Join me as author Heather E.F. Carter talks about the use of light in historical fiction writing.
Hi. My name is Heather E. F. Carter, and I write eighteenth-century historical fiction. I have published one novel, The Black Unicorn, and I am currently at work on its sequel, which will have something to do with phoenixes in its title. In my own blog, I approach my historical topics through the lens of historic worldbuilding in fiction. In this blog, which I was happy to write for my friend and colleague Tonya Ulynn Brown, I shall be discussing the use of light, both natural and artificial, in the past. The eighteenth century is my area of expertise, but I do happen to know a few things stretching both before and after the long eighteenth century.
Light is a subject near and dear to my heart, and important to take into consideration when writing fiction set in the past.
The fact is that people in the past simply saw the world differently than we do because of light. Even daylight was different, without all the pollutants in the air, and the night sky shone so brilliantly with stars that we must now go to very remote places on our planet to catch even a glimpse of what the ancients saw. And see things, they did: comets and shooting stars. Medieval writings abound with mentions of the things they saw in the night sky, usually interpreted as portents for evil things to come. Comets carried with them particularly evil omens. Comets foretold the Black Death, as well as just about any major war you can think of. Untimely death of a monarch or heir to an ancient family? Comet. Pestilence? Comet. Famine? Comet. You name it, there was probably a comet spotted in the sky by a diligent monk beforehand.
“Medieval writings abound with mentions of the things they saw in the night sky…”
And nightfall remained more absolute for centuries—even in the upper classes, who could afford artificial light in the form of candles and oil lamps and (Victorians) gas lighting, the quality of the light in no way approached what we enjoy today. And moonlight was more important; when the moon waned, people up to no good such as thieves and smugglers were out and about. Conversely, ladies planned social events on nights when the moon was full. If you have a ball or a soirée in your book, set it on nights when moonlight is strongest. And remember that the roads would have been crowded—during a full moon, people were out and about. And also bear in mind that there was safety in numbers. A footman in every coach would have been armed with a blunderbuss or other firearm, but honestly what made people safe was all the traffic clogging the roads.
And when the moonlight wasn’t strongest, give your character brave (or crazy) enough to walk the city streets on foot a torch boy (a person—often a child—with a lantern, who hired out their light to those who could afford it) to light the way. However, bear in mind these torch boys often worked in concert with thieves and cutthroats, so there’s that complication to take into consideration.
Needless to say, artificial light was hugely different, but people of the past came up with ways of dealing with it. Candle making was a household operation that goes back into distant time. In the Middle Ages and sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, villagers in the Fall and milder evenings of Winter would gather together around a common, outdoor fire: women would sew, men would gossip, lovers would flirt, and children would play. And in households wealthy enough to burn candles every night, there were a few different types: tallow (made from animal fat, and smelling like animal fat—these were also notoriously smokey) beeswax and spermaceti (often pulled out only for special occasions, even among the aristocracy) and the ubiquitous rush light. Rush lights could be made at home, and they carried with them the added benefit of not being taxed. In grand households, rushlights were the lights to be found in servants’ quarters. They were basically the dried pith of a rush (the rush center) dipped repeatedly in fat. They were long and skinny, secured in a special stand, and their use spanned centuries. William Cobbett, in his nineteenth-century Cottage Economy, writes:
My grandmother, who lived to be pretty nearly ninety, never, I believe, burnt a candle in her life. I know that I never saw one there, and she, in a great measure, brought me up. . . . The rushes are carried about by hand; but to sit by, to work by or to go to bed by, they are fixed in stands made for that purpose. . . . These have an iron part something like a pair of pliers to hold the rush, which is shifted forward as it burns. These rushes give a better light than a common dip candle and they cost next to nothing. If reading be your taste you may read. . . as well by a rushlight as you can by the light of taxed candles. Qtd. In Artificial Sunshine: A Social History of Domestic Lighting, The National Trust, 39.
Brass reflectors and glass magnifiers were often used to enhance these lights. Do you have a character sitting in a darkened study reading documents after nightfall? I do, in my current work in progress. In fact, I have two such characters, sitting in studies on opposite ends of London. And they are both using a glass magnifier to intensify the candle light that they are reading by.
Now, the most common way to light a candle or rush light was to use an existing flame. Yes, there were tinder boxes, but there was a knack to using them successfully that many people simply didn’t have. James Boswell (b. 1740), whose primary fame lies in the fact that he is the prolific biographer of Samuel Johnson (poet, essayist, dramatist, and pioneering lexicographer), details the hassle he went through (and panic) when his light went out while he was in the midst of a creative endeavor.
So, if you’re having your characters use a tinder box, give some thought as to how easily they’d be able first of all to locate the tinder box, and secondly how easily they’d be able to achieve results. Aristocratic ladies, for example, likely would not have the skill set to use one properly. There was such a thing as a pistol tinderbox, also called a tinderbox pistol, which was a sort of mechanized tinder box—I use one in my writing. That’s an option too. In the following excerpt from my novel, The Black Unicorn, I have my main character Elina use one to achieve a light:
But, as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a clever little pistol tinder box sitting on a table just inside the doorway, with an attached candle-socket and a brass barrel full of matches. Checking the receptacle for tinder, I cocked the pistol, shut down the striker, and pulled the trigger. On my first attempt, I found the telltale little spot of glow in the tinder, and pulled a brimstone match from the barrel to transfer the flame to the candle. Moments later, my candle held high, I stepped over the threshold into the dark, cool hush of a little world kept secret for almost two-hundred years.”
Heather E. F. Carter, The Black Unicorn, 68-69.
And once light was achieved, the quality of indoor lighting was basically poor. Even in aristocratic households, they were sparing of candles since not only were they a finite commodity, they were also taxed. Naturally, there was no Amazon to order more when one ran out. Sure, if you lived in London, you could send a servant down to the wax chandlers to buy more, but they were expensive—and even aristocratic households watched expenditure. However, no expense was spared in conspicuous consumption for the benefit of friends and neighbors. In ballrooms, it would be hot as hell from all those lit beeswax candles. And wax would rain down upon the revelers from the chandeliers, singeing bared shoulders and mucking up fine laced dress coats and piled-up hair pieces and powdered wigs.
Also, bear in mind that once the sun went down, the house was dark—much darker than anything we know. Street light, if your characters lived in urban areas, was often generally just a lantern lit in the doorway of every third to sixth house or so, depending upon the city or town ordinance. Nicer neighborhoods naturally had more light than poorer neighborhoods. So, if your character is going off on their own in search of a water closet or retiring early to their room, they’re going to need a chamber stick to light the way. And also, they are going to have to be damn careful! People died in the dark, taking a misstep here and tumbling down the stairs, or opening the wrong door there and falling into the cellar. Don’t believe me? In June 1776, an “’unfortunate man” staying at a tavern in New Haven “was going to bed without a light. . . [and] opened the cellar door instead of a chamber door, and falling down the cellar steps fractured his Scull, of which he expired the next morning.’” Jane Nylander, qtd in Brox, Brilliant, 17.
Finally, have fun with light. Because artificial light was imperfect, it’s a great place to write in some atmosphere—shadows were everywhere, and they moved. Think of how the shadows slide across your characters’ faces, the shape of the shadows on the wall, and how those shadows moved with the flickering and sputtering of the living flame. Also think of the color of the light—it wouldn’t have been white, like the light we enjoy today. Reflected off brass fixtures, gilt mirrors and furniture, and bejeweled buttons on clothing (at least for the aristos) it would have had a burnished, glittering or orange color to it.
The world of light in the past is, quite honestly, an alien country. It is something we simply cannot completely understand. The terrors of the night were real. Darkness was a yawning leviathan. But it was also an unbelievably magical monster, as well as a devilishly sensual one. It heightened senses that do not get much exercise in modern times. Close your eyes, and imagine for yourself this strange world of light and darkness, and have fun with it. It is like a whole another character!
About the author:
Heather E. F. Carter writes historical fiction, historical romance, and erotic short stories. Though a lifetime Southern Californian, the settings of her novels are not foreign to her, having spent time each year in her parents’ hometown in Northern England. An accomplished academic, she combines her areas of expertise with her passion as she weaves historically authentic and timelessly relevant tales of love and intrigue. Having earned a B.A. in European history from UCLA, an M.A. in Medieval Women’s History from CSUF, and an M.A. in Early Modern History from UCLA, she left her studies midway through a doctorate in eighteenth-century English history when she discovered her passion and propensity for writing novels. While on a year’s leave of absence in her sixth year at UCLA, she put her doctoral research to good use writing THE BLACK UNICORN, a historical romance set in eighteenth-century North Yorkshire. Fascinated with Baroness Orczy” Scarlet Pimpernel stories, she was inspired to explore her first love, Sir Percy Blakeney, and wondered what he might have looked like if he were a little less heroic. That idea, combined with her love for vampire stories and the classic Gothic hero, led to the creation of Ashby Harcourt, also known as the highwayman behind the sobriquet The Back Unicorn. Her family’s history on the gothic North Yorkshire Moors, which grew in her annual visits with her beloved grandmother, was a natural choice for the setting. Heather’s passion for the research and writing of THE BLACK UNICORN comes alive on the pages through the vivid scenes and seductive dialogue. As you surely will, she fell in love with her story, so much so that she eventually chose to leave academia to pursue writing fiction full time. When she is not setting the pages on fire with her steamy romance, she is spending time at home in Sand Diego with her musician husband, Terry Carter, their adorable and precocious twins, and pet snake, Zanzibar. Music runs in the family, and Heather also plays the flute and supports her husband’s burgeoning ukulele empire. Currently she is researching Revolutionary Paris for the sequel to THE BLACK UNICORN.
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Photo credits in the order they appear:
1. manuscript comet: http://jessehurlbut.net/wp/mssart/?tag=comet
3. book photo, The Black Unicorn: Tonya Brown
5. chamberstick: http://www.chambersticks.com/21/#jp-carousel-3569
6. author photo: Heather E. F. Carter