Back in the 19th century, the tortoise, and Gus’s apple, remain on the table. Thomasina attempts to translate Latin. Septimus reads a letter to which he has no reply, then gives Jellaby a letter of his own to mail. Septimus plucks off the apple’s leaf and eats a piece. Thomasina criticizes the author of the Latin, who Septimus explains is Lord Byron. We learn that Byron is currently a guest at Sidley Park. In Thomasina’s (usually accurate) opinion, Lady Croom has a crush on Byron. Thomasina recounts hearing Byron laugh about a terrible review of “The Maid of Turkey”—Chater’s first book—that Septimus had written. So now Chater must know that Septimus was faking his respect for “The Couch of Eros.”
This piece reveals a bit of information that Bernard needs. Byron did indeed stay as a guest at Sidley Park. Thomasina’s impatience with Byron’s poetry again shows how people living in one time period can’t guess how they will be perceived in the future. In the world of the play, scholars like Hannah and Bernard have a huge amount of power, presenting some people as important geniuses, and neglecting others.
Thomasina understands that Septimus is sad that Lady Croom likes Byron. She continues on with her creative ideas about the intersections of math and nature: “If there is an equation for a line like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell.” She picks up the discarded apple leaf and proclaims her intention to make an equation for its form.
Septimus attempts to put the lesson back on track, to the Latin poem about Cleopatra. Thomasina says she hates Cleopatra, who does a disservice to women by being so irrationally driven by love. Thomasina mourns the destruction, by fire, of the library in Alexandria, which she blames on Cleopatra’s love-based politics, and the permanent loss of untold works of classical literature. Septimus counters with a monologue about how, rather than mourning lost knowledge, we can acknowledge that all great discoveries are made again. We will perhaps find pieces of burned plays, or someone else will write them. And, “mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.” Septimus begins to translate the Latin poem with suspicious ease, and Thomasina runs out of the room in frustration.
Thomasina sees love as an impediment to knowledge, rather than as an inseparable part of the passion that drives knowledge (as Bernard might say) or as knowledge itself (as the Eden story suggests). But Thomasina’s attitude will change by the play’s end. Septimus’s beautiful musings about knowledge and fate show a new idea about both scholarship and predicting the future. We may not see the future clearly, but we can be sure that, in time, lost great ideas will come back around.
Brice and Chater enter. Chater asks Septimus to speak only to Brice. Septimus has some fun with this rule, asking Brice about his wife—meaning Chater’s wife. Chater’s new anger has to do with his awareness, from overhearing Byron, that Septimus wrote a brutally negative review of his first book. Lady Croom enters, hoping to obtain a copy of “The Couch of Eros” for Byron, because he’s planning to sail away from England. Byron wants to use the book for a satirical poem. Lady Croom takes Septimus’s copy (with the letters still inside), and exits.
This scene shows us the source of the third letter that Bernard unveiled in Scene 2. Why does Chater again ask Septimus for a duel? Because he learns that Septimus has been playing him for a fool, faking admiration for Chater’s poetry. We also see how Byron ended up with Septimus’s book and the letters, which forms another part of Bernard’s misunderstanding of what occurred in the past.
Chater wants Septimus to duel him. Septimus consents, saying he’s tired of Chater. Septimus mentions that Brice will take good care of Mrs. Chater, suggesting that they are having an affair as well. Now Brice wants to duel Septimus too. Septimus exits, and Chater and Brice follow in confusion and anger.
Though Septimus managed to evade the last duel through flattery, it seems he can’t get out of this one. Still, he feels the need to go out with aplomb, exposing hypocrisy and offending Brice.