Only a mother

Only a mother could have loved a man like Newton.

This thought arose many times as I was doing research for my book. Though Newton often comes through in his correspondence and writings as clear and energetic, he can also be self-righteous, vindictive and even cruel. Contradictions abound. He was generous and meek (some said). He was also remote and serious (number of verified times Newton laughed: one).
While the myth of Newton as a solitary genius has been over-played—he lived for thirty years in the hurly-burly of London’s political and social elite—it is also true that his truly close relationships were few. He never married and had no children, nor full siblings.

So that leaves his mother.

There is, in fact, little evidence about just how Newton’s mother did feel about him. Just one mutilated letter to Newton from his mother, Hannah, survives. This tiny scrap (just forty words long) bears the word love no fewer than three times. The voice that emerges from the scrap is pleading, even pathetic, but certainly very loving.

This is hard to square with the other strong piece of evidence we have about Newton’s mother: she abandoned him when he was just a toddler. Widowed while pregnant with Isaac, Hannah re-married when he was just three years old, moving to live with her new husband in a village just a mile and a half away. Isaac was left to stay with his grandmother. The proximity of his mother’s new household almost makes the act of abandonment worse. What must it have meant to the very young Newton to know that his mother was so close and yet inaccessible to him?

Newton’s feelings towards his mother and her new husband were complicated, to put it mildly. In a remarkable list of sins Isaac wrote down as a young man, he confesses to threatening to “burne them and the house of them.”

These are strong emotions. Writing about Newton it feels important to examine my own feelings about him. While no one expects a biographer to be entirely dispassionate (why would we write a book about someone we do not feel strongly about?) it is also unseemly, even suspect, to betray either too much appreciation or too much criticism of a subject. With Newton, for me the problem is a lack of fellow feeling—even a certain distaste for the man—such as I can fathom him.

The difficulty of fathoming is part of the problem. Richard Westfall, author of the authoritative scholarly biography of Newton, admitted that Newton had receded from him further the more he pursued him, until the great scientist had finally become, after decades of study, ‘wholly other’ to him. While I admire Westfall for such an honest admission, this is a problematic state for a biographer to find himself in.

I don’t feel Newton has receded from me as I have trailed the reflections his image, and his papers, have cast over hundreds of years. I feel I know him better than I did before, though my understanding is much stronger in some areas than others. This is not to say that I come anywhere close to loving him, I am somewhat relieved to say. But still, I think about him almost obsessively, as one does normally onlywith those we love (or hate).

The challenge is to balance this obsessiveness with fair-mindedness. The uneasy equilibrium that results comes with a queer feeling, because we are very close to a person (even one nearly three hundred years in the grave) while trying to stay, if not neutral, at least reasonable.

With Newton, the task is doubly hard. He’s a hard person to get to know, and it’s hard to balance the greatness of his achievements against the prickliness of his personality. But one of the reasons he has remained such a vital mythic figure is precisely because he is hard to pin down, biographically. In his remoteness, he has allowed generations to see what they have wanted to see. Within reason, of course.


Still out there

Newton left behind a huge amount of material. Too much, if you ask the many editors who have, over the years, tried to make sense of it all. The tedium of his excessive re-drafting threatened to send more than one pious editor off the rails, to the madhouse or even to the grave. No documented Newton-paper-related deaths have occurred, but the sheer unending mess of the papers themselves probably protected them from many prying eyes over the years.

Those editors did have cause for hope, and for perseverance. Amidst the tedium of repeated drafts on minute details of church history or reams of papers relating to the administration of the Mint, there is the historian’s gold dust: vivid evidence of Newton’s most personal obsessions, thoughts he dared not share with anyone, a glimpse into his inner, imaginative world, a world inhabited not by mathematical characters or equations but by demons, beasts, whores and virgins. That is stirring stuff, and makes it easier to understand the tug of desire and anticipation that kept the scholars–the lonely, the proud and the few–at it over the years.

It also helps explain the perennial hope that something else will be discovered, some overlooked scrap of paper with Newton’s writing on it that just might reveal the answer to questions we haven’t even thought to ask. Recently, just such a scrap was discovered, at the offices of Maggs Brothers, the book dealers who bought many lots of Newton papers when they were sold at auction back in 1936. Did the re-discovered manuscript change how we think about Newton? Did it contain anything sensational or significant? I’ll leave you to wonder. It certainly sold for a prodigious amount of money, enough to buy someone a very fine sports car indeed.

Such sales are understandable, even if eyebrow-raising for those of us more attuned to the price of a cup of coffee than a Newton manuscript. It’s natural to want to acquire a fresh piece of the past, untainted by the gaze of past generations. It’s almost like getting a bit of oceanfront property, closed to the public and with a view of infinite horizon.

Less exciting is the fact that much possibly “sensational” material sits in archives and libraries around the world, unexamined and unheralded. The sensations contained in these unknown archives have yet to be considered. The answers they contain are for questions that future generations will think up, questions unknown to us now. These archives point to truths that are less glamorous, and less certain, than the truths revealed by miraculously recovered manuscripts in movies and novels.

Thinking this way about manuscripts and the past can be exhausting: since nothing is ever fixed, nothing can ever truly be known. I find it comforting, though, to think about the material we leave behind as having a life of its own, which continues as long as the paper itself survives and which cycles through different tellings at the hands of scholars and historians over centuries. Much better, it seems to me, to keep going, even if Truth with a capital T gets left by the wayside.