A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Charles Nicholl’s books, so beautifully and elegantly written, and based on such meticulous research, give me great pleasure. So I was delighted though somewhat shamed to find that his shorter pieces, essays and reviews, had been collected and published, five whole years ago. How can I have missed them for so long?
Nicholl is famed for his ground-breaking work on figures from the Tudor and Jacobean age. His work on the death of Marlowe, The Reckoning,shed new light on the mystery of what happened in that lodging house in Deptford; and in The Lodger he built from one of the few tiny documentary sources we have for Shakespeare’s life a vivid picture of his London world at the beginning of the Jacobean age. Nicholls’s unique quality as a historian is to value the dogged research that unearths the genuine connections of a figure to his age and milieu, to examine what is found as forensically as any piece of evidence, and as a writer, to turn these insights into beautifully-written, immensely readable detective stories. In his introduction to this collection he makes the case for ‘poking around’. Of this activity he is the genius, taking another look at disregarded finds, asking new questions, making new connections. In this collection Nicoll spends some time in his favoured period, the late 16th and early 17th century (the age of Shakespeare and his contemporaries), but also travels further in time and location, through renaissance Italy to the 20th century and a clutch of essays on larger than life explorers. His title illuminates his belief – that every life potentially leaves a shadow on the record, a trace that, like the stains and smudges left behind at a crime scene, can tell a story.
The essays on the Tudor and Stuart age cover overlooked figures such as Edward Kelley, the alchemist and associate of Dr John Dee, who found fame and later a sticky end in Bohemia. Thomas Coryate I had just about heard of; his work Coryate’s Crudities is a 17th century travel book (early on the scene of readers’ passion to find out about other countries) describing a grand tour of Europe. But I had no idea that he had also followed this with a work about his journeys in India. Coryate was famed for travelling everywhere on foot, and Nicholl’s essay traces his final trudge to exhaustion, dystentery and death in Surat, calling for ‘Sack, sack!’. He returns to Christopher Mountjoy, Shakespeare’s landlord (see The Lodger), shedding more light on his rackety life and habits, and to Marlowe, and the traces of his family and life in his native Canterbury. He reflects on the lives of Ben Jonson and John Aubrey. Bravely, he makes a foray into the Shakespeare authorship question, in an essay-review written at the time of the publication of James Shapiro’s Contested Will, taking a step back to ask why the question is asked at all, and looking more closely at the methods used by the proponents of different candidates to evaluate the evidence for their case. I have recently been exposed to the Oxfordian theory in full cry, in a lecture by one of its most passionate advocates, and this cool appraisal of the grounds for contesting the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was calming, timely and welcome.
Moving on and out, Nicholl takes us to Italy to examine the likely true story behind the notorious murder tale turned by Shelley into his verse drama The Cenci, and a foray into the world of Leonardo and his notebooks. He is interested in questions of attribution, and two of the essays examine the case for half a statue by Michelangelo (on balance, no), and a previously unknown portrait of Byron (who knows, maybe yes). He looks at the evidence for a fresh suspect for the Jack the Ripper murders (a gruesome read, as is inevitable given the subject), while warning us in a note that ‘those venturing into online Ripperology do so at their own risk’. Point taken – thank you.
When I was a child one of the books we had at home was called Exploration Fawcett, the biography through his writings of the legendary Colonel Fawcett, who ventured into the Amazon jungle in the 1920s and never came out. A completely forgotten figure fifty years later, I had not thought of him from that time to this. Nicholl revives his memory, and tells us what he was renowned for, including the maverick streak that made the Royal Geographical Society keep him rather at arms’ length.
This is just one of a group of essays set in the wider world. Many factors are converging to make me read again, after more than 40 years, Laurence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, including the brief essay here The Capital of Memory. The final piece in this collection is beautiful and sinister, a reflection on corvids, their power and intelligence, their status as the farmers’ enemy, the symbolism of the ravens in the Tower of London, and finally, the fate of Grip, the pet raven of Dickens.
I hope that I have given some flavour of the depth and breadth of this collection. There are many more characters to find in these 25 essays. The final enticement I can offer to read them is the sheer beauty and style of the writing, as well as the breath-taking skill in handling the evidence that this literary detective unearths. One tiny frustration was the cover illustration. It is a fragment from a painting by a favourite of mine Vittore Carpaccio, a dog with its paw on a piece of paper with some illegible traces of writing on it. The author teases us by saying that it is unlikely that the hound will ever let us know what it says. Oh dear – I am now incurably intrigued!
I’ve just finished reading War and Peace. Any other time, that would have been a vainglorious boast, but right now, soon after Andrew Davies’s very successful TV adaptation, I am just one among many who have discovered this wonderful and life-filling novel. But after several weeks immersion in a single new world I needed decompression, so this book of original and enlightening explorations, a most welcome Christmas present, was just the very thing.
Charles Nicholl: Traces Remain. Essays and Explorations. Paperback ed. London: Penguin Books, 2012. 336pp.
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