Thursday, January 27, 2022

Alias 68: Living in a Cold House

 "Baby, it's cold outside."--Song by Frank Loesser

Nobody likes a cold house.  Correction:  I do not like a cold house.  Our thermostat is a liar:  it says 68, but feels like 60.  When the temperature drops below zero outside, I add an afghan to my excessively sweater-ish ensemble.   I wrap it cocoon-meets-shawl-style, inspired by a photo of Kim Kardashian wearing a $200 fleece blanket.  Mine is shabby, strictly for indoors

It is a dilemma:  energy conservation vs. comfort.  We still heed  President Jimmy Carter's advice:  Keep the thermostat at 68 and wear a sweater.  He probably was the only president to be photographed in a cardigan sweater. After he was defeated by the Republican ex-movie star Ronald Reagan, Carter became a philanthropist, novelist, and nonfiction writer. 

Some people like it cold.  In English novels, many characters like it very cold. In Pamela Hansford Johnson's satire, Night and Silence Who Is Here?,  the hero, Matthew, a Visiting Fellow at an American college, complains about American overheated rooms.  And then there are the spinsters in 19th-century English novels who don't like the cold but don't light a fire unless they have visitors.  (Perhaps I'm thinking of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford, but this is a Victorian trope: Little Dorritt and Oliver Twist could not have been warm, either.)  And sometimes in 20th-century English novels,  impoverished characters live in cold rented rooms because they lack the coins to feed the heat meter. I'm trying to remember titles:  Norman Collins's London Belongs to Me?  George Orwell's Keep the Aphidistra Flying?  Patrick Hamilton's Twenty thousand Streets under the Sky?  One of Philip Larkin's novels?  Do give me some titles if you think of any.

In a recent essay in The Spectator,  "The Joy of Cold Houses," the writer Olivia Fane declares that she likes a cold house.  She does not turn on the central heating unless the pipes are in danger of freezing.  She writes,

"Both my husband and I grew up in large, freezing houses when winters were truly cold and we had to regularly chip the ice off bedroom windows in the morning. We would feel a sort of moral victory over the elements and a delight in whatever warmth we might find, perhaps crouching over a tiny fire or leaning up against an Aga. My youth was chilly and happy. So winter, thrust whatever you like at me — I will survive. "

And having read that essay, I am happy that I grew up in a warm house.  It also makes me thankful for the 60-alias-68 thermostat. 

12 comments:

  1. Interesting post. Enjoyed reading it with thermostat set on 72 in my suburban Houston home.

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  2. I've quoted Francis Kilvert's ultimate "cold house experiences" to you, so I won't repeat them, but - like Olivia Fane - I can remember ice on the bedroom windows. Unlike her, I feel no nostalgia for it. J.L. Carr based the size of the books published by his Quince Tree Press on the principle that 'These books... are perfect for cold bedrooms - only one hand and a wrist need suffer exposure'. By the look of photographs, his own house was post-WWII, so coldness in the bedroom seems to be a matter of choice in his case. A friend who went to an English public (i.e. private) school said that the dormitories were unheated throughout the year, allegedly for undefined "character-forming" reasons.
    One important aspect is that large upper-class houses were full of servants, who provided heat for their betters downstairs and insulation upstairs by living in attic rooms and that such houses were designed for show, not comfort - Versailles was infamous for food beeing cold when it reached the table, its lack of sanitation and its draughts.

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    1. I like J.L. Carr's philosophy of the perfect size for books in a cold bedroom. Certainly one hesitates to disturb the cocoon of blankets to turn a page. Some Americans - upper-middle class - have a less extreme yet slightly annoying habit of cracking open their windows open on cold nights. I am all for this in the summer, of course.

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    2. In fact, there was a justification for keeping windows open - some people even nailed them open - up to the mid-20th century in that I.B. was spread by people sharing warm unventilated rooms.

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    3. Well, one doesn't want to get ill. Should that be T.B.? Thank God that was wiped out.

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    4. Whoops!
      Yes, T.B.
      It's on its way back, it seems...

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    5. Nothing would surprise me in these crazy times!

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  3. Jim, my British husband who grew up in an unheated house (they had gas fire in one fireplace) kept the thermostat at 64 at night and 68 during the day. (Jim's father said he couldn't breathe in an American-style heated house. I doubt the man ever spent any time in a heated place but for his job and then the thermostat was kept low.) Anyway I wore sweaters, Izzy wrapped herself in blankets. She and I also have oiled-filled electric radiators for 3 rooms we mostly stay in. She keeps hers running during the day always. In the 9th year after his death, I've gradually put up that thermostat so in the fall I put it down to 70 when we sleep and up to 72 during the day. It is a lot more comfortable for us. Now the last 4 weeks have been very cold and I put the thermostat at 74 when I get up and put it up and down between 72 and 74. It gets a little too warm sometimes for me (I am 75 and now get chilblains through my gloves outside in the strong cold), but not for Izzy.

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    1. Like you, I'm all for comfort! It's minus-2, so let's turn up the heat. I think you're very sensible to keep it at 72 during the day. Today I've got TWO afghans. And I do wonder if men somehow have warmer body temperatures than women, because they seem not to feel the cold as much.

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  4. Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love was excellent on the cold house. They all huddle for warmth in the Hons cupboard and the novel begins and ends in the same place. Your blog title would make a good book of literary miscellany!

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    1. Oh, I had forgotten that! It makes me laugh to think of it. I need to reread Nancy Mitford. Everybody has "cold house" experiences, it seems. :)

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