Skip to main content

The House Is on Fire


The House Is on Fire

Rachel Beanland follows up her debut novel, FLORENCE ADLER SWIMS FOREVER, with THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE, a dramatic and meticulously researched fictional retelling of the Richmond Theater Fire of 1811.

When the Richmond Theater burned to the ground on December 26, 1811, it was one of the biggest tragedies that the United States had ever witnessed. There were more than 600 people in attendance that night, and the mood of joy and conviviality suddenly turned to shock and terror when a piece of equipment malfunctioned and started a fire. The blaze began behind the curtain, but it quickly devoured the building’s roof, collapsed its stairs and trapped many of the guests while forcing others to engage in a stampede through its doors.

"With its unpacking of a real-life tragedy and beautifully rendered, complex characters, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE is the very best that historical fiction has to offer: a riveting investigation of a dark period in our nation’s history and a championing of the voices most often silenced."

In retelling the tumultuous events of that night, Beanland introduces readers to Sally Henry Campbell, the 31-year-old widowed daughter of Patrick Henry; Cecily Patterson, an enslaved teen whose chaperoning of her master’s daughter, Maria Price, marks one of the few nights that she is not being sexually assaulted by his son; Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith who puts his own fight for freedom at risk when he heroically saves several women; and Jack Gibson, a stagehand with a heart of gold who has always dreamed of finding fame on the stage.

To say that THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE starts with a bang is putting it mildly. Shortly after Beanland’s introductions of Sally, Cecily, Jack and Gilbert in alternating chapters, a pulley controlling a lit chandelier on the stage malfunctions after Jack forgets to extinguish the candles on it. In his haste to impress his boss at the Placide & Green Company, he follows directions to raise the chandelier rather than lowering it mid-act, and the play’s backdrop soon catches fire. “The house is on fire!” cries the actor on stage. Before Jack can blink, pandemonium has broken out.

Although she is attending the theater with her master’s daughter, Cecily is forced to sit on the ground floor with the rest of the colored folk and poor white people. As a result, her escape is much quicker than others, but the same cannot be said for many of the city’s elite, seated on the second- and third-floor balconies. This includes Sally and, presumably, Maria. When Cecily escapes, she makes a half-hearted attempt to look for Maria, but the power of the fire is already overwhelming. As she watches the city’s wealthiest and most composed people jump from the theater’s highest windows, Maria’s survival seems impossible. But Cecily’s doesn’t --- and when she sees her master and his rapist son searching for her and Maria in the crowds, she sees an opportunity for freedom.

On the third floor, Sally and her sister-in-law, Margaret, have just learned about the collapse of the staircase. As the men panic, Sally and the other women take charge, identifying bodies, encouraging each other out of windows and, finally, making the leap themselves. Although less fiery, the situation on the ground is no better, with many dead bodies and grave injuries, including Margaret’s shattered shin.

Also on the ground is Gilbert, who, despite not attending the theater himself, has arrived on the scene to look for the young white girl his beloved cares for. As the enslaved worker of a brutal man, Gilbert is fully aware of the price of freedom and life. But he also continues to believe in the good of people, and he knows that he cannot sit idly by as men and women fall to their deaths. As Sally and Margaret head to the home of a healer who is doing more for people than the town’s own doctors, Gilbert begins to catch bodies in his arms, cushioning their falls and saving numerous lives.

As the death toll rises, the lives of Sally, Cecily, Jack and Gilbert change, and the real story of the night is revealed: Placide & Green, terrified of facing an inquisition and responsibility for the deaths, plots to blame the fire on a slave revolt, despite the guilt, shame and disagreements of Jack, whose love of the written word has infused him with a terrific moral compass. With racial tensions already high in the Virginia town, Black people become an obvious scapegoat, even as the cowardice of their white owners and neighbors is exposed.

Meanwhile, an outraged Sally watches as the story of the night becomes not one of heroic women and the superhero Gilbert, but of (white) men taking the credit yet again for the work of their women and colored peers. At the same time, Cecily plots for a journey north after letting the fire fake the news of her death. Before the book’s conclusion, these characters’ lives are braided together in fascinating, achingly real ways, with Beanland reminding readers of the power of love amid destruction, making the right choices and redemption.

In an author’s note, Beanland says that she based her four protagonists on real people who witnessed the fire, using firsthand reports and documents whenever possible. Her research is meticulous, and not only does she dutifully report the events of that night, she sets the cultural scene for her readers as well: the slavery, the racism, the roles of women and the class divides that cost many attendees their lives. More than that, though, she adds a raw, human touch to these characters, bringing them to life not just in fact but in spirit.

Writing in short, alternating chapters, Beanland keeps the momentum of her book high, even as the moral questions she debates --- what our response to mass catastrophe says about us as a society; who we choose to save and why; and what we owe one another when we are not treated fairly --- ground the novel in an upending takedown of the history we are taught and the history that is true.

With its unpacking of a real-life tragedy and beautifully rendered, complex characters, THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE is the very best that historical fiction has to offer: a riveting investigation of a dark period in our nation’s history and a championing of the voices most often silenced. Beanland has done great justice not only to the history of the Richmond Theater Fire, but to the real people who witnessed it, survived it and saved others from it. Tautly written and sensitively told, this is a masterwork from an author as compassionate as she is thorough.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 7, 2023

The House Is on Fire
by Rachel Beanland