It is the same room, but now in the present day. The room is unchanged. Objects remain and are added throughout the play. Hannah is looking through Noakes’s book, and Lady Croom’s garden diaries are nearby. Hannah is dressed plainly. She leaves for the garden.
Chloe and Bernard Nightingale enter; Chloe is the daughter of the house and Bernard a visitor. She tells him that Hannah must have just stepped out to the garden; she is often there because she is writing a history of the gardens. When he hears that she is Hannah Jarvis, the author, he perks up. Bernard asks if they are having a garden party. Chloe says yes, the “wrinklies” won’t let them have it in the house.
Bernard asks if she won’t mind not mentioning his real name to Hannah since he wrote a rude review about her last book, so Chloe says she will call him something else.
She leaves, and Gus pops in. Bernard greets him, but Gus, always mute, does not respond. Valentine comes in after Gus leaves. He appears disconcerted, calling for Chloe. Bernard says she is in the garden. Valentine asks in his scattered state if anyone is taking care of him and Bernard says yes. They talk of how Bernard came to speak with Hannah and how Valentine’s mother read her book. Her new one is actually on hermits, Valentine says.
Valentine picks up a tortoise named Lightning on the table and says he will take him for his run. Bernard tells Valentine they met years before at a seminar on D.H. Lawrence. Valentine is barely listening but says Bernard ought to move his Mazda since his father doesn’t like foreign cars and might conclude he is queer.
Valentine leaves, and Hannah comes in, addressing Bernard as his fake name, “Mr. Peacock,” which Chloe chose.
They introduce themselves and speak awkwardly. Bernard praises her book on Caroline Lamb, and says he also teaches and writes. She says she does not teach, and he agrees that it is a waste of time. When he begins to mention Lord Byron she becomes annoyed, and he turns the conversation to Ezra Chater. He says there is a connection to Sidley Park, and pulls out a volume of Chater’s poems - the one with the inscription to Septimus Hodge. There is not much known on Chater at all; his references in the database are few. He says he would be grateful for any connection she might help him with.
She smiles grimly and says a groveling academic is new for her, as all the Byron scholars pissed all over her work on Lamb. She asks where he teaches and he says Sussex; she muses that there is a man named Nightingale there who criticized her work.
They briefly mention Valentine, who told Bernard she was here; she says he likes to joke that they are engaged. When Bernard jokes as well, she frowns that he has a way about him she isn’t sure she likes. He asks of Gus, who doesn’t speak, and the father. Lady Croom is interested in garden history, and Hannah had sent her her book, which had a part about Lamb’s garden.
She looks at Bernard and tells him Septimus Hodge was the tutor. He is pleased. She tells him what she knows and says she knows nothing of Chater. She is working within the same time period as he is because she is studying the Sidley hermit, “my peg for the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination. I’m doing landscape and literature 1750 to 1834” (29). When he asks why 1834, she says that is when the hermit died.
She gets up and shows him part of Noakes’s sketch book; there is the only known likeness of the hermit. A later hand drew it in. She explains Noakes did these books as a sort of prospectus for his clients. When Bernard praises the original landscape, she scoffs that “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors” (29).
Hannah then says she found an account of her hermit in a letter by his namesake, Thomas Love Peacock, who called the man a savant among idiots. The savant lived under the Crooms’ noses for twenty years but never mentioned him themselves. He was placed into the landscape just like a pottery gnome would be placed into it. Bernard asks if he did anything, and she says when he died there were thousands of papers found; he had been suspected of genius but was, of course, only crazy.
She says he is a stand-in for the whole Romantic experiment that came after the Enlightenment, in which “a mind in chaos is suspected of genius. In a setting of cheap thrills and false emotion” (31). This was the “decline from thinking to feeling” (32), and it was carried out in Sidley Park as well.
He asks what else she knows of the hermit and she admits not much. He asks if she has come across Byron at all, and she replies only in one volume and no letters. When he asks if he can look through her findings, she becomes a bit suspicious.
Chloe enters and on her way out says something about Mr. Nightingale moving his car. Hannah becomes furious, but he stops her short by saying there absolutely is a Byron connection.
He explains the copy of “The Couch of Eros” initially belonged to Lord Byron, and he provides its background. He says that there are underlined passages, all of which end up in Hodge’s review of the book. Those reviews actually read like Lord Byron, but Bernard points out the three notes that ended up in the book - the ones from Chater asking to meet Hodge regarding what had happened with his wife.
Hannah admits this is interesting, and says there were seven years for this to find its way to Byron, but doesn’t connect him to Sidley Park or Chater or Hodge. Bernard announces smugly that Byron must have killed Chater, and accounts for how Chater disappeared and how Byron left the country. Hannah is curious but unconvinced. She says she will pass on anything she finds, and stands up. Before Bernard leaves, he asks her questions that lead her to realize Byron and Hodge were at Trinity at the same time. Happily, he kisses her on the cheek and runs out.
Chloe had come in and saw the kiss, and smiles at Hannah that there is a lot of sexual energy there. She laughingly suggests Hannah ought to invite him to the party, but if she did not want him then she’d take him. Hannah says she does not want him or any other dancing partner. Chloe replies that is a good thing since her brother loves Hannah. Hannah is frustrated at this, assuming it is Valentine, and says it is a joke.
At that moment Gus enters and hands her an apple he picked. Hannah is surprised, and Chloe says she told her so.
Stoppard now throws his audience for a loop by shifting the scene to the present day (the 1990s), but keeping the same setting and the same objects. The objects are telling, as they will continue to be added and played with as the play proceeds. The new characters consist of a couple of academics – Bernard and Hannah – and the three new Coverly children – Chloe, Gus, and Valentine. Their parents are the new Lord and Lady Croom, who, as they never appear in the play, can simply be assumed to be just like the old master and mistress of the house. In fact, there are similarities between the two Lady Crooms, who are mentioned more than their husbands. Both of them seem to be imperious and sexually lascivious, developing crushes on the people who come in and out of their house. Stoppard’s theme of time, then, has many layers. There are occasionally continuities between the time periods, but he also expresses how the two are rooted in their specific eras and that time is ephemeral.
The characters in the present-day scenes are just as richly drawn as those in the past. Of least importance is the young, pretty, and non-academic Chloe (although one of her insights later in the play is very notable). Valentine, a mathematics graduate student, is cool and aloof in an aristocratic way, and dedicated to the study of the grouse population at Sidley Park. Hannah is a rational, unemotional woman dedicated to her studies and the pursuit of knowledge, and presents herself as one who avoids personal ties, passion, and the sufferance of fools. She is the embodiment of the Enlightenment, whereas Bernard embodies the flamboyance and extravagance of the Romantic. Critic John Fleming notes, “Disliking sentimentality and limiting her emotional expressions to the instances of gains and losses of the intellect, Hannah views emotion as unwanted irregularity, a potential collapse into disorder.” Bernard, by contrast, “takes a fervently intuitive approach to his research” and is expressive and ebullient. As the play reveals, however, sometimes Hannah’s intuition proves correct and Bernard’s moments of coolness and gravitas prove more correct than his speculation and passion.
The two of them clash regarding their respective scholarly styles, and at this point in the play it remains to be seen whether or not their various pursuits will play out in the way they wish. Bernard is convinced he knows what happened to Ezra Chater – Lord Byron killed him in a duel over Mrs. Chater. His evidence is thin at this point but Stoppard has us believe he is onto something; the audience does not yet know what happened with the duel proposed between Septimus and Chater, so what Bernard believes may have happened seems possible.
They also clash based on their apparent sympathies with either the Classical or Romantic movements. Hannah laments the loss of Sidley Park’s classical gardens, saying “[it] makes you want to weep” and that the Enlightenment fell prey to “the whole Romantic sham” (31). It was, she concludes, “the decline from thinking to feeling” (32), which she deplores because she “[doesn’t] like sentimentality” (32). Again, Stoppard will not have either rationality/thinking or chaos/emotion take precedence; the great scholar will have both, or can be ruined by both.
Finally, one of the props that moves in time (but not space) is the apple, which Gus, the character that most fluidly occupies both time periods, gives to Hannah at the end of this scene. In the next scene Septimus is eating this apple, and later Valentine and Chloe evoke it as they discuss sex and chaos. It represents Newton’s apple and the apple in the Garden of Eden and is thus a symbol of desire and temptation.