Napoleon on St. Helena, Newton’s Alchemy, and a New Narnia Novel
Francis Spufford has written a Narnia novel. He started it to entertain his daughter on a family vacation and has been working on it for the past three and a half years. He doesn’t expect it to be published: “‘I was a deeply, passionately Narnia-loving child myself,’ Spufford said, ‘and I’d always wanted there to be one more novel. Not that I had a specific gap in mind, I just wanted to stay in Narnia a little longer.’ The series is ‘finished as it stands’ he continued, ‘but there is a gap in the history of Narnia between The Magician’s Nephew and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That was the only gap I thought was large enough for someone to do some impertinent fiddling.’”
Randy Boyagoda reviews Alan Jacobs’s The Year of Our Lord 1943: “Among the book’s signal accomplishments is its striking lack of lamentation-soaked appeals to the past and its equally confident avoidance of cheap claims for contemporary relevance. But with those easy justifications not available, what does the book offer instead? In a word, recalcitrance. In more than a word, the necessary, and necessarily difficult, virtues of recalcitrance.”
Everyone loves Beerbohm; Belloc, not so much: “In 1923, an anonymous individual created a 39-question survey of provocative questions ranging from most overrated living English writer to the greatest literary genius to ever live. Over the next several years, a journal detailing these questions circulated amongst some of 20th-century England’s most prominent literary figures, including Virginia Woolf, Margaret Kennedy, Rebecca West, Stella Benson, Hilaire Belloc and Rose Macaulay. These writers’ confessions, shielded from prying eyes with sellotape and wax, remained unseen for nearly a century. But the yellowing notebook in which the ten responses were recorded recently resurfaced among Kennedy’s papers, William Mackesy, Kennedy’s grandson and literary executor of her estate, writes for the Independent. The journal, fittingly titled Really and Truly: A Book of Literary Confessions, opens a portal to the Modernist circle, enabling readers to revel in the plaudits—and biting criticism—levied at the authors’ contemporaries and predecessors alike.”
Azusa Pacific drops ban on same-sex student relationships, again: “Last week, the Southern California Christian college decided, once again, to remove a ban on ‘romanticized’ same-sex relationships from its code of student conduct. APU had initially made the same change in the fall, only to reverse the decision when its board of trustees said it had never approved the change.”
How important was alchemy to Newton? “Historians of alchemy’, wrote Herbert Butterfield in 1949, ‘seem to become tinctured with the kind of lunacy they set out to describe.’ Seventy years on, readers may believe that this gloriously rude assessment needs no updating. But what, then, are we to make of the fact that the greatest scientific hero of them all, that model of geometric rationality, Isaac Newton, devoted a great proportion of his life to the pursuit of transmutation? This was the problem that faced another titan of his discipline, the economist John Maynard Keynes, when in 1936 he acquired at auction a large number of Newton’s papers dealing with alchemy. Newton, Keynes was forced to declare, ‘was not the first of the age of reason’ but rather ‘the last of the magicians’.”
Stalin’s nearly impeccable spy: “Interviewed on the Today program on March 7, a former executive of the gigantic Chinese tech firm Huawei admitted: ‘It is the nature of humanity to spy, to conduct espionage.’ A gold-plated incarnation of this impulse is the tall, craggy-faced German journalist who was arrested in his pajamas in his Tokyo house in October 1941. ‘I am a Nazi!’ he insisted to the Japanese police, who, before entering his study, had politely removed their shoes. On the sixth day of his interrogation, he finally broke. He raised his vigilant, deep-set blue eyes, which could have charmed the whiskers off Blofeld’s cat, and said: ‘I will confess everything.’ Over the course of 50 interrogation sessions, Richard Sorge removed the scabbard of ‘a slightly lazy, high-living reporter’, which had shielded him for 12 years, and revealed his inner steel: the blade of an unyielding communist and consummate dissembler, the only person in history in the reckoning of Owen Matthews, his latest and most thorough biographer, to have been simultaneously a member of the Nazi party and the Soviet Communist party. ‘No other agent had served Moscow for so well or so long.’”
Essay of the Day:
In the Smithsonian, James L. Swanson and Erica Munkwitz retrace Napoleon’s last days in exile on St. Helena:
“The ship carrying Napoleon to the island arrived on October 15, 1815, but he was unable to disembark until the night of October 17. And what must Napoleon have thought as the island came into sight, as he scanned its craggy shorelines and the ramshackle houses of Jamestown, St. Helena’s capital (and only) city, with the telescope through which he had surveyed his victories on the battlefields of Europe? As Count de Montholon, who accompanied him into exile, would write, ‘The valley of Jamestown resembled an entrance to the infernal regions…nothing was to be seen but rows of guns and black cliffs, built as if by a demon’s hand to bind together the rocky peaks.’ With only two main streets and 160 dwellings—less than an avenue’s worth of Paris—he must have indeed thought he had arrived in hell.
“After his first night in Jamestown, he never set foot there again. There was no residence fit for an ex-emperor on the island, so he had to wait seven weeks for a decrepit summer house used by the East India Company to be brought up to snuff. Until then, he stayed with the Balcombe family—who had also hosted Wellington—at their home, the Briars, and fell under the spell of their French-speaking daughter, Betsy. Between games of whist and blindman’s bluff, she may have been the only person ever to box his ears and threaten him with his own sword. He was 46; she was just 13.
“These first two golden months at the Briars were his favorite time. Once ensconced at Longwood House, he hosted no cotillions, no grand parties. While protecting his privacy, he was no recluse. In those early days, he was in good health, enjoyed working on his memoirs, received visitors, granted audiences to every important visitor to the island, savored news from the outside world, conversed with British officers, dined with selected visitors, visited people, went on walks and rode horses.
“Everything changed with the arrival of the new governor, Hudson Lowe. Lowe sent away Napoleon’s faithful aide Las Cases and banished the sympathetic Balcombes, accusing them of suspicious loyalty to the emperor. Lowe then further restricted the emperor’s freedom of movement, vetted who could visit him, monitored his correspondence, demanded that a British officer chaperone his horseback rides (provoking him to give up riding altogether) and enforced rules that the ex-emperor must be seen in the flesh several times a day by prying British eyes.”
Photos: Midwest floods
Poem: Matthew Buckley Smith, “Egg-and-Dart”
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