Summary of Scene V
Valentine, Chloe, Hannah, and Gus sit listening to Bernard, who excitedly shares his theories about Byron killing Chater. They squabble and Bernard gets annoyed with them but continues. He reads from his lecture about the connections he proposes, getting to the letters and the game book. He states how Byron wrote the four penciled lines about Chater.
As he talks, Hannah adds wry comments that undercut his theories. Bernard states that Byron screwed Chater’s wife and then reviewed his book poorly. He said nothing of Chater's book in the Piccadilly Review because he had killed the author. He then says triumphantly that there must be a platonic letter somewhere in which Byron tells Hodge why he left and what he did.
Valentine asks how Chater knew the reviewer was Byron. Chloe speculates Byron told Mrs. Chater in bed, and when she was dumped, plead “date rape” and told.
Furious at the interruptions and childish remarks, Bernard starts fuming, yelling that no one appreciates his sensational literary discovery. Chloe supports him and says they are jealous.
Hannah and Valentine ask him to finish, and he says he will only if they ask him appropriate, respectful questions.
He then continues, saying that Chater issued a challenge to someone, and clearly Mrs. Chater was remarried in 1810. Obviously it was Byron who killed Chater.
At the end of his triumphant announcement, Hannah says it is bollocks. Chloe believes him. Hannah says he left out all that does not fit, such as Byron saying for months that he wanted to go abroad. Bernard retorts that things moved quickly back then.
Hannah sighs that he is mad and deserves what he gets. Valentine says that as a scientist his theory is incomplete. Bernard shouts at them that they have no other theories to propose. Hannah says no one would kill someone and then pan their book, so in the space of only a few days Byron had to borrow the book, write and post the review, seduce Mrs. Chater, and duel and depart. Bernard stubbornly maintains that was possible.
Bernard insults her by saying she never understood Byron and made a heroine out of the worthless Caroline Lamb. Valentine asks about his computer model and Bernard dismisses it as irrelevant to him.
Valentine replies that it doesn’t matter, as “personalities” are trivial. All that matters, he says, is scientific progress. Bernard is frustrated, and responds “don’t confuse progress with perfectibility. A great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need… I can’t think of anything more trivial than the speed of light” (65). He adds that if knowledge isn’t self-knowledge then it is worthless, and “I can expand my universe without you” (65).
Valentine is shaking and flummoxed. He rises to leave and tells Chloe that he knows Bernard is not against penicillin and that he is not against poetry. On the way out he tells Bernard he gave up on the grouse because there is too much noise.
In tears, Chloe pummels Bernard and follows her brother out. Hannah looks at him. Bernard tells her that she used a picture of Byron and Lamb on her dust jacket that wasn't actually of them; she refuses to believe him.
He tells her she ought to come to London with him and that they should have sex. She declines and he says she needs to relax more. She scoffs that everything for him is literature and sex.
As he prepares to leave he says he will be at the dance because Chloe asked him. Hannah asks if he seduced her and he says she made it too easy for him.
He gives Hannah something he found that references her hermit, and prepares to leave. He bids Valentine goodbye, as the son comes to see him off. Valentine tells him to piss off, and Bernard leaves.
Hannah tells Valentine not to care too much, as it is just rhetoric, just performance art. They turn to a letter from Peacock to Thackeray that references the lunatic of Sidley Park, reading how he died in 1834. He must have been born in 1787 given his age, and thus was born the same year as the tutor.
Hannah wonders aloud what this might mean, and says she thought her hermit was a perfect symbol of an idiot in a landscape, but “this is better. The Age of Enlightenment banished into the Romantic wilderness! The genius of Sidley Park living on in a hermit’s hut!” (70).
Summary of Scene VI
In the early morning a pistol shot rings out. Jellaby looks out the window, and lets Septimus into the room. He comments on the bracing hunting he just participated in. Jellaby told him he was missed. He adds that a carriage containing Captain Brice, Chater, and his wife left this morning; Byron also left on horseback.
Septimus says little. Jellaby says the lady of the house looked for him. Septimus asks if Byron left him a book at all, and the butler replies he did not. He then asks what happened, and Jellaby tells him Lady Croom saw Mrs. Chater coming out of Byron’s room and there was an altercation. He departs.
Lady Croom comes into the room, carrying two letters. She angrily asks Septimus what he meant by leaving two letters in her room, one being a love letter from beyond the grave. He explains that he did not know if he would live. She calls him a wretch for also writing a letter to her daughter speaking of rice pudding after he would have died. She then imperiously says she dispatched the whore and her husband, as well as her brother and Byron.
Wryly, Septimus notes it was a night of reckoning. He apologizes for bringing his unworthy friend to her notice.
Jellaby enters with her tea infusion before she can reply. He turns to Septimus and says Byron left him a letter before he departed.
After Jellaby leaves, Septimus pours Lady Croom tea. She complains it is not proper for him to receive a letter from an exiled guest. He politely agrees and says he will not read it until he leaves. He then burns it in the candle and says he is going to leave the house.
She assumes he is going to the West Indies to follow Mrs. Chater, whose husband is going to be a plant gatherer for Brice. The only reason Brice wants Chater there is so he can be with his wife. She scoffs that the woman is not worth the men dying over.
She then reproaches him for betraying her, and he protests that Mrs. Chater seduced him. She is mollified by his compliments and tells him to come by later.
After she leaves, he burns the two letters he wrote to her and Thomasina.
In the second act there is a division between the two eras in that Bernard moves more emphatically forward with his theories about Chater and Byron, and we the readers learn that his theories are wrong. Bernard is convinced that Byron killed Chater and left, but now we know that not only did Byron not kill Chater, but Septimus did not either. No one did, in fact; he, his wife, her lover Captain Brice, and Byron all left after being kicked out by Lady Croom. It becomes clear that Chater was indeed the botanist Chater in the historical record, as he will accompany Captain Brice to the Indies. Mrs. Chater will marry Captain Brice, but not because her husband was killed in a duel.
Bernard’s folly of playing fast and loose with history will soon be made manifest. As New Yorker writer Brad Leithauser observes, “The play presents a sly sermon on the unknowability of the past, the deceptive pathways down which offhand gestures, casual feints and jests may lead the historian decades or centuries later. No one onstage has anything like a clearheaded vision of the knotty interconnections that bind the cast together. The only ones who are seeing lucidly are those perched in the outer darkness of the audience.” Bernard will take his theory into print, promote it in the media, and then be proven emphatically wrong; as David Guaspari writes, “The nakedness of his ambition is almost disarming.”
But Bernard is not a wholly one-dimensional villain. While he certainly is, as critic John Fleming writes, the object of Stoppard’s satire on the excesses of academic ambition and competition, he is also an advocate for another type of knowledge – the understanding that comes from the appreciation of art. He engages with Valentine in a discussion on what matters more –“personalities” or “progress.” He speaks polemically, and obviously cannot be truly against penicillin and the quest for scientific knowledge, but his defense and valorization of art is valuable in a society that tends to dismiss it as irrelevant or at least not as important as scientific discovery. He claims that “a great poet is always timely. A great philosopher is an urgent need” and that “If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much… I can expand my universe without you” (65).
Valentine’s demeanor may be cool and contained, but he says equally impassioned, inflammatory remarks: “But it doesn’t matter. Personalities. What matters is the calculus. Scientific progress. Knowledge” (65). He isn’t fully dismissing what Bernard says, telling Chloe that he doesn’t hate poetry, but he still has his perspective. Interestingly, when he starts playing around with fractals in the last scene, he is creating works of art as well.
As for Hannah’s scholarly pursuits, she is beginning to get closer to some sort of truth – namely, that the Sidley hermit may be Septimus. Her clues are the comments made about his “genius” and his date of death matching that of the hermit. Later she will find a definitive clue in the drawing of Septimus and Plautus, which correlates the historical record’s statement that the hermit had a tortoise named Plautus. What Septimus was doing as the hermit will become clear once the final events of the play come to pass.