Image["Image of Rebecca Stott"]

Rebecca Stott

Rebecca Stott
London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2007

Chapter 11 [pp. 109-120 (pp. 109-113 reproduced here)]

I met Kit a week or so later down at the café in Chesterton; afterwards she walked with me down Landing Lane and Ferry Path along the towpath into town. She was heading for her stall, I for the library. We had, for once, time to spend. It was one of those fine late October days – the sun of the river, bushes and tress along the riverbank, a spectrum of greens. From time to time runners jogged past us. Reflected colours ran from the brightly painted barges into the water. Greens – so many greens all around us: the silver-green of the underside of the willow trees, the emerald of the grass along the bank, the mottled grey-brown-greens of the scrubland on the common over the other side. Virginia Woolf had once described the riverbanks as being on fire on either side of the Cam, but there was no such fire here now. Or at least not yet. There was red – rowan berries, rose hip, pycrathantas – but the red sat against the astonishing palette of autumn green like the sparks of a newly lit fire, like drops of crimson blood in the hedgerows. It was yet to pull itself to a blaze or haemorrhage. And those famous willow trees she had described as weeping in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders, had been pollarded since she walked here, so there was no elegant weeping for them any more, only the flurry of silver-green leaves, shorn demented heads against the sky. The river still reflected everything that passed over it, as it had done for Woolf, who would drown herself in another river in 1941; sky, bridges, red berries, and from time to time the colours melted, forked and quaked as rowers oared their way through the reflections, only to form again as if their surfaces had never been broken.

‘Crimson’, Kit said, waking me from a muddled reverie of colour and light. ‘That’s what everyone wants right now. Shades of burgundy and claret. I’ve just dyed a whole load of cotton shirts – they’ve all come out slightly different shades depending on the porousness of the original material. Perfect. Won’t look like a job lot. Bet I sell all of them by the end of the week.’

‘What? Sorry ... Missed that.’ I was watching the ripples in the water fanning out from one of the rowing boats.

‘Shirts, you know, the stall. Your mind’s wandering again. You asked why my hands are so red. I’ve been dyeing clothes and I forgot to wear gloves. Berry colours are in again so I’ve been dying shirts red, for the stall.’

‘Sorry, yes. Lemon juice might do it. He did that too.’

‘Who did?’

‘Newton ... dyed things.’

‘Isaac Newton dyed things?’

‘Yep. He had a book full of recipes for colours that he started about the time he came to Cambridge. He was an experimenter. Always trying things out, you know: poisoning birds, putting mirrors on the top of church steeples to test how long the light took to move from mirror to mirror, dropping things from towers, sticking things in his eyes, boiling things, mixing things, writing down the result.’

‘OK. How did he make red?’ Was she laughing at me?

‘Can’t quite remember. Yes, I can.’ Blurred words came into focus. ‘Sheep’s blood drained into a bladder, hung out to dry in the sun to make a powder, then mixed with alum water when needed. There was another one in which you boil brasill, whatever that is, and then he writes that if you would have it a ‘sad red’ mingle it with pot ash water, if a light red, temper it with white lead. Christ, I’ve only read the transcription of that notebook once and I remember it all. What do you think a ‘sad red’ is?’

‘What’s Elizabeth’s book like? You’ve finished it?’

‘Brilliant – full of the most wonderful details about Cambridge. I’m completely lost in it.’

‘I can tell.’

‘Sorry. I’ve been sleeping badly. It’s as if Elizabeth is there – in the seventeenth century. Not reconstructing it, but actually there .’

‘Sounds like that’s where you are too. So what’s the problem?’


‘You’ve had a frown on your forehead since you moved to the Studio. You’ll have to be careful – the wind’ll change and that face will stick.’ Another boat cut its way through the water, a small blonde cox driving the rhythms of the oars with a voice too big for her small frame.

Kit was wearing a long purple coat over grey linen trousers and a T-shirt. With her strained hands and the jewellery around her neck, her hair piled on top of her head, she made people turn their heads. She knew she did that. She walked tall and the

Coat, made of some thick cotton which she had probably dyed, billowed around her in the wind. I imagined her being swept up like a character in a Marquez novel, in her own billowing clothes, wept off like an angel or Madonna in some kind of purple apotheosis. Seventeenth-century Cambridge would have been filled with such billowings, I thought, when the winds were high and all the undergraduates wore their gowns; billowings of purple and black in winds that, they said, blew into that labyrinth of streets straight from the Ural to Russia.

Today it blew through my hair; tugged at my skirts; stung in my eyes. In France the wind was aromatic, full of smell of soil and ripe crops. Here it just smelled of mould. That was the marshland.

‘When does coincidence stretch to improbability, do you think?’ I asked her. ‘I mean, at what point do you say to yourself that something completely beyond the bounds of probability is happening to you?’

‘That’s a hard one. Explain.’

‘There’s a whole series of things ... none of them sound very significant itself. OK, there was this piece of paper.’

‘A piece of paper?’ I’d forgotten how sceptical Kit had become. It was reassuring. She’d have an explanation, if anyone did.

‘Just listen, won’t you? I spotted the corner of a piece of paper in the garden under a lavender bush. I must have dropped it when I’d been working out there the day before because it was from one of Elizabeth’s notebooks – I recognized her handwriting, or what was left of it. There were snails crawling all over it.’


‘Yes, snails. Just ordinary mindless, garden snails ... They’d eaten sections of the paper and the rain had washed out the ink but I could still just read what was there. I traced out the words with my pen – they were still visible and I worked out that it was Elizabeth’s transcription of a notebook Newton kept when he was around twenty and had just arrived in Cambridge. It’s an important notebook because Newton wrote it in code and it wasn’t decoded until 1963 by Newton’s biographer, Richard Westfall. Elizabeth had transcribed a section from the decoded notebook.’

We stopped now under a rowan tree, its berries scarlet against the dark-green leaves. The wind was blowing the river water in arced shapes, like bows stretched from one bank to the other. Kit was out of breath.

‘Sorry, I‘m not following. What’s weird about any of this?’

I passed her the piece of paper, folded into four. It looked more like a paper doily after the snails had finished with it. She began to unfold it.’

‘Just don’t let go of it,’ I said. ‘It’s blown away four times now. OK, I said it didn’t amount to much itself. It’s what’s in the notebooks that’s interesting. Westfall spent months decoding that early notebook in the 1960s. he must have thought he’d find something of scientific importance judging by the amount of time he spent on it, that he’d uncover – I don’t know – mathematical notes or reflections on optics perhaps. You know what he found? Not mathematical formulas, but sins – two lists of Newton’s sins. The first set of forty-eight were headed before ‘Before Whitsunday, 1662’ and a further nine listed as ‘After Whitsunday, 1662’ arranged as if they were an account book. Imagine the intimacy of that – seeing that list for the first time since Newton actually recorded them, secretly, guiltily, three hundred years earlier.’

‘What kind of sins?’ Fornication. Buggery. Bestiality? Consorting with a witch?’ Kit unfolded the piece of paper as if it was a page from a pornographic magazine.

‘No, nothing so dramatic. Mostly little things. Stealing apples, sticking pins into people’s backs in church, getting irritable, making things on Sunday.’

‘Newton stole apples? Was the gravity apple stolen? That would make a good story ...’

‘Be serious. It’s awful.’

‘It wasn’t until I checked Elizabeth’s page against Westfall’s typed transcription that I’d felt how awful it was – the young man writing out his sins in code. It moved me. There was something bald and relentless about it, a man’s conscience flayed like a rabbit, all glistening sinews and blood. I imagined him wrestling with his conscience, trying to live according to his understanding of the Bible, failing, punishing himself and starting again, over and over. He had no sense of humour; I could feel how tired he was with his constant relapses, struggling with a God who was watching him all the time.

‘Poor bloke,’ I said. ‘ Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times; Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections; Not living according to my belief. Not loving Thee for Thy self; Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us; Not desiring Thy ordinances ...


Appendix: Newton’s Sins [pp. 286-288 (reproduced in full here)]

This list, written by Newton in code in 1662 in the so-called Fitzwilliam Notebook , was decoded only in 1963 by Newton’s biographer Richard Westfall. Reproduced by courtesy of the Newton Project website.

Before Whitsunday 1662.

  1. Vsing the word (God) openly
  2. Eating an apple at Thy house
  3. Making a feather while on Thy day
  4. Denying that I made it
  5. Making a mousetrap on Thy day
  6. Contriving of the chimes on Thy day
  7. Squirting water on Thy day
  8. Making pies on Sunday night
  9. Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day
  10. Putting a pin in Iohn Keys hat on Thy day to pick him
  11. Carelessly hearing and committing many sermons
  12. Refusing to go to the close at my mothers command
  13. Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
  14. Wishing death and hoping it to some
  15. Striking many
  16. Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese
  17. Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer
  18. Denying that I did so
  19. Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandmother though I knew of it
  20. Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee
  21. A relapse
  22. A relapse
  23. A breaking again of my covenant renued in the Lords Supper
  24. Punching my sister
  25. Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar
  26. Calling Derothy Rose a jade
  27. Glutiny in my sickness
  28. Peevishness with my mother
  29. With my sister
  30. Falling out with the servants
  31. Divers commissions of alle my duties
  32. Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times
  33. Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections
  34. Not living according to my belief
  35. Not loving Thee for Thy self
  36. Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us
  37. Not desiring Thy ordinances
  38. Not long [longing] for Thee in [illegible]
  39. Fearing man above Thee
  40. Vsing unlawful means to bring us out of distresses
  41. Caring for worldly things more than God
  42. Not craving a blessing from God on our honest endeavors
  43. Missing chapel
  44. Beating Arthur Storer
  45. Twisting a cord on Sunday morning
  46. Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne
  47. Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter
  48. Reading the history of the Christian champions on Sunday

Since Whitsunday 1662.

  1. Glutony
  2. Glutony
  3. Vsing Wilfords towel to spare my own
  4. Negligence at the chapel
  5. Sermons at Saint Marys
  6. Lying about a louse
  7. Denying my chamberfellow of the knowledge of him that took him for a sot
  8. Neglecting to pray
  9. Helping Pettit to make his water watch at 12 of the clock on Saturday night

[Reproduction with kind permission of The Orion Publishing Group]

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The Fitzwilliam Museum : Introduction

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