Book Review: ‘The World of Isaac Newton’ by Toni Mount

Isaac Newton is one of the most well-known personages of the Stuart and Georgian periods due to his towering intellect and his role with the Royal Society. When we think of those amazingly multi-talented Stuart people, Newton is definitely one of them.

Toni Mount, the prolific author of The Sebastian Foxley Medieval Murder Mystery series of books, is probably best-known as a historian of the medieval period, with works such as Everyday Life in Medieval England, A Year in the Life of Medieval England, and The Medieval Housewife, among others. With The World of Isaac Newton, published by Amberley Publishing, Mount gives us a remarkable work because it is both a biography of this genius but also gives a pleasant context about the world in which he lived: his contemporaries, the economy, and even mentions the creation of Stuart-era shops which stand to this day, such as Fortnum & Mason. Mount mentioned that Newton lived nearby on Jermyn Street, which is one of my favourite streets in London.

As you can see, the cover uses one of the rarer portraits of Newton. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be more familiar with those in which he wears an elaborate periwig. This portrait, on the other hand, seems so much more intimate and yet simultaneously rather disconcerting because of that intimacy.

As for the content, it is largely focused on science, maths, and philosophy. But don’t let that put you off. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not able to understand Newton’s work. I can’t tell you how many times I tried to read Principia in my teens and I just gave up (I should probably give it a shot again now I’m 35, though I doubt I’ll understand it any better), so many of the topics were complex (such as spectrophotometry, AI, wormholes, gravity, differential calculus, among other things) but Mount was able to make them more accessible to those of us who are not given to science and philosophy.

Despite being able to appreciate the greatness of Newton’s genius and amazing talent for so many scientific and practical pursuits, he comes across in everything I’ve ever read as irascible and vindictive – and that doesn’t change in this book. If anything, I like Newton even less now as a person whilst I still respect him greatly for his brilliant mind and monumental impact upon our world. He seems to have fallen out with many people, including Robert Hooke, and had a famous problem with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. I was pleased to find that Mount’s views on Newton’s sexuality is generally in alignment with my own research on him for my book, Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain.

As you may have guessed, my own work does not have much to do with the natural philosophy scene, and so I found I ended up learning a great deal and was pleasantly surprised by this other view of the Stuart and early Georgian eras. Although I came across what appeared to be a bit of confusion between Sophia Dorothea of Celle (George I’s doomed wife) and Sophia, Electress of Hanover, George’s- mother, this was probably an editorial error because overall I found the book well-written, factual, and filled with interesting information I hadn’t known before, including the fact that, upon his death, Newton had ‘a total of 1,896 books were kept in six bookcases and valued at £270’ and that ‘Newton was fluent in the Classical languages, including Ancient Greek and Hebrew’. Following the main text is a large Notes section and a very useful Index. The book also includes images, which are always a welcome addition to history books such as this.

I began this book back in October and, regrettably, due to moving house in November plus the pandemic, I had to stop reading it. Once things settled down, I got back into it and enjoyed the read. This said, I look forward to reading more of Toni Mount’s works in future—although this book of hers made me so curious about some things, I even starting doing internet searches on some of the topics because they were so extraordinary. So, if you’re anything like me, read this book with caution or you’ll end up spending hours learning about science and math topics…and be glad of it.

SCL rating: 4.5

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