This scene takes place in the same room, but in the present day. Stoppard notes in his stage directions that the table should retain bits and pieces from both eras—so papers, pens, and Septimus’s tortoise from the first scene remain on the table. Hannah Jarvis, a scholar, looks through Noakes’s sketchbook, then steps out. Chloë Coverley, the daughter of the current Lord of the estate, and Bernard Nightingale, another scholar, enter, and Valentine briefly enters and exits. Chloë tells Bernard about Hannah’s project—she’s writing a history of the garden. Bernard realizes that he’s read the previous book that Hannah has written, and asks Chloë not to mention his name. Gus, Chloë’s little brother, enters, but doesn’t speak, and comes across as strange. He exits quickly.
The scene opens with a speedy introduction of all the characters who will be present in the modern-day portions of the play. Hannah is researching the garden’s history, but we, the audience, have just been privy to several important conversations about it that Hannah will never see. For the rest of the play, because of our privileged position, we as the audience will know more than any single character. This adds both frustration and suspense—dramatic irony.
Valentine, another Coverly sibling, comes back in, searching for game books, but everything in the house has been taken away in preparation for a garden party. Valentine quickly and distractedly tries to figure out who Bernard is. Bernard explains that he’s come to talk to Hannah about academic matters. Valentine talks about how his mother loves Hannah’s book, which was a bestseller. Bernard remembers an academic conference where he met Valentine. Valentine is evidently involved with a group of mathematicians who attempt to use statistical tools to determine the authors of various works, and Bernard says he’s happy that the work failed. Valentine exits, abruptly and rudely, as he’s been all along. He takes the tortoise, named Lightning, with him.
Bernard right away presents himself as a typical Romantic sympathizer. He dislikes Valentine’s project of combining math with literature, and even tells him so, though Bernard is Valentine’s guest. This shows Bernard coming down on the side of mystery, human feelings, and subjectivity, where Valentine supports ordered methods and objective interpretations. It also reveals Bernard as something of a bully.
Hannah enters, calling Bernard “Mr. Peacock,” though his last name is Nightingale—evidently Chloë concealed his identity, as he’d hoped. Bernard begins awkwardly complimenting Hannah’s book about Caroline Lamb, a real historical figure who wrote novels and had a relationship with the Romantic poet Lord Byron. Bernard praises Hannah’s book as “shedding reflected light on the character of Lord Byron,” and Hannah threatens to kick him in the balls.
Hannah’s virulent reaction to Bernard’s “reflected light” comment comically demonstrates the single-mindedness and passion of academia. Hannah, we can assume, takes a feminist point of view, rehabilitating the reputation of an underdog. Bernard only cares for the already famous Byron.
Bernard finally gets to the point. He’s looking for information on Ezra Chater, and takes out a copy of “The Couch of Eros,” which turns out to be the copy that Chater inscribed for Septimus. The inscription includes “Sidley Park,” which is what brought Bernard here. Bernard doesn’t think he can write a whole book on Chater, but maybe a paper. There’s no information about him anywhere, besides a mention of a possible relative, a botanist who died studying a dahlia in Martinique.
Septimus would be dismayed to learn that in 200 years an academic would be interested in Chater’s terrible poetry. Bernard’s quest shows how the future can head in surprising directions, which links to Thomasina’s interest in prediction. In the vagaries of time, renown may go to the wrong person.
Bernard explains he’s giving a talk possibly about Chater next week, and is looking for leads about Chater. Hannah says she’s not used to such “groveling,” because the academics who reviewed her book looked down upon it. When she learns Bernard teaches at Sussex, she mentions that a man named Nightingale gave her book a particularly harsh review. (Now we know why Bernard wanted to hide his real name.)
Like Thomasina and Septimus, Bernard isn’t above lying to make a good impression and get what he wants. In this scene and others, Stoppard nods to the great tradition of British farces involving mistaken identities.
Hannah and Bernard banter about Valentine, who’s studying something at Oxford related to math, computers, and grouse. Valentine likes to call Hannah his fiancée as a joke. Hannah explains she’s studying the history of Sidley Park. She knows who Septimus is, to whom the inscription Bernard read is dedicated—he was a tutor, educated in science at Cambridge—but she doesn’t know anything about Chater.
Valentine’s nickname for Hannah introduces the topic of sex into the modern era. The scene as a whole shows how interpersonal navigation is as much a part of academia as the pure and noble search for knowledge.
Hannah explains in more depth her academic project, which centers around the same era (early 19th century) that’s relevant to Bernard. She’s trying to research the Sidley Park hermit, who she’s using to frame her interpretation of the end of Romanticism. The hermit died in 1834, the same year, Bernard adds helpfully, that the Romantic poet Coleridge died. Hannah shows Bernard Noakes’s plans for the garden, including the little drawing of the hermit that Thomasina drew in Scene 1. Hannah explains how Noakes changed the garden from gentle and pastoral to craggy and Romantic, but explains that each era of the English garden was equally gathered from other sources and ideals—none of it was “the real England,” as Bernard says.
Hannah’s mini-lecture about the garden to Bernard fleshes out the idea that there’s no permanent, unsurpassed beauty in the world. While Bernard is a hard-line Romantic, and would argue (as he does in Scene 5) that Romantic poetry is the pinnacle of human achievement, Hannah is more moderate. Like Thomasina, she isn’t tied to any single point of view about beauty. Instead, the search for knowledge in general motivates her.
Hannah continues talking about the Sidley Park hermit, whom Thomas Love Peacock (a real 19th-century writer, though the hermit is Stoppard’s invention) described in a letter as “a sage of lunacy,” brilliant but insane. Bernard focuses on whom Peacock was writing to as opposed to the details regarding the hermit, which annoys Hannah. She returns to her point about why she’s going to hinge an entire book about the hermit. She explains that he wrote thousands of papers filled with nonsensical equations about the end of the world. He’s a perfect symbol of Romanticism, which, Hannah says, is like a diseased reaction to the Enlightenment, when order and reason turned into nonsense, a “decline from thinking to feeling.” Bernard asks what became of the hermit’s nonsensical papers, and Hannah explains that they were intentionally burned.
At this point, the audience doesn’t know the identity of the hermit either. Hannah’s discussion shows how academia plucks individuals from obscurity in order to frame larger trends. Hannah isn’t interested in the hermit in particular. Rather, she’s interested in his era, and he’s the way she’ll illustrate Romanticism for her audience. She sets herself up for more arguments with Bernard by coming down firmly on the Romanticism-is-nonsense side of the debate.
Bernard asks Hannah about some details relating to Lord Byron, and she realizes that Byron, not Chater, may be Bernard’s ultimate goal in coming to Sidley Park. Chloë bustles through, moving the game books in preparation for the party, and accidently lets Bernard’s real name, Nightingale, slip. Hannah is predictably disgusted, now that she knows that Bernard is in fact the academic who gave her book such a scathing and haughty review. Bernard manages to deflect some tension by laying out a plan by which he and Hannah, collaborating, can humiliate “the Byron gang”—that is, the group of arrogant, masculine Byron scholars with whom Hannah, as a feminist, has a sort of academic feud.
The name Nightingale only confirms Hannah’s first impressions—Bernard is just the sort of testosterone-fueled Byron scholar that she wants to avoid. Bernard immediately flips sides, wanting to embarrass the other Byron scholars. Bernard seems more motivated by glory and grudges than by love of the material at hand, but later he’ll redeem himself and show a more authentic side.
Bernard explains that he thinks that, though this copy of “The Couch of Eros” is inscribed to Septimus, Byron used it and marked it up to write a review in a newspaper called the Piccadilly Recreation, published in April 1809. Bernard’s chief evidence: the book came from Byron’s library. Hannah counters that the reviewer was definitely Septimus, but Bernard thinks Hannah’s idea doesn’t make sense—the inscription suggests that Septimus and Chater were friends, but the Piccadilly review, as well as a review by the same author of Chater’s first book, were both negative and mocking.
Bernard is right that Hannah’s idea doesn’t make sense. And yet she’s right, showing the way that the twists and turns of what is real can be impossible to interpret from a distance. Though Bernard is a Romantic, he’s thinking too rationally about human behavior, expecting cause and effect to be as neatly linked as in a science problem. But human behavior, like the future, is unpredictable.
Bernard makes his point more significant by taking out three letters that had been stuck in the book. We, the audience, recognize the first two from the first scene—one is from Chater challenging an unnamed person (we, though not Bernard, know it’s Septimus) to a duel, the next is from Mrs. Chater, and the last is again from Chater, asking the unnamed recipient to another duel. We assume from the date, April 1809, that the last letter must be related to the negative review in the Piccadilly. Bernard believes that these letters were meant for Byron, and also that Byron killed Chater in the duel.
The audience can already tell that Bernard’s huge idea is doomed. If anyone dueled Chater, it’s Septimus. But will Bernard find the evidence to show him his error? The scene demonstrates the difficulty of academia, which requires passion, vision and daring (the Romantic side), but also a slow and methodical gathering of evidence (Enlightenment-style).
Bernard is certain that there will be something in Lady Croom’s papers that proves his idea. Hannah has had enough of him, but as she tries to get him to leave, she mentions that Byron and Septimus were at the same college at Cambridge, at exactly the same time. Thrilled at this news, Bernard enthusiastically kisses Hannah’s cheek, right as Chloë enters. Bernard exits, exclaiming that he’s going to try to find a place in the village to stay.
Bernard’s action illustrates the play’s warmhearted and optimistic vision of humanity. Despite Bernard’s arrogance, he genuinely loves his subject matter. And sexual gestures, like his kiss, don’t always lead to expulsions from Eden—sometimes they stem from the excitement of discovery.
Chloë tells Hannah that Bernard appears to have some feelings for her, and that he should come to the garden party as her partner. Hannah rejects this idea. Chloë says that her “genius brother” will be happy at her lack of feelings for Bernard. Hannah thinks Chloë is referring to Valentine, but then Gus enters, and offers Hannah an apple—it’s Gus, not Valentine, who may have feelings for Hannah.
Chloë, as we’ll see, is single-mindedly fixated on sex. Her advice to Hannah may be colored by her own feelings, as later on she’ll have a relationship with Bernard. We learn to keep our eyes on Gus, who is quiet but all-knowing.