This is the second of my series of blogs, Five things you might not know about Jane Austen.
You will recall how, on Catherine Moreland’s first night at Northanger Abbey, she discovered some mysterious papers in her room. She was about to read them when;
‘The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction; it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. 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.’
So what is going on?
The text reads as if Catherine sees that the candle is burning well but dimly, so to make it burn brighter she snuffs it, and unintentionally puts it out! Surely if she snuffs a candle it is to snuff it out, and what on earth does she mean by the ‘rekindling breath’?
First there are the many meanings of the word ‘snuff’, amongst which is ‘to extinguish’, but this meaning was rarely used before the mid nineteenth century. In Jane Austen’s time to snuff a candle did not mean to extinguish it, but to trim the wick.
Traditionally made candles, tallow on left in reproduction iron stand and beeswax on right in Georgian candlestick
Candles were very different, in construction, from those used to day. They were generally made of either tallow (refined animal fat) or beeswax (much more expensive). Wicks were made of twisted cord, that burnt slower than the candle, whether it was a wax or tallow one. For this reason, after a little while, the wick would be long, hanging to one side, and burning irregularly. For close work these candles needed to be trimmed, or snuffed, regularly. This is what Catherine was trying to do when she unfortunately put the candle out.
Candle needing snuffing
To snuff a candle a special tool was developed, a candle snuffer. This was like a pair of scissors incorporating a box or tray, which was intended to catch the piece of wick that was cut off, in case it fell and burnt something. A tale is told of Lord Tennyson’s aunt, which both demonstrates the danger of carelessly snuffing a candle, and of the way in which experienced servants knew their duties and those of their fellows. Whilst snuffing a candle she accidentally caught her headdress alight. She rang for a footman.
‘James, my head is alight.” She said.
‘So it is Madam,’ replied James, ‘I will go and fetch Amy.”
Since it was clearly the duty of the ladies maid to sort out his mistresses headdress, whatever the situation.
A selection of Candle snuffers
To put out a candle, a conical extinguisher, made of metal or pottery was used, it was placed over the wick and, in a few moments the candle would be out.
A ‘Chamber Stick’ with conical extinguisher and decorative pottery extinguisher
And finally what is meant by the passage;
‘not a remnant of light in the wick could give hope to the rekindling breath.’
When the candle was extinguished, the tip was sometimes left glowing. In this case the candle could be relit by gently blowing on it, this was a skill that many children acquired, usually from a gardener or stable hand, as it was an activity frowned on by many adults. The tomboyish, outdoorsy type of girl that Catherine Moreland was, would certainly have known how to ‘blow in’ a candle.
And you thought candles were a simple method of lighting a room, and that candlelight was just romantic.