Wednesday, December 9, 2009

gassy issues

Count this post as another exploration into the sticky practicalities of past times. What did people do, how did they live? No, I'm not writing about the "gassy issues" you think I am. What I'm refering to is gas lighting; more specifically, the time and place of gas lighting versus oil lighting. I admit with a little chagrin that the old style oil lamps--with their shades and chimneys, their oil fonts and wick raising knobs (see picture on right)--so familiar to viewers of movies or tv shows set in the nineteenth century, dominated my imagination while I composed this novel. Or at least dominated it whenever I had to account for artificial lighting in a room. Probably because I've been too busy pondering so many other issues of versimilitude, it has only been late in the novel writing process that I've stepped back and questioned some of my oil lamp assumptions. I've known for a long time that before he moved into the Yellow House Van Gogh had it outfitted for gas. But this didn't sink in, didn't quite matter to me one way or the other, until this semester when, in editing my chapters very hard, I realized I may have gotten a few matters of historical fact wrong. For example, if gas lighting was available in Arles in 1888, would it not have been available--even standard--in Paris years earlier? It turns out that the answer is yes. The city of Paris began using gas lights (like the ones in London pictured above) on its streets in the 1850s. Okay, I ask, those are the streets. What about apartment buildings? Were they lit by gas or oil? By the mid-to-late 1880s, gas had almost certainly become the standard, eliminating the need for those messy wicks and oil fonts from homes and offices. Also, therefore, from my novel.

But wait! That's Paris. What about Antwerp? What about The Hague? Better yet, what about Nuenen? What about the whole province of Brabant, especially during Van Gogh's childhood? Indeed, it's not so simple a matter as tossing all the oil lamps, so to speak, out the window. It's very unlikely that gas lighting was employed in Brabant at all, or only much later than in Paris. And definitely not during Van Gogh's childhood. So my explorations, and my revisions, go on. I still don't have the defnitive answers for all my gas vs. oil questions, one of several minor, practical aspects of the novel that I'm trying to nail down as my book goes forward. Or perhaps I should say seemingly minor. Because any change in an interior or exterior landscape can't help but affect the writer's visualization of a scene and thus what happens in it between characters. And that's no minor detail at all.


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