Just 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.
Read more of my article over at Jane Austen’s World, my favorite source for all things Jane Austen!