Igniting the Passion: How Alasdair Gray's Lumiere Triggers Bella Baxter's Education
Updated: Mar 18
Not surprisingly, what sparked my curiosity about Gray's novel Poor Things is why he opted to have one of his characters referred to as a candle. Why a candle? Is there something about a candle I don't know which would allow me to have a greater insight to this novel? Late into my research when I almost had given up the promise of candles' significance in Gray's context (since apparently that's not a hot topic for scholars in regards to this novel...go figure), I finally found Melanie Keene's article "From Candles to Cabinets: 'Familiar Chemistry' in Early Victorian Britain." In her article, Keene examines this literary genre she refers to as 'Familiar Chemistry' - a genre which includes works (usually written down lectures) that advocates science lessons in ordinary, daily-life activities specifically aimed at teaching children. For example, the presenter/ lecturer/author would state a common fact, such as you get hotter while wearing dark colors than light colors, and then the presenter would go into the science as to why that is true. In short, they took common, observable knowledge in everyday life and gave this knowledge scientific terms. To my surprise, one common, standard object described in learning basic chemistry is none other than the everyday household candle. Now you may be wondering "what does Victorian candle lessons have to do with this novel?" Let me enlighten you (pun intended). It takes no stretch of imagination to agree that Gray's novel is a commentary on womanly sexual behaviors considering Bella Baxter, but I think it takes a bit more imagination to consider the importance of the Gray's personified candle when it comes to sparking Bella's less-than-Victorian-proper sexuality.
As I stated, candles were often used as experiments for Victorian children to learn, an ignition of their potential passion if you will. Now recall the detail of how Bella Baxter has the brain of a child after her 'rebirth' by Godwin, her teacher. And like any good teacher during this time period, he supplied his student with the essential teaching candle- McCandless. Indeed, it is Godwin who first introduces the couple and he makes careful observations during Bella's first "lesson" of meeting her first male besides himself. Godwin "beamed proudly" on the couple during their first meeting after McCandless kisses Bella's hand and she physically reacts to his touch (Gray 29). Godwin proceeds to tell McCandless, "'You are the first adult male she has met apart from me, and I saw her sense it though the finger tips. Her response showed that her body was recalling carnal sensations'" (36). This moment, in a sense, is Bella's first lesson in sexuality sparked by her candle.
From that hand kiss, this key moment when McCandless ignites her "carnal sensations," Bella's education drastically escalates (perhaps to show how she too, like her teacher, is a fast learner). After she returns from her educational world tour and a kiss from her candle, Bella takes on her new assignment - poor Duncan Wedderburn. During her escapades with Duncan, she enjoys and rather forcefully demands many weddings from him until he eventually went mad and proclaims she is a witch. Her sexual education continues after Duncan, however, during her stint as a prostitute. But she does return back to her ever faithful candle which rightly remained in her home with her teacher (for Bella did write to Godwin to have McCandless move in with him). I find this moment to be the instance where Bella reaches a sexual maturity/graduates from her lessons: She is done experimenting with men (as her prostitution was known for experimentation with men before settling down) and is ready for something stable and familiar. Gray also seems to consider this return home as the next step in her education since she then decides to become a nurse preaching about contraceptives. Here, Bella/ Victoria symbolizes a fully sexual empowered woman finished with her education and now has the ability to teach other women what she has learned, all because of that initial spark by McCandless.
I shamefully admit that this idea of the candle being a sexual object/stimulus did not occur to me until reading the last section of Victoria's letter at the end of Gray's novel. During her letter, she admits to entering Godwin's bedroom at night, naked, while holding a candle. After reading that, it all clicked into place how every time Bella grows/achieves a new level of sexuality, her candle is present. While McCandless is not as suave as Beauty and the Beast's Lumiere, he is the one which initially ignites Bella's flame and allows her to freely burn without judgment.
Gray, Alasdair. Poor Things. Bloomsbury, 1992.
Keene, Melanie. "From Candles to Cabinets: ‘Familiar Chemistry’ in Early Victorian Britain.” Ambix, vol. 60, no. 60, 2013, pp. 54-77.
In her article, Keene notes several examples of 'Familiar Chemistry' works. I have been able to find one of them in a PDF format for you to look at if you are curious.
So here is a link to Michael Faraday’s “The Chemical History of a Candle,” which is a written account of his candle demonstrations: