Ace of Fire
On February 21st, 1845, Charles Dickens, along with 31 guides, 6 saddled ponies, and a few other tourists carried in litters, ascended Mount Vesuvius. He was warned by the locals it was the wrong time of year for an ascent, especially at night. Dickens characteristically ignored the warnings and went on foot. As the party approached the summit, stumbling around in the dark over the broken ground, Dickens grew ecstatic in the stifling sulphurous fumes and sheets of fire. He likened the red-hot cinders flying into the air to feathers. “There is something in the fire and roar,” he relates excitedly, “that generates an irresistible desire to get nearer to it.” This view was not shared by the rest of the party, who cowered below yelling to Dickens of the danger. “What with their noise” Dickens later recalled in Pictures From Italy,
“and what with the trembling of the thin crust of ground, the seems about to open underneath our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is the real danger, if there be any); and what with the flashing of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulfur; we may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a moment, into the Hell of boiling fire below. Then we all three come rolling down; blackened and singed, and scorched, and hot, and giddy: and each with his dress alight in half-a-dozen places.”
This anecdote sums up some elemental aspect of Dickens's character – his enormous and insatiable restlessness and quest for activity; his “hard and aggressive” nature, in the words of Forster, “impetuous” and “overbearing”; his disregard for other's concern; his fascination with all things scintillating, roiling, and brilliant. Fire – beautiful and mesmerizing; the terrifying destroyer. The visible expression of energy; its light making vision possible in the night; its heat comforting through the cold winter; its potential powering the Age of Steam. The tangible expression of violence; its uncontrollable chaos ravaging city and forest; its inhuman heat synonymous with Hell and the torment of Prometheus; its consumption charring and scarring the modern world.
This in-built dichotomy in Fire is evincive of Dickens himself – at the best of times, and at the worst of times. Bright light, luminary, spirit of his age - such inspiration as his is epitomized by flame. Of his industry in writing he said himself, “I blaze away, wrathful and red-hot.” Of his burning need for action he exclaimed, “If I couldn't walk fast and far I should just explode.”
His fictions are full of Fire - lambent, smouldering, raging, explosive. Miss Havisham burning from the inside out; the smithy Pip leaves behind; Esther Summerson's dream she is a bead on a flaming necklace in the blackness; Lizzie Hexam stoking her inspiration by staring at red-hot embers; the smoking cinder heaps of Boffin's Bower; the furnaces of Hard Time's Coketown; Krook, the “Lord Chancellor” of Bleak House, imbiber of fire-water who spontaneously combusts; the Marquis St. Evrémonde's chateau, symbol of oppression, flames bursting out its rent walls “like crystalization”, iron and lead boiling in its fountain's marble basin; the burning down of Hardale's mansion in Barnaby Rudge:
“There were men who cast their lighted torches in the air, and suffered them to fall upon their heads and faces, blistering their skin with deep unseemly burns. There were men who rushed up to the fire, and paddled in it with their hands as if in water; and others who were restrained by force from plunging in, to gratify their deadly longing. On the skull of one drunken lad – not twenty, by his looks – who lay upon the ground with a bottle in his mouth, the lead from the roof came streaming down in a shower of liquid fire, white-hot; melting his head like wax.”
Later, Newgate Prison is stormed and another fire lit - the same mob cheering and the author's prose exhilarating as Lord Mansfield's Law Library goes up in flames. “I have... played the very devil,” Dickens wrote to Forster, “I feel quite smoky.” Two years after Dickens became a Parliamentary reporter, the Great Fire of London consumed most of the Palace of Westminster. The incident kindled Dickens' imagination, calling Parliament “the national cinder heap” and its members “the national dustmen”. The fire had gone largely ignored, smouldering under the House of Lords for the better part of a day. This later prompted the sitting Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, to consider it “one of the greatest instances of stupidity on record.” - and he should know.
The Ace of Fire is the spark which lights The Sparkler of Albion's fuse. As the element's prime signifier, it enlightens the suit and all it reflects – inspiration, enterprise, innovation, creativity, originality, virility, foundation. In the end, however, fire exhausts the very fuels which feed it. Having illuminated pride, cockiness, the abuse of power, and the rapaciousness of nature, it leaves behind barrenness, impotence, disfigurement, and ruin.