The School of Night: A Novel by Louis Bayard


Henry Holt and Co., March 29, 2011

ISBN:  978-0805090697

352 pp.


Add this to your list of conspiracy theories: Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, George Chapman and Thomas Harriot,17th century luminaries of literature and science, met secretively in order to discuss their shared philosophy of atheism, a topic impossible to speak of openly in Elizabethan era England. And they call themselves the "School of Night."

Did this group exist, did they all know each other, much less meet on a regular basis? No one knows for sure. There is no hard evidence for any of it but, like the Shakespeare authorship question, makes for interesting speculation.

Proponents of the theory believe there are hints written into the works of Shakespeare, barbed references to what would have been a subversive movement. The smoking gun is in Love's Labour's Lost, Act IV, Scene III, "Black is the badge of hell / The hue of dungeons and the school of night." Not being an Elizabethan scholar, that seems like as weak as evidence gets.

Louis Bayard's The School of Night uses this Elizabethan mystery as the backdrop for his latest book, intertwining a modern day story of two book collectors eager to lay hands on proof the group existed with the 17th century story of scientist Thomas Harriot, a neglected scientist given no credit for having been way ahead of his time.

In the modern storyline a failed Elizabethan scholar, Henry Cavendish, friend of wealthy book collector Alonzo Wax, team up – along with a woman of indeterminate motivation, Clarissa Dale – in a game of cat and mouse with another collector, Bernard Styles, and his Scandinavian tough man, Halldor. Their goal? To decipher a mysterious letter that seems to point toward a hidden cache of Elizabethan treasure, uniting the half of the letter they know exists with the other, which promises to reveal all. And, wherever they travel, people have the inconvenient habit of dying.

Meanwhile, in the 17th century Thomas Harriot works in his laboratory, doing what it is scientists do. And devising a method to hide a vast fortune? Well, we don't know that yet, now, do we.

Bayard, unlike many historical novelists, uses a generous sprinkling of humor in his prose. When I first encountered it I was startled, expecting a much more serious tone based on the cover blurb. I wasn't sure I liked it, feeling alienated as Bayard's tongue-in-cheek humor kept pulling me out of the story. I can't say at what point that changed, but I'm glad it did. Once the characters were well-established the humor fit each quite well, and I came to not only appreciate but also anticipate it.

This was a book I enjoyed picking up after having left off, though not one I was impatient about resuming. In the interest of full disclosure, historical fiction really isn't my main reading interest. The uncertainty as to what's real and what's fiction bothers me too much to know how to process these novels. Normally, suspending disbelief is not a problem, but in this case it is.

The School of Night held my interest and kept me reading. After the initial problem assimilating the humor, I got into the story with much better attention. I grew to like the characters, though the plot remained a stumbling block 'til the end.

Speaking of the end… Ack. I realize it's hard tying up loose ends, clipping off the excess, making a tidy package of not just one but two complex plots. But. How do I put this. It's the author's job. In this case, one not done particularly well. Too much unnecessary information, too over the top. After having grown to enjoy the book, along comes an incredibly disappointing, even ridiculous ending.

Question: Where was the editor?  Ack.

Would I recommend the book? Obviously, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, if you love historical fiction, especially the 17th century, there's some of that here. Perhaps not as much as the reader would like, considering the plot pops backward and forward in time repeatedly. Characterization was strong, as was the quality of the prose. The plot… Well, it was there, but the strong characters easily dominated.

Definitely not my strongest recommendation. In fact, I can't guarantee devotees of literary fiction could make it through to the end. Nor, once there, that they don't feel like chasing me down with torches in order to inflict harm on my person for not outright declaring it a wretched read. Well, it's not wretched, but let's just say if I had it to read over again… I wouldn't.



Author Louis Bayard

Visit his website.




Rare books and the collection thereof



Books mentioned in this post:

Shakespeare – First Folio

Pierre Corneille – Plays

Hester Chapone – Conduct Guide for Young Ladies

Fanny Burney – Camilla

This copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio was sold at Sotheby’s in July of 2006. A London bookseller purchased it for £ 2.8 M. Estimates for the sale were up to $ 6M, so someone got a wonderful deal; too bad it wasn’t me. It was sold to a bookseller, which suggests it was sold again, to an anxiously waiting client. Such is the nature of the world of rare and scarce books.

This particular copy wasn’t even complete. One of the front endpapers was missing and the original Ben Jonson poem was replaced with a 19thC copy, which suggests someone cut it out and sold it – sadly, that’s a common occurrence. There are scribbles in the margins, too, circa the 1600s, with comments like “simile,” as though some 17thC school child was reading it for a homework assignment. All this acts to bring down the worth of a collectible volume, which may be why it went for under expectation. But hey, I’ll take it for Christmas, if you’re looking for something to get me.



17 C Marginalia


There are somewhere around 200 copies of this First Folio volume in existence, which makes it technically not even rare, but the bulk of those books are in university, museum and private collections.  Original 1623 editions don’t come on the market very often.  The only people with access to most of the other copies are scholars, or those given special permission to handle the books. Someone took advantage of this rare opportunity. A wise person. Rich and wise.


Guardian article on this and other rare book auctions


Wouldn’t you just love to touch this book? To lay hands on this piece of literary history? Then again, if I owned it there’s a high possibility I’d find some way to ruin it. Inadvertently, of course. I purchased a book about the early history of Manhattan and, trying to open the map to see if my Dutch ancestors’  land was recorded, I accidentally ripped it. It’s been in near-pristine condition since the early 1800s. In a few short days I managed to remedy that. A few short days. In my frustration, I ripped it even more, trying to tuck it back into the book. As if that weren’t enough, I Googled maps of Dutch Manhattan and found there’s a great one online, so that book gave its life needlessly.

This is why I should never be allowed to own nice things.

I have a few older books in my own collection, the oldest dating to the 1700s – pre-Revolutionary War. It’s a drama by Pierre Corneille, the French playwright. When I purchased it I only wanted it for its age. I’m not fluent in French, not that I planned to read it. I wanted something old that was affordable due to obscurity and condition. And that’s what I got, an old book I couldn’t read, with a  crumbling spine, a lot of wear and foxing.  I don’t recall what I paid but I bought it via eBay, that most fertile ground for finding antique books (caveat emptor…).

It’s not the last I bought for its age, leather binding or beautiful, marbled covers, nor the most interesting. I also own a woman’s book of conduct, a tiny book written to educate young ladies on how to handle matters social and personal:




The book was published in New York in 1831 and written by, what do you know, a true bluestocking: Hester Chapone. My heroine! Bless her, and her compatriots, for bucking the system, one which looked upon women as unfeminine – and worse – for daring to educate themselves. Earlier women, such as 17th C playwright Aphra Behn, were called whores for earning income by writing. Because women, “real” women, stayed home to spin and keep up the household (i.e., order the servants around) and never, ever earned money. How vulgar.

Women could certainly bring a dowry into a marriage, that was expected. She could only bring more money into the family if a rich relative died, willing her land or other assets. Of course, all she came into possession of reverted to her husband’s ownership. Nothing belonged to her and, in all but rare circumstances, money and property passed through the male line, leaving women to hope they’d been left enough money to live on for the rest of their lives by the generosity of their husband’s will.




Mrs. Hester Chapone was a feisty one, educated above her station. And I imagine she raised a few eyebrows with this bit of advice from her book:

“I know nothing that renders a woman more despicable, than her thinking it is essential to happiness to be married. Besides the gross indelicacy of the sentiment, it is a false one, as thousands of women have experienced. But, if it was true, the belief that it is so, and the consequent impatience to be married, is the most effectual way to prevent it.”


Another gem of my collection is my first edition set (all novels were published in multiple volumes in the 18th century) of one of Fanny Burney’s books (18th century), Camilla, from a circulating library, the most famous member of which was a certain Jane Austen. Did she actually touch these books? Was this the set she borrowed and read? Probably not. But I can dream.

In the 18th century books were so tremendously expensive your average middle class family couldn’t afford to own very many, thus the popularity of these circulating, or lending, libraries.  The choice was basically either feeding and clothing your family or owning books, so most middle class families chose the former. However, for a more reasonable fee one could sign up for a circulating library and virtually rent books. Even these would have been somewhat expensive, making it more cost-effective for all readers in the household to pass them around before they were sent back. Then the next set of books would be sent, and so on. Imagine a cross between the Book of the Month Club and a library. That’s the circulating library.

Book history, library history… I’m kind of a nut for all that stuff and my personal library reflects it. I’m the nerd who bought an incredibly obscure history of the library, during some period of time I don’t remember to some other, from Half Price Books. I’m the reason they stock stuff like that no one else on earth wants to read, the one who tries to out-wait them, picking up the unwanted esoteric titles for a buck (but paid more for the history book) when they hit the clearance shelves. I bat clean-up for Half Price Books.

You got me. I’m a nerd, through and through. When I leave this earthly realm I hope the sum of all I will have collected winds up in the hands of another bluestocking – or whatever you call the male equivalent. Bill Gates? More likely, on the way home from my cremation my family will pull a truck up to the doorstep and load ‘er up. Here you go, Half Price Books! TAKE ALL THIS CRAP.

Know what I need? Someone to cultivate with all my weirdo interests: an Estella, a person who won’t separate my library but will take all the crumbling spines up to the brand new stuff and give it a home. And wow, this got morbid, didn’t it? All because a Shakespeare First Folio was auctioned off in 2006 and I have a few dusty, old books.

Now, let that be a lesson to you. Insert the moral here and we’ll call it a day.