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CandleBW1Shall we call it field research?

A few days ago, a malfunctioning and a very grey day combined to send me back in time. With no power and no heating, I found myself depending on candles for light and the fireplace for warmth – all through one afternoon and night. Besides, my laptop’s battery was running low, so there was nothing for it, but sit by the fire and write in longhand and read by candlelight…

Not that it had never happened before – but this time I took notes, and here is what I discovered.

  1. Candlelight is dim. Very dim and very yellow. Two candles in a five by five room yield a tiny, spot of light, big enough for one smallish page – and leave the rest of the room definitely gloomy. Provided you keep the flame well fed, you’re better off reading by the fireplace, as long as you sit low, and tilt the book the right way. Writing by the fire seems most impractical to me, especially if one needs pen and inkhorn. I know I gained a new respect for all those CandleBW2masterpieces that were written in this way. Reading, writing or sewing apart, the amount of light is very limited. Seen from another room through a frosted glass door, two candles give a dim, greyish glow. Seen from outside through a window, it’s hard to tell the room is lighted at all. With four candles (quite a luxury), things are slightly better – but it takes a very well fed fireplace (another luxury) to have even a little of that golden light we expect from the description in novels.
  2. Candlelight is unstable. You sigh over your protagonist’s trouble, and the flame swims. You turn a page, and the flame dances. Someone moves in the room, and the flame wavers. Someone opens a door, and the flame bends double, grows dramatic, hiccups, flickers down to a greenish ember… And don’t get me started on draughts. My house is old enough to be full of draughts – especially when it’s windy. It was, last week – so I can tell that the faintest draught is enough to give a flame the vapours. Needless to say, dancing flames are pretty to see, but do nothing to help with the reading or writing. But the real trouble is carrying the candle about. Staircases and corners are inevitably draughty, so the flame needs careful shielding – which would have been dangerous while wearing floor-length skirts. It’s really hard to climb upstairs, keep the flame alive, avoid setting fire to the skirts and safeguard one’s modesty. Still, they must have managed somehow, back then – or else gone to bed in the dark, because…
  3. Candlelight is hard to procure. Matches were invented around 1830, but weren’t widely available until later – never mind trustworthy in damp weather. Tinder-boxes had been around for a long time, of course, but usually people lighted their candles from another candle or the fire – which meant that, if the candle went out half-way up, the choice was between feeling one’s way to bed, or feeling one’s way back downstairs, light the candle again and start anew.

CandleBW3And all of this was done with XXIst century wax candles… What about rushlights and tallow candles, that were dimmer and greasy, and stank? But on this I’ll trust other people’s novels, because I don’t feel any special urge to try tallow candles hands on.

Or I don’t think I do.


Maybe just once…

Right. Does anyone know where I could find tallow candles?