New books


"Pan Tadeusz" by the Polish national poet Adam Mickiewicz has now been translated into contemporary English by Marcel Weyland. The widely acclaimed translation was launched on December 2, 2005 at the Polish Embassy in London under the patronage of HE the Ambassador and the Principal of King's College London.

A list of books by Seweryn Chomet is given below


Marcel Weyland's story

Looking back, Tadeusz was my companion, on and off, since I was twelve. I was born in 1927 into a quite prosperous family in Lodz, second-largest Polish city. My older sister Halina, fortunately for us, worked for the editor of the largest newspaper, Republika, and so had access to daily reports reaching her paper from its foreign reporters. The day after Germany invaded she persuaded my father to pack us all (six of us) into her four-seater Ford and to leave in the clothes we stood in; this sudden decision undoubtedly saved out lives. The petrol ran out close to Warsaw. By various means and after many adventures we reached Wilno. I had always been a reader, but it was there (appropriately where Mickiewicz had studied and become a poet) that I first found Pan Tadeusz on our landlady's bookshelf. With Japanese consul Sugihara's help we managed to flee Russia to Japan, then to Shanghai, where, and after the death of my father, we lasted out the war im a Japanese imternment camp. I finished school while in camp. After liberation, as some of the post-war 'boat people', we reached Sydney, exiles, like Mickiewicz, and with his epic, metaphorically, always in my pocket.
    In Sydney I studied architecture at night, married an Irish-Australian girl (her drawings illustrate my translation), and bought her a prose 'Everyman' translation of Pan Tadeusz. I felt its inadequacy keenly, and I rendered a bit here, a bit there, into verse, using the original metre, line length and stress pattern. This became a hobby; the hobby grew into an obsession which to my (growing) family was seen as daddy's little eccentricity. The desultory process continued, interrupted by studies for an additional law degree. Some twelve years ago I became hopeful, for the first time, that I could actually finish the translation, and settled down to it earnestly, culminating in the work being published in Sydney in December last year. To my amazement I found myself a hero to the local Polish community.
    Pan Tadeusz holds a unique place in Polish and world literature. It has continued to speak to me, as it has always spoken to all Polish expatriates. 1 began the translation as an attempt to show my family why this is so, and finished it in the hope it may also achieve this aim for a wider readership.

Marcel Weyland's translation of Pan Tadeusz has been widely praised and is available in London from Orbis, Veritas, John Sandoe and

101 Swan Court, London SW3 5RY

fax/voicemail 07092 06 05 30

Books by Seweryn Chomet:

Helena – Princess Reclaimed
First biography of Queen Victoria's third daughter
£10.50 + p@p

Count de Mauny - Friend of Royalty
First biography of an unusual guest of Queen Victoria's family

£10.50 + p@p

DNA – Genesis of a Discovery
Who really discovered the structure of DNA?
£10.50 + p@p

Dr.Groer and the General's Hat
In press

In the UK call or fax 07092 060530


“Count de Mauny – Friend of Royalty”

Seweryn Chomet

Available from:
Newman-Hemisphere, 101 Swan Court, London SW3 5RY  UK

Few foreigners transplanted by Fate to Sri Lanka’s shores during the past century have managed to surround themselves with such mystique as the Frenchman and naturalized Briton known as the Count de Mauny (1866-1941). Plenty of Lankans and visitors to the Island know of his name and the exotic home he created over seventy years ago on the tiny islet in Weligama Bay, between Galle and Matara, that he christened “Taprobane”. Writers as diverse as Paul Bowles, Robin Maugham, Shaun Mandy and Norah Burke have all written vividly about the place, as indeed did the Count himself, but since his death in 1941 surprisingly little light has ever been shed on the man himself. Now Seweryn Chomet, a Physicist and Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College, London, has come along to provide readers with some fascinating insights into the sometimes-bizarre reality behind the romantic myth of the man who styled himself Maurice de Mauny Talvande, Count de Mauny.

One of several myths about himself assiduously created by Maurice - and now demolished by Seweryn Chomet - is that he was a high-born French Count. Nothing could have been further from the truth! In reality, Maurice was born plain Maurice Talvande, son of Felix Talvande, a solidly middle-class bank official based at the time (1866) in the provincial town of Le Mans, France. Maurice’s mother was Marguerite Adelaide Louise, née Froger de Mauny. Interestingly Maurice’s brother Roger never “borrowed” the de Mauny matronymic, being known throughout his life as Roger Talvande. Chomet mentions that historically the real “Count de Mauny” title appears to have been bestowed by the Emperor Napoleon on a French politician named Clement de Ris, who had no known connection with Marguerite’s family.
A major fascination of Chomet’s short but quite detailed biography lies in his carefully-researched investigation of Maurice de Mauny Talvande’s life in Europe before re-inventing himself in Ceylon in the thirty-odd years of his life after 1912. What little Maurice ever wrote about his earlier years seems to have been deliberately romanticised and heavily “edited” in his favour.

For example, Chomet forensically examines what very probably was a decidedly sordid state of affairs surrounding the so-called “university” that Maurice briefly established for young teenage boys from “good” English families at a rented château at Azay-le-Rideau on the Loire River, shortly before his June 1898 marriage to Lady Mary Byng, daughter of the 4th Earl of Strafford. A June 1899 letter written in French to Maurice by Princess Helena, third daughter of Queen Victoria, and a close friend of Lady Mary, which is quoted in full early on in the book, cautiously hints at dark rumours (“inventions” - perhaps?) circulating about its recipient. Another letter from the royal Princess to Maurice later that same summer mentions “cruel tales” and “heavy clouds” and suggests Maurice take advice from a leading English (divorce) lawyer, Sir Francis Jeune. A leading New York newspaper had published a scathing article late in 1898 criticizing Azay-le-Rideau for being “not a university, but a mere boarding house” where the main subjects taught were “cricket, polo and football”. Anglophobic locals increasingly resented the “English take-over” of the historic castle.

Infinitely more damaging and dangerous than these attacks, reveals Chomet, were the persistent rumours (the subject of Princess Helena’s cryptic letters?) of sexual advances made by Maurice to some of the aristocratic adolescents entrusted into his care. By various accounts the ambience at Azay-le-Rideau appears to have been decidedly homoerotic. One of Queen Victoria’s less salubrious sons-in-law, the notoriously aberrant Lord Lorne, rumoured to be (at the very least) sexually ambivalent, mysteriously visited the château in August 1898; and the 19-year-old Bend’Or, future Duke of Westminster, who briefly attended the “university” that same summer, later revealed to his mother that before leaving Azay precipitately he had confronted “Count de Mauny” about reports of his homosexuality, and that the “Count” had “owned up that it is so”. By late 1898 the château’s absentee owner, alarmed by mounting local dissent and these dark rumours of (then) criminal activities, had abruptly cancelled the lease, and the de Maunys had moved on – first to Cannes (where their first child, Victor Alexander, was born in the Spring of 1899), then San Remo, and finally England.

A persistent trait throughout Maurice’s life was his uncanny ability to cultivate the friendship of the rich and famous, and to bask in their reflected glory – undoubtedly due largely to his genuine charm, intelligence and natural style. The visitors’ book at “Taprobane” - sadly lost, as Chomet regretfully tells us – would surely reveal many fascinating names. Maurice even receives a passing mention in Queen Victoria’s Journal, when she refers to a “French man M. de Mauny Talvande” (note: not “Count”!) being engaged to Lady Mary (“Tooka”) Byng, daughter of one of her royal equerries. Lady Mary was thirty-three at the time of the glamorous “high society” wedding in London, followed by a glittering reception at the bride’s family’s 18th century mansion, Wrotham Park, in Hertfordshire, attended by the Princess of Wales. Chomet suggests that Maurice may have met Lady Mary through his friendship with her brother, George Byng, with whom Maurice briefly attended the same fashionable Jesuit-run school in Canterbury in the early 1880s.

At any rate the “de Mauny Talvande” marriage appears not to have been a success, even before Maurice decamped permanently to Ceylon soon after the Great War – whether because of Maurice’s possibly conflicted sexuality or for other reasons such as his constant extravagance (or a combination of such) remains a mystery. Quite possibly, suggests Chomet, Lady Mary continued to subsidize her absent husband for the rest of his life, as well as maintaining for many years on her own the family’s substantial rented home in England, for she eventually died in relative poverty. Perhaps the respectable Byng family even “paid” Maurice to stay away, like many a “remittance man” in the distant colonies of those times? Maurice’s nephew revealed to Seweryn Chomet in 2001 that it was well known in his family that “Uncle Maurice” was habitually in financial difficulties. If so, Maurice came by it honestly, as the saying goes – shortly before his parents separated in 1890, his father Felix Talvande declared bankruptcy after his eponymous bank collapsed. Felix even spent some time in prison for financial irregularities, and was conspicuously absent from his son’s wedding in 1898.

Some years later, in 1909-10, Maurice himself went bankrupt. Seweryn Chomet provides details of the failed newspaper venture that brought him down, and incidentally reveals a tendency on the part of Maurice to ignore the fine print and plunge into business ventures with sometimes-reckless abandon. At the bankruptcy hearing he declared that he had no assets of his own, and had relied mainly on regular remittances from his mother until 1902, when some failed investments forced her to curtail these. It would seem that this financial catastrophe, together with his marital problems that included a year-long separation from his wife in around 1907, the same year that his terrifyingly formidable mother died in France, led Maurice to visit Ceylon for the first time in about 1912, possibly as the guest of none other than Sir Thomas Lipton, the tea magnate. Of course, Maurice had a more romantic explanation for being attracted to Ceylon – his admiration for the rhizome Gloriosa Superba spotted in a friend’s Bournemouth greenhouse, which he claimed had been dug up on the Island.

Further lengthy visits appear to have occurred periodically during and after the Great War, and by 1920-1 “Ferguson’s Ceylon Directory” has Maurice listed as residing with his twenty-one-year-old son Victor Alexander in Colombo at “Ascot”, Albert Crescent, Cinnamon Gardens. (Victor later became a decorated Royal Navy Commander in World War Two, and retired in the 1970s as Chairman of the Rosehough Tea Company. He died childless in 1978 and his sister Alexandra likewise died childless in 1989, in England. Chomet mentions an intriguing but alas! unprovable rumour that Victor had an illegitimate son in Ceylon who eventually emigrated to New Zealand).

The book also provides some interesting background to Lady Mary Byng, Maurice’s long-suffering wife, who never visited Ceylon. Her father became Earl Strafford when his older brother, the 3rd Earl, died in 1898, the same year that Maurice married Mary. (An interesting side note, not of course mentioned in the book, is that the Byng family of Wrotham Park shared common ancestry with the 7th Viscount Torrington (1812-1884), previously known as Sir George Byng, whose hapless governorship of Ceylon in the later 1840s coincided with the colonial secretary-ship of Sir James Emerson Tennent. Lady Mary’s paternal ancestry derived from a younger son of George Byng (died 1733), the 1st Viscount Torrington, who had fifteen children in all). Lady Mary’s immediate family was haunted by tragedy, for all its social eminence. As Seweryn Chomet tells us, both her Byng brothers died tragically young in the early 1890s, and her father - the 4th Earl - would later die in mysterious circumstances after inexplicably wandering on to the line and being decapitated by a passing railway train at Potter’s Bar Station, London. Despite such tragedy, marriage into the Byng family gave Maurice the social credibility that he craved, and helps to explain why he got away so well with awarding himself an aristocratic title to which he had absolutely no right.

Maurice’s activities in Ceylon during the last two decades of his life are covered only briefly in the book, and Chomet’s account here will hold few real surprises for many readers with knowledge of Sri Lanka. Still, it is interesting to read that the future “Taprobane Island” was bought by Maurice in the mid-1920s for a mere Rs. 250, and the purchase registered not in his own name, but in that of his son Victor. One wonders if Maurice was still avoiding creditors back home! Victor sold the little island with the octagonal house built by his father for Rs. 12,000 in 1942, by which time his place of residence appears as Hampshire, England. Maurice’s long service during the 1930s as a Weligama Urban Council member is briefly mentioned in the book, and it would be interesting if some future researcher could cast more light on this aspect of his career in Ceylon. Of course, his writings (The Gardens of Taprobane, etc.) receive due mention, also his prolific work as a landscape and gardening designer for many prominent homes in Colombo. The author pays due respect to Maurice’s undoubted skills as a craftsman and furniture designer, but points out that today much of what he produced comes across as well-manufactured “knock-offs” of contemporary French designs rather than truly original pieces. Whether Maurice truly employed “more than 200” craftsmen, as he later claimed, in his “Weligama Local Industries” before the Great Depression shut it down for a number of years in the early 1930s, is now impossible to say.

During a visit to Sri Lanka last year (2002), I came across a reference to “Count de Mauny” in an as-yet-unpublished family memoir. The late writer, a prominent Ceylon civil servant during the 1930s and 1940s, mentions encountering the 73-year-old Maurice in his bathing shorts at Weligama early in 1940, and recalls having “fallen out” with him on an earlier occasion. The memoirist had refused permission to the local Government Headman to decorate the Weligama beach with lighted coconut shells and to hold a procession of dancers and fireworks, all at government expense, to entertain Governor Caldecott on a private visit to “Taprobane”. If Count de Mauny had himself offered to pay the villagers to put on such a display, comments the memoirist, there could have been no objection, but instead he had expected the local taxpayers (in effect) to cover the cost of what was strictly a private visit. This little anecdote certainly ties in with certain less attractive characteristics of Maurice that come across in Seweryn Chomet’s biography – the fondness for grandiose entertainment that emerged early on in his marriage and helped to drive him into a financial quagmire, the desire to mix with “top people”, and a certain conscience-free readiness to take advantage of the financial resources of others, whether morally appropriate or not.

Maurice died suddenly from a heart attack during a visit to the Chelvarayan Estate, Navatkuli on November 27, 1941, and was buried at St. Mary’s Burial Ground in Jaffna, far away from his beloved “Taprobane”. His estranged wife back in England, the unfortunate Lady Mary, died in 1947. For all his many flaws, however, as his biographer points out towards the end of his book, the small-town boy Maurice - with his lack of real credentials, not even a wholly genuine name, to enter British high society as successfully as he did - could not have sustained his assumed role without being a genuinely entertaining, interesting and (above all) believable character. All in all, Mr. Chomet has done aficionados of Sri Lanka a great service in bringing out this highly readable book that for the first time uncovers at least some of the reality behind the mythology surrounding Maurice Talvande, self-styled “Count de Mauny”.

Joe Simpson

(Duncan, B.C., Canada -
October 17, 2003).

A place of all kinds
by Seweryn Chomet

Our waiting room was as capacious as any, but it had one advantage as compared with all others in the neighbourhood: there was a bus stop just outside the surgery door.  This meant that whenever it was raining  -  and it seemed to rain much more often in those days than it does now  -  the waiting room was full of  people, only some of whom were in genuine  need of attention from a physician.  Many of these people ventured in to escape getting soaked to the skin whilst waiting for the bus. 
    Many of them did it so often that they became familiar figures  with identifying nicknames given to them by the clear (there were no receptionists in those days). 
    There was Mrs. Urticaria who suffered from an obvious facial problem, Mr. Otitis  who always had a piece of cotton wool stuffed into his right ear and Mrs. Myopia  who wore heavily decorated gothic spectacle frames.  They sat in our waiting room reading out-of-date magazines.  Having found their place in the queue, they were very reluctant to abandon it.
       There was one particular Nigerian gentleman, a Mr. Ng, who  became a very familiar figure indeed because he regularly came in complaining about ‘heart burn’.  At first his complaint was treated at face value.  He was examined, given standard tests and prescribed the usual medicine. However, it gradually became clear that a more elementary approach was required and he had to be asked more basic questions. The sequence of diagnostic interchanges went roughly like this.
    ‘What is wrong with you Mr. Ng ?’
        ‘I have heart burn’
    ‘Are you sure ?’
        ‘I am sure’
    ‘How often do you get it’
        ‘Very often’
    ‘Always in the same place ?’
    ‘Can you show me were your heart is ?’

     At  this point everything became very explicit as Mr. Ng pointed his finger confidently at his throat.   It transpired that he had thought that his throat was the seat of his heart.  Perhaps he was smarter than he seemed.  Maybe his relative unfamiliarity with  idiomatic  English led him combine  a heavy heart   with a lump in the throat.
    Others had different  - and even more surprising - ideas, but in many cases the problem of diagnosis was reduced to one of semantics. 
    There were also people who knew quite well what was the matter with them, but were reluctant to reveal their secret.  For example, there was the young girl with very strong Cockney accent, who came in complaining of ‘terrible tummy ache’. 
    ‘Any particular time of day ?’
        ‘Not really’
    ‘Every day ?’
    ‘Severe pain ?’
There followed a brief examination and some further questioning untill a firm diagnostic conclusion was reached.
    ‘Put your  right hand on this part of your tummy’
    ‘Can you feel anything?’
    ‘What d’you think it is?’
        ‘Don’t know, Doc’
    ‘In that case I will tell you: it is probably your baby’s            trunk!’
    Of course, this was no great surprise to the young woman who was a specialist in the properties of her own body and who knew for sure what she’d been up to. And perhaps she was just hoping against hope.

    Then there was the man who was too shy to say what was the matter with him.  He kept saying ‘you know’ and ‘as it were’ and ‘so to speak’  until he had to be told to take his trousers down and show all.
    In this elementally exposed state he was really not in a position to deploy any further euphemisms, and as it happened he did not have to.  It transpired that all that was wrong with him was some minor disturbance of his waterworks, which his imagination magnified to something much more sinister. He was rapidly reassured. 
    Others - not as lucky as this particular man - were usually asked if they wanted to go privately to a specialist, and when they said that they preferred not to, they were rewarded with the immortal phrase: ‘you chaps will pay anything to get infected, but you don’t want to pay to get cured!’.  This worked to everyone’s satisfaction.
    But the most memorable was the old lady who was led, hand in hand,   into the surgery by her daughter.   Her words were not those of an ordinary woman but her appearance was disturbing.   Hers was an unhappy face framed by  a dark wig mounted at an inappropriate angle.  She was obviously past her peak to say the least. And sympathetic questions revealed that everything is uncertain in medicine:
    ‘How are you, Mrs. Brown ?’
    ‘Does anything hurt you ?’
    ‘Do you know who I am ?’
        ‘My husband’
    ‘Are you sure ?’
    ‘Tell me again: who am I ?’
        ‘You are my son’
    ‘Is there anything wrong with you?’
    ‘What is it ?’
        ‘I lost it’
    ‘What did you lose ?’
        ‘I lost my mind’
    ‘When did you lose it ?’
        ‘Last week’.
    She turned her head toward the window and looked out at people at the bus stop outside.  For a moment a luminous cowl swept across her face.
    ‘I’m sorry for all those people standing out there in the rain’ - she said - ‘let’s go out and talk to them’.
    And they went - mother and daughter, hand in hand - just a they came in. 

    When it was not  raining, hardly anyone went into the surgery without some  good reason.  There was the man who had an infected wound, which he claimed was inflicted when he sat down, having forgotten that he had put his  false teeth in his back pocket; then there was the woman who wanted to know whether her man had lost all interest in her because the hormone pills that she was taking were somehow transferred on contact with him (it was not clear how this was achieved if he was keeping away from her); and there was the schoolboy who thought he had ghonorea, but couldn’t quite explain how and why, or indeed what it was.
    The man who had to be told that he had a terminal disease was   treated very differently from the others.  At first he froze on hearing the devastating news and went very white, but then he recovered his composure and began asking questions. 
    ‘What would you do in my place, Doctor ?’
        ‘I would listen carefully to advice”
    ‘From whom ?’
        ‘From my doctors’
    ‘But you say there isn’t all that much that can be done, and whatever can  be done may not  work’
       ‘In that case I would start praying’
     ‘I don’t believe in prayer’
      ‘Well, all I can tell you is that  I once heard Niels Bohr on this topic’ .
    ‘Who is he ?’
        ‘A very famous  famous scientist.’
     'What did he say?’
        ‘He said that just because you don’t believe in something, this                  doesn’t mean that  it’s not going to work.'
    That particular patient survived another 30 years, long after his doctor - who was good at early diagnosis - had gone himself.  
        One to  Niels Bohr?


The Stranded Rope

by Seweryn Chomet

Someone - probably an orthodox Jewish theologian - said to me long ago that every Jew is connected to the Almighty by a rope of 613 strands.

I tried to understand this proposition without success for many years. But then I came across a world-famous scientist who was not only a leader of an important research team tackling a front-line topic of some kind, but also a distinguished Jewish scholar.

`Do you believe in this proposition?' – I asked him about 613 one day.

`Yes, I do'  - he replied without the slightest hesitation.

`I have to say' –  I pressed him little harder – `that I am not miffed by your belief but only by its precision. Why 613 and not 633?. What is the basis of your belief?'

His reply was unequivocal. He simply said: `It is written'.  And he disappeared down a long corridor on the way to a lecture theatre.

I never got the opportunity to speak to the great man again and the question festered in my mind for many years. How was it – I asked myself - that a world-famous scientist, a Fellow of the Royal Society and the occupant of a named chair in an old university could accept a proposition about a rope of 613 strands?  On the other hand, it could be argued that if he believed it, there must be something in it, however unlikely it might seem to more ordinary mortals.

And then some twenty years later, a young lady I knew was asked for her hand in marriage by an observant Jewish fellow, but  the religious authorities would not marry them unless it was proved that she was Jewish.

The argument continued for many months until, after thorough examination of family histories, the couple was brought before a religious court and was interrogated by rabbinical judges in great detail. In the end it all ended with broad smiles on the faces of all concerned: the marriage was allowed to proceed.

As we filed out of the dingy premises of the rabbinical court in London’s East End, it suddenly occurred to me that this was an ideal opportunity to ask about the stranded rope again. The atmosphere was informal enough for me to approach the Bench with the problem and to speak directly to the chairman.

I put my query once again and repeated the professor’s original reply. The chairman laughed and looked me straight in the eye: `It is really quite simple. He was absolutely right. If you count    the number of prescriptions in The Book -- The  Torah -- you will find that the result is 613! And so your professor was right: it IS written'.

This was - on the face of it - a satisfactory resolution of the difficulty. These guys obviously knew their stuff.  And no-one as ignorant about The Torah as me could possibly argue in the face of such erudition.

It took another few years for the question to surface again in another form.  I occasionally look at the proceedings of a Jewish discussion group led by a learned Rabbi on the ubiquitous internet. A schoolboy in the United States recently posted a question about the 613 prescriptions.  It then emerged that the last prescription demands that every Jew should write out by hand the entire Torah  - a difficult and laborious undertaking – at least once in a lifetime. A huge task. Indeed an impossible task for those who do not know Hebrew,

And so, once more, I put a question about the rope, this time to the internet Rabbi: how can one obey the last commandment if one does not know Hebrew or is unable to learn it?

The Rabbi finally responded: `You pay a scribe to do it for you'.  And when I asked  how much it would cost, the Rabbi took a little longer to reply, but eventually said that the cost would be $19,000 - $40,000.

Thus, after all these years, the unexpected answer seems to be: money is  not the root of all evil. Which is something we know anyway.

Does this mean that we all know all the important answers instinctively in any case?  And do we need the Rabbis to tell us what they are?  It doesn’t look like it, but it doesn’t hurt if they do.

When my friend Bill Begell read this story, he shrugged his shoulders and said   pecuniam non olet. By which -- I think -- he implied that he went to a school in which Latin was taught, but I didn’t.

He was right.

An uncertainty remains. I recently went to a seminar by a distinguished professor of theology who discussed the work of Maimonides, the great twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, theologian and medic who died 800 years ago. It was Maimonides who originally listed the 613 prescriptions.

The professor in question gave an interesting lecture about Maimonides, but could not confirm that prescription number 613 calls for the Torah to be copied by hand at least once in each lifetime.

Not surprising, really. After all, we now know that even in physics, once claimed by Kelvin to be a haven of numerical certainty, there are fundamental uncertainties everywhere.

After all this, if you insist on theological numerology, you must accept that there are only three basic sins:  adultery, idolatry and murder.  The fundamental number turns out to be only 3. 

And yet I spent about six months in a yeshiva about 60 years ago and remember regarding the Rabbi there with great respect.  But I do not recall either 613 or 3 from those days.  Shame, really.



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