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Archive for October, 2017

My dear friend Kate is a member of our select and very small Janeite group, Janeites on the James. We’ve not met often recently due to busy schedules and life’s vicissitudes. When Kate’s wee one was born almost two years ago I gave her the board book Emma by Jennifer Adams to read to her daughter.

Emma by Jennifer Adams

Our sweet peanut, as she is affectionately known, loves to hear her mama read Emma. Jennifer Adams has written another series of books for toddlers.

Peanut’s Papa may soon be sent to Paris for several months on a business venture. Coincidentally, Jennifer Adams has written another series of books for toddlers, this time taking them on a tour to famous cities – like Paris, New York, San Francisco, and London.

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My Little Cities by Jennifer Adams and pictures by Greg Pizzou: Paris, New York, San Francisco, and London

You can imagine our wee one’s delight in reading these books designed just for her age group.

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Evie, or Peanut, reading Paris, where Daddy might be stationed.

This beautifully illustrated series also includes more detailed information for parents at the end of each book that they can explain to their budding globe-toddling child.

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Notes for parents

For example, at the end of San Francisco the notes state that:

The Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most famous landmark and one of the wonders of the modern world. The bridge opened in 1937 and is 4,200 feet (1,280 meters) long. It is a suspension bridge…

Kate tells me that Evie reads her book independently now. Her reaction? Priceless!!!!!

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As a sidenote, Jane Austen was a doting and affectionate aunt and an impressive and witty story teller. Her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh recalls:

Though in the course of fifty years I have forgotten much, I have not forgotten that Aunt Jane was the delight of all her nephews and nieces. We did not think of her as being clever, still less as being famous: but we valued her as one always kind, sympathising and amusing.

Jane Austen’s connection to us and our children remains strong to this day.

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Fashion Plate (Afternoon Dress for Decr. 1800) LACMA M.86.266.37Just as fire was the centerpiece of most evening gatherings in Jane Austen’s time, candles also played a vital role in Regency life and culture. Today, family members work or read in separate rooms in the evening and go to bed at different times (due to the advent of electricity), but people in Austen’s day lived differently: They sat together to read books, write letters, and socialize in the evening—all by candlelight.

As readers, we should consider Austen’s evening scenes with a careful eye to the lighting. Dinners, dances, card games, and music were all undertaken by candlelight. Many of our favorite scenes—in which Austen brings her heroines and heroes, villains and vicars to life—take place in the evening. Candlelit rooms provide the perfect spot for Emma and Frank Churchill to gossip, for Fanny to sink into the shadows unnoticed, for Lydia and Kitty to romp with the officers, and for Anne Elliot to hide her tears at the piano while the others dance. Indeed, when Darcy watches Elizabeth and Caroline Bingley walking around the drawing-room and quips that their “figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking,” (PP 56) he watches them walk by candlelight after dinner and tea (served later in the evening). Austen uses candle-power (or the lack thereof) to communicate the rank and financial status of her characters as well as set the stage for some of her best scenes.

Candles in Regency Life

In Austen’s lifetime, virtually every task after dusk required candles. Fall and winter months in England are cold and dark with only 8-9 hours of sunlight during some months. It was a mark of wealth to have enough candles to burn in the evening for work and pleasure. In working class homes, people might burn a rushlight (which burned for 20-30 minutes) or simply retire early. In genteel homes, where candles were plentiful, people stayed up later. In her JAW article “Lighting the Dark,” Vic Sanbourn tells us, “Only the more affluent members of society could afford to burn a large number of candles at a time, and their homes were characterized by spacious windows and well placed reflectors and mirrors.” This was common in most of the grand homes in Austen’s novels, which we see when Elinor and Marianne accompany Lady Middleton to a party in London and “enter a room splendidly lit up, quite full of company, and insufferably hot” (SS 175).

During quiet evenings at home, families and small groups shared the firelight or a few candles together. As Austen states in one of her letters to Cassandra: “We have got the second volume of “Espriella’s Letters,” and I read it aloud by candle-light. (Letters 147). As one might imagine, working by candlelight was not easy on the eyes. Austen alludes to this when Lady Middleton remarks that it might “hurt [Lucy’s] eyes to work filigree by candlelight” and suggests that she “ring the bell for some working candles” (144). And in Northanger Abbey, when General Tilney stays up to read at night, he says his “eyes will be blinding” from reading so late by candlelight (NA 187).

Candles Speak Volumes

Everything in Austen’s novels means something—including the kind and number of candles used in different households. Beeswax candles burned brighter and more efficiently but were more expensive. Tallow candles were cheaper but gave off less light, smoked, and smelled of mutton. In her article “Let there be light! Candles in the time of Jane Austen,” Sue Dell of the Jane Austen’s House Museum says that “[t]allow candles would have been the most common candles in such a home as the Austens’.” She explains: “Even the very wealthy used wax candles sparingly; Jane’s brother, Edward, would have used them for entertaining, but tallow candles would have been used for everyday life” (Dell). In Emma, Mrs. Elton boasts that a certain Mrs. Bragge even has wax candles in her school room (300); however, Dell says this “would have been instantly recognised by contemporary readers as untrue” because “no-one would do such a thing” (Dell). Mrs. Elton also decides she will educate Highbury society and give “one very superior party—in which her card-tables should be set out with their separate candles and unbroken packs in the true style” (290). In affluent and pretentious homes like General Tilney’s in Northanger Abbey, candles are plentiful. When it is time to retire, Miss Tilney rings the bell for candles, which the butler comes to light (187). They each take their candles to bed, but the General stays up to work. In Emma, when they have supper at the ball, Mrs. Bates says, “I never saw any thing equal to the comfort and style—Candles everywhere” (329).

Conversely, at the Price home in Mansfield Park, even one candle is hard to come by. When Mr. Price arrives, Austen paints the scene vividly: “with something of the oath kind he kicked away his son’s port-manteau and his daughter’s bandbox in the passage, and called out for a candle; no candle was brought, however, and he walked into the room” (MP 379). Fanny rises to greet him but sits down again “on finding herself undistinguished in the dusk, and unthought of” (379). When a candle is finally brought, Fanny is still forgotten as her father reads the newspaper, “without seeming to recollect her existence. The solitary candle was held between himself and the paper, without any reference to her possible convenience” (382).

Candles Set the Stage

As anyone who has ever camped, had their electricity shut off, or eaten dinner at a romantic restaurant knows, everything looks different by candlelight. Shadows grow and dark corners emerge. The mood changes. Austen uses candles to set the tone in many scenes in her novels, and she capitalizes on the mere lack of a candle to throw rooms into confusion, provide cover for secret goodbyes, send people to bed early, and propel one imaginative young girl into hysterics.

In Austen’s novels, candlelight provides cover for all sorts of things. In a practical sense, candles hide visible flaws as when Mrs. Weston comments on the wallpaper at the Crown Inn in Emma: “[T]his paper is worse than I expected. Look! in places you see it is dreadfully dirty; and the wainscot is more yellow and forlorn than any thing I could have imagined” (253). Her husband responds that she will “see nothing of it by candlelight. It will be as clean as Randalls by candlelight.”

In a more romantic sense, Austen uses semi-darkness to cover a goodbye between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. We read the following scene in Emma:

[Jane Fairfax] was afterwards looking for her shawl—Frank Churchill was looking also—it was growing dusk, and the room was in confusion; and how they parted, Mr. Knightley could not tell.  He remained at Hartfield after all the rest, his thoughts full of what he had seen; so full, that when the candles came to assist his observations, he must—yes, he certainly must, as a friend—an anxious friend—give Emma some hint, ask her some question. He could not see her in a situation of such danger, without trying to preserve her. (349)

We have no proof that anything more than “certain expressive looks” pass between Frank and Jane as they part under the covering of the dusky room; however, Austen uses this moment to give Mr. Knightley a hint as to the true nature of their relationship while everyone else is busy, before the candles are lit.

In Northanger Abbey, Austen uses a “single lamp” and the light it emits to set the stage for a nervous Catherine Morland in the gothic-style scene she paints on Catherine’s first night at the Abbey. The light from her candle and the fire are, quite humorously, the only thing standing between Catherine and emotional stability. Catherine enters “her room with a tolerably stout heart” at the end of the evening (167). However, once the fire dies down, she is left with only her candle to light the room. When Catherine “snuffs” the candle, meaning to “cut or pinch off the burned part of a candle wick” (Dictionary.com), she accidentally extinguishes it as well. Her response is hilarious:

Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath. Darkness impenetrable and immovable filled the room. A violent gust of wind, rising with sudden fury, added fresh horror to the moment. (170)

Catherine’s bravery dissolves once the candle is out. Austen says, “A cold sweat stood on her forehead, the manuscript fell from her hand, and groping her way to the bed, she jumped hastily in, and sought some suspension of agony by creeping far underneath the clothes” (170). She is unable to sleep until 3 a.m. The reader chuckles, but Austen is well aware that we understand Catherine’s plight. Though some of us may not like to admit it, we all—at some point in our lives—have jumped under the covers when the wind blew, the curtains moved, and the lights suddenly went out.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen. Edited by R. W. Chapman, Oxford UP, 1988.

—. Jane Austen’s Letters. Edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 4th ed., Oxford UP, 2011.

Dell, Sue. “Let there be light! Candles in the time of Jane Austen.” Jane Austen’s House Museum, 12 Jan 2016. https://www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk/single-post/2016/1/12/Let-there-be-light-Candles-in-the-time-of-Jane-Austen. Date accessed: 1 October 2017.

Sanborn, Vic. “Lighting the darkness.” Jane Austen’s World, 29 April 2007. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2007/04/29/lighting-the-darkness-in-the-regency-era/. Date accessed: 1 October 2017.

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