Ezra Chater is one of the play's greatest fools and one of literature's biggest cuckolds. He is quick-tempered, slow-witted, vain, and married to a woman who cannot stay faithful. He ended up at Sidley Park as the guest of Captain Brice who, in amorous pursuit of the lusty Mrs. Chater, flattered his poetry and paid fifty pounds to have him published. Chater views Brice as his doting patron, and Brice views Chater as a nit-wit.
When Chater hears that Septimus Hodge, the estate's tutor, has been seen in ‘‘carnal embrace’’ with his wife, he quickly challenges Septimus to a duel. He changes his mind, however, when Septimus falsely praises his poetry and offers to write a glowing review in a London periodical. Later he discovers he has been fooled again, and reissues his challenge. He is prepared to meet Septimus behind the Coverly's boathouse at dawn, but is rushed off the property in the middle of the night when his wife is caught with yet another man, the rakish poet, Lord Byron. Sometime later, while accompanying his wife and Captain Brice on a voyage to the Indies, Chater is bitten by a monkey and dies abroad. Hardly pausing a day to mourn, the widowed Mrs. Chater marries Captain Brice.
The progress Thomasina Coverly makes in Arcadia is from precocious to poignant. She begins the play as the nearly fourteen-year-old daughter of Lord and Lady Croom, owners of Sidley Park. Young as she is though, Thomasina knows—and guesses at—truths far beyond her years. While studying her mathematics, she asks her tutor, Septimus Hodge, with mock innocence, "What is carnal embrace?'' She is undeterred when he tells her it is "the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef,’’ and proceeds to relay a story she heard about one of the house guests caught in carnal embrace in the gazebo. Sometimes she is childlike and impish, while at other times her deadly seriousness is disarming.
In many ways, Thomasina is the central character of Arcadia. She searches for truths, in people, in mathematics, and in poetry, and her ideas send the other characters scurrying for answers—or scratching their heads. Her genius is intuitive. She struggles to learn things, such as Latin, by rote, but she can perceive things and draw conclusions that others cannot. For example, she realizes while eating her rice pudding that the jam can be stirred outward and into the pudding,"making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas.’’ But, she notes, you cannot stir backward and bring the jam together again. From this experiment, Thomasina concludes that if every atom in the universe could be momentarily stopped in its place and examined, a brilliant mathematician could write a formula for all the future, just by predicting the motion of matter.
Thomasina spends much of the play trying to prove her theory to Septimus, who simply tries to keep up with his young protegé and continually challenge her with new ideas. It is not until three years later, during the final scene of the play, that Septimus finally begins to understand what his student has stumbled upon. In trying to explain chaos and thermodynamics, Thomasina has produced a theory that suggests the universe is spiraling outward, cooling off, and will someday grow cold and die. By this time, teacher and student have begun to develop a physical relationship. In the play's haunting final moments, they dance and kiss, just hours before Thomasina's seventeenth birthday, when she is destined to die in a fire in her bedroom.
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of the modern Coverly children, Valentine is a postgraduate student at Oxford, studying biology, mathematics, and, recently, chaos theory. Although he is capable of some dry humor (he jokes, for example, that Hannah is his fiance, and he takes his pet turtle "Lightning" out for a ‘‘run’’), Valentine is mainly a serious-minded, analytical individual. He draws his inspiration from the wonders of science, and finds Bernard's pursuit of Lord Byron's history "trivial,'' because, he says,personalities don't matter, it's the knowledge they produce that is important.
While Hannah tries to find a reason for the collapse of Romanticism as well as a connection to the Sidley Park hermit, and Bernard flails about, grasping at straws to support his wild theories about Lord Byron's escape from England, Valentine occupies himself with cold, clear, calculated statistics—his family's game books. The books are a centuries-old record of all the animals that have been hunted and killed on the estate, and Valentine is analyzing the data to find a pattern for the life cycles of grouse in the area. A formula describing the cycles, he explains, must exist, and it would create some order out of chaos. Like Hannah, Valentine gets caught up in the research Thomasina was conducting in the house two centuries before, though he initially cannot believe she knew what she was doing, since science had yet to discover the theories she put forth. "There's an order things happen in,'' he insists, ‘‘You can't open a door till there's a house.’’ In the end, though, his scientist's resolve is shaken, and he recognizes Thomasina's ideas for genius—and the consequences her ideas have for the rest of the universe.
Lady Croom is the archly witty resident aristocrat of Sidley Park in the 1809 scenes. Highborn and highbred, she still manages to misquote the painter Nicolas Poussin, insult all her guests, and stoop as low as any other character in the play to satisfy her desires—mostly with any man willing to dally in her dressing room. Lady Croom's principal objective in the play is to prevent Richard Noakes from ruining the countryside around her home with Lord Croom's vision of a Romantic wilderness. She is happy with the current arrangement, which includes trees neatly grouped on the hillside and a winding creek flowing from an artificial lake in the middle of neatly trimmed meadows with just the right amount of sheep ‘‘tastefully arranged.’’ In short, she says, ‘‘It is nature as God intended.’’ As her view of nature demonstrates, she is often unaware of contradicting herself, despite her cleverness in conversation and incisive wit.
Lady Croom's other objective seems to be casual affairs. In the course of the play she manages to find her name connected with no fewer than three of her guests—Lord Byron, the poet; Septimus Hodge, her daughter's tutor; and Count Zelinsky, an expatriate Polish aristocrat hired as Sidley Park's piano tuner. Septimus seems to take his relationship with Lady Croom seriously, for he wrote her a love letter, to be opened in the event of his death, before going off to duel with Chater and Captain Brice. Like others before him, however, he is abandoned when the Lady's affection turns toward Count Zelinsky at the end of the play.
After studying mathematics and natural philosophy at Cambridge, where Lord Byron was one of his classmates, Septimus Hodge came to Sidley Park to work as the tutor for the Croom family's daughter, Thomasina Coverly. Septimus is young, intelligent, clever, and apparently attractive. He begins the play aged twenty-two. His brief encounter with Mrs. Chater in the estate's gazebo is choice gossip among the servants, and he is conducting an ongoing affair with Lady Croom, his protegé's mother.
For Septimus, the passions of the flesh compete with the quest for knowledge as his most important defining characteristics in the play. His first responsibility is to Thomasina, who is an exceptionally gifted student, and it often takes all his resources to keep up with her questions and ideas. While studying mathematics and trying to find proof for Fermat's last theorem, for example, Thomasina wonders about the meaning of ‘‘carnal embrace.’’ Septimus cleverly dodges the uncomfortable question by providing a technically true, if somewhat misleading, answer. "Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one's arms around a side of beef,’’ he tells his mischievous charge. Septimus's ability to think quickly on his feet gets him out of a few scrapes in the play. When confronted by Ezra Chater, the husband of the woman he was found embracing in the gazebo, he admits to his indiscretion but turns Chater's vanity against him. In exchange for avoiding a duel over Mrs. Chater, whose reputation, Septimus claims,"could not be adequately defended by a platoon of musketry deployed by rota,'' the young tutor offers to publish a glowing review of Mr. Chater's book of poetry,"The Couch of Eros,'' which Septimus actually hates.
Like Valentine in the modern scenes, Septimus is initially skeptical of Thomasina's attempts to create order out of chaos in the universe through a simple mathematical theory. He doesn't doubt her creativity or intelligence, but he is more comfortable when she sticks to traditional lessons from her books. Though he doesn't immediately recognize it in Thomasina, Septimus does believe genius exists. To him, it is a property shared by humanity across the ages, and great ideas are part of the continuum of life. "The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece or be written again in another language,’’ he reassures Thomasina. ‘‘Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.’’ In the end, he realizes Thomasina is right, and her theory suggests the eventual end of the universe. What he mourns, however, is not the end of life but the loss of innocence. "When we have found all the mysteries and lost all the meaning, we will be alone, on an empty shore,’’ he laments before joining Thomasina in her first, and last, waltz.
Hannah Jarvis is a cool, capable, and seemingly impenetrable historian who has been invited to Sidley Park by the current Lady Croom to research landscape changes on the estate over the past two centuries. Her specialty area of study is landscape and literature between 1750 and 1834, and she has already written Caro, a best-selling book about Lord Byron. Because she is not an academic, but an actual field researcher and writer, her success has infuriated professors and would-be literary pundits around England. Now she is on to something new. While rooting around the libraries and landscape of the Croom estate she has discovered a new topic, a sort of mystery, to work on. She is trying to find clues about the Sidley hermit, who she calls "my peg for the nervous breakdown of the Romantic Imagination.’’
Hannah's search intensifies when she is joined by an unlikely ally—Bernard Nightingale, a snooty college don who published a scathing review of her last book and has turned up looking for clues to a Lord Byron scandal. Though they seem to be opposite personalities, and quarrel continuously, Hannah and Bernard manage to help one another find pieces to their respective puzzles. One of the biggest differences between them, however, is a proper respect for the process of research and the reporting of history. While Bernard is prepared to rush off to press with his story without all the necessary information, Hannah bides her time, looking for more and more information that will link a small sketch of a hermit found in one of Lady Croom's garden books to Septimus Hodge, author, tutor and, in Hannah's mind, a symbol of the descent of Romanticism into the age of scientific reason.
In his New Yorker review, critic John Lahr called Bernard Nightingale "a whirlwind of spurious intellectual connections'' and "a literary climber of the first order.’’ Other reviewers have called him greedy, self-centered, and a loose cannon. He is all these and more. Bernard is a professor at Sussex University, though his real passion lies in publishing, not in the classroom. When asked if teaching shouldn't be the first priority for a professor he snidely retorts, "Good God, no, let the brats sort it out for themselves.’’
In a way, Bernard is a satirical portrait of the worst kind of scholar academia has to offer. He is an irresponsible intellectual snob who is willing to string together scattered clues on the tiniest shreds of evidence in order to produce grand theories that will make him famous and his colleagues jealous. What's worse, he dresses the part. Bernard appears at Sidley Park wearing the typical garb of a Sussex don—suit, tie, and large leather satchel—along with some flamboyant touches of his own, like a peacock-colored display handkerchief bursting out of his jacket pocket.
He has come to assemble evidence for his most recent ambitious theory: a connection between the famous Romantic poet Lord Byron and one of the guests at Sidley Park in 1809. He manages to enlist the help of Hannah Jarvis, a writer who is also studying the history of the estate, and the manor' s current occupants, descendants of Thomasina Coverly. One of these, eighteen-year-old Chloe Coverly, he finds time to seduce along the way. Together, they find a series of clues that may or may not support Bernard's idea that Byron shot and killed a shoddy poet in a duel at Sidley Park in 1809, then fled the country for two years. Heedless of Hannah's warning that he doesn't have enough proof yet to take his findings public, Bernard presents a lecture for the Byron Society and even appears on a morning talk show. Immediately afterward, Hannah finds another clue that proves him wrong, and his dreams of lifelong academic fame disappear—for the moment.
Captain Edward Brice Captain Brice is the bold and blustery brother of Lady Croom. He is not as refined or witty as his sister, but he can be equally as stubborn. When on duty, he serves in the British Royal Navy. While off duty, he has been staying at Sidley Park with his sister and pursuing Mrs. Chater, the wife of Ezra Chater. Because Mr. Chater is even less perceptive than he is, Captain Brice has been able to conduct his love affair with Mrs. Chater right under the poor man's nose. At one point, faced with the possibility that Septimus Hodge might be dallying with Mrs. Chater as well, Captain Brice offers to stand up for Mr. Chater in a duel for her honor. The twice cuckolded Chater never realizes he is caught between two of his wife's lovers. When the Chaters are finally thrown off the property for their scandalous behavior, Captain Brice offers Mr. Chater a job as a botanist on an expedition he is leading to the Indies. Once there, the hapless Mr. Chater dies from a monkey bite, and Captain Brice finally gets to marry the object of his affection.
Augustus Coverly Augustus Coverly is seen only briefly, near the end of the play. He is Thomasina' s younger brother, fifteen years old in 1812, and a student at Eton. The first time he appears he is taunting his sister and is rude to Septimus. He returns briefly, however, penitent and hoping the tutor will have a brotherly talk with him about sex.
Chloe Coverly Chloe Coverly is the daughter of the modern day Croom family at Sidley Park. She is eighteen, extremely impressionable, and immediately falls for Bernard's flamboyant appearance and insistent intelligence. Though not as academically inclined as her older brother, Valentine, or as intuitively gifted as her younger brother, Gus, she manages to supply one of the play's more interesting ideas. While everyone seems determined to find sense, some kind of ordering theory, in chaos, Chloe suggests that sex is the wrench in the works. "The universe is deterministic all right, just like Newton said, I mean it's trying to be,’’ Chloe claims, ‘‘but the only thing going wrong is people fancying people who aren't supposed to be in that part of the plan.’’ The human element, as unpredictable as anything chaos could muster, is what the others weren't considering. In the end, Chloe is caught up in the chaos, when her mother finds her in "carnal embrace'' with Bernard at the family garden party.
Gus Coverly At fifteen, Gus is the youngest of the modern Coverly children, the descendants of Thomasina and Augustus Coverly. He is an autistic and mute, given to shyness with unpredictable spurts of sociability. Valentine, his brother, tells Hannah that Gus spoke until he was five, then he mysteriously went silent. The modern day Lady Croom (unseen in the play) believes he is a genius. After spending months, and hiring experts, to help her find the foundations of an old boathouse on her property, Gus led her right to it. The enigmatic boy seems to function as some kind of symbol in the play, perhaps as a representative of intuition over reason. Near the end, it is Gus who provides Hannah with the final clue she needs to solve the puzzle she has been working on: a sketch of Septimus holding Plautus the tortoise.
Jellaby Jellaby is the butler at Sidley Park in the 1809 scenes. He says little, and his principal part in the play is delivering various notes between Ezra Chater, Septimus, and Mrs. Chater. At one point, Septimus bribes Jellaby into telling him about the events of the previous night, when Mrs. Chater was caught leaving Lord Byron's room and everyone was ushered off the property.
Richard Noakes The part Richard Noakes plays in the plot of Arcadia is quite small, only a few lines, yet his presence embodies the Romantic sentiment of his age. He is a landscape architect, hired by Lord Croom to transform the grounds at Sidley Park from their current state, an orderly pastoral paradise in the style of Capability Brown, into a chaotic, Gothic wilderness, in the picturesque fashion of Salvator Rosa, a popular Romantic painter. While the unseen Lord Croom seemingly supports Noakes and his designs for unkempt, "natural'' surroundings, the rest of the household is barely civil toward him. Lady Croom continually hounds him, complaining of the noise his new steam engine makes and insulting his design ideas, and Septimus refers to him as the Devil, sniping, "In the scheme of the garden he is as the serpent.’’