valorous achievement of our fore-fathers, we may delight in green pastures and golden corn-fields, and, like a certain noble lord, look forward with satisfaction to the day when our soot-begrimed Manchesters and Birminghams shall have crumbled into ruins and the plough shall pass over their sites; but this is certain, that without great wealth we should have remained in comparative obscurity; that without extensive manufacturing operations we should never have accumulated great wealth; and that without coal these operations would have been impossible.

“The Coal Question” 12

The racial superiority of the British “race” with its “inborn energy” and its “Anglo-Saxon” ancestry, even the green and pleasant lands of England, measured little by comparison with “great wealth,” “manufacturing operations,” and, ultimately, coal. This humbling thought also troubled the Athenaeum: the decline of British power was a historical inevitability, it suggested, for “the law of nations” clearly points to a period when the kingdoms of the West will become what the empires of the East now are.” The most that could be hoped for was that the “well-trained mental power” of the race, “our natural gifts with economy,” and “our knowledge of the causes which hastened” Eastern decay—a superior position in history—could delay the inevitable (“Coal Question: An Inquiry” 715).

The place of Victorian Britain in the history books could be stalled by eliminating a commonly held problem: waste. The Athenaeum concluded pessimistically that, because Jevons had drawn “weak” “conclusions” from “delusive” “information” which he had gathered too hastily, “unfortunately we shall go on using, wastefully, recklessly, our mineral fuel, until, at some future day, some other writer, with closer facts, shall show the decadence of our manufactures” (“Coal Question: An Inquiry” 714). The Quarterly Review reviewed The Coal Question more sympathetically in April 1866 but was equally concerned with “the prodigious waste of coal,” “waste which is as unnecessary as it is unjustifiable and wicked. Our successors will have bitter causes to deplore our folly in this respect and to deplore us as spendthrifts, who have ignorantly or knowingly destroyed so much” (Percy 456). This was “reckless as well as lavish” behaviour, a “mad career of waste and extravagance” (Percy 463).

Such an argument tapped into longstanding economic arguments, both on the domestic and industrial scale, about the wasteful burning of coal (see Mosley, Thorsheim). Attempting to sell his fuel-saving domestic stove in 1854, for example, the sanitary reformer Dr. Neil Arnott noted that “coal is a part of national wealth, of which, whatever is once used can never, like corn or any produce of industry, be renewed or replaced” (428). Much like many current exhortations to recycle, Arnott’s argument centred on the importance of individual responsibility in saving fuel resources. Arnott implored his readers (and potential clients) that “the coal mines of Britain may be truly regarded as the most precious possessions of the inhabitants, and without which they could never have attained [such] importance in the world. To consume coal wastefully or unnecessarily, then, […] is a serious crime committed against future generations” (428). The man of science John Herschel, quoted in support of Jevons’s text in the preface to its second edition ([1866] xv-xvi) corresponded with Jevons on his “very valuable and important book,” which he had “read every word of […] (received yesterday) with the avidity with which one devours a new novel” (qtd. in Black 77). To Herschel the book “seemed an echo of what I have long thought and felt about our present commercial progress and the necessary decline of our commercial and manufacturing supremacy, and the transfer of it to America”. His predictions were even more dire than Jevons’s on the subject: “I think you have been merciful in giving us another century to run”, he added (qtd. in Black 77, Herschel’s emphasis). In a later letter, Herschel put his views on the matter even more forcefully, extending his fears about coal to all the earth’s resources: “the enormous & outrageously wasteful consumption of every other article that the Earth produces which in two centuries if it go on in the present increasing ratio & among populations calling themselves civilized—but in reality luxurious and selfish” will “even make the Earth a desert” (qtd. in Black 83). Three months later, he struck a similarly prophetic tone: “A very ugly day of reckoning is impending sooner or later” (qtd. in Black 86). In his questioning of the “civilization” of coal-wasting nations, in his prophecy of apocalypse, and in his degenerative language of waste, Herschel responds to Jevons’ “coal question” by inverting the traditional connection of coal with a narrative of British progress, aligning it instead with decline and disaster.

Other sections of the press were less anxious about the future than they were about the pressing material concerns of the present—the kind of poverty drawn so sympathetically by Bosanquet and Dickens, for example. The magazine Fun, a rival to Punch (and nicknamed “Funch” by Thackeray), but selling for a penny and aimed squarely at the lower- rather than upper middle-class reader, carried a poem entitled “The Coal Question. By an Economical Housewife”:

“Coals will soon be exhausted,” say

Some folks: - and I don’t doubt ‘em;

But let them slowly burn away,—

Don’t make a stir about ‘em.


Punning on the domestic activity of “stirring” coals and the concept of “making a stir” or fuss, Fun plays upon a comic conflation of the threat to posterity predicted by the political economists and some sections of the press with the conservative domestic economy of an “economical housewife,” presumably used to burning coals slowly in an effort to save money and little able to comprehend the scale of the question as it was presented by Jevons and Mill. In another article, “Mrs. Brown,” the paper’s fictional columnist, made her pronunciations “On the Coal Question” to similar effect (“Mrs Brown on the Coal Question”). “Mr. Nibbles” tells her that “the coals is pretty nigh all dug up out of the hearth” (18), again with an exploitation of a pun, presumably on the domestic “hearth” and “earth,” made possible by the cockney misapplication of an aitch. In panic Mrs. Brown buys half a ton of “the best Walls-end” coal for the vastly inflated price of 25 shillings (an amount, we might note, which exceeds that earned by the entire Cratchit family in a week), from “a saucy character,” “Mr. Billers, as is in the coal and greengrocery line” (18). Not only do Mr. Billers and his “rankest sloven” of a wife send four sacks of coal instead of five in the first instance, but “nice rubbish they was, slates as big as brick-bats.” As Mrs. Brown steps into the cellar to show her husband the faulty goods, the delivery boy opens the coal hole and throws the fifth bag straight on top of her. Luckily, it “was all that small rubbish, or I should have been killed” (18). With typical stoicism, nonetheless, Mrs. Brown notes that “as to the coals, when I come to hear there was enough for a hundred years to come, I didn’t mind so much, though it does werry shockin’ for us to burn ‘em all and leave no firin’ for them as comes arter, though no doubt by that time they’ll do everything by steam, and won’t require no fires” (18). Mrs Brown’s lack of consideration that “steam” also depends on coal suggests a viewpoint blinkered by its limited domestic horizons, but it does so with a touching, somewhat affectionate representation of her folly. The target of the journal’s mockery, it seems, is not the claims of domestic economy over the political, but the idea that any single consumer can do anything at all about the state of coals in a hundred years time. Mrs. Brown, it suggests, would do well simply to keep on with business as usual.

In a cartoon, “Domestic Economy,” Fun was somewhat more scathing (see fig. 3). Bespectacled and bonneted, Mrs. Scrooby and her expansive skirts and petticoats dominate the scene and occupy more space in the cartoon than the other five people in the picture occupy together. Though “Mrs. Scrooby” is clearly an ordinary woman, as her comic name suggests, by comparison with these other figures she appears as a swollen image of voluminous consumption. Having “heard of the threatened exhaustion of coal,” she gazes upwards at the prices of the highest-grade coal on the list on the blackboard, seemingly unaware of the increasingly cheaper grades of coal, “house,” “nuts,” “small,” and “coke,” which are also available to her. So, too, is she unaware of the scrawny group of three children, so diminutive in stature that they fail to reach even the lowest line of text on the blackboard. Occupying the foreground of the picture, these children might be out of Mrs. Scrooby’s eye line, but they are, therefore, all too visible to the cartoon viewer. The visual image of Mrs. Scrooby’s skirts and the textual image of her capacious cellar waiting to be filled with coals, enforced by her exclamation “Bless me, if that’s the present price, I’ll have in as many as the cellar will hold,” therefore offer a bloated contrast to the barefooted chimney sweep, the tiny girl and the baby who stares directly, in some distress, at the viewer of the cartoon, imploring our sympathies. Mrs. Scrooby’s own weak joke, that she will buy coal at “the present price”, which appears to be nothing (the prices have not been chalked up on the blackboard), is given a special charge in this context. Greedily consuming coals, Mrs. Scrooby may be contributing directly to the future exhaustion of the coal mines. But more importantly, in laying up her own stores in case of that future, she is oblivious to the obvious wants of the present, to the poverty which surrounds her at that very moment. High-minded political economists and the housewives who only partially understand them, it seems, have failed to consider the current, rather than future, shortage of coal—a shortage that only affects the poor, but whose economic consequences are far more pressing, and perhaps more devastating, than those predicted by Jevons.

Figure 3

“Domestic Economy”. Fun.

September 1 1866: 257

-> See the list of figures

Dickens’s response in All the Year Round was closest to that of Fun, possibly because he too shared a desire to appeal to lower-middle-class readers. Already in 1860, the journal had asked “How Long Will our Coal Last,” predating the “coal question” by five years, demonstrating that Jevons and Mill simply brought an already rumbling problem to the surface in their debate, rather than started it anew. But Dickens’s journal had refused to countenance the possibility of coal depletion, or attendant economic decline, on the grounds that “so long as the old English feeling prevails, there will be no difficulty in finding the right direction for English industry” (“How Long” 490). The “English” national character, built on coal, now becomes the sustaining fuel which will ensure that a coal-based prosperity does not dwindle in the future. After all, if Scrooge’s nephew could turn himself into a lump of coal by goodwill alone, then the British nation—which had already discovered many uses for coal—could do the same. In March 1865, again predating the raising of Jevons’s book in parliament a year later, the journal noted that “some fear that our coal-beds will fail, and that we will have chilblains and frosted toes for want of fuel” (“False Fears” 202). But the problem was not that coal-beds might fail, or that any of the other calamities outlined in the article would really happen. The problem was, as the article’s title had it, the prevalence of “False Fears” in the consciousness of the British public. “Who is it that says the characteristic of a savage is fear?” (201), it asked, again drawing on a Whiggish history of savagery and Enlightenment to suggest that “we are afraid of everything now-a-days,” the nation reducing itself to the basest emotion (201). The exhaustion of the coal mines would not produce British decline, but the fear of it might.

Most importantly, however, in its most explicit treatment of Jevons’s text, All the Year Round played provocatively, as Fun had done, on the disparity between domestic and political economies. In “Engraved on Steel,” published in October 1866, the journal satirised the vanity, and the hypocrisy, of a political economics that advocated the reduced consumption of coal through the figure of “Bunglebutt, the great Bunglebutt, member of parliament for the flourishing town of Lower Pighurst.” With relentless sarcasm, it describes Bunglebutt’s “exhaustive pamphlet, ‘What will Britannia do when her last shovel of coals has been put on the fire?’” and the public’s response to his prediction of a “stupendous calamity,” “the day when it will be all up with England and her coals, together.” “Driven-mad political economists,” “stunned statisticians,” and the general public alike eagerly await the 22nd edition. But there is a problem. Not only is Bunglebutt “a great manufacturer,” consuming “no end of tons of coals every week” (372), failing to apply his exhortations to limit the use of coal to himself. He is also vain to the point of ridiculousness. His endless prevarications about his steel-engraver’s rendering of “an uncompromising squint” (376) in his left eye significantly delay the 22nd edition of the book (376). Nonetheless, after sending back the engraving three times, he finally accepts it, a picture “which will doubtless be received by the panting public as a decided adornment to ‘Our empty Coal-cellars, and What’s to fill them?’” (376).

In the articles he published in All the Year Round, then, Dickens did less to highlight the plight of the poor, those for whom future coal exhaustion was an irrelevance, than did Fun. But he was far more scathing about the political economists who had made such predictions, the effects such predictions might have on a middle- and working-class English national character, which he characterised as stoic but capable of being reduced to the savagery of a “panting public,” and he gave perhaps the least credence to the potential for British economic decline of any publication that responded to Jevons. This response is particularly notable when we consider that Once a Week, an illustrated weekly miscellany set up by the publishers of Household Words, Bradbury & Evans, and the most direct rival for the readership of All the Year Round, did not manifest this Dickensian dismissal, but took the opposite approach, signalling panic and alarm: “we are justified in assuming that the effects of our prodigal expenditure will make themselves felt before a century has elapsed,” and that “we shall be reduced from a coal-selling to a coal-buying people,” it suggested (Once a Week 483). Dickens was unusual in his refusal to countenance either coal exhaustion, its economic consequences, or the impairment of an English national character with which coal was so intimately linked. Coal meant transformation and progress; for Dickens it could not be associated with a narrative of catastrophe or decline.

Lime Fictions and Pictures in the Fire

Our Mutual Friend, written contemporaneously with the publication of The Coal Question, and published in monthly instalments between May 1864 and November 1865, preceded the public debate on the exhaustion of coal and its economic and cultural consequences by several months, as did many of the articles touching on this topic in All the Year Round. And yet there are clear resonances between Dickens’s novel, centering on the issue of waste, and the broader cultural anxieties about waste that Jevons’s book tapped into—resonances which illuminate Dickens’s sense of the interrelationship between material objects and the development of lives, the shape of events as organised by narrative, and the broader national and historical patterns in which such narratives might be given meaning. The central images of the novel are the Harmon dust mounds, partly constructed of “coal-dust,” and the river whose waste sustains several of the characters’ livelihoods. But, as we might expect, given Dickens’s refusal to countenance the concept of coal exhaustion in All the Year Round, waste is always exuberantly transformed into usefulness in Our Mutual Friend: as Gaffer reminds his daughter Lizzie, “the very fire that warmed you when you were a babby, was picked out of the river alongside the coal barges” (1.3). There is nothing which has not been used before and which cannot be used again. In this sense, material goods are ahistorical in the text because everything is always already waste, having no originary point, and everything may be recycled back into the system. There is no beginning or end. In being ahistorical it poses no threat to narratives of progress, and is consistent with Dickens’ rebuttals of the potential decline of coal. Indeed, Dickens seems to argue in Our Mutual Friend that coal, alongside all other material objects, cannot be wasted, that there is, in fact, no such thing as waste.

But coal is not only ahistorical in Our Mutual Friend. As in Household Words and All the Year Round, in Dickens’s last novel history and narrative spin out from the form of the lump of coal, inflecting the form of the fiction itself. In an important passage first published in the fourth instalment of the novel in August 1864, the dilettante characters Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood, both of whose names seem to be puns on fire and flame, on burning rays and the lighting of wood, go undercover as “lime merchants” (1.121) in order to determine whether Gaffer is culpable of murder. Partly they choose to be lime merchants because their informant works at a lime house. The choice also locates them in the East End, marking their movement into the poverty-stricken, industrial underworld of the city. Furthermore, the technique of wet lime purification to which Dickens alludes here was a mode of purifying gas produced from coal. Attempting to counter what had become known as the “Soho Stink” for the foul-smelling production of gas that had only been washed by water, lime water was used as early as 1812 and the process was gradually refined over the ensuing years. But this lime had also produced a “foul effluent,” as Mary Mills puts it, known as “blue billy,” a waste product that was difficult to dispose of, and citizens living near to gas plants in East London frequently complained of poor health (120).[3] Though Mills notes that in the 1840s and 1850s industrial chemists had begun to use metallic oxides—the “oxide process”—for purification (130-31), it would appear from Dickens’s own accounts lime was still in use even into the 1860s. In April 1865, contemporaneously with chapters five, six and seven of the third book of Our Mutual Friend, and just eight months after Eugene and Lightwood pretend to be lime merchants, All the Year Round carried an explanation of lime’s status as a purifying agent in the process of distilling gas from coal. The article informed readers that gas passes “into purifiers containing lime or lime-water, where it loses most of the sulphur which would otherwise interfere with its illuminating qualities” (“More Light” 318). This lime, now “saturated with sulphur gases, is a very disagreeable substance” but its waste is useful as a “temporary cement […] for mortar and for bottle-glass making, and as manure” (“More Light” 318). Lime makes the light of the gas lamp possible, by making coal purer, but in doing so takes on dirty, disagreeable, and occasionally useful associations. In his engagement in this “lime fiction,” as he calls it, in the last line of a chapter, when Eugene learns that he is to be “deeply interested in lime,” Eugene puns on both the enlightening qualities it possesses and on his own name: “Without lime,” he jokes “my existence would be unilluminated by a ray of hope” (1.121).

The joke, however, is on Eugene. In playing at usefulness in this “lime fiction” (1.121), Eugene—who previously has engaged in no form of business whatsoever—is both “illuminated by a ray of hope” and dirtied in the process, just as lime is. In the passage that ensues, Eugene is both enlightened and implicated in the dirty underworld of the river. Having spied on Lizzie, “a sad and solitary spectacle” “weeping by the rising and the falling of the fire,” Eugene starts to feel “very grim indeed” about the consequences his actions might have on her life (1.124): if her father is guilty she will be left destitute. Eugene’s dirty guilt and his vision of the light of Lizzie’s fire on this night together motivate his first steps in his own transformation from ennui to usefulness. Both the material processes involving coal, lime, and gas, and the fictionality of Eugene’s status as a lime merchant, enable Eugene to internalize through performance the formal characteristics of material objects, to simultaneously discover both moral implication and personal utility. In this he resembles the heroes of many a Household Words article, men who also learn the value of usefulness through contact with the history and processes embodied in the lump of coal. He also personifies the text’s future, representative of the dynamic transformative potential of fire, flame, and coals even as he also represents the preservation of a gentrified upper-middle-class redolent of an older world. That preservation, of course, is ambiguous: Eugene is disabled by the end of the novel and he and Lizzie have not produced any children. In his embodiment of both transformation and preservation he stands as a refutation of the potential decline of resources and of the nation. We might add, though, that his embodiment of such values is as weak and damaged as his body is.

Lizzie herself is insistently located at the fireside in terms that again simultaneously register and efface the materiality of coal, and that simultaneously embody domestic stasis, and the transformative power of history and fiction. Lizzie “can’t so much as read a book,” she says, “because, if I had learned, father would have thought I was deserting him, and I should have lost my influence” over his wayward ways (1.22). But she has an alternative “library of books” “in the hollow down by the flare” (1.22), the pictures she sees “in the burning coal” (1.21). Lizzie is imprisoned within the domestic space to the point of illiteracy, but she constructs a space in the glow of the coals “where her first fancies had been nursed, and her first escape made from” her “grim life” in which she can imagine for herself not the self-sacrificial domestic stasis she endures but both a past and a future. In that space she creates what she calls her “pictures in the fire,” pictures of the remembered past and “fortune-telling pictures” (1.22) of what the future may bring. The hollow by the flare provides a space in which Lizzie can simultaneously assert herself—“it wants my eyes” (1.21) to see the “pictures in the fire,” she tells her brother—and gives her an imaginative escape from her repeated denials of self, which in turn reconciles her to continue this static, submissive life. It both preserves stasis and offers a way out.

Lizzie’s pictures in the fire are the most important demonstration in the text of an ability to turn waste into both material and imaginative resources. The coals, revealing past, present, and future to Lizzie just as they did to Ebenezer Scrooge or to Philip Spruce and Flashley, just as coal itself did to the Victorian public with its manifold histories and uses, provides a historical pattern of transformation within a seemingly static domestic space. And in their historical dimension Lizzie’s pictures are a repeated spur to narrative itself. Eugene begins his course to self-fulfilment in the moment he watches Lizzie weeping by the fire; and in another pivotal fireside scene Lizzie unwittingly shames the vivacious and mercenary Bella Wilfer into an acknowledgement of her unworthiness and puts her on the path to virtue. In this scene, Lizzie gives Bella one final “picture in the fire,” a “fortune-telling picture” in which she sees in Bella “a heart well worth winning, and well won. A heart that, once won, goes through fire and water for the winner, and never changes, and is never daunted” (2.85). Bella later remembers “how right she was when she pretended to read in the live coals that I would go through fire and water for him” (2.203). Those “live coals” produce a woman who “never changes” but also a woman who “is never daunted”—static but fearless—and they prompt historical transformation in a novel in which the threat of stasis always looms large.

We might note, nonetheless, in the context of the coal debates which were brewing in the early 1860s and came to a head in 1866, just a year after the publication of Our Mutual Friend, that this historical transformation is insistently confined to the personal and domestic spheres. Dickens’s focus on the burning of coals into immaterial gas and smoke goes hand in hand with his evasive treatment of some other of coal’s material properties, its exhaustibility and potential for decline, allowing him to focus on the hearth as an imaginative resource enabling a limited possibility for transformation. Dickens was at pains in his writing to register the material necessities and material hardships that govern his characters’ lives, and to account for the magical histories and wonderful uses of material objects in his journals. But when it came to the representation of his all-important firesides, he was forced to manipulate his presentation of both the material properties of the coals that sustained them and of the multiple histories those lumps of coal embodied. The industrial and domestic burning of coal to produce gas or warmth, and its disintegration into ash, could offer Dickens a powerful symbol linking domestic virtue and the power of an imagination like Lizzie’s, which, seeing “pictures in the fire,” can transcend material circumstances—but only by eliding the economic cost such of coal itself. Similarly, coal’s geological history, or the history of its mining, transportation, or transformation into gas, was a frequent topic for discussion in Household Words. But the history promoted by Jevons, which placed coal production at the apex of its history, at the start of an inevitable decline, was evaded in Dickens’s texts. Some kinds of change were possible, others were denied. Paying attention not only to the symbolic nature of Dickens’s hearth, then, but also to its material constituency, reveals a troubling dilemma at the heart of Dickens’s representational practices. Did the hearth signify the “power of renewal” for Dickens, as Patten put it? Can his “answer” to “the problem” of “the city” really “be named the hearth”? In terms of its significance for Dickens’s most cherished social values, the answer is clearly yes. But the hearth could also be an embodiment of the problems of the city—of poverty, of decline and degradation, of pollution and poor health, of the gulf between politicians or economists and ordinary citizens. The hearth, and the coals that burned within it, could suggest historical and narrative patterns that Dickens’s fiction constantly worked to avoid. As such, Dickens’s hearth is not a trouble-free paradise, but a space in which many of his most central concerns would sit in unequal, and unresolved, tension.