Set in the 1800s, long before such things as feeding tubes, living wills, or functional MRI’s had been conceived of, Firelight tells the story of Charles, an English gentleman farmer who contracts with Elisabeth, an impoverished Swiss lady to bear him a child in secret. Elisabeth regrets her decision to give up the baby, and after a seven year-long search, convinces Charles’ sister-in-law to hire her as governess to Louisa, the defiant and illiterate daughter their union has produced. It is only then that the reason Charles wanted a child is revealed; he’s married to a woman, Amy, whose head injuries from a riding accident have left her in a coma since shortly after their wedding.
Amy is not portrayed being dressed, bathed, fed, or having her muscles stretched by servants or nurses, and yet this must happen off-screen, because she is neat, presumably clean, has a good appearance, and doesn’t have any apparent contractures or pressure sores, as might be expected after a decade comatose. She also seems to be of normal weight, in spite of the fact that feeding tubes and liquid nutrients have yet to be invented. Maids care for her, or at least sit with her as she lies in bed staring up at the ceiling, round the clock in the off-limits attic.
This isn’t Jane Eyre, though, and Elisabeth has no compunction against entering into a relationship with Charles, though he does initially experience pangs of guilt over the damage to his wife’s reputation. After one encounter, Charles reveals to Elisabeth in the light of the fire that he had sometimes thought of “letting her go”, but did not want to do so without a sure sign from his wife that she wanted to die.
Eventually the bills mount and the creditors close in (presumably from the cost of Amy’s care, as Charles seems to be the fiscally responsible one in the family). Elisabeth successfully bonds with Louisa, and it becomes apparent to Charles that Amy stands in the way of the happy nuclear family they desire.
Presumably divorce laws were tougher in those days, and few options for long-term care existed. On one particularly cold night, Charles makes the decision to euthanize his wife. He does ask Amy once more for a sign, but when none is forthcoming he dismisses the maid, opens the window, removes her blankets, and extinguishes her fireplace. The doctor is called when the next shift discovers her, and he pronounces her dead while everyone present looks askance at Charles.
Charles’ libertine father approves, and Amy’s sister presumes her death means that Charles is now free to marry her. Instead Charles and Elisabeth further defy social convention to marry and make their relationship known.