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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