This candle burns not clear

Andrew Honey, one of the Bodleian’s conservators who worked on the First Folio, writes…

This candle burns not clear: ’tis I must snuff it

Henry VIII, III, ii

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Andrew Honey and Sarah Wheale study First Folios

Recent attention has rightly focused on the ‘Bodleian’ copy of the First Folio (Arch. G c.7) but some final checks of the catalogue records, in advance of the images being published, gave me the chance to see the Bodleian’s other copy – the ‘Malone’ (Arch. G c.8). I spent two memorable mornings with Sarah Wheale and Pip Willcox collating the two copies. This involved a leaf-by-leaf comparison of them against each other and against the published descriptions, checking for anomalies and differences.

If the Bodleian copy stands as witness to the early reception of the plays, then the Malone copy marks the start of modern Shakespearean textual scholarship. It belonged to Edmond Malone (1741–1812), the editor of Shakespeare whose unprecedented documentary and textual research led him to consult the early quartos and folios of the plays more thoroughly than any scholar before him in order to establish an authoritative text.

At first sight Malone’s copy, clad in a late eighteenth-century binding that he commissioned, looks more pristine than the well-thumbed but carefully preserved Bodleian copy. Closer examination, however, reveals a greater degree of repair and ‘improvement’. The repairs seem to have been carried out as part of the binding process and some pages are now discoloured in places – probably the result of the partial rinsing (with new bleaching agents that were just starting to be used in this period) to remove blots and annotations from books.

The book has other more mysterious marks which seem to be later than the rebinding.  As we carefully worked though the volume burn holes were spotted in places and groups of round stains could be seen. Surely these cannot have happened after the book entered the Bodleian in 1815, where all readers and staff solemnly swear an oath that they will not “kindle therein any fire or flame” – could they have been caused by Edmond Malone’s nighttime reading?

Unfortunately Edmond Malone did not live to see the ‘snuffless’ candles that emerged in the 1820s with plaited wicks: his nighttime reading would have required constant tending of his candle. Maureen Dillon in her illuminating Artificial Sunshine: a social history of domestic lighting (London: National Trust, 2002) explains that “the best-quality tallow candles could last for at least twenty minutes before snuffing, while the cheapest tallow candles, if a decent flame was to be kept and guttering avoided, needed snuffing every few minutes”.

The burn marks in the Malone copy are small, and appear to be caused by small embers falling onto the opened book and lying there momentarily before being extinguished. Other burn holes, decreasing in size, are found in the leaves underneath the first hole but are not found on the leaves facing the largest hole.

The yellowish round stains have the appearance of wax or tallow and fall as circular spots which have made the paper translucent in places. Could this be evidence of Malone’s distracted management of tallow candles whilst he read? The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography records that he seriously damaged his eye-sight by combing through the corporation archives at Stratford by dim candle-light; his First Folio would seem to suggest that he read it on occasion under similarly difficult lighting conditions.

Andrew Honey (with thanks to Abigail Williams)