Newton and the Counterfeiter: Review

I came across this book by chance in a Waterstones bookshop in Blackpool late last month, and I was so taken by the opening page (which is what I always read before deciding upon a book. I don’t care about a book cover or the blurb – I like to decide for myself with the writing itself), that I decided to buy it then and there.

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I am so pleased that I did!

This book plugged in some gaps in my knowledge, for example, I had no idea that Newton had been so closely involved in the recoinage during William III’s time. Even that is an understatement, which you’ll come to understand once you’ve read this book; and I hope you do, because it’s so good! Now did I know that Newton had a period in which he had to become a detective – and there I thought he had only ever done work in science and mathematics!

The events in Newton’s life, and that of the infamous counterfeiter William Chaloner, is laid out before us in an interesting way until their paths cross and then the fireworks begin! Chaloner came across as a loathsome toad of a man, and Newton, I’m surprised to say, came across as a heroic, rock-hard hero. My previous ideas about Newton as a man have been shattered by this, and I certainly like the new version a lot more (and I had always admired him). He wasn’t perfect, and there is some speculation that he may have been a bit too keen on being a bit of a ‘bad cop’ in the interrogation process (Levenson states that Newton burnt a good deal of papers that he had written during his running the Royal Mint). We have no idea what was contained in those papers – what a mystery!

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I would like to thank Levenson (if he ever comes across this review) for writing such an amazingly well-researched and captivating book. It reads like a thriller, but it’s a non-fiction history! I smiled as heroes of the early scientific revolution were mentioned: Boyle, Hooke, Newton, Huygens, and more. Samuel Pepys and John Locke figure in (particularly the latter), and the extremes of English society in the seventeenth-century were admirably described. The underworld that Levenson shines light upon is indeed violent and full of backstabbers and self-seeking criminals and Newton is the man best able to deal with the incredibly widespread problem of counterfeit currency. I was staggered to read that something like more than 6 in 10 pieces were fake!

What ultimately happens is that Newton becomes not only professionally motivated to seek the counterfeiter Chaloner, but it becomes personal. Newton could become very angry and he really wasn’t someone to be messed around with.

Unfortunately, I began reading this book during a time when I had difficulties with my eyes (I’ve always had trouble, but recently it became worse) and so I’ve annoyingly had to reduce the amount of reading I do each day! And so this wonderful book, which I would probably have finished within a matter of days, has now taken me over a month. I suppose that was better, in a way, like savouring a wine or mouthful of food – you better appreciate the book in this manner.

Sir Isaac Newton by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt oil on canvas, feigned oval, 1702. © The National Portrait Gallery, London

Sir Isaac Newton
by Sir Godfrey Kneller, Bt
oil on canvas, feigned oval, 1702. © The National Portrait Gallery, London

This was an immensely rewarding book for me as it showed a side to Newton which I had never been aware of before. I found myself becoming more and more fascinated with the man, not the legend.

I’ll admit that I first tried to read Newton’s Principia Mathematica when I was a teenager and I could not for the life of me understand any of it. Of course, my weakest point is mathematics, so that was to be expected. This book makes me want to pick up a copy and see what, if anything, I can make of it now as a more mature person. You know what? I think I will open up my copy again!

If you love fact-filled history fuelled by reason, be sure to read this book!

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