Great Balls of Fire: Lightning Storms in Emma Courtney

This week, I was inspired by Arden’s posts of “brief cuts” from her dissertation to go back through ideas I’ve had in courses but have set aside for the time being. I stumbled onto one nugget of research that I found for a class on “Romanticism and Thing Theory,” taught by Prof. Jill Heydt-Stevenson in 2014, in which we were asked every week to identify a “thing” in the texts assigned and dig up historical research on it. Personally, I found the assignment fascinating as a way to learn more about some of the obscure cultural shorthand on the Romantic period (seriously, who knew there were so many different kinds of carriages?). For Mary Hays’s The Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), I looked into classifications of lightning to better understand one pivotal scene between Emma and Augustus.

To lend some context: Emma, the book’s protagonist, has been sitting in her friend’s library, alternately staring out the window, reflecting on her time with her friends, and fixating on a portrait of Augustus Harley, the man she is deeply (read: obsessively) in love with. As the sun sets and storm clouds gather, casting shadows on Harley’s portrait, Harley himself enters the library, startling Emma. She hides out of sight as he sits on the sofa and loses himself in his own reverie—until her uncontrollable sigh makes him aware of her presence. At that moment, lightning flashes, “pale, yet vivid,” over her face, revealing her features to him (Hays 157). This lightning is quickly followed by “another [. . .] still brighter, blue and sulphurous [. . .] succeeded by a loud and long peal of thunder”; the lightning strikes a third time, exposing a “sheet of livid flame” which is again followed by a “crash of thunder, sudden, loud, short [. . .] bespeaking the tempest near” (157). The flashes of lightning disorient Emma, and she trips over the furniture in the room and falls (conveniently) into Harley’s arms. They remain in this awkward embrace until the storm subsides, at which point Emma untangles herself.

This scene could be interpreted as a sort of Gothic trope, in which the storm raging outside mirrors the passion raging inside Emma. Emma’s description of both the lightning and the darkness that follows it is sublime in the most Burkean sense: the experience “dazzle[s] and confound[s] the sight” (Hays 157), and she is rendered useless by her inability to orient herself in response to the overwhelming auditory and visual stimuli. But Emma’s unusual scientific specificity in describing the smell, brightness, and sounds generated by each bolt of lightning and subsequent clap of thunder suggests that we might tend to the lightning’s individual significance, rather than simply its role as part of a symbolic storm.

If we compare Emma’s experience of the storm to some Romantic-era scientific research regarding electricity and lightning, we actually find that each individual lightning bolt here can be decoded to convey a particular degree of danger. In the eighteenth century, people believed lightning was made of “Effluvia” composed specifically of sulfur and nitrate (we don’t believe this anymore) because, according to John Rowning, of “the sulphureous Smell which Lightning generally leaves behind it” and nitrate’s “liab[ility] to a sudden and violent Explosion” (145). These materials were thought to respond to a “sudden and violent Agitation” of the air, after which they would “flas[h] like Gun-powder, [and] occasion those Explosions, and Streams of Fire, which we call Thunder and Lightning” (Rowning 146, 145). Lightning was then classified according to its physical appearance; the two most common categories were the “zig-zag form” (what we might now call cloud to ground lightning) and one shaped like a ball of fire (ball lightning): the zig-zag form in particular is “accompanied with thunder [and] is well defined” and the ball-shaped lightning can “break into several pieces, each of which will explode” (Miscellany 172). The insistence on the presence of thunder is particularly important, as it was thought that lightning which appeared on its own was more or less “safe” (though by this point, scientists only loosely guessed that it had something to do with distance), while that which was soon followed by thunder was considered a serious danger. Finally, the color of the lightning also held significance: red lightning was thought to be harmless, while “the palest and brightest flashes [were] most destructive” (Miscellany 172). This differentiation between particular bolts of lightning both elucidates and complicates the sampling that appears in Emma Courtney, as they mark a pattern of moving from less dangerous to more so.

The first two bolts are “pale,” “blue,” and “sulphurous,” the first standing alone and the second followed by thunder. The color and odor suggest that they fall under the “zig-zag” category, particularly because the second is linked with subsequent thunder; still, the inclusion of this thunder in the second lightning strike but not the first suggests a movement of a closely approaching threat. The first lightning occurs simply after Augustus hears something in the room, and at this point, there is no “danger” to either of them, either physically or morally. However, the threat escalates when the second lightning (now with thunder) responds to Emma’s inability to answer Augustus’s questions regarding her purpose in the library (Hays 157). The third eruption of lightning, which seems more akin to the balls of fire rather than the zig-zag variety, incites a uniquely dangerous moment between Augustus and Emma. Emma “stumble[s]” and “s[i]nk[s] into [his] arms,” putting her into what we know by the story’s end is a compromising and morally problematic position as they remain unsupervised, arms about each other and holding hands (157). As the “thunder roll[s] off to a distance” (157), so does the brief loss of control, and Augustus quickly returns to his stoic distance from Emma.

Hays, Mary. Memoirs of Emma Courtney. 1796. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2009.

Rowning, John. A Compendious System of Natural Philosophy. Part II. London: 1745. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

“Surprizing Effects of Lightning.” An Historical Miscellany of the Curiosities and Rareties in Nature and Art. Vol. 1. London: 1794. Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.