COAL, CANDLES AND CLARET: THE WORLD OF 1802 (PART TWO)

The world of Jane Austen was lit by candles, and on the evidence provided by watching the TV and film adaptations of P&P you would be forgiven for believing they were a pretty effective form of illumination. The reality was, of course, that they weren’t.

Indeed the only accurate portrayal I’ve seen of what it was like to live in a candle-lit world comes courtesy of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Barry Lyndon’. The film’s lighting is nothing less than magical (the director of photography, John Alcott, won an Oscar for his work). What it does do is give us an insight into the implications of candlelight. For instance:

* Was women’s preoccupation with maintaining a wan complexion driven by the need to be better seen at balls and soirées?’ Similarly, was the fashion for white gowns so marked because they caught the light – the limited light ‒ better.

* The huge candelabra used to light balls must have been a test in themselves: all that dripping wax had to drip somewhere …

* Watching Barry Lyndon it becomes obvious why Darcy didn’t see Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly (the ‘not handsome enough to tempt me’ scene). If Elizabeth was standing to the edge of the ballroom she would have been swathed in shadows and next to invisible …

* The Georgians’ liking for mirrors and crystal is easy to explain given how well they would reflect the limited candlelight.

Still from Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975)
Still from Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon” (1975)

And then there was the expense of the candles. There were two types of candle commonly available during the early 1800s: those made from tallow and those made from beeswax. Tallow is the fat from cows and sheep and though it is readily available (and hence relatively cheap), it stinks therefore in a grand house like Pemberley tallow candles would have been restricted to use below stairs. Above stairs, beeswax candles would be preferred, though their cost would mean they were used sparingly (this is one of the complaints I have of Barry Lyndon: the number of candles used is profligate). Even Elizabeth Darcy complains in my book when an inn she stays at adds three shillings to her bill for the ‘use of candles’. The cost of candles is one of the reasons why the rather more straitened Bennets would have eaten dinner early: theirs would have been a dawn-until-dusk existence.

As Mrs Bennet complains when she comes to Pemberley for Christmas:

Even before they had settled, Mrs Bennet began. ‘And when will dinner be, Lizzy?’

‘We eat at seven.’

‘Seven! But why so late? That is quite four hours distant. I declare that I will die of hunger in the meantime. Why do you dine at such an hour?’

‘I will call for some cake and biscuits, Mama, to prevent your starvation and as to the reason we dine so late: it is Darcy’s habit.’

‘Well, I find it quite perverse, but I understand it is the fashionable thing to do amongst those who consider themselves grand … so grand as to be neglectful of the cost of candles.’

Such was the value of beeswax candles that the stumps of used candles were given to the butler of a house as a prerequisite – he would have sold them for re-cycling. If the stubs were so valuable the thieving of the candles themselves would have made a tempting proposition …

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COAL, CANDLES AND CLARET: THE WORLD OF 1802 (PART ONE)

Reading Pride and Prejudice I was struck by how little description there is of the idiosyncrasies of the world inhabited by the book’s characters. The reason for this is simple: Jane Austen was writing for those living in that world … they knew everything there was to know of its faults and foibles.

My task is different: I have to persuade my readers that the action I describe is taking place in 1802 and therefore I have to take especial care that everything is accurately described. To have the reader suspend disbelief I had to make a determined effort that there were no jarring historical inaccuracies. This required a mountain of research and this, in turn, led me to the consideration of the 3Cs: coal, candles and claret.

My first home in England was a house in Scarborough which was built in the late eighteenth century and I was struck then by the number of fireplaces it had: one in each of the four rooms downstairs and one in each of the four bedrooms. Indeed, the ‘coal hole’ where the coal to service these fires was stored was so large that we converted it into an office! One house, eight fires: the amount of smoke it generated must have been prodigious.

I thought of this when I started researching Georgian London. Apparently, seen from afar, London of the early nineteenth century appeared as a dirty smudge of smoke on the horizon. Hardly surprising given that a veritable forest of chimneys – remember London’s population was by then a million strong – were belching out smoke from dawn until … well, dawn, soot floating through the air like oversized and very black snowflakes. And all this soot had to go somewhere. One of the most evocative descriptions I’ve read is that English houses of that era were like chimneys turned inside out: the outside was covered with soot and dirt while inside everything was clean and bright. Every vertical surface was covered by a patina of black, slimy soot so washing windows must have been a full-time occupation. Even the sheep which grazed in Hyde Park had black fleeces and, apparently, a letter sent from London could be identified by its smoky smell.

Stench aside, the other consequence of coal smoke was, of course, that it created the famous London fogs. I’ve always associated these with Victorian London – Sherlock Holmes and all that ‒ but Georgian Londoners would have been equally familiar with them. December 1813 was so cold that London was shrouded in a thick fog that lasted for eight days, this so dense that the shops in Bond Street had to light their lanterns at noon.

The impact of this on my story is two-fold. Walking would have been a filthy business – no wonder women wore veils and gloves – and hence those of the bon ton preferred to travel everywhere by carriage. An active girl like Elizabeth would have found this a great imposition.

Secondly, as soon as the sun set, the combination of darkness and fog would have made London – especially in the rookeries – a dangerous place. There was, after all, no street lighting – the first gas lamps weren’t introduced until 1813 – so venturing forth after dark needed real courage … especially for a respectable woman like Elizabeth Darcy.

MY ‘RE-IMAGINING’ OF THE END OF PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Writing a book which takes the story of Elizabeth and Darcy forward, the jumping off place must be the final chapter of Pride and Prejudice. The trouble is that I have the suspicion this chapter was written almost as an afterthought. The loose ends are tied up so neatly as to defy belief! Let’s have a look at it …

I’ll start – as Jane Austen does – with Mrs Bennet. It appears that the marriage of three of her daughters failed to make her ‘sensible, amiable and well-informed’. Indeed she continued to be ‘occasionally nervous and invariably silly’ so-much-so that ‘vicinity to her mother was not desirable even to his (Bingley’s) easy temper or her (Jane’s) affectionate heart’. Thus Jane and Bingley moved from Netherfield to Derbyshire to get away from the woman!

Now, my problem is that if Mrs Bennet was so obnoxious that even the ever-obliging Bingley was persuaded to move one hundred and thirty miles to be rid of her, then Darcy would almost certainly manage things to ensure she never came to visit Pemberley.

This I explain in my book as follows: ‘The reality was that Darcy had difficulty being in the same room as Elizabeth’s mother, finding her conversation shrill and superficial and her wit notable by its absence. As he told Elizabeth on several occasions, whilst he might, for her sake, endure Mrs Bennet’s stupidity, he was loath to inflict it on his other guests. Mindful of Darcy’s antipathy, Elizabeth issued no invitation to her father and mother to visit Pemberley.’

Aha, you might protest, but didn’t Jane Austen go on to say that Mr Bennet ‘delighted in going to Pemberley, especially when he was least expected’. This to my mind seems perverse. If Mr Bennet visited Pemberley than presumably he would be accompanied by wife, whose company Darcy detested. And, as I say, Pemberley is over a hundred miles from Longbourn – a three-day journey by coach – not a journey to be undertaken to spring a surprise visit. My suspicion is that Jane Austen liked Mr Bennet and wanted him to be happy in her post P&P world even if it meant being a little economical with her logic.

And then we come to Elizabeth’s other sisters. Removed from Lydia’s influence and spending ‘the chief of her time with her two elder sisters’ we learn that Kitty’s ‘improvement was great’. Other than this her post-P&P future is vague and not being a great fan of the character she barely features in ‘The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy’. As for Mary, she is the only daughter to remain at home, ‘submitting to this change without much reluctance’. For my part I always thought Mary a very interesting character so she’s given an important role in my story.

The other sister is, of course, Lydia, who, Jane Austen informs us, despite a lack of money, ‘retained all the claims to reputation that marriage had given her’. I find it amazing that the vain, impetuous, idle and decidedly addle-headed flibbertigibbet that was Lydia Wickham would settle for a life of impoverished respectability. As she announces in my story: ‘poverty makes virtue redundant’!

Finally there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh to whom Elizabeth and Darcy are finally reconciled and who condescends to wait on them at Pemberley. Again, this I find unconvincing, judging Lady Catherine to be the type of woman to take a grudge to the grave. That is how I have portrayed her.

The upshot is I’ve played a little fast-and-loose with Jane Austen’s too-neat conclusion. As my narrator might say:

Miss Jane Austen was a woman of rare delicacy and it was this that moved her to append the final chapter to her great work ‘Pride and Prejudice’. In this she attempted to persuade her readers that the future lives of her characters would be all calmness and felicity but I must advise you that they were not. In the year 1802 dark forces were at work which threatened to destroy England and all the English people held dear. It was Fitzwilliam Darcy and his new bride, Miss Elizabeth Bennet – the woman who was to become celebrated as ‘The Formidable Mrs Elizabeth Darcy’ ‒ who stood foursquare and resolute against this avalanche of wickedness and treachery. Herewith I present for your edification the truth of these events but beware, this is a frank and unvarnished record of the base iniquity then abroad in the world. Understand then that truth sits as an ill-met companion to sensibility and squeamishness. You have been warned.

CHOOSING A YEAR

As my intention is to show the impact on Elizabeth of her emerging from the hermetically sealed life she enjoyed in Meryton and interacting with the more powerful, influential and famous members of Darcy’s class, it was important to define when the action was set.

This is actually quite tricky. All the dates used in “Pride and Prejudice’ come without years so we are left with no alternative but to surmise. According to the sources I have referenced Jane Austen began writing ‘Pride and Prejudice’ – then entitled ‘First Impressions’ ‒ sometime around 1797 and when it had been rejected by publishers – just shows what they know! – held it in a drawer, gathering dust until 1811-12 when she remodeled it, re-titled it and re-submitted it. The ‘Pride and Prejudice’ we know was published on the 27th January 1813. So the book’s genesis took fifteen years … fifteen very momentous years which saw the end of the French Revolution, rebellion in Ireland, Napoleon’s rise to power, Trevithick’s ‘Puffing Eagle’ taking to the rails, Nelson triumphant at Trafalgar, the abolition of slave trade, war with the United States, the assassination of Spencer Percival and much, much more.

In terms of specific dates other writers have been at odds: ‘Longbourn’ by Jo Baker has the events of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ taking place in 1810-1811 whilst in ‘Death Comes to Pemberley’ P.D. James sets them in 1796-1797.

The opening chapter of my book has Elizabeth and Jane travelling from Pemberley to London. As October 1802 was a bitterly cold month, they needed to be well protected. This is pretty much how I see them: heavy pelisses, fur wraps and muffs and substantial bonnets. The flannel petticoats have to be assumed!
The opening chapter of my book has Elizabeth and Jane travelling from Pemberley to London. As October 1802 was a bitterly cold month, they needed to be well protected. This is pretty much how I see them: heavy pelisses, fur wraps and muffs and substantial bonnets. The flannel petticoats have to be assumed!

For my dating I have taken the only two historical clues I can find in ‘Pride and Prejudice’: the reference to the ‘restoration of peace’ which I have taken to mean the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802 (hence the events of P&P must be before that date, otherwise Jane Austen would have been not only a gifted writer but a remarkable prescient); and Wickham’s tour in the Militia, the Militia being most active during the ‘Invasion Scares’ of 1798-1802.

Therefore I have plumped for Bingley arriving at Netherfield on 29th September 1800 (Michaelmas) and Elizabeth and Darcy marrying on 17th October, 1801. With the Treaty of Amiens signed on the 25th May 1802 and peace restored between England and France, the newly married Elizabeth and Darcy would be free to enjoy their Grand Tour …