Saturday 6 December 2014

Can I get there by candlelight? by Lydia Syson

In the spirit of advent, I’ve been having some (very secular) thoughts about candles.

These thoughts have come in the middle of a big edit. Being of a disgustingly pedantic disposition, I find it hard to write the word ‘candles’ in a manuscript without wanting to know exactly what kind of candles they might have been – surely not tallow or beeswax, in a church in Montmartre in 1871?  Paraffin wax?  Sperm whale oil? And since this is a church that has become a radical political club by night, would the votive candles have been left burning through all that revolutionary oratory? 

Simon Eliot’s investigation of reading by artificial light in The Nineteenth Century Novel: Realisms (edited by Delia da Sousa Correa) answered some of my questions. A century earlier, the vast bulk of night-time readers had faced more difficulties than choice.  The most basic form of illumination was firelight. Then there were simple oil lamps, not that different from the Roman variety, which smelled fishy or meaty, and were, like rush lights, fairly dim and smoky. Tallow candles, another option, usually made of solidified mutton fat were also unpleasantly smoky, smelly and greasy.  But at least these could be eaten in extremis, as the Trinity House lighthousekeepers apparently did when their feeble rations ran low. 

The beeswax candle had been the most effective as well as the most expensive means of lighting in Europe since the Middle Ages – and smelled divine. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the booming whaling industry transformed artificial lighting with spermaceti wax, which was clean, nearly odourless, and much better able to withstand hot rooms and burning summers without drooping than any of its competition.  (Spermaceti wax candles quickly became so ubiquitous that they provided the original measure for standardised units of ‘candlepower’.) 

In the nineteenth century, everything changed.  Never mind the introduction of gas, then paraffin oil, and finally the electric light bulb, invented in 1879.  Or even the mechanisation of candlemaking, or the developments in chemistry leading to paraffin wax, soon to be improved by the addition of stearic acid, which would have been used to make the kind of candles burning in my Montmartre church.  Until I started reading it up this week, I’d never appreciated quite what an improvement the new tightly-braided ‘self-consuming’ wick turned out to be in the 1820s.  

Before this wicks were simply made of twisted strands of cotton, and they were troublesome things which demanded frequent ‘snuffing’.  This actually used to mean trimming the wick, rather than putting a candle flame out, as I’d always assumed.  Hence the confusing sentence in Northanger Abbey when Catherine is trying to read the laundry list.  Alarmed at the dimness of her candle, she hastily snuffs it:  ‘Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one.’   If you’re stuck in a Gothic novel, the last thing you want is a unsnuffed ‘guttering candle’ (or perhaps it's the first?)  Unattended, those pesky old-fashioned wicks – so useful in novel-plotting – simply grew longer and longer until they curved right over and melted the retaining solid wall: all that precious molten wax flowed uselessly away down the gutter thus created, and the candle went out too quickly.

Last Sunday evening, I went to see a play at the new, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for the first time – an exciting, funny and moving production of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.  For more about this beautiful theatre built on Jacobean plans, do read Mary Hoffman’s February post. It was a completely new theatrical experience for me and I loved every minute.  At one point, the lights 'began to dim' - two ruffed stagehands came on and flame by flame, extinguished every candle in each hanging candelabra.  And then the stage really was pitch black.  The murder that followed –  a case of mistaken identity – became utterly convincing. Since I’d just heard Mal Peet bemoaning the plot difficulties caused by mobile phones, it also made me wonder if there was a time when novelists complained about the infuriating awkwardness of electric light bulbs.  So much harder to start a house fire (e.g. Jane Eyre) or engineer an encounter with a potential new lover  (e.g. La Bohème).

We’d managed to get the last seated tickets left in the house – ‘a very restricted view’, I was told – in the Musicians’ Gallery.  Actually, these were magical seats, which I thoroughly recommend trying. At only £15, they weren’t quite as much of a bargain as the amazing £5 groundling tickets at the Globe itself (best view in the house, by far) but they give you the same mesmerising proximity to the action.  You have to go backstage to get to them, escorted by an usher – carefully avoiding tripping over empty instrument cases and a musician lying on his back with his feet in the air – and then you sit at the top of the Frons Scenae, (see Mary’s post) looking right down on the actors, and sometimes across, drumbeats vibrating through you, seeing most of the play through a mass of candles. 

The effects of lowering and raising the main candelabra were reversed from our viewpoint, for it grew brighter for us when it got darker for the audience in the pit.  But, so close to the actors, we were all the more aware of the ways in which individual actors were responsible for spotlighting themselves, and often their fellow players, with single, double and triple candlesticks, crude lanterns, torches and sconces on walls or bedposts.  White ruffs and pearlescent make-up help reflect the light onto faces. 

Each performance apparently uses up to £500 worth of pure beeswax candles.  The smell is heavenly, and with their wonderful modern wicks they don’t need all that snuffing.  Jacobean performances had to be interrupted frequently for this to take place.  An experiment carried out in 1838 calculated that a tallow candle only gave off 23% of its original light within 19 minutes of being lit if its wick wasn't trimmed. 

Since encountering the ‘How many miles to Babylon?’ rhyme in my childhood in Kipling’s Rewards and Fairies and Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, I’ve always found its second question ‘can I get there by candlelight?’ extraordinarily evocative.  Now I know that the answer depends entirely on the candle.

(Images of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore are by photographer Simon Kane and reproduced with thanks to the Globe Theatre Image Archive)


Becca McCallum said...

What a wonderful, evocative post! I am terribly jealous of your theatre trip. I have been a groundling at the Globe, though.

And candles, candles, candles! I knew about the importance of the self-trimming wick before, but it's nice to know there are other people out there who like odd historical facts too. It's fun to look out for the snuffing 'scissors', both at antiques fairs, and in historical images.

Lydia Syson said...

Oh bother - that reminds me I meant to include a picture of those snuffers! So glad you liked the post.

Clare Mulley said...

I liked it too, I love candle snuffers and I like burning the candle at both ends too!

Carol Drinkwater said...

Yes, I enjoyed this post too, Lydia, thank you. A couple of months ago on this site I blogged about the whaling industry in Biarritz and the riches of the whale's liquid 'gold': its oil. Another majorly important source of light fuel was olive oil. Since millennia, all across the Mediterranean.
Clare, I have a couple candle snuffers too and also enjoy burning the candle at both ends!
Lydia, I love the jackets for your two previous books.

Carol Drinkwater said...

I forgot to say that actors will always look for their light - we are trained to do so, and wasting our time otherwise!

Joan Lennon said...

Evocative AND informative! Thanks!