Book review: A More Perfect Heaven

NICOLAUS Copernicus’ On The Revolutions Of The Heavenly Spheres moved the Earth from the centre of universe, sparked religious controversy, and gave us the modern meaning of “revolution” as political upheaval. Dava Sobel, whose previous books include Longitude and Galileo’s Daughter, tells the Polish astronomer’s life story in an unusual way.

The central part of the book is a play script depicting the moment when Copernicus worked on his theory with a young assistant, Rheticus. Sobel says she originally intended the play to stand on its own, but was encouraged by her editor to embed it within a non-fiction context. “Readers who prefer a strictly historical account may of course skip over the play, though I suspect some will gravitate to the script – perhaps reading only that part.”

As a straight-through read it is an odd experience. In the first part, Sobel ably brings Copernicus to life from the scant surviving evidence. Attending a variety of universities, he studied poetry, rhetoric and medicine as well as astronomy, his failure to graduate being possibly because he couldn’t afford the examiners’ fees or compulsory celebration banquets. But he did qualify in church law at Ferrara, then returned to Poland to take up an administrative post with the Bishop of Varmia, his uncle.

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Copernicus treated the sick, dealt with legal disputes, wrote a treatise on currency devaluation and proposed a system for standardising the size of bread loaves. His uncle’s death brought a new bishop who accused Copernicus of having an improper relationship with his housekeeper – and at this climactic moment we break to the play.

The demonic bishop becomes, in the play, a grumpy but not unlikeable old duffer; the housekeeper is Copernicus’ long-suffering common-law wife. The central story of the play, the composition of Copernicus’ book, is less dramatic than events narrated previously. The dialogue would probably work well enough on stage, but on the page the short exchanges are tiring to read. Sobel is right: readers preferring to know what actually happened will want to skip through this section pretty swiftly.

The final part returns to conventional biography and sees Copernicus’ book into print, placed in the author’s hands as he lay on his deathbed, 70 years old and paralysed by a stroke. Rheticus, we have learned in the play, was gay; he fled a death sentence and lived to old age, while the unfortunate housekeeper was banished and disappeared from history.

The sandwich construction doesn’t really come off. But the book offers a lively account of an extraordinary life: readers can decide for themselves which telling they prefer.

Edinburgh International Book Festival, Saturday, 4.30pm

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