Fire and its Fury The benign way in which we light and heat our homes means that unlike previous eras, where candles and open fires filled our living spaces, house fires are now a rare occurrence. Tragedies like Grenfell Tower, however, remind us of the power and destructive force of an inferno, the tower block disaster made all the more tragic by the magnitude of the loss of life. My latest crime novel, A Patient Fury, opens with a deadly house fire, seemingly ignited by the mother of the family. I wrote the book while preoccupied by fire, partly as a response to a real-life tragedy played out near me in which six children were killed in a blaze started by their parents. However, as I began to research how a fire spreads through a house and how investigators unpick the narrative of its development, images from some of my favourite books began to return to me. The ferocity with which house fires spread through a building and the havoc they wreak heightens the sense of drama wherever they are placed in a novel. The Ghosts by Antonia Barber was, I think, my introduction to fire in a novel and it’s still a favourite book to read on a dark autumnal evening. Perhaps now better known for its dramatization as The Amazing Mr Blunden, in this time slip story caretaker Mr Wickens starts a fire in the library of Langley Park to secure an inheritance for his daughter. A replay of the murderous act provides an opportunity for the children’s guardian, Mr Blunden, to change his previous actions and to atone for the neglect of his wards.
Another book I had on my shelves as a child was Children of the New Forest by Frederick Marryat, inherited from one of my parents and I’ve wanted to live in a forest ever since. The novel opens with verderer Jacob Armitage rescuing four aristocratic children from their home Arnwood which is set alight by roundhead soldiers. However, I noticed on a recent reread that Edward, the eldest of the children also rescues Patience, the daughter of Puritan, Heatherstone, from a blaze. Fire drives his fate as an adult as well as a child. Marryat’s book reminds us that fire is often used as an act of vengeance and penance. What better way to punish your enemy than to destroy everything they possess? This is seen in Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell where a wing of the house on the Tara plantation is destroyed by a disgruntled Yankee soldier. Although Tara is eventually rebuilt, the house becomes a symbol of the old way of life now irrevocably changed and Scarlett O’Hara’s inability to find happiness. Acts of vengeance don’t just take place during military conflict. When I first read Frankenstein, knowing the story only through the Hammer films I watched as a teenager, I was shocked by how tragic a figure the monster is in Mary Shelley’s book. In a fit of loneliness and after being rejected by the De Lacey family who he has watched and emulated, the monster burns their cottage to the ground creating a vision of his own hell which he unable to escape.
Rebecca shows us how a house can symbolise jealousy and madness. I’m always surprised how understated the descriptions of the inferno are. Du Maurier opens the novel by describing the ruined Manderley in a dream and the last line of the book, ‘And the ashes blew towards with the salt wind from the sea,’ reveals the total devastation caused by this act of revenge. Institutional corruption is a feature of David Peace’s brutal but compelling Red Riding quartet which spans a ten year investigation into police dishonesty to the background of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper. In Nineteen Eighty the investigation is now led by Peter Hunter, brought into Yorkshire from a Home Office ‘super squad’ . The burning of his house is part of a wider reign of terror by corrupt officers and, with echoes of du Maurier, Hunter spots first the fire engines before the burning house.
There is, however, a redemptive or cleansing quality to a fire. A time to shake off the past and start again. The burning of Miss Havisham at Satis House in Dickens’s Great Expectations comes as she finally grasps the misery she has inflicted on Estella and Pip by her actions. As the ‘ashy fire’ sparks onto her wedding dress, Pip wraps her in a tablecloth pulled from the table heaving with her rotting wedding feast. The act of destruction and purification is confined to one room but the Gothic horror here is perfectly realised. House fires can also encourage the community come out of their own homes to comfort those looking on as their possessions turn to ashes. In To Kill A Mockingbird, when Miss Maudie’s house catches fire, her neighbours help save her furniture, even the reclusive Boo Radley making a brief appearance to drape a blanket over Scout’s shoulders. I love Miss Maudie’s cheerfulness the following day and her declaration that she always hated the place and intends to find a smaller house with a larger garden. Close-knit communities, however, can also be places of fear and suspicion. When a cigar ignites the fire in the family home of sisters Merricat and Constance in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the resentment of the villagers spill over into a brutal attack. The fire chief who oversees the extinguishing of the fire is the one to cast the first rock into the window of the drawing room and the community follows suit. The house continues to exert an irresistible pull for the sisters and they eventually return to shelter inside the ruined building. Ultimately, the power exerted by fire can leave a legacy of loss and sadness but also of freedom. Rochester’s disfigurement in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is a humbling moment for the protagonist but in the atmospheric and bleak prequel, Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys plays with fire images throughout the narrative. The burned Coulibri estate of Antoinette’s childhood in the West Indies starts a fascination with fire linked to her restless dreams and descent into madness. The fire at Thornfield Hall is an act of freedom for Antionette, escaping from her mental and physical prison.
A Patient Fury is published by Faber