Sunday, November 3, 2013

Renaissance "freethinkers" Herriot, Ralegh, Marlowe: shadowy denizens of Louis Bayard's "The School of Night."

Before I read The School of Night I had no idea that Thomas Harriot was the first person to make a drawing of the moon through a telescope— four months before Galileo. He also measured gravity almost 60 years before Newton, charted a comet later named by Halley, discovered the law of refraction, and learned the Carolina Algonquian language during a 1585 expedition to Roanoke Island funded by Sir Walter Ralegh. Harriot is one of the linchpins of this propulsive literary thriller, which weaves his exploits in the New World together with his scientific and metaphysical inquiries back in Dorset during the early days of the reign of King James I. (Above right: portrait of Harriot (1602), which hangs in Trinity College, Oxford)
In the words of the New York Times, the Herriot of the novel is part of a "secret society of brilliant Elizabethan thinkers who challenge conventional 16th-century wisdom by exercising 'the freedom to speak their minds.' Henry Cavendish, the 21st-century scholar who narrates the story, tumbles to this academic crew when an unscrupulous collector (who would 'lay down his life for a Shakespeare quarto') hires him to search the archives of a fellow bibliophile who committed suicide. Leaving Henry to puzzle out the clues in the library, Bayard shifts the story to Tudor England, where members of the elite circle that meets at Sir Walter Ralegh's Dorset estate are immersed in their esoteric arts. From either perspective, the story is fascinating. And yes, there's a good reason that Shakespeare is not welcome in this company."
Sir Walter Ralegh
Two love stories inhabit each time period, but it is Margaret, Herriot's partner in love and scientific inquiry, who is for me the most compelling character. The powerfully drawn scenes of Herriot's search and retrieval of her in plague-ridden London are unforgettable. Throughout the novel, Bayard keeps his palimpsest-like narrative moving briskly along—with wildly inventive brio. "Bayard adds twist after satisfying twist to these interlocked tales" wrote the Washington Post. 'Tragic and jolting surprises keep the storylines zigzagging toward resolution. At its heart, The School of Night illuminates a glimpse into legend, assuring readers that this ancient classroom offered a curriculum heavy on secrets."
Roman Catholic peer Henry Percy, the 9th Earl of Northumberland, was a patron to Herriot. Like other putative members of the so-called "School of Night" or the "School of Atheism," he fell afoul of the political and religious though police of the time. Writer Christopher Marlowe, below, was the subject of intense scrutiny as well.  
An anonymous portrait in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, believed to show Christopher Marlowe.
Click here to read an excerpt from The School of Night. We also have Bayard's The Black Tower, an equally acclaimed detective novel set in early 19th-century Paris.


  1. Thomas Harriot had a crater on the Moon named after him in 1970. Keeping to this theme, it is on the dark side, facing away from Earth, and we cannot see it.

  2. Speaking of Shadowy Denizens,

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    More Scoundrel than Scholar,

  3. make that manifold JP. Whoops = Wait---- This Just In -- My outstanding older off-spring (ORvM) wandered by, spotted the web site, and warmly offered heartfelt greetings !!!


    1. The domain of the Baron is filled with personages most radiant and perspicacious. Outstanding offspring still owes us a blog post, when educational demands permit.