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Authors: Rebecca Stott

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“So don’t read Elizabeth Bishop,” I said, “or eat oranges or go outside early in the morning or in the evening.”

“It doesn’t work.”

“No,” I said. “I know. It doesn’t work.”
Every sea, every botanical garden, every library, every note of Mozart’s “Requiem”…

“What happens now?” You were standing behind me, naked in the morning, one hand on my back, the other writing my name in the fog I had made on the window. I turned to look at you, serious and a little afraid. I could smell the wood smoke still clinging to your warm skin from the bonfire. “What happens now?” you asked again, passing your hand under my gown.

“You’re asking
?” I said. “Look. Just because you stayed last night doesn’t mean it’s all started again. We can walk away.”

“I don’t want to walk away. And you can only walk away if you promise to take all of you with you and leave not the faintest shadow behind, here in my head. You have to promise to take away all the shadows of you that drift across my skin, everywhere, all the time. And you can’t promise that, so you can’t go. And so you will have to kiss me again, just to make sure I’m still here, and I will have to kiss you again to make sure you are still there, that neither of us are just phantoms in each other’s dreams.”

“No, I won’t kiss you,” I said, and kissed you. “No, and a hundred times, no.”

“I have a present for you,” you said, turning away to pick up a bag you’d thrown in the corner of the room. “We were allowed a half day in the city, escorted. The others all went sightseeing, but there’s a dusty secondhand bookshop I like down in a little warren of streets called the Ackerstrasse—you’d love it. And I found you this. I’ve always wanted to buy you a copy. Pater wrote it for you, you know, a hundred years before you were born.”

It was a tiny red calf-leather copy of Pater’s
The Renaissance,
and you’d written in it, on the flyleaf, as if nothing had changed, “For Lydia,” and then Pater’s words: “and for this continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves.”


Later that morning, after you left for the lab, after I had watched your blood turn to brown smoke and disappear altogether from the pillowcase soaking in the cold water of the sink, I went in search of Mr. F. in the index-card box of alchemists. The pale brown plastic box was easy to find, stacked under dusty loose papers in the box Elizabeth had labelled “European Alchemical Networks.” The box contained records of decades of research, the fruit of trips Elizabeth had taken to archives in numerous European cities, such as Amsterdam, Prague, Milan, Cologne, Genoa, Antwerp, and Copenhagen, where piece by piece she had put together the cross-referenced lives of hundreds of alchemists with names like Olan Borrichus, Oswald Crollius, and Johann Joachim Beecher, lives recorded in detailed, spidery notes. The box contained one index card for each alchemist she had tracked down; each card listed his or her occupations, education, religion, dates, patrons, and the societies to which they belonged. The life stories of those I pulled out randomly were remarkably similar. These alchemists were travellers, itinerants—they rarely stayed in one city for more than four or five years. They worked in courts, as doctors, as tutors for the sons of noblemen, or they taught in universities. Sometimes the cards listed imprisonment or exile or unaccountable disappearances. They were always on the move, these migrants, travelling across Europe to and between each other, carrying secrets.

There were three names under
on the index list: Ezekiel Foxcroft, Robert Fludd, and John Freind. Will had said Mr. F. was a fellow at King’s College. Fludd was an Oxford man who had died in 1637; Freind wouldn’t be born until 1675. The card for Ezekiel Foxcroft was missing. Another dead end.

I didn’t tell you that when I went to unpeg the pillowcase from the clothesline where it had dried in the sun and wind of a brisk October day, under the apple trees, the bloodstain was as brown and deep as it had been that morning. Why didn’t I tell you that? How could I have done? I threw the pillowcase on the smouldering fire, where the flames turned it into something else, where I didn’t have to think about it.


ow many times can you explain away unaccountable events as coincidences? When does the perpetual blowing away of the same piece of paper in a windless garden, the fourth crashing of a computer that results in the loss of only one file when it is restored, a piece of linen with a bloodstain that disappears and returns—how many of all these repeated events can be given rational explanations? A series of coincidences becomes a pattern. The natural bleeds into the supernatural somewhere in that spectrum.

The laws of probability were severely strained in The Studio, after I moved into its high-pitched silences. I struggled to explain things away from the first day. Sometimes I laughed at myself for the things I imagined. At first, I gave you my stories, told you about the strange lights and the coincidences, offered them up as entertainments, but by late October their frequency and implausibility had become alarming. I stopped telling you either for fear you would think me mad or foolish or because I was protecting you from what I was beginning to see.

I would like to say that the dreams began the night I first read Elizabeth’s opening chapter, but they had already started within days of moving into The Studio. It wasn’t a time line, one event nudging another, like a series of carefully stacked dominoes, falling and falling, each toppling the next small block in a sequence. I can’t say what it was—a heterogeneous mixture, like white light, which through the prism of The Studio began to divide into different colours, reflected upon a wall, shimmering, playing, opening out, and closing down. And, like Newton, I didn’t see it all at once. It has taken me two years to see how the patterns fell then, years of dawning.

In the first weeks in which I worked in The Studio I felt it as a slight menace on the edge of my vision and hearing, and almost always at dawn or twilight—something, a muffled cry of something in pain, heard far off, a figure barely glimpsed in the garden, a pool of light that moved in strange ways across a wall. It was nothing. A sense of presence but never of occupancy. Fleeting moments, easily forgotten, even more easily dismissed as a figment of imagination, a writer’s mind at work, conjuring. A sense of something forgotten, or of someone missing.

I said that to you once and you laughed. Writing can be a haunting, I said, and you said that was a cliché. I protested. There are few things you can say about writing, I ventured, that are not clichéd. When you laughed again, I persisted. There
something haunting about it, I said, perhaps because of that heightened sensibility, because you spend so much time listening for the words. You make a character from nothing, a few words, fragments of people you know or have seen from afar, and once they are up and walking they don’t just come and go at your will; they begin to be demanding, appearing at awkward times, doing things you wouldn’t have dreamed they could; they come upon you suddenly when you are asleep or making love. And I’m not talking about the sudden apparition of ideas for plots or new episodes—that happens too—I am talking about people who exist only in your head but who appear in your living room when you have temporarily forgotten they existed, when you have closed your study door on them. It’s a kind of possession. You begin to feel you are being watched.

The people in
The Alchemist
were different. They’d been alive; they’d had flesh and sinews and blood; they’d had family and friends, rooms and libraries in which they worked. Almost all of Elizabeth’s people were Cambridge people; they had wound their way through the colleges, gardens, and labyrinths of this city four hundred years ago. They had talked, argued, exchanged money, drunk together in taverns, and most were long forgotten. They had all been entwined in ways that I could only guess at, entwinings that Elizabeth had sought to map, hooked up to alchemical networks that stretched across the labyrinths of Europe. There were secrets, codes, friendships that Elizabeth could only guess at; many more that she had uncovered and recorded in her box file. But they were Elizabeth’s people, not mine. They couldn’t haunt me because I hadn’t called them up.

Will knew what I meant. I asked her about her people once. She was working—reading and taking notes from Emerson’s essays on the sofa near the stove one afternoon while I worked at the long table.

“Do you think about him much?” I said.

“What? Who?”


“What made you ask me that—just then, I mean?” She grinned, blushing faintly.

“I don’t know.”

“I was just thinking about Thoreau when you spoke.”

“What were you thinking?”

“I was wondering what he would think about Iraq. What he would do about the war, if you must know. I know, I know. Crazy, eh?”

“But you’re reading Emerson.”

“Yes, but I can’t read Emerson without hearing him talking with Thoreau. They’re always at it. Bickering. Trying to outdo each other in my head. Thinking round things, disagreeing. Sometimes I ask them questions. Does that happen to you?”

“No,” I said. “Never. I think you should see a doctor about that.”

“You’re joking?”

“Yes, of course I’m joking. Sometimes I hear all my people talking at once. It’s so noisy I can’t think. And then there’s all the real people too, the ones who aren’t dead, talking away. My stepmother, my dad, Kit. So many questions to ask them. So many opinions to think about.”

“Yes. Shit. That’s right. My grandmother’s always in my head somewhere when I’m thinking about politics. Having her say. Like she won’t be left out. Yes, there’s always Thoreau, me, Emerson, and my grandmother trying to sort out the world, in some car park or other.”

“Car park?”

“Yes, weird that, isn’t it? The places you have conversations in your head. With Emerson and Thoreau you’d think it’d be a forest or a river valley or a field full of flowers. But for me it’s always a car park. Now, are you going to let me work or are you going to come for a walk, if you’re ready for a break?”

We talked more and more easily now, especially on those occasional mornings when the library was closed and she would come and work alongside me at The Studio. Lunch would stretch out sometimes for hours and I often walked with her in the afternoons. But, as if I knew without knowing, I never talked to you about her or to her about you. For some reason I thought Elizabeth wouldn’t have wanted that.


You were back in my landscape now, in my car park, arguing with me, taking me on. You’d never left it. There was no point in promises or resolutions or rules. We’d done all of that once. For the moment the sense of relief was astonishing enough. And, as before, you brought me objects, to stand in for the missing words. Sarah was away, so you stayed at The Studio night after night, summoned me back at the end of the day from alchemy and plague and smoke and brimstone, and from that still irresolvable question:
What did Elizabeth Vogelsang know?

“I forgot,” you said one morning. “I’ve been carrying this around for weeks. Forgot to give it to you.”

You threw a small block of glass towards me. It landed on the crumpled white of bedclothes I had gathered around my skin, cold in the morning air. A block of old glass. Triangular. A prism. I ran my hand over its cool edges, feeling chips here and there. I held it up to the light. Not a single bubble in the glass. Beautiful.

“Meant to give it to you a while ago,” you said. “It was Elizabeth’s. She left it behind. It’s a prism.”

“Is it old?” I said. “Seventeenth century? Where did she get it from?” But you had already disappeared down the stairs, late again.

“She stole it,” you called from the doorway. I sat on the top stair, so that I could watch you leave, and held the prism up to the morning light.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “What a stupid idea.”

“Whatever you say,” you called back. “But a prism of exactly that size and description was stolen from the Whipple Museum about a year ago. It was one of Newton’s.” Then the front door slammed. Your feet on the gravel outside, walking down the path, the gate opening and closing. Silence.


ewton’s prism, forged in Morelli’s glasshouse on a tiny island off the coast of Venice and shipped across oceans and through the fen waterways to reach Stourbridge Fair, where Newton bought it from London glass sellers in exchange for a few coins, was now in my hands, back in The Studio. Here, in her own alchemical laboratory, in the furnace of her head, Elizabeth had turned manuscripts and notes and facts into a continuous history, laced not with mercury or antimony but with dangerous accusation.

Now, with the prism on the desk in front of me, I began to read the third chapter of the manuscript of
The Alchemist
again—the chapter on Newton’s optics, which Elizabeth had called “The Disaggregation of White,” and which describes how Newton learned to use this prism to split light while bubonic plague took its grip on the city around him, turning lithe bodies into corpses. Perhaps I thought that with the prism as talisman standing between me and her words, I might see something new; I might see why Elizabeth had needed to possess it badly enough to steal it from a museum.

Elizabeth began chapter 3 with a comet, describing the young Newton’s extraordinary experiments on light in his rooms in Trinity in the mid-1660s, the plague years. “The Disaggregation of White” intricately entwined plague with light.

When twenty-one-year-old Isaac Newton watched a comet pass slowly across the Cambridge sky in December 1664, leaving a blazing red trail in its wake, he might have seen it as a sign of his own good fortune, for 1664 had been a good year. Six months earlier he had been granted a Trinity scholarship, which had given him a small income of his own, 26 shillings per annum. Now he no longer had to work his passage through the college as a subsizar,
fetching food, cleaning boots, or emptying chamber pots, and he had more time on his hands, time for reading, calculations, and experiments. The comet fascinated him; he stayed up night after night walking in his garden, watching the comet’s trail, and taking notes about how its light moved. He lost so much sleep that he only later understood that he had become disordered in his mind.

The movement of light had been a question of renewed importance to Newton since he had begun reading the work of the controversial French philosopher René Descartes.
He started a new section of a notebook, calling it “Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophiae”—Some Philosophical Questions—for, mostly, questions driven by Descartes’s ideas. Descartes’s explanations of the workings of the universe both compelled and troubled Newton. For Descartes everything could be explained in material and mechanical terms. He claimed, for instance, that light was a pressure transmitted instantaneously through space from a cosmic vortex. This pressure on matter caused the movement of certain particles, which Descartes called light “globules.” As they reached the retina they produced the sensation of whiteness, but if they began to rotate they created a sensation of colour. In other words, white came first, travelling in lines, and could be converted into colour with the addition of spin.

English philosophers had been preoccupied with light too, of late. Robert Boyle had published a book called
Experiments and Considerations Touching Colours: The Beginning of an Experimental History of Colours
in 1664, full of stories and scores of experiments, problems, and conjectures about how colour was made.
Robert Hooke had published his extraordinary new book about optics and microscopes,
in 1665; in it he described his extensive experiments with beams of light reflected on different surfaces, such as soap bubbles and transparent films of mica. He had come to believe that colours were impressions made on the retina by different strengths of pulsing light.
Newton was sure that light was not a pulse and that colours were not a result of mixed and heterogeneous impressions. He was sure that
things, memory, imagination, and will, for instance, also played a part in the miracle of vision.

Through a series of detailed and repeated experiments, Newton determined to demonstrate that both Descartes and Hooke were wrong.
Sometime in the early spring of 1665, when the sun provided him with strong enough rays in his Trinity rooms, Newton turned his own eye into an experimental apparatus.

In that clear early morning, autumn leaves blowing across the garden outside The Studio, I read Elizabeth’s meticulous descriptions of Newton’s optical experiments. She stressed how his own physical pain seemed insignificant to him in relation to the scale and compulsion of his questions. Setting out first to test Descartes’s claim that colours were caused by the pressure of light on the eyeball, he bought a blunt, large-eyed wooden needle called a bodkin and, in the quiet of his rooms in Trinity, slipped it into his eye socket between the eyeball and the bone. The idea made me shudder. Pressure did make a difference to vision, apparently. When he pressed hard he saw dark and coloured circles, but though the colours faded when he released the pressure, they did not disappear immediately. They left ghosts of themselves—Newton called them phantasms—on his vision.

Elizabeth had pasted into her manuscript a photocopy of the diagram Newton drew to describe his experiments with his eye. In one of his notebooks he had drawn his own eyeball, exposed and swollen to fill the precious paper, and mapped it out with letters to reference points on its inner surface. He had sketched the path of light from a tiny sun, as well as a hand, severed from a body, grasping a bodkin the size of a rapier, pushing, prodding, and pressing on the eyeball without compassion. The rest of Newton’s body was missing from this picture, represented on the sheet of paper only by out-of-scale body parts, a hand at war with an eyeball.

The picture made me want to touch my own eye. Sitting there reading these descriptions at Elizabeth’s desk, I also found myself curious—was the miracle of colour to be reduced then to pressure on the eyeball, pressure made by some vague cosmos out there? My momentary experiment with the smooth end of a fountain pen produced only a lingering and uncomfortable pain and dark shapes that seemed to dance over the page. I couldn’t imagine repeating that act, protective of the filmy fragility of my eye, imagining piercings and burstings, blood and pain.

The bodkin in his eye socket was only a start. Next Elizabeth described how, curious about these stains of colour, Newton tried out and recorded other experiments. When he stared at the spring sun reflected in a mirror for as long as he could bear, he discovered that all the light-coloured objects in his rooms turned red and all the dark-coloured objects blue. The coloured phantasms, as before, pulsed and twisted until they slowly decayed and vanished. Then he found that, as before, in a darkened room he could
see a blue spot fading to white, circled by rings of red, yellow, green, blue, and purple long after he had stopped staring at the sun. When he opened his eyes the pale objects in the room had turned red again and the dark objects blue, as if by closing his eyes he had recreated the effect of the sun. Even more extraordinarily, he described in his notebook how he learned to conjure the phantasms by will. Just by
the sun stains in complete darkness, lying on his bed at midnight, he could bring them back as bright and clear as when he had first seen them.

Eventually Newton’s eyes were so damaged by staring at the sun, his retina so singed by these optical ghosts, that he was forced to lie down for three days in a darkened room; it took three long days for his sight to return.


I could, with all these details Elizabeth had described, imagine Newton lying there under a thin blanket in the dark of his rooms, perhaps more frustrated at having to stop working than conscious of his own pain. Among the scattered papers covered with the jottings and drawings of his optical and mathematical experiments, thinking through the new set of problems the experiments had produced: what were the coloured spectres and what made them linger and return at will?

And while Newton lay there, in the spring months of 1665, the plague was creeping towards Cambridge from London. In paragraphs like these, Elizabeth described the plague as a scuttling thing, carried by rats, insidious and malevolent:


The Great Plague of 1665–66 did not appear suddenly—it had been ripening and spreading its tendrils across Europe for years. The particular strain that killed so many in the summers of 1665 and 1666, however, was carried by rats coming ashore in London from ships at several landing points along the Thames between Stepney and St. Paul’s Covent Garden in April and May. From there the plague would follow the rats along the trade routes, radiating through and out from London.

Across Cambridge, while Newton lay in the dark waiting for his sight to return, rats, warmed by the spring sun, stirred in their burrows behind wainscots, under floorboards, and in thatches, and gathered their young about them. As temperatures rose, fleas stirred and bred in the warmth of rat down, blankets, and skin. As rats died by the thousands, some in only a matter of hours, the fleas sought out human blood, passing the bacillus into the human bloodstream. Within three to six days of an unfelt fatal fleabite, perhaps scratched for a moment, victims began to shiver and vomit, became quickly intolerant of light, and, seeking darkness, closed shutters, took to their beds, with aching bones in their backs, aches in their heads and limbs, swelling sores under their armpits. Joiners and carpenters boarded up houses; painters daubed red crosses on doors; the rich ordered their carriages and left for the country. Across England clergymen continued to predict apocalypse—God was visiting his wrath on a country of sinners, they said. Babylon is falling.


A drawing of four consecutive panels, reproduced in
The Alchemist,
showed the progress of the plague from London to outlying cities and towns. In the first, panicked Londoners were drawn “flying” London for the towns and villages, climbing onto any half-watertight boat or barge. Then processions of people, miles long, were shown “flying by land,” ribboning their way out of the city by foot, sure now that death was behind them, not knowing that it was in their very clothes and skin. In the third box, death struck—here the processions were for the dead, searchers ahead, ringing their bells and heading for the plague pits. In the last panel there were more horizontal bodies than vertical ones—too few people to bury the dead.

According to Elizabeth’s sources, Cambridge actually fared rather well during the plague years, because, by careful planning, those “flying” London multitudes were largely kept out of the city. Elizabeth told of how John Herring, the mayor of Cambridge that year, called the aldermen to council to plan strategies as if the plague were an invading army already making its way north. Ahead of the enemy, the aldermen employed labourers to build temporary pesthouses on the outskirts of the city, on Midsummer Common and Coldhams Common.

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