Authors: John Banville
THE NEWTON LETTER
WORDS FAIL ME
, Clio. How did you
track me down, did I leave bloodstains in the snow? I
won’t try to apologise. Instead, I want simply to explain,
so that we both might understand. Simply! I like that.
No, I’m not sick, I have not had a breakdown. I am,
you might say, I might say, in retirement from life.
I have abandoned my book. You’ll think me mad.
Seven years I gave to it—seven years! How can I make
you understand that such a project is now for me impossible,
when I don’t really understand it myself? Shall
I say, I’ve lost my faith in the primacy of text? Real
people keep getting in the way now, objects, landscapes
even. Everything ramifies. I think for example of the first time I went down to Ferns. From the train I looked
at the shy back-end of things, drainpipes and broken
windows, straggling gardens with their chorus lines of
laundry, a man bending to a spade. Out on Killiney bay
a white sail was tilted at an angle to the world, a white
cloud was slowly cruising the horizon. What has all this
to do with anything? Yet such remembered scraps seem
to me abounding in significance. They are at once commonplace
and unique, like clues at the scene of a crime.
But everything that day was still innocent as the blue
sky itself, so what do they prove? Perhaps just that: the
innocence of things, their non-complicity in our affairs.
All the same I’m convinced those drainpipes and that
cloud require me far more desperately than I do them.
You see my difficulty.
I might have written to you last September, before
I fled, with some bland excuse. You would have understood,
certainly at least you would have sympathised.
But Clio, dear Cliona, you have been my teacher and
my friend, my inspiration, for too long, I couldn’t lie
to you. Which doesn’t mean I know what the truth is,
and how to tell it to you. I’m confused. I feel ridiculous
and melodramatic, and comically exposed. I have
shinned up to this high perch and can’t see how to get
down, and of the spectators below, some are embarrassed
and the rest are about to start laughing.
there. It was the name that attracted me. Fern House! I
expected—Oh, I expected all sorts of things. It turned
out to be a big gloomy pile with ivy and peeling walls
and a smashed fanlight over the door, the kind of place
where you picture a mad stepdaughter locked up in the
attic. There was an avenue of sycamores and then the
road falling away down the hill to the village. In the
distance I could see the smoke of the town, and beyond
that again a sliver of sea. I suppose, thinking about it,
much what I expected. To look at, anyway.
Two women met me in the garden. One was large
and blonde, the other a tall girl with brown arms, wearing
a tattered straw sun hat. The blonde spoke: they had seen me coming. She pointed down the hill road. I assumed
she was the woman of the house, the girl in the
sun hat her sister perhaps. I pictured them, vigilantly
silent, watching me toiling toward them, and I felt for
some reason flattered. Then the girl took off her hat,
and she was not a girl, but a middle-aged woman. I had
got them nearly right, but the wrong way round. This
was Charlotte Lawless, and the big blonde girl was Ottilie,
The lodge, as they called it, stood on the roadside
at the end of the drive. Once there had been a wall and
a high pillared gate, but all that was long gone, the way
of other glories. The door screeched. A bedroom and a
parlour, a tiny squalid kitchen, a tinier bathroom. Ottilie
followed me amiably from room to room, her hands
stuck in the back pockets of her trousers. Mrs Lawless
waited in the front doorway. I opened the kitchen cupboard:
cracked mugs and mouse-shit. There was a train
back to town in an hour, I would make it if I hurried.
Mrs Lawless fingered the brim of her sun hat and considered
the sycamores. Of the three of us only blonde
Ottilie was not embarrassed. Stepping past Charlotte in
the doorway I caught her milky smell—and heard myself
offering her a month’s rent in advance.
What possessed me? Ferns was hardly that Woolsthorpe
of my vague dreams, where, shut away from the pestilence of college life, I would put the final touches to
. Time is different in the country.
There were moments when I thought I would panic,
stranded in the midst of endless afternoons. Then there
was the noise, a constant row, heifers bellowing, tractors
growling, the dogs baying all night. Things walked on
the roof, scrabbled under the floor. There was a nest of
blackbirds in the lilacs outside the parlour window
where I tried to work. The whole bush shook with their
quarrelling. And one night a herd of something, cows,
horses, I don’t know, came and milled around on the
lawn, breathing and nudging, like a mob gathering for
But the weather that late May was splendid, sunny
and still, and tinged with sadness. I killed whole days
rambling the fields. I had brought guidebooks to trees
and birds, but I couldn’t get the hang of them. The
illustrations would not match up with the real specimens
before me. Every bird looked like a starling. I soon got
discouraged. Perhaps that explains the sense I had of
being an interloper. Amid those sunlit scenes I felt detached,
as if I myself were a mere idea, a stylised and
subtly inaccurate illustration of something that was only
real elsewhere. Even the pages of my manuscript, when
I sat worriedly turning them over, had an unfamiliar
look, as if they had been written, not by someone else,
but by another version of myself.
Remember that mad letter Newton wrote to John
Locke in September of 1693, accusing the philosopher out of the blue of being immoral, and a Hobbist, and
of having tried to embroil him with women? I picture
old Locke pacing the great garden at Oates, eyebrows
leaping higher and higher as he goggles at these wild
charges. I wonder if he felt the special pang which I feel
reading the subscription:
I am your most humble and unfortunate
servant, Is. Newton
. It seems to me to express
better than anything that has gone before it Newton’s
pain and anguished bafflement. I compare it to the way
a few weeks later he signed, with just the stark surname,
another, and altogether different, letter. What happened
in the interval, what knowledge dawned on him?
We have speculated a great deal, you and I, on his
nervous collapse late in that summer of ’93. He was
fifty, his greatest work was behind him, the
and the gravity laws, the discoveries in optics. He was
giving himself up more and more to interpretative study
of the Bible, and to that darker work in alchemy which
so embarrasses his biographers (cf. Popov
.). He was
a great man now, his fame was assured, all Europe honoured
him. But his life as a scientist was over. The
process of lapidescence had begun: the world was turning
him into a monument to himself. He was cold,
arrogant, lonely. He was still obsessively jealous—his
hatred of Hooke was to endure, indeed to intensify, even
beyond the death of his old adversary. He was—
Look at me, writing history; old habits die hard.
All I meant to say is that the book was as good as done,
I had only to gather up a few loose ends, and write the conclusion—but in those first weeks at Ferns something
started to go wrong. It was only as yet what the doctors
call a vague general malaise. I was concentrating, with
morbid fascination, on the chapter I had devoted to his
breakdown and those two letters to Locke. Was that a
lump I felt there, a little, hard, painless lump . . . ?
Mostly of course such fears seemed ridiculous.
There were even moments when the prospect of finishing
the thing merged somehow with my new surroundings
into a grand design. I recall one day when I was
in, appropriately enough, the orchard. The sun was
shining, the trees were in blossom. It would be a splendid
book, fresh and clean as this bright scene before me.
The academies would be stunned, you would be proud
of me, and Cambridge would offer me a big job. I felt
an extraordinary sense of purity, of tender innocence.
Thus Newton himself must have stood one fine morning
in his mother’s garden at Woolsthorpe, as the ripe apples
dropped about his head. I turned, hearing a violent
thrashing of small branches. Edward Lawless stepped
sideways through a gap in the hedge, kicking a leg behind
him to free a snagged trouser cuff. There was a
leaf in his hair.
I had seen him about the place, but this was the
first time we had met. His face was broad and pallid,
his blue eyes close-set and restless. He was not a very
big man, but he gave an impression of, how would I
say, of volume. He had a thick short neck, and wide
shoulders that rolled as he walked, as if he had constantly to deal with large soft obstacles in air. Standing beside
him I could hear him breathing, like a man poised between
one lumbering run and another. For all his rough
bulk, though, there was in his eyes a look, preoccupied,
faintly pained, like the look you see in those pearl and
ink photographs of doomed Georgian poets. His flaxen
hair, greying nicely at the temples, was a burnished
helmet; I itched to reach out and remove the laurel leaf
tangled in it. We stood together in the drenched grass,
looking at the sky and trying to think of something to
say. He commended the weather. He jingled change in
his pocket. He coughed. There was a shout far off, and
then from farther off an answering call. “Aha,” he said,
relieved, “the rat men!” and plunged away through the
gap in the hedge. A moment later his head appeared
again, swinging above the grassy bank that bounded the
orchard. Always I think of him like this, skulking behind
hedges, or shambling across a far field, rueful and somehow
angry, like a man with a hangover trying to remember
last night’s crimes.
I walked back along the path under the apple trees
and came out on the lawn, a cropped field really. Two
figures in wellingtons and long black buttonless overcoats
appeared around the side of the house. One had a
long-handled brush over his shoulder, the other carried
a red bucket. I stopped and watched them pass before
me in the spring sunshine, and all at once I was assailed
by an image of catastrophe, stricken things scurrying in
circles, the riven pelts, the convulsions, the agonised eyes gazing into the empty sky or through the sky into
the endlessness. I hurried off to the lodge, to my work.
But the sense of harmony and purpose I had felt in the
orchard was gone. I saw something move outside on
the grass. I thought it was the blackbirds out foraging,
for the lilacs were still. But it was a rat.
In fact, it wasn’t a rat. In fact in all my time at Ferns
I never saw sign of a rat. It was only the idea.