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.

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2 thoughts on “COAL, CANDLES AND CLARET: THE WORLD OF 1802 (PART ONE)”

    1. An interesting observation, Olga, and one I’d never considered. It may have been, of course, the sheer size of London that caused the smog – in 1802 London had a population of one million, twice the number of any other city in Europe. It could also have been a function of the English weather. But your theory of the Continentals burning wood rather than coal is one I’ll investigate … wood stoves are, after all, much more efficient than open hearths.

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