The Newton Letter by John Banville

Words fail me, Clio. How did you track me down, did I leave bloodstains in the snow? I won’t try to apologise. Instead, I want simply to explain so that we both might understand. Simply! I like that. No, I’m not sick, I have not had a breakdown. I am, you might say, I might say, in retirement from life. Temporarily.

The Newton Letter by John Banville asks how much we can really know about each other. The narrator, a historian working on a biography of Isaac Newton, has reached an existential impasse in his life and has sought refuge in a rented cottage on a large country estate. He becomes obsessed with the owners of the estate, husband and wife and the wife’s daughter. He begins an affair with the daughter, though he is really in love with her mother. He cannot understand how the husband ended up in this marriage and therefore “owner” of the estate.

While he is trying to figure out the situation at Fern House, he is also trying to come to terms with the letter Isaac Newton wrote to John Locke, during a period of mental breakdown, in which Newton questions the foundational beliefs of his own works and vows not to write anymore philosophies. How can the narrator continue his biography if he cannot come to grips with this particular letter and what it implies?

The narrator is unreliable, clearly. We find out towards the end of the book that he has completely misread the nature of the relationships among his landlords’ family and, I think, he has seriously misread Newton’s letter as well. It’s possible that the author, John Banville, has also misread it, which is what makes the novella so problematic for me. The narrator wonders why Newton has become interested in the tradesman around the banks of the Cam river where he is staying.

They would seem to have something to tell me; not of their trades, nor even of how they conduct their lives; nothing, I believe, in words. They are, if you will understand it, themselves the things they might tell. They are all a form of saying…..My dear Doctor, expect no more philosophy from my pen. The language in which I might be able not only to write but to think is neither Latin nor English, but a language none of whose words is known to me; a language in which commonplace things speak to me; and wherein I may one day have to justify myself before an unknown judge.

The narrator and the author both, make no mention of Newton’s sexuality. More than a few biographers have concluded that he may have been a repressed homosexual. Newton did not keep a personal diary and wrote very little about his personal life in his letters so there is not much to go on, according to The Newton Project. He was engaged as a young man, but the relationship cooled and he never married, and it was rumored that he remained a virgin throughout his life.

So, look at the above letter in this light. Newton’s attraction to working class men seems to be the same sort of attraction Walt Whitman had–the letter almost sounds like the basis of a Whitman poem. The strain of keeping his sexuality a secret, of denying it to even himself, could easily offer at least a partial explanation for the breakdown that led to the above letter and his paranoia about Locke. While none of this proves he was gay, nothing at this point can, it also cannot prove that he was heterosexual.

Which brings me back to the reasons why I’m giving The Newton Letter only three of five stars. In the end, it’s not just the narrator who cannot see the truth before his eyes, it’s the author. We cannot really know each other if we cannot come to grips with foundational questions. The author who cannot address these issues cannot know his subjects. Not in this day and age, anyway. However, even a book written in 1982 should have dealt with Newton’s sexuality in the attempt to deal with his mental breakdown.


I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008.  I honestly don’t know what to make of it now.  Before re-reading it today, I had no memory at all of The Newton Letter which must say something.  I still stand by the main point I make, though I don’t make it very well, in this review.  I think Banville would have had a much more interesting book if he’d been able to address Newton’s private life more fully.