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Posts Tagged ‘lighting in the Regency Era’

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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They would see, [Sir john] said, only one gentleman there besides himself; a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay. He hoped they would all excuse the smallness of the party, and could assure them it should never happen so again. He had been to several families that morning in hopes of procuring some addition to their number, but it was moonlight and every body was full of engagements. – Sir John Middleton, Chapter 7, Sense and Sensibility

In his reference to moonlight, Sir John was speaking about the habit in the Regency Era of arranging evening visits and social events during the full moon. Although 400,000 times less bright than the noon sun, a full moon would still light the landscape enough for riding or walking. In war time, generals refrained from moving their troops under such a bright night sky, preferring the cloak of complete darkness under a lesser moon.

Of course no amount of planning could predict a cloudy sky. For such an event, the carriages were outfitted with carriage lamps. Before street lighting became prevalent, footmen (for the wealthy) or link-boys (for hire), carrying lit tapers or torches would run in front of the carriage or accompany a pedestrian to illuminate the road or sidewalk. (Georgian Index) According to Samuel Pepys, “links were torches of tow or pitch to light the way.” Toward mid-century, such torches would be discarded, and night travelers would be accompanied by an escort who would hold a lantern aloft on a pole.

In many old towns—London, Bath, York, Edinboro’, &c.,—“link-boy-slabs” and “extinguishers” may be seen in position, but I have searched in vain for such a relic in Nottingham. They must have been fairly plentiful at one time, for there are numerous references in the Borough Records to “link-boys” who carried torches, to light the way for the “chairmen who carried passengers in sedan-chairs —a mode of conveyance in vogue throughout the 18th century, and still lingering in use within the recollection of some of our older members. (According to Deering Hackney sedans were used for hire to carry persons who are taken sick from home, and ancient ladies to church and visiting, as also young ones in rainy weather.”) Nottingham in the 18th Century

In the Sir Joshua Reynolds painting above of Cupid as a Link boy (1773, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo), one art historian conjectured that, due to his sad, vapid expression, the young model was an actual link boy.

I see Inigo Jones’s great arches
in my mind’s eye, his water-inky clouds,
the paraphernalia of a royal masque;
dung and detritus in the crazy streets,
the big coaches bellying in their skirts
pothole to pothole, and the men of fire,
the link-boys slouching and the rainy wind.

-Geoffrey Hill, Treatise of Power

By 1750, oil lamps were prevalent in the streets of London and by 1807 gas lights were introduced in that crowded metropolis. Click here for my other post about lighting during the Regency Era, Lighting the Darkness.

Third image from the Georgian Index

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Illustration from the Jane Austen Society of Australia Website

(Post Updated: May, 2008): Until the last two centuries, adequate interior lighting was difficult to achieve. Oil lamps, around since ancient times, were smelly, and fish oil had an especially unpleasant odor. Rushlights dipped in tallow were commonly used, since candles were prohibitively expensive. It was the custom for families to sit near the fireplace at night as a group, reading, doing needlework, or telling stories, but generally people rose with the light and went to bed shortly after sunset. 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.

“Traditionally in England, candles were used in great halls, monasteries and churches of medieval times. In addition, candles were used to light cottages and shops. King Alfred of England stuck torches in walls to supply lighting. The simplest (and smelliest) candles known as rush light were made by dipping rushes in leftover kitchen fat. For many centuries, candles were considered expensive items in Europe. Town-made candles from the wax-chandler were available for those who could afford them. These candles were made of wax or animal fat and were placed in silver, wooden or pewter candlesticks.”


Until the 19th century tallow candles and rushlights were the principal form of light for the poor. The slaughter of one bullock provided enough tallow for three years’ worth of candles and a well organised household could produce 300 or so at a candle making session. The Newsfinder Website: A Short History of Candles discusses how lighting remained essentially unchanged for hundreds of years until the early 19th century. Then, “the growth of the whaling industry in the late 18th century brought the first major change in candlemaking since the Middle Ages, when spermaceti – a wax obtained by crystallizing sperm whale oil – became available in quantity. Like beeswax, the spermaceti wax did not elicit a repugnant odor when burned, and produced a significantly brighter light. It also was harder than either tallow or beeswax, so it wouldn’t soften or bend in the summer heat. Historians note that the first “standard candles” were made from spermaceti wax.” From Cierra Candles

In Light Fittings in Georgian and Early Victorian Interiors, Jonathan Taylor writes,

“Candles were used sparingly. Even in the homes of the wealthy, when the family was not entertaining guest, only the minimum number of candles were used in a room at any one time, and these were positioned close to where the light was most needed. A single candle was carried to light the way from one room to another. Everyday lighting was therefore moveable, and not part of the architectural design of the interior.”

George III Regency Mirror, circa 1810, with Two pairs of ormolu candle arms

In The Transformation of Lanhydrock House, Cornwall, 1758–1829: a paper presented to the CHN Conference 2002: The Country House, the authors describe the architectural parts of a house’s lighting:

“The main lighting in the eighteenth century house was by ‘2 glass lanterns’ one in the Prayer Room Passage and the other on the Staircase. The Dining Room was well illuminated by a ‘pier glass with chandelier’, ‘2 girandola in white carved frames’ and candle branches over the chimney. By c.1829 Wedgwood candlesticks and glass candelabra were replacing the more traditional candle branches and Corinthian pillared candlesticks. The emphasis towards quality lighting was displayed through the use of Spermaceti candles that were running low in stock by 1802. 26 There was no evidence by 1829 of oil lighting in the house. This reflects the often slow adherence to some aspects of contemporary technology.”

After the turn of the century, there was an explosion in candlemaking technology, as the Newsfinder website describes.

In 1709 in Britain, candles were taxed and people forbidden from making their own. This punitive tax was eventually repealled in 1831, resulting in a renaissance of decorative candles. It was not until new alternatives were looming when frenchman M. Chevereul purified tallow by treating it with alkali & sulphuric acid thus creating a clean-burning stearin candle which was long-lasting.

M. Cambaceres another Frenchman devised the plaited wick in 1825. This he steeped in mineral salts to make it curve on burning, thereby obviating the need to trim wicks.

In 1834 Joseph Morgan created a candle making machine which could produce up to 1500 candles an hour. In 1850, parrafin wax appeared, shortly followed in 1857 with the combination of stearin & the plaited wick resulting in a bright affordable candle.

The nineteenth century brought the development of patented candlemaking machines, making candles available for the poorest homes. In an attempt to protect the industry, England passed a law forbidding the making of candles at home without purchase of a special licence. At this time, a chemist named Michel Eugene Chevreul made an important discovery. He realized that tallow was not one substance but a composition of two fatty acids, stearic acid and oleic acid, combined with glycerine to form a neutral non-flammable material.”

By removing the glycerine from the tallow mixture, Chevreul invented a new substance called “stearine.” Stearine was harder than tallow and burned brighter and longer. It is this substance known today as stearin or stearic acid that led to the improvement of candle quality. Stearin also made improvements in the manufacture of wicks possible. It put an end to the constant round of snuffing and trimming wicks once they were lit. Instead of being made of simply twisted strands of cotton, wicks were now plaited tightly; the burned portion curled over and was completely consumed, rather than falling messily into the melting wax.

More improvements such as the addition of lime, palmatine, and paraffin developed in commercial candle manufacture. Paraffin wax was extracted from crude oil . It equalled beeswax and spermaceti candles for brightness and hardness and were cheaper. Paraffin wax is still widely used today in commercial candlemaking.”

Rushlight Stand


For more resources on lighting, see

  • For a more detailed history of historical lighting, click on Early Lighting, a fabulous site filled with photos, illustrations, and definitions.

  • Candlelight reflectors
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