Early modern books and their collectors are the unlikely subjects of this smart, well-crafted thriller.
The School of NightPublisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Author: Louis Bayard
Length: 368 pages
Publication date: 2012-02
In an interview from some years ago, Henry Rollins said of the song “I’m Free” by the Soup Dragons, “You think it’s pretty great, and then you find out it’s just another cover of an old Rolling Stones song.” At least this reviewer recalls Rollins saying something like this once. In any case, the sentiment suggests that even obscure, insignificant tunes from their back catalogue can evince the Rolling Stones’ genius and are ripe for the plucking by other bands looking to make a hit.
Similarly, the title of Louis Bayard’s novel The School of Night is a strikingly well-wrought phrase and certainly seems original—until one realizes that it derives from a seemingly throwaway line in William Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost: “Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the school of night.” The subject of the line is the hair color of one Rosaline, beloved by one of the band of young men whose pledge to devote themselves to a period of celibacy and rigorous academic study is the premise for the comedy.
But perhaps it's not so throwaway. For approximately a century now, various scholars of early modern English literature and culture have argued that the phrase refers to a group of prominent and accomplished men whose careers figure prominently in the history of late 16th and early 17th century England—among them Walter Ralegh, Thomas Harriot, and Christopher Marlowe. No mere klatch given to gossip, these men allegedly indulged in strikingly heterodox thinking and discussion (by the standards of the age). Indeed, the Jesuit priest Robert Persons dubbed them and their ideas a “school of atheism”—the sinister overtones of which Shakespeare’s line may be echoing.
The connection between Shakespeare’s comedy and this group of possibly proto-atheists and materialists is tenuous, and the scholarly debate about it does not seem likely to subside soon. Whatever its academic merits, the possible connection has proven rich enough to serve as the source of two novels in the last decade both titled The School of Night, Baynard’s work, and a novel of the same title by Andrew Wall. The subject of this review, Bayard’s novel, was first published in 2011 in hardback and is now available in paperback.
It begins at the funeral of the somewhat ludicrously named Alonzo Wax, a scholar of early modern literature and rare books collector. There, his friend and executor of his estate Henry Cavendish (the protagonist of the novel) delivers Wax’s eulogy. Both the eulogy and the settling of Wax’s estate are unenviable tasks. Cavendish and Wax had a long but sometimes difficult friendship, and the circumstances of Wax’s death, apparently a suicide by drowning, are strange and disconcerting.
Moreover, Wax has left Cavendish with an enormously complex pile of debts to settle and legal matters to sort out. Cavendish is not the ideal person for the task; though very intelligent his life has, for some time, been in a freefall of alcoholism, failed relationships, and lack of employment. All of this began when Cavendish’s once promising academic career collapsed after he unwittingly promoted a forged poem as genuine.
Cavendish’s rather mundane, if strenuous, obligations soon involve him in a menacing adventure, some of whose major players include a mysterious woman dressed in red whom Cavendish first glimpses at Wax’s funeral, and a rival book collector, who commissions Cavendish to retrieve an original letter by Ralegh from Wax’s possessions.
Early modern book collecting as the premise for a thriller? At first glance, the subject matter seems unlikely to yield much excitement—Cavendish himself divides his life into two phases at one point, before and after he realized “...that people could be murdered for a book.” Fortunately, Bayard has crafted a deft, immensely engaging, and in the end, surprisingly moving novel—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say two successful novels. The School of Night is constituted of two main plots, the one involving Cavendish and company, the other set in early modern England and involving Harriot and a young woman who becomes his assistant during his scientific experiments.
Perhaps most surprisingly, by the end of the novel it becomes what its very first sentence claims it to be: “Against all odds, against my own wishes, this is a love story.” It is not, however, saccharine or sentimental. The several loves it describes are complex, painful, and in some instances ultimately ruinous. If the novel resolves on a note in the minor key (some elements of which readers may find heavy-handed), for the better part of its duration it nicely juxtaposes its lighter and darker elements.