Sarah Ross works as a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, researching instances of deliberate destructive fire across Victorian fiction and culture. Her essay, “Brave Hermeneutics, the Eastern Question, and Kingley’s Hypatia” is forthcoming in Victorian Studies, and “Wuthering Heights and the Work of Loving One Dead” from VICTORIANS journal for the bicentenary of Emily Brontë’s birth.
As sometimes happens, I fell down a rabbit hole this week, tipped by the tiniest, least significant part of a sentence. On Christmas Eve 1845, less than a year before she and Robert Browning would elope to Italy, poet Elizabeth Barrett wrote her beloved a letter:
“Only do you still think of this, dearest beloved; that I sit here in the dark but for you, and that the light you bring me (from my fault! — from the nature of my darkness!) is not a settled light as when you open the shutters in the morning, but a light made by candles which burn some of them longer and some shorter, and some brighter and briefer, at once — being ‘double-wicks,’ and that there is an intermission for a moment now and then between the dropping of the old light into the socket and the lighting of the new. Every letter of yours is a new light which burns so many hours . . and then! — I am morbid, you see — or call it by what name you like . . too wise or too foolish. ‘If the light of the body is darkness, how great is that darkness.’ Yet even when I grow too wise, I admit always that while you love me it is an answer to all. And I am never so much too foolish as to wish to be worthier for my own sake — only for yours: — not for my own sake, since I am content to owe all things to you.” (Letters 349-50; emphases original)
As I wrote about previously for The Victorianist, virtually all nineteenth-century Britons above a certain level of poverty existed in close proximity to an open flame. Indoors, these flames usually sprung from candles made of tallow (animal fat) or wax. Manufacturers had for centuries designed and refined various ways of installing candles, whether in everyone’s favorite Cluedo weapon (the candlestick) or in more elaborate lamps or chandeliers. So far, so ordinary.
What struck me, though, in Barrett’s letter related to the specific kind of candle she both literally seemed familiar with as an object by which she could write or read, and which served her as a metaphor for the encouragement and affection of Browning. A “double-wick” candle that halts for an “intermission for a moment now and then between the dropping of the old light into the socket and the lighting of the new”? Does Barrett mean a sort of one-step Rube-Goldberg, in which the wick burning down to a certain level automatically sets off the one buried beneath it, or next to it, or within it? Or does she simply mean the moment of darkness between the old candle going out and the (here, invisible) hand of the poet herself lighting a new one? As Douglas Richardson would say, “Masterful use of the passive voice, Ms. Barrett.”
From the 1850s onwards, the advent of chemicals—kerosene, paraffin, petroleum—and then electrical lamps, meant that the double-wick or double-burner style boomed. Birminghamite industrialist James Hinks patented the kind of lamp pictured below, the Duplex burner (Shill n.p.):
Using two “chimneys” that would expose the oil the air and thus enable a flame, this Duplex lamp offered intense brightness well beyond what an ordinary candle could achieve in these years. Added to that was the bonus knob that allowed the user to stifle some of the oxygen flow—in other words, the dimmer dial. Historian Judith Flanders remarks that “Kerosene, first distilled from coal in 1846, was at midcentury the main fuel” since it was less dangerous and less costly than either oil lamps or candles at this time (Flanders 208). The price only went down for oils as technology improved, and the Duplex burner in particular attracted owners since it “burned at a steady light for over six hours, whereas many other lamps, through the dirt deposited on the chimney, dimmed from a 25-candle light to a 15-candle light over the same period” (209).
But Barrett wrote specifically about a candle (and, for that matter, would have been dead five years by the time Hinks & Co. patented the double burner). Nor was this a reference isolated to her, or poetic license for her prose declaration to her “dearest beloved.”
In February 1854, at the peak of the Crimean War’s hard winter, Parliamentary Papers’ show the examination of a Dr. Smith, whose “Requisition of Hospital Stores for the use of the Sick of the Army” call for such items as axes, needles, knives and forks (“common” and “carving”), and “Lamps” for the “Passage or Ward” numbering 176, followed by “Burners, double wick, for ditto” of the same number, and “Cotton wick for ditto” of 66lbs. (Parliamentary 494). Just over one month later, another a second requisition table [shown below] listed 240 lamps and burners with 90lbs. for cotton wicks; and the reserve stores tallied 400 lamps and burners, and 150lbs. of wicks (Parliamentary 494-95).
I say I fell down a rabbit hole: I’m still falling, since I have not yet found a satisfactory answer for what EB(B) was referring to in her letter. But this avenue of inquiry fed not just my curiosity on all domestic, quotidian matters in Victorian life.
Part of my research relates to the ways in which real, material objects make appearances in nineteenth-century fiction not—or not only—as allegorical or metaphorical expressions. Candles feature prominently in Gaskell’s Cranford, Eliot’s Middlemarch (cf. “Lowick Manor”), Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, Verdi’s La Bohème, even neo-c19 works like Becoming Jane and Rent. In these, it matters that the colloquial pick-up line “Got a light?” orients characters in close proximity, encouraging them to see each other better by approaching the flickering glow. It also matters that levels of lighting bespoke class position—the blinding brilliance of Melmotte’s house party in The Way We Live Now versus the literally sickening and oppressive darkness of Tom-All-Alone’s in Bleak House. Insistently reducing all imagery to the material just as assuredly desensitizes us to a work’s connotative powers as does divorcing those images or metaphors from the material. As Lisa Lowe, Elaine Freedgood, and Andrew Miller all have shown, that kind of literary criticism is at best glimpsing only half the picture, and at worst performing the erasure of objects and makers. Who, after all, made Barrett’s candles? Kerosene, distilled from coal that had to be dug up by miners across Britain and beyond, also lit public streets, railway signal boxes, ship decks, colonial outposts, and—as we have seen—hospitals at the edges of battlefields.
What, then, would Victorians have conjured when reading from a lover that “Every letter of yours is a new light which burns so many hours”? Whereas my last blog post meant to suggest that Victorian hearths were not merely transhistorical, stable symbols of home, comfort, contentment, or warmth but also of pain, peril, and horrific loss, here I want to consider briefly how candles and oil wicks signified to these same readers. For some, the brightness of the double-wick candle could mean hours more work or leisure time, the opportunity to socialize after nightfall, a chance to display the commodity fetishism that accompanied the wealth of dazzlingly illuminated houses. For others, the dimmable lamp could mean privacy, a time of quiet letter writing, inhabiting the space of the mind and pouring itself contents onto modestly, controllably illuminated pages. For them, the reality effect might have invoked the notorious reek of paraffin, the accidental burning of a finger along the metal of an oil vessel at the base of a lamp, even—as Browning would remark in a postscript one month after Barrett’s Christmas Eve message—a lover’s messy habit of spilling wax when absent-mindedly penning a declaration of love:
There is all to say yet — to-morrow!
And ever, ever your own; God bless you!
Admire the clean paper . . I did not notice that I have been writing in a desk where a candle fell! See the bottoms of the other pages! (Letters 410)
Flanders, Judith. Inside the Victorian Home: A Portrait of Domestic Life in Victorian England. New York: Norton, 2004.
Freedgood, Elaine. The Ideas in Things: Fugitive Meaning in the Victorian Novel. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2005.
Hinks & Son. Oil burner (duplex). Post-1865, metal alloy, Castle Ward, National Trust. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/835536
The Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1845-1846, vol. 1 (London: Smith, Elder, & Co., 1899). British and Irish Women’s Letters and Diaries, 1500-1900. Alexander St. Press. Accessed 22 July 2018.
Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2015.
Miller, Andrew H. Novels Behind Glass: Commodity Culture and Victorian Narrative. Cambridge: CUP, 1995.
Parliamentary Papers, House of Commons: Third Report from the Select Committee on the Army Before Sebastopol. London: H.M. Stationer’s Office, 1854-55. Google Books. Accessed 22 July 2018. https://books.google.com/books?id=ysoSAAAAYAAJ
Shill, Ray. “Lamps.” Birmingham’s Industrial Heritage: 1900-2000. Gloucestershire, UK: The History Press, 2013. Ebook.