I type this up as I am bundled in my thick fleece robe and socks to warm my feet. I consider the investment of fingerless gloves for writing. Are we experiencing a cold snap in Tidewater, Virginia? No. My husband has cranked up the air conditioning. Sigh. Women’s winter, am I right?
Would it surprise you to learn that Fanny Price would sit in a room with no fire and only added a shawl to her clothing?
Many readers have this image of Fanny freezing her bum off. I’ve been told more than once that Fanny’s lack of fire in her bedroom is proof of the abuse they believe she suffered. I believe this image is owed to the 1999 film production, which I generally like but all film productions have their problems. Sir Thomas comes into Fanny’s room to tell her about Henry’s proposal and is astonished to find she has no fire.
I suppose, sister, you will put the child in the little white attic, near the old nurseries. It will be much the best place for her, so near Miss Lee, and not far from the girls, and close by the housemaids, who could either of them help to dress her, you know, and take care of her clothes, for I suppose you would not think it fair to expect Ellis to wait on her as well as the others.
The little white attic, which had continued her sleeping-room ever since her first entering the family, proving incompetent to suggest any reply, she had recourse, as soon as she was dressed, to another apartment more spacious and more meet for walking about in and thinking, and of which she had now for some time been almost equally mistress. It had been their school-room.
Fanny’s bedchamber was in the attic, near where the female servants stayed. It’s also mentioned as not being too far from “the girls,” meaning Maria and Julia. Later, she is given what is essentially a private sitting room in what was the old school room for the girls. It’s not explicitly stated but it sounds like Maria and Julia have their own sitting areas. However, nothing is mentioned of them spending much time in them, and it was generally only a habit in the morning. We are told Fanny leaves her chamber and goes to this other room in the morning. However, no fire is allowed to be lit. Yet, Fanny sits in it most days.
How dare they?!
Hold your horses. There is much to consider.
The East room, as it had been called ever since Maria Bertram was sixteen, was now considered Fanny’s, almost as decidedly as the white attic: the smallness of the one making the use of the other so evidently reasonable that the Miss Bertrams, with every superiority in their own apartments which their own sense of superiority could demand, were entirely approving it; and Mrs. Norris, having stipulated for there never being a fire in it on Fanny’s account, was tolerably resigned to her having the use of what nobody else wanted, though the terms in which she sometimes spoke of the indulgence seemed to imply that it was the best room in the house.
The aspect was so favourable that even without a fire it was habitable in many an early spring and late autumn morning to such a willing mind as Fanny’s; and while there was a gleam of sunshine she hoped not to be driven from it entirely, even when winter came.
The room was most dear to her, and she would not have changed its furniture for the handsomest in the house,
One, when Sir Thomas talks with Fanny, she is content with only a shawl. I’m wearing more and thicker layers at this point than it sounds like Fanny is. Granted, I think this was probably a warm wool shawl. They were actually quite expensive. Perhaps, it was a hand me down from Maria or Julia although nothing else is said of her having to wear their cast offs. If it were so cold, she would need more layers, might wear a spencer, pelisse, or coat as well. I surely have in my house. In the passage below, Sir Thomas acknowledges that a fire in her bedchamber would be impossible.
stopping short as he entered, said, with much surprise, “Why have you no fire to-day?” There was snow on the ground, and she was sitting in a shawl. She hesitated.
“I am not cold, sir: I never sit here long at this time of year.”
“But you have a fire in general?”
“How comes this about? Here must be some mistake. I understood that you had the use of this room by way of making you perfectly comfortable. In your bedchamber I know you cannot have a fire. Here is some great misapprehension which must be rectified. It is highly unfit for you to sit, be it only half an hour a day, without a fire. You are not strong. You are chilly. Your aunt cannot be aware of this.”
“I understand,” cried her uncle, recollecting himself, and not wanting to hear more: “I understand. Your aunt Norris has always been an advocate, and very judiciously, for young people’s being brought up without unnecessary indulgences; but there should be moderation in everything. She is also very hardy herself, which of course will influence her in her opinion of the wants of others. And on another account, too, I can perfectly comprehend. I know what her sentiments have always been. The principle was good in itself, but it may have been, and I believe has been, carried too far in your case.
Next, Sir Thomas is shocked only because of Fanny’s general health. He even acknowledges that Mrs. Norris had good intentions and that it’s regular for young people to not have fires, but that Fanny needs one. It’s conceivable, then, that even his daughters didn’t have fires all the time. They probably would have if they mentioned they were cold, though, and Fanny is too grateful to ask for more. Maria and Julia, in contrast, are selfish. Additionally, if Sir Thomas is so concerned about her having a fire, why not offer her a new bedchamber? Clearly whatever she deals with at night (no fire) is not so unusual. What’s strange to him is that she sits without one for any time during the day.
Why would Mrs. Norris not want an extra room in the house to be heated? In the book, it’s very plain that she’s miserly. She congratulates herself constantly on “economy.” Simply put, heating was costly and Fanny could sit somewhere else. The very poor could not even afford coal or wood. They used leftover (and probably rotten) vegetables. Chances are Fanny’s family home in Portsmouth was considerably colder than her experience at Mansfield.
Let us also consider heating in the era. Fires do not last forever. One must tend them. Jane Austen stories are littered with examples of the fire being relit by a maid in the morning. This is a well-known fact of the era. At some point in the night, the fire would die, and in the morning, they would be re-lit. That means for much of the night, people are sleeping in an unheated room.
It is important to note that many bedrooms may not have had a fireplace at all, and those that did were often only lit when someone was ill. —Georgian & Regency Houses Explained by Trevor Yorke
The pay and duties of a housemaid, with its relatively lighter tasks of cleaning the house and maintaining bedroom fires, implicitly contrasted to those of a girl of all works, a lower position with less pay and more onerous duties of cooking, scouring, sweeping, laundry, fires, lamps, heavy lifting and if necessary, child-minding. —The Cambridge Edition of Sense & Sensibility, edited by Edward Copeland
In winter, the housemaid’s first task was to clean the hearths and light the fires, while in summer the stove had to be attended to. Shutters were opened in the sitting rooms, hearth rugs shaken and carpets swept. Chairs and other furniture had to be dusted, looking glasses had to be cleaned and kettles filled for hot water, both for use in the kitchen and for washing purposes. These tasks had to be completed before the master and mistress came down for breakfast. —Flunkeys and Scullions, Life Below Stairs in Georgian England by Pamela Horn
Chambermaids ranked highest among the lower female servants. Their sphere was properly in the bedrooms: dusting, straightening, cleaning, swatting insects in summer, laying fires and warming beds in winter, sweeping, closing windows and turning down bedclothes the last thing at night. —The Regency Companion by Sharon Laudermilk & Teresa Hamlin
Long before the family was awake, the housemaids would be up and about, opening the shutters, dusting, sweeping and polishing, cleaning the grates and laying and lighting fires. —Wives and Daughters by Joanna Martin
Catherine Morland is surprised to find a fire in her chamber at Northanger Abbey and even allows it to die before going to bed. She awakens to a maid having already lit the fire but at eight in the morning and many people arose earlier.
Thus wisely fortifying her mind, as she proceeded upstairs, she was enabled, especially on perceiving that Miss Tilney slept only two doors from her, to enter her room with a tolerably stout heart; and her spirits were immediately assisted by the cheerful blaze of a wood fire.
“How much better is this,” said she, as she walked to the fender—”how much better to find a fire ready lit, than to have to wait shivering in the cold till all the family are in bed, as so many poor girls have been obliged to do, and then to have a faithful old servant frightening one by coming in with a faggot! How glad I am that Northanger is what it is! If it had been like some other places, I do not know that, in such a night as this, I could have answered for my courage: but now, to be sure, there is nothing to alarm one.”
A glance at the old chest, as she turned away from this examination, was not without its use; she scorned the causeless fears of an idle fancy, and began with a most happy indifference to prepare herself for bed. “She should take her time; she should not hurry herself; she did not care if she were the last person up in the house. But she would not make up her fire; that would seem cowardly, as if she wished for the protection of light after she were in bed.” The fire therefore died away, and Catherine, having spent the best part of an hour in her arrangements, was beginning to think of stepping into bed,
The housemaid’s folding back her window-shutters at eight o’clock the next day was the sound which first roused Catherine; and she opened her eyes, wondering that they could ever have been closed, on objects of cheerfulness; her fire was already burning, and a bright morning had succeeded the tempest of the night.
Marianne Dashwood has also awoken before the fire re-lit on occasion:
Before the housemaid had lit their fire the next day, or the sun gained any power over a cold, gloomy morning in January, Marianne, only half dressed, was kneeling against one of the window-seats for the sake of all the little light she could command from it, and writing as fast as a continual flow of tears would permit her.
The drawing rooms of Mansfield would have had fires. Fanny was more than welcome to sit in them. She is far more reserved and introverted than anyone in the family can understand and she’s been that way since the moment of her arrival–long before anyone had a chance to abuse her. They can hardly conceive of why she needs time by herself. It is not that Fanny is forced to sit in a cold room. Nor is she deprived warm clothing. She chooses it.
Fireplaces of the era also left much to be desired. They did not really heat the entire room. It could be unbearably hot near the fire but then very cool away from it. Indeed, people often had to rearrange themselves throughout the day. Honestly, anyone who has spent time near a fire should understand this. There are also countless examples in Jane Austen’s works of seating someone ill near a fire or someone finding the fire too hot and needing to relocate.
Now, I’m going to divulge some personal information. I once lived in a house with no heat. There even came a time in the early spring in which it was cooler in the house than outside. Oh, we had means to heat the place. We had a woodstove–which generally provide excellent heat. However, my husband and I were full-time college students and also worked 32 hours a week. Our cabin was about a half hour drive from the town in which we worked and attended school. Essentially, I left for the day at 7 am and did not get home until almost midnight. We lived in the mountains. How did we deal with that? Well, we did have a very small space heater that we would turn on for a bit in our room. In Jane Austen’s time, they had bed warmers which were long-handled copper skillets filled with warmed stones. They would be placed on the sheet to warm the bed. I’m not going to lie, I would still like this. We also layered our bed with several blankets and I wore good, warm pajamas.
Additionally, consider that many people sleep outside without heat for fun. My husband is an Eagle Scout and told me they would regularly camp in below freezing weather without a fire. They did have good sleeping bags. However, the average winter low for Northamptonshire is above freezing.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the time I lived in Alaska and people worked outside in negative forty all day long. Actually, that was a warm winter for the area. It usually got to negative sixty, and other areas got much colder.
Was Fanny freezing and turning to ice? It doesn’t seem like it. Was she abused? I don’t think so. She was the poor relation and there was a definite difference made between her and her cousins. Let’s remember we’re far more egalitarian these days. However, either way, I don’t think this fire reference can be proof of abuse. If Jane Austen didn’t include those points to illustrate abuse, then what is their purpose? Sir Thomas says it perfectly:
The principle was good in itself, but it may have been, and I believe has been, carried too far in your case. I am aware that there has been sometimes, in some points, a misplaced distinction; but I think too well of you, Fanny, to suppose you will ever harbour resentment on that account. You have an understanding which will prevent you from receiving things only in part, and judging partially by the event. You will take in the whole of the past, you will consider times, persons, and probabilities, and you will feel that they were not least your friends who were educating and preparing you for that mediocrity of condition which seemed to be your lot. Though their caution may prove eventually unnecessary, it was kindly meant;
In a book where so much is about doing what looks right without considering what truly is right, Fanny’s lack of a fire illustrates the dysfunction perfectly. There’s lots of reasons why Fanny shouldn’t have a fire and one obvious reason why she should. That reason has nothing to do with economy or habits but about knowing a person and building an inter-personal relationship with them.