Sex, lies, and curly wigs

It’s in itself quite remarkable that a book of of nearly 700 pages leaves such a small mark on the reader’s memory. Sadly, this is the case with An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (1997, Vintage).

220px-aninstanceofthefingerpostThe premise is promising: a story that takes place in my current home town Oxford in the 1660s and involves “lust, betrayal, secrets, and murder”. The same events are recounted from four different perspectives by four different characters: Venetian gentleman and ‘physick’ enthusiast Marco da Cola, Oxford student Jack Prestcott, mathematician John Wallis, and historian Anthony Wood. The Italian has arrived in England to sort out a family business in London that’s in a spot of trouble—or so he says. His true interest lies with physick, a mixture of physics, chemistry, and medicine, and he soon finds himself in the learned but ill-mannered company of Oxford academics, including John Wallis, John Locke, and Robert Boyle. Jack Prestcott is a troubled young man on a mission to clear his father’s name, tarnished in a plot to restore monarchy during the English Interregnum (1652–1659), with the help of an Irish faith-healer, whatever the cost—or so he says.

While da Cola and Prestcott are products of the author’s imagination, Wallis and Wood did actually exist. In his narrative Wallis, a famed mathematician and the Parliament’s chief cryptographer, is obsessed with cracking a cipher which, he is convinced, will reveal the people behind a conspiracy against Charles II—or so he says.


John Wallis

And finally, the poor Anthony Wood, deeply in love with a disreputable local girl, Sarah, who also features heavily in the other three narratives together with her mother, is trying to keep his head straight enough to work on his history of the University of Oxford—or so he says. All four narrators are by definition highly unreliable with completely different interpretations of the book’s events.

Much of the book’s events circle around the death and possible murder of Robert Grove, a fellow of New College. He is found dead in his room, next to a bottle of liquid with sediment at the bottom. Is it poison? After some cutting-edge science which involves poisoning street cats, setting Groves’s autopsied heart on fire, and seeing whether his body begins to spontaneously bleed in someone’s presence, a surefire way to find out if he was killed, the conclusion is that yes, he was indeed poisoned. But who’s to blame? da Cola, a foreigner and therefore natural suspect? Jack Prestcott’s best mate and theology student Thomas Ken, who desired the job Groves was almost sure be given? Or was it Sarah, Groves’s maid who also bore a grudge against him? All characters have their own theory.


New College, Oxford, where many of the book’s characters reside and work

Unfortunately this description unfortunately makes the book sound much more riveting than it actually is. While it started well and I enjoyed reading da Cola’s narrative, the Prestcott and Wallis sections drag on for much too long and would have benefited from editing. Both characters have limited contact with reality, and after a certain point the ravings are just too much. Some of the fault lies with my limited knowledge of English history and politics of the period, though: both bring up a large number of historical people associated with the court that I kept losing track of, which definitely hindered my enjoyment of the story. After those two, Wood’s section comes too late to rescue to book, although I must say he comes across as an all-around lovely guy with a love life doomed to fail.


Christopher Wren, the famed architect who also performed anatomical work in Oxford

In addition to courtly namedropping, An Instance of the Fingerpot features a great number of well-known names from the history of science. Some of the most interesting and at the same time most frustrating sections of the book describe the development of theories on nature and the anatomy of the human body. At this stage, scientists didn’t yet specialise in certain disciplines and you could have a mathematician also performing autopsies. One of the things they are fascinated by is breathing: do living things breathe to remove something from their body, possibly heat, or to gain something from the air? Poor animals are sacrificed in the name of science by putting them in vacuums to find out the point at which they perish. Some of the first blood transfusions are also described in the book, performed with the help of a quill. The theory is that the stronger the giver of blood, the better for the receiver: the preference was for blacksmiths. da Cola also theorises that once the blood has been transferred, its giver and receiver will always be linked, and the giver’s mood will affect the receiver. If only we could travel back in time to set them right!

I did enjoy reading the descriptions of late 1660s Oxford and England in general, from the appalling diet to taking days to walk from one town to the next, and to a new trendy drink, coffee. In fact, I would have enjoyed reading even more of of this. In the end, it wasn’t quite sufficient for making me like the book. I read somewhere that this is the intelligent person’s detective novel—it’s quite possible I just wasn’t smart enough for it.


Samuel Morland, an English academic, diplomat, spy, inventor, and mathematician










Iain Pears (b. 1955, Coventry) is an English art historian, novelist and journalist. He studied at Wadham College and Wolfson College, Oxford. Before writing, he worked as a reporter for the BBC, Channel 4 (UK) and ZDF (Germany) and correspondent for Reuters from 1982 to 1990 in Italy, France, UK and US. In 1987 he became a Getty Fellow in the Arts and Humanities at Yale University. Pears first came to international prominence with his best selling book An Instance of the Fingerpost (1997), which was translated into several languages.



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