Research: a cautionary tale….

The Wrong Chandelier

I needed a light. I had a party scene jammed with guests and servants. There was an
automaton. indoor fireworks, skulduggery in the background. and some weird
furniture: I needed people to see these things. The party was at the De Veres‘, a run-
down country house owned by once-wealthy aristocrats. now fallen on hard times – a
state of affairs important to the plot and so requiring emphasis. I needed a once-
wealthy-but-now-fallen-on-hard-times kind of light. An outmoded chandelier would be
perfect.
The chandelier was never the problem. ‘Outmoded‘ was.

The party took place on Christmas Eve, 1787. What constituted ‘outmoded’ in 1787? How often were people expected to replace their chandeliers in the late eighteenth century? I was into ‘fashion’, and fashion, then as now, was a shifting concept. First of all, different items slid out of favour at different rates. Clothes, at the top end of society, could be passe in a fortnight. Wines went with their vintages, which is to say annually. Also, fashions changed faster the further up the social and income scales one went, and the De Veres were ambiguous in terms of their status: high-born but poor. And, as usual, London exerted its influence – being up to the minute in rural Kent could mean out by a decade in the metropolis. There were other variables too, but distance from London. the item itself , and wealth and social class of its owner were the main ones. (All these conditioned by the general observation that rates of fashion-change accelerated and modishness became an increasingly frantic pursuit as the century progressed.)
So, a chandelier owned by people of high social rank but no money living
twenty miles outside London in 1787. How old would it have to be before its owners
would look up and shudder with embarrassment? The answer, as it would turn out after
searching through auction catalogues, etiquette books, gazettes, contemporary news-
sheets, .lane Austen (early nineteenth century, but good on the social significance of
furniture), and some advertisements for bankruptcy sales, was pretty much what
anyone would guess.
Three weeks of searching yielded the telling information that a certain Lady
Harrowby’s musical soirée, which took place at her home in Marylebone, north
London, was charming ‘but for the appointment of her salon, more in keeping with the
tastes of our present King’s grandfather than his son,’ which seemed to me a bit harsh.
‘Our present King’s grandfather’ meant George II, who died in 1760. A salon’s
‘appointment’ meant its general aspect, but also its fixtures and fittings. The writer
might have been poking fun at some garish murals, or the unvarnished floorboards,
but, after three weeks of library dust and despair, so far as I was concerned he meant
the chandelier. Also, Lady Harrowby was rich and of fairly humble birth, and lived in
London, not outside it, but that quote was the best I could find. It gave me a date.
Outmoded meant thirty to forty years old. That was enough to give me my chandelier.
My chandelier was carved from wood. It was gilt. It had eight curved branches
decorated with carved leaves and fruit which supported the drip pans for the candles
(beeswax) and large numbers of deeply-cut pendant drops. These were made from lead
glass, the process invented by Ravenscroft in I676, and served to reflect the
candlelight. On its top was a large gilt eagle. It was hideous, but I described it lovingly,
and at much greater length than I have done here.
Outmoded chandelier apart, the scene went well. However, re-reading it a few
months later, I thought perhaps I might have overdone the description of the light
fitting. A little over a page seemed excessive, so I cut a few sentences. Another few
months later, and I came to the same conclusion. There was still too much – the
chandelier didn’t actually do anything, other than provide light. And offer that super-
subtle socio-economic commentary on the De Veres’ declining fortunes. of course. I
cut a bit more.
And a bit more. And tidied up the whole paragraph (quite a short paragraph by
now), then tightened it a little. A year after I had found it, my brilliantly unfashionable
fixture had shrunk to a single sentence, which read, ‘Eight stubby candles flickered
from a chandelier) Looking at this, I was forced to acknowledge something I had
known from the start. You don’t need to describe the roof-beams when a character
walks into a room: a missing roof is worth mentioning, but a roof in its expected place
is understood. So with my chandelier. If my characters could see, then there was light
and I didn’t need to explain the phenomenon. They could, there was, and so I cut the
last sentence and my shrinking chandelier finally disappeared.
Lady Harrowby eventually turned up hundreds of pages later in Marmaduke
Stalkart’s Opera House, and the furniture I unearthed in my researches got scattered
liberally through the book. The three weeks weren’t entirely wasted.
The lesson I might have learned from it was quite different however. Even in all
its descriptive glory, my chandelier would have been quite indecipherable to all but
antiques specialists and late-eighteenth century upper-class snobs. These were not the
people I saw as my readers. Who would have ‘got it’? Who would have cared?
Probably no-one. But not certainly. Details are cumulative, and accumulated
detail is one way to get the stink of the times rising off the page, as opposed to the mere
date staying on it. So I would refuse to learn this wider lesson, and I would continue
rooting wastefully through the informational rubbish tips of the late eighteenth century.
And, in the end, once it had been sifted and shaped, I was happy enough with what I
got.
I did make a specific promise to myself never again to get hung up on lighting.
Which I kept faithfully, until late in the novel I was faced with a scene, in a cave,
underwater, and I wondered to myself , ‘How is anyone going to see what happens?
How am I going to light this scene?` This time. however, the solution was quite
simple.
I would have a pirate ship crewed by very old men lured out of the
Mediterranean Sea and up the Western coast of France, across the channel and up the
Thames, by a pressing need to I) capture some gunpowder, 2) scrape the accumulated
barnacles off their vessel, which has in the meantime fallen in love (or vice versa) with
a colony of bioluminescent algae, which follows the pirate-ship when it is sucked down
through a hole in the riverbed into the aforementioned flooded cave, there to provide a
most excellent source of underwater light. Obvious really.