Like many others I’m really enjoying watching Wolf Hall on the television, but I don’t want to write here about the wonderful acing, or the fantastic buildings, the amazing script or the many beautiful objects on show, although it has all those things. I want to write about the candles.
Most period drama would have you believe that houses in the past were as well-lit as they are today when the household gathered to talk or to eat or to do anything else at the end of the day. I think Cranford is probably the only one prior to Wolf Hall that showed people depending on candles for light after nightfall and gave the viewer an idea of what that means.
Wolf Hall has had two memorable, for me anyway, scenes showing candlelight. In one scene Cromwell’s sister-in-law is putting out candles in the room where he is sitting reading. As the candles go out the room gets darker, significantly darker. A small thing, you might say, but it clearly took a lot of candles to produce adequate light for him to read. Yes, I do realise that there was also artificial lighting for the cameras, but it was a useful reminder that houses were not full of light after sunset. In the second scene Cromwell returns from a night visit to the king with his sons. They all light candles to light them to their beds.
I mention this because I read many books set in times before gas or electricity were used for domestic lighting which forget candles. Often I’ve read about some nocturnal escapade and thought ‘what are they doing with the candle while they’re doing that?’ All suspension of disbelief vanishes.
Candles can be a useful literary device. They can be blown out at a critical moment, or show the emotional state of the person holding one or be difficult to find or light in an emergency, thus heightening the tension.
Candles can also be used to show the wealth or otherwise of a character. In the Middle Ages tallow candles were used by the poor and wax candles by those with money. Naturally enough the different types of candle had different qualities of light and different smells. Tallow was made from animal fat and the candles made from it smelt dreadful and gave off a lot of smoke. Beeswax candles, on the other hand, gave off a good light without much smoke. A story using light or smell to evoke atmosphere could make much of this.
In Regency times candles could also give clues about wealth. Tallow was still used in poorer homes and beeswax in richer ones. The tallow was of a better quality than that used in medieval times and the manufacture was slightly more sophisticated. Wax candles could be moulded or made of thin sheets wound around the core, as in the picture. A third type of light was made with rushes: the rushlight. This was made by drawing a prepared rush through waste household fat. Since candles were heavily taxed, there was a strong incentive to obtain them from places other than a licensed chandler’s. Apparently people could tell how long balls were intended to last from the length of the candles used to light them, although I’m not sure how easy, or relevant, it would be to weave such a fact into a narrative.
One of the things that taught me the most about lighting in the nineteenth century was seeing a gaming table at Hampton Court. In each of the corners of the table was a space in which a candle could be set. It makes perfect sense, of course. How else could card players see their cards? A whole host of dramatic opportunities opened up for future novels just from seeing that one object.
Wolf Hall may have a complicated plot and it may be difficult to work out who all the characters are, but every time I notice how dark it is I’ll be thinking about the importance of candles to our ancestors.
Are there things in novels set in the past that pull you out of a story or have you come across novels in which candles are used to good effect?