Tag Archives: Isaac Newton

Tales from the Script: Late Night Gothic Horror in the Library

Last weekend we put out an exhibition in King’s Library on the theme of gothic horror, marking two hundred years since the publication of the iconic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1797–1851) in 1818. We are delighted to share some of the treasures of that exhibition with you here.

Bony Tony, King’s Library’s skeleton, let loose on the world at large . . .

It all started with Kingsman Horace Walpole  whose 1767 novel The Castle of Otranto is considered to be the first gothic novel. It initiated a genre which became extremely popular in the later 18th and early 19th century, inspiring authors such as Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson. The aesthetics of the book continue to influence modern-day gothic books, films, art, music and the goth subculture.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto: A Gothic Story (Parma, 1791), sixth edition (Shelfmark: Keynes.E.3.23), title page and frontispiece

“The lower part of the castle was hollowed into several intricate cloysters; and it was not easy for one under so much anxiety to find the door that opened into the cavern. An awful silence reigned throughout those subterraneous regions,  except now and then some blasts of wind that shook the doors she had passed, and which grating on the rusty hinges, were reechoed through that long labyrinth of darkness.”

Horace Walpole, A Description of the Villa of Horace Walpole …at Strawberry-Hill, near Twickenham (Strawberry-Hill, 1786) (Shelfmark: Keynes.E.1.15), title page

Walpole was so interested in medieval history he began building a gothic-style castle in Twickenham in 1749 which he called Strawberry Hill. The world-famous house and gardens are open to the public today. In 1786 Walpole published a description of the villa which included an engraving of what it looked like at the time, as well as an inventory of the furniture, pictures and curiosities it contained.

It is well known that Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (published just after Austen’s death in 1817) is a satire of gothic novels which were very popular in the late 1790s. The character Catherine Morland has a passion for reading gothic novels, but gets into difficulties when applying their concepts to everyday life. Here is the famous scene in which Catherine’s friend, Isabella Thorpe, reads to her the titles of the ‘horrid novels’:

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (London, 1817) (Shelfmark: Thackeray.J.57.12-15)

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, title page











Regina Maria Roche, Clermont (Dublin, 1799) (Shelfmark: Warren.D.1.Roc.Cl/1-2), title page

One of those novels, Clermont, was written by Regina Maria Roche (1764–1845), who is considered today to be a minor writer of gothic novels, but she was a best-selling novelist during her life. Originally published by the sensationalist Minerva Press, Clermont first appeared in 1798. It tells the story of the beautiful Madeline, who lives in seclusion with her father (the Clermont of the title) until they are visited by a mysterious Countess from his past.


Just after Jane Austen’s death in 1817 arguably the most famous gothic horror story of all time was published: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley began writing her novel about the young scientist who creates a grotesque but sapient human creature when she was only 18. It was published anonymously on 1 January 1818 when she was 20. Her name first appeared on the second edition, published in France in 1823.

The three volumes of Mary Shelley, Frankenstein; or, The modern Prometheus (London, 1818) (Shelfmark: Keynes.E.5.46-48), first edition.

“I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created”

Famously, the story of the monster had its origins in a horror-story competition held in the Villa Diodati near Geneva, where Mary, her lover and later husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and others whiled away the evenings in 1816. Mary Shelley’s story has inspired countless comics, pop-up books, plays and films and continues to do so to this day.

Frankenstein, first edition, title page

Victor Frankenstein is repulsed by the monster he has created.










In 1832, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) also included in Faust Part II the creation of an artificial man, a ‘homunculus’, created in the lab by Faust’s assistant Wagner. Goethe was tapping into an older science, that of alchemy, for his story. The ability to make this small human or homunculus was often discussed in alchemical writings of the seventeenth century. The homunculus can also be symbolic of the creation of a spiritual being or of the philosopher’s stone itself. Below we see Heinrich Khunrath, a Christian kabbalist and alchemist. On the left hand side he kneels in prayer in his Oratorium, on the right hand side is his Laboratorium. Khunrath described the making of the homunculus with the aid of malign spirits as ‘Desperatio.’ This copy was owned by John Ruskin.

Plate from Heinrich Khunrath, Amphitheatrum sapientiae divinae solius verae (Hanau, 1609) (Shelfmark: Keynes.Ec.3.1.1.)

Below we see an engraving by Matthaeus Merian (1593–1650) which represents symbolically the text of the Latin Emerald Tables, a foundational work of transmutational alchemy attributed to the legendary Hermes Trismegistus. The layers of meaning in the Emerald Tables have been associated with the creation of the philosopher’s stone.

Musaeum Hermeticum reformatum et amplificatum (Frankfurt, 1678) (Shelfmark: Keynes.Ec.3.2.13), engraved plate

Probably the most famous alchemist was Isaac Newton (1642–1727), who had a laboratory in Trinity College, Cambridge. John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) wrote a celebrated paper on Newton, ‘Newton the Man’, published only after Keynes’s death in 1946. In it he described Newton’s alchemical writings, of which he had formed the outstanding collection (now at King’s), and explained how historians had contrived to ‘hush up’ this side of Newton’s activities. Newton, said Keynes, was ‘the last of the magicians’.

Newton’s translation into English of the Emerald Tables, (c.1678) (Shelfmark: Keynes Newton MS 28)

Back at King’s we have our own twentieth-century tradition of horror stories, starting with former King’s Provost M. R. James (1862-1936), who is most famous to the wider public for his published ghost stories which he would read to students at Christmastime (a tradition reinstated by our current Provost). Tim Munby (who was Librarian at King’s from 1947 to 1974) continued along this path with his collection of ghost stories The Alabaster Hand.

A.N.L. Munby, The Alabaster Hand (London, 1949) (Shelfmark: KL MUN 1), first edition and photograph of Munby

An overview of part of the exhibition


Flying Sheets

The Keynes Bequest is not merely a collection of books. Interspersed among first editions of Galileo, Descartes, Pascal, Hobbes, Kant and Locke are a number of pamphlets of historical, literary and scientific significance, ranging in size from one sheet to several pages. In the extensive collection of first and early editions of Isaac Newton’s works is an anonymous pamphlet with the caption “29. Julii 1713”. This is the so-called Charta volans (flying sheet), an important document written by Gottfried Leibniz during the bitter controversy between him and Newton over which of them invented the mathematical study of change, calculus. Given the rarity of this pamphlet (the only other copies are in Yale, Chicago and in the Burndy Library), and in the interest of scholarship, we provide a scan of all four pages:

Charta Volans 1-2

Gottfried Leibniz’s Charta volans (1713), in which he argues that Newton had not published anything on calculus before him, adding that Newton’s fluxional method was in imitation of his calculus (Keynes.Ec.7.2.27)

Charta Volans 3-4

Charta volans, pp. 3-4

Its acquisition history is also rather fascinating. Keynes had originally bought two copies of the pamphlet, and observed in a letter to K. G. Maggs when the latter offered to purchase the duplicate copy in May 1942 that he had done so “not because I wanted them, but because they were fastened together, never having been separated by a paper knife when issued. So far I have not had the heart to split the Siamese twins.” The correspondence between Keynes and Maggs throws an interesting light on his relationship with booksellers and how he went about augmenting his collection of rare books and pamphlets:

Keynes-Maggs 1

J. M. Keynes’s correspondence with K. G. Maggs, 15 May-18 May 1942

Keynes-Maggs 2

J. M. Keynes’s correspondence with K. G. Maggs, 28 May-29 May 1942

The “American library which specialises in Newton material” that bought the second copy of the Charta volans is almost certainly the Burndy Library, founded the previous year by the industrialist and historian Bern Dibner. Their copy is now at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.

As the above correspondence reveals, the loss of one of the “Siamese twins” to the Burndy Library led to Keynes’s acquisition of another exciting “flying sheet”, namely a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed using movable type which marked the beginning of the Printing Revolution. The iconic 42-line Bible was printed in Mainz, ca. 1454-55, by Johannes Gutenberg. Of the about 180 copies printed, 49 are known to have survived, only 21 of which are complete. This leaf includes all of Jeremiah XX and part of Jeremiah XXI:

Gutenberg Bible Leaf 2

The first printed book: recto and verso of leaf 80 from the Gutenberg Bible (1454-55). Printed in two columns, one column on each side being defective; 2 initials supplied in red, chapter numbers in red and blue (Keynes.Ec.7.2.13)

The addition of a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible to Keynes’s collection means that the items in the Keynes Bequest cover five centuries of printing, from its very inception in the middle of the fifteenth century, right up to the middle of the twentieth.


Isaac Newton’s dog-ears

Keynes.Ec.7.3.26 Lexicon Hebraicum et Chaldaicum - title page

The title page of Keynes.Ec.7.3.26

Bookplate on inside front board of Keynes.Ec.7.3.26

Bookplate on inside front board of Keynes.Ec.7.3.26

Among the highlights of the Keynes Bequest are two volumes from Sir Isaac Newton’s library, with a fascinating history behind them. This copy of Johann Buxtorf’s third edition of Lexicon Hebraicum et Chaldaicum (Basel: Ludwig König, 1621) features an armorial bookplate with motto ‘Philosophemur’ and ‘Case G. F.4. Barnsley’ in ink underneath the bookplate. On the rear fly-leaf is the shelfmark ‘F2_27’. The ‘Philosophemur’ bookplate belonged to Dr James Musgrave, who was Rector of Chinnor, near Oxford. After he died in 1778 the library was removed to Barnsley Park, Gloucestershire, the home of his son, where the books were re-catalogued and re-classified with ‘Barnsley’ shelfmarks. Musgrave’s books had been previously owned by his predecessor at Chinnor, Charles Huggins, who received them from his father, John Huggins, Warden of the Fleet Prison. John Huggins had bought the collection from the estate of his late neighbour, Isaac Newton, for £300.

Signature of Isaac Newton

Signature of Isaac Newton

Newton’s library was preserved almost intact until 1920, when more than half of the items were auctioned off and dispersed. Before securing one of the most important collections of Newton’s manuscripts in the world, which he acquired during and after a sale at Sotheby’s in 1936, John Maynard Keynes purchased two of Newton’s books from the Guildford bookseller Thomas Thorp in March 1921. This Latin-Hebrew dictionary is signed on the front and rear fly-leaves: ‘Isaac Newton’, who also noted the price on the rear fly-leaf: ‘Pret: 4s: 8d’.

Newton highlighting the word 'Lutum' in Keynes.Ec.7.3.26

Newton highlighting the word ‘Lutum’ in Keynes.Ec.7.3.26

Newton had the habit of ‘dog-earing’ his books, turning back the corner of leaves to note a reference, the corner of the leaf pointing to the exact word he wished to highlight. Eight pages (pp. 11, 18, 29, 45, 164, 247, 593 and 636) are turned back in this way in this dictionary. For more information, see John Harrison, The Library of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Some of the information in this post is drawn from the SCOLAR blog of Cardiff University.