Charles Nicholl: Dazzling the reader with his prose and infectious curiosity
“I have always found the details of history more interesting,” writes Charles Nicholl in the preface to his new collection of essays, “or anyway more evocative, than the larger perspectives of History.” And this is precisely what Nicholl explores in Traces Remain – the overlooked and forgotten fragments and people that have failed to make it into the textbooks. The 25 essays gathered here originally appeared in a number of literary publications and were guided, according to the writer, by the general principal of “poking around,” libraries and archives “re-examining existing evidence and then trying to ask new questions about it,” sometimes “prospecting”. Despite his seemingly casual air Nicholl is meticulous in his research, taking on the role of a painstakingly assiduous detective as he trawls through the decades, searching for clues to untold mysteries. One of these is the legend of Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett, an intrepid Amazonian explorer described as a “man in hand-to-hand combat with the wilderness,” who disappeared over 80 years ago. Fawcett was accompanied on the doomed expedition by his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell. His last dispatch was dated 25th May 1925 and was sent from Dead Horse Camp, exactly what happened to the three men after that has never been established although some answers have been provided by the subsequent rescue missions. The first and most famous of these was led by Commander George Miller Dyott in 1928, who learned that Fawcett had “played his ukulele for some Xingu Indians a few days before vanishing in the Mato Grosso jungle” and was most likely massacred by the Nahukwa tribe, who in turn blamed the notoriously fierce rival group Saya. “Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his later years,” writes Nicholl, “he [Fawcett] was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable, and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide.”
Strange and curious personages like Fawcett feature throughout this fascinating book. Among them is a poet by the name of Thomas Coryate, once the “butt for courtly wits and poets like John Donne and Ben Jonson,” he was also a “courageous traveller,” who in 1608 covered 1,975 miles in just over five months and visited 45 cities around Europe. Coryate wrote a book about his voyages called Crudities – loosely alluding to “raw experience” – which managed to make waves alongside such literary triumphs as William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist – on stage at the time. Then there’s an English pseudoscientist, clairvoyant and con-man by the name of Edward Kelly, who fooled Bohemian royalty with his “esoteric flannel,” and later died in suspicious circumstances most likely at the orders of Emperor Rudolph II. “The usual telling of the story is that Rudolph ceased to believe in him,” says Nicholl, “Kelly’s promises, particularly with regard to heaps of transmuted gold pouring into the treasury, had proved empty.” Kelly’s story is surpassed only by that of another con-man, adventurer, French scribbler, one time heavy-weight boxer and nephew to Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance, Arthur Cravan. He was briefly married to avant-garde poet Mina Loy who had his child and outlived him by several decades. When asked toward the end of her life what had been her happiest instances Loy said: “Every moment spent with Arthur Cravan. ‘And the unhappiest?’ The rest of the time.” He is thought to have drowned off the coast of Mexico around 1918, although according to the most recent theory, Nicholl says, Cravan reinvented himself as the no less mysterious author B. Traven, who went on to write several hard-bitten Mexico based novels.
Along with the mysterious fates of the aforementioned men, Traces Remain includes two murders cases, two discoveries of unmarked graves, one missing Shakespeare play and one very enigmatic portrait recently found in Herefordshire. The latter is a work of art believed to have been painted by Frederick Hurlstone, its subject may or may not be Lord Byron in the guise of one of his own fictional heroes called Manfred. Yet, as Nicholl explains, despite numerous authentications the sitter and artist cannot be conclusively verified. “Does it look like Byron?” he says, speaking of the portrait after seeing photographs of it, “To answer this, one has to ask another question: what did Byron look like? Byron’s appearance changed all the time – because different artists saw him differently and because he was a great believer in diets and regimes, and his weight fluctuated by as much as four stone. Various portraits show around Byrons and thin Byrons, Byron’s with moustache, with mutton-chop whiskers, in costume, in uniform, in Greek helmet, in his dressing gown and so on.” In fact, there are over 40 portraits of the Romantic poet and albeit this latest one cannot be authenticated, Nicholl says, “the sad-looking man in the fur hat deserves further investigation”. This kind of uncertainly – a theme throughout the book – is one of its pitfalls and in a general sense the trouble with writing about historical marginalia.
Many of the tales within the collection are about the obscure who crossed paths with those that made history. One of them is of a woman for whom William Hazlitt divorced his wife and wrote “with alarming frankness,” as Nicholl puts it, Liber Amoris. The thinly disguised fictional account of Hazlitt’s love bares no resemblance to any other of the writer’s works, and was once considered a thing of great embarrassment. It also caused a bit of a scandal despite being published anonymously, and while Hazlitt managed to recover from it almost instantly being a bullish “spiky” and “self-absorbed” man that he was, Sarah Walker’s reputation as a “dowdy trollop” and “one man’s amour fou” prevailed. The turn of her fate is difficult to trace, says Nicholl, but all evidence indicates that Hazlitt’s love was unrequited and that Walker went on to marry and have a son. It is most likely she died of “old age” perhaps, the writer speculates, thinking of those “distant days of her youth, and that strange, hectic man who loved her so passionately, and wanted to marry her, and ended up marking her life and her name with the taint of scandal that would never quite go away”. Nicholl goes from subject to subject with ease and authority, from talking about interpersonal relationships between English poets and European dignitaries to Leonardo Da Vinci’s relationship with his art, which is explored here through the painter’s Milanese notebooks. Unbeknown to many, Nicholl says, Da Vinci was also a keen writer or rather a “writer-down of things: a recorder of observations, a pursuer of data, an explorer of thoughts, an inscriber of lists and memoranda”.
In describing the famous Italian artist, Nicholl also succeeds in describing something of himself for he is very much a modern day polymath – a historian, a scholar, a travel writer and a sleuth looking for greatness in the neglected and the ordinary. Speaking on the subject to the Guardian, Nicholl recently said that he has always aimed to present in his work the “the realities of life as it was lived by that person” with a sense of complete authenticity. “There’s one world that you know these people very well from,” he explained, “so let’s have a look at the other one, at the other, dark side of the moon, as it were: Marlowe as spy, Rimbaud as traveller or explorer and gun-runner, Shakespeare as lodger rather than great playwright.” It is this desire to construct a comprehensive picture of someone that makes Traces Remain such a consummately engrossing read, full of thrilling details, shady characters, legends and mysteries from all four corners of the world. Much of which Nicholl has travelled himself, after being given tickets to Martinique as part of the prize for the Daily Telegraph Young Writer of the Year award which he won in 1972. He has since travelled most of the globe, Europe, South America, parts of the Middle East. One of the essays in the book is about the quest to find Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria, the beautiful and rich “capital of memory,” as described in the eponymous Quartet. “Only fragments remain of Classical Alexandria,” Nicholl tells us sadly, “but its more recent past can be savoured just by wondering aimlessly through the streets, past shabby villas and Rococo facades and dusty brick-a-brac shops. The city seems like an aging dandy fallen on hard times.” Every essay in the collections has something interesting, worthwhile and amusing to impart, whether it be about a person, an artifact or a city. Nicholl is a man who makes history come alive, dazzling the reader with his prose and his infectious curiosity.
Publication Date: December 2012
Paperback: 336 pages