... AS SEEN BY REBECCA STOTT
There’s a small calf-leather bound book in the Founder’s library at the Fitzwilliam Museum which is for me a chest of gold and jewels. I found it when I was drafting my novel about Isaac Newton, Ghostwalk, a few years ago. All the best materials for writing are usually under your nose and this notebook was only half a mile from my Cambridge study. The so-called Fitzwilliam Notebook is a diary which Newton kept in his twenties when he was a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. He kept it between the years of 1662 and 1669 when pigs still rootled, to use Virginia Woolf’s word, on the land where the Fitzwilliam Museum now stands and during the years when plague swept northwards to Cambridge from London. When I open it, I see a young Newton in candlelight sitting there in his dark college rooms and squinting to scratch words into a tiny book with a quill pen close to the fire, pages of formulas and mathematical diagrams scattered around him on the floor amongst abandoned glasses and plates. Since his death Newton has become a myth, an icon of the Enlightenment, and a series of marble statutes. The Fitzwilliam Notebook casts a dim candle flame onto the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day ordinary life of a young man who worked through the night, forgot to eat, lent money to friends, played bowls, drank in taverns, bought oranges for his sister and felt guilty about things. Newton recorded fifty-eight sins in this notebook in a kind of code that was only deciphered three hundred years later in 1964. Each of those sins is a story in itself; for a historian and novelist each is a door into a locked room: ‘Helping Pettit to make a water watch at 12 o’clock at night’; ‘Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar’; ‘Threatening my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them.’ Then there are the accounts he kept here too alongside the sins – each of them also another series of doors into new stories. What did he spend his money on? Not just money for prisms, glass bubbles, lathes and furnaces, but also coins for laundry, cloth for robes, coal, oranges, putty for repairs to his rooms, a fellow’s key and beer in the local tavern. There are four words in the Fitzwilliam Notebook that have not yet been deciphered and which sit in the frontispiece of the notebook – still a great enigma. I used one of these four code words - NABED - in my novel about Newton, as a fictional link between seventeenth-century Cambridge and twentieth-century Cambridge, a word which appears in my book as a piece of graffiti left on the wall of a crime scene. Extraordinarily, the word NABED recently appeared as graffiti on a real Cambridge wall: one of my readers is clearly a graffiti artist. It shouldn’t give me pleasure, but it does!
For Newton’s manuscripts and a lock of his hair, in the Wren Library at Trinity College, see www.trin.cam.ac.uk; for his prisms in the Whipple Library see www.hps.cam.ac.uk/library/; and for a transcript of the notebook see www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk.
Rebecca Stott (b. 1964)
Born in Cambridge in 1964, Rebecca Stott grew up in a fundamentalist Protestant community in Brighton which strived to separate from the world in order to prepare for the Second Coming. After a schism split the community, she and her family left whilst she was still relatively young. She studied English and History of Art at the University of York and then completed an MA and PhD, also at the University of York. An academic and novelist, Stott has written on Victorian culture and literature, the life of Charles Darwin and the cultural history of the oyster, as well as two novels. Her first novel, Ghostwalk, is a thriller set both in contemporary and seventeenth-century Cambridge. Published in the UK and the USA in spring 2007, it is now being translated into seventeen different languages, including Chinese and Russian. Her second novel, The Coral Thief, is set in Paris in 1815 and is due to be published in 2009.
Having taught at Anglia Ruskin, Leeds and York University, Stott is now a professor in the School of Literature & Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Fascinated by the interface between literature and science, she is also an affiliated scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Stott also writes and occasionally presents programmes for BBC Radio Four.
Rebecca Stott lives with her family in Cambridge.
To read from Rebecca Stott's novel Ghostwalk and to learn about Newton's sins
R. Stott, The Fabrication of the Late Victorian Femme Fatale, Macmillan, 1992
R. Stott, Speculators: Poets and Philosophers of Evolution, Chicago University Press, 2009
R. Stott, Darwin and the Barnacle, Faber & Faber, 2003
R. Stott, Oyster, Reaktion Press, 2004
R. Stott, Ghostwalk, Weiden & Nicholson, 2007
R. Stott, The Choral Thief, Weiden & Nicholson, 2009