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Criticism 43.4 (2001) 458-462

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Book Review

The Notorious Astrological Physician of London:
Works and Days of Simon Forman

The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman by Barbara Howard Traister. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2001. Pp. 250. $30.00.

Poor Simon Forman. History has not served him well. He was falsely, posthumously implicated in the scandalous murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, an event which took place a full two years after his own death. The caricature of Forman that emerged from Frances Howard's trial was that of a nefarious, aphrodisiac- and poison-dispensing practitioner of the evil arts, if not even the [End Page 458] devil himself. In his afterlife, Forman was never able to shake this reputation, and for the next couple of centuries he became a recurring character in poems and novels, even crossing the Atlantic to serve as the model for Hawthorne's insidious Chillingsworth in The Scarlet Letter. Literary scholarship has not helped his case. A. L. Rowse's biography, Simon Forman: Sex and Society in Shakespeare's Age (London, 1974), depicts him as a sort of early modern pervert. More recently, Louis Adrian Montrose's canonical essay, "'Shaping Fantasies': Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture" (Representations 2 [1983]) springs from Forman's erotic dream about Queen Elizabeth. Montrose's article, while acknowledged as brilliant, is often disparagingly employed as a synecdoche for the first-wave new historicist tendency to rely on anecdotal history, and "Simon Forman's dream" has even become a synecdoche for Montrose's article itself. In fact, it could be said that within literary history Forman has only been permitted to function synecdotally: he stands for the corruption of the court, for the quirks of the early modern sex life, for the seventeenth-century culture of witchcraft, for the historical archive.

In her fascinating study of Simon Forman's own writings, The Notorious Astrological Physician of London: Works and Days of Simon Forman, Barbara Howard Traister assembles the parts back into a whole. A look at the book's bibliography of manuscript sources reveals the depth of materials that went into producing a revived and revitalized Forman; a survey of the reproduced manuscript sections and the extensive quotations suggests an archive that is daunting for its paleography and even more so for its orthography. This is a serious academic undertaking, one requiring a profound depth of cultural knowledge, archival skill, dedication and patience.

The result of Traister's extensive labor is a gripping page-turner. The reader comes not only to know Simon Forman, but to explore his eclectic interests and his cultural milieu. The book wends its way through curious facts, and the result is part biography, part medical and social history, and even part Alice in Wonderland (at one point we find ourselves unexpectedly in the world of giants, at another we watch Forman drinking a sort of boiled snake soup as an elixir to reverse the effects of aging).

The Simon Forman that Traister reconstructs is not necessarily a very nice one. Forman emerges as a "humorless, anxious man trying desperately to become something he was not" (30). In some ways, Forman's story is one of self-fashioning gone bad. In his various autobiographies (themselves testament to "A Self-Conscious Life," as Traister entitles a chapter), Forman fantasizes about familial and social grandeur, even drafting several coats of arms. This social elevation did not correspond with the reality of Forman's existence, however. Of relatively humble origins, Forman was largely denied a formal education. While he received some instruction from a clergyman as a child, after his father's death he was apprenticed to a shopkeeper who did not honor an [End Page 459] agreement to send the young Simon to grammar school, a breach which Forman bitterly resented and long remembered. Forman sopped up what knowledge he could by pressing a dim schoolboy sharing his quarters to repeat the daily lessons. This dynamic was one that would repeat itself throughout Forman's...


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