John Aubrey – remembrancer and forward-thinker


John Aubrey, My Own Life

Ruth Scurr, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015, hb., 518pp, £25

Just as English painting is renowned for portraiture, so English letters have been illuminated by some of the greatest biographers ever to burnish world literature. After Boswell, the best-known is John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose Brief Lives broke through deferential and stylistic boundaries to leave us vivid vignettes of historical figures of a kind that had previously been buried with their subjects, omitted from epitaphs, lost in posthumous politesse. Ruth Scurr seeks to remind readers just how original and engaging he was, and how fascinating his era.

Brief Lives is a congeries of notes and random jottings that was never intended for publication as a whole. It contains over 500 character studies, few of them complete (one consists of two words – “Simple man”), and many of the subjects were obscure even then. But taken as a whole, they amply bear out John Fowles’ opinion,

Not even with Pepys are we closer to an existential awareness of what it was like to be alive then.

Brief Lives throws open a casement onto the tumultuous country Aubrey knew, in all its violence and eloquence, bawdiness and loftiness, wistfulness and war, ignorant iconoclasm and soaring intellectualism. It is, in fact, just as well the text was never prepared for publication, because all kinds of piquant details would never have made the final cut. As Aubrey wrote to Anthony Wood, the peevish antiquary who had imposed on him the “Taske” of writing the book,

Now these Arcana are not fitt to lett flie abroad, till about 30 years hence; for the author and the Persons (like Medlars) ought first to be rotten.

We learn from him (and only from him) that the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling practised card-sharping in bed. The seventeenth Earl of Oxford was so embarrassed by farting when bowing to the Queen that he went abroad for seven years (when he returned the Queen told him she had “quite forgot the fart”). We are told what happened when a loose stallion scented the mare being ridden in a church procession by a “mighty pontifical prowd” Dean of Hereford – that the jurist Sir John Selden “got more by his prick than he had done by his practice” – and that the funerary bust of the rather too “tractable” society beauty Venetia Digby, which had survived the Great Fire but lost its gilding, was for sale ten years afterwards on a market stall. One does not find such irreverent immediacies in Walton’s Lives or Fuller’s Worthies. As Aubrey said himself,

How these curiosities would be quite forgotten, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down!

Aubrey was clearly a quidnunc. He was also an astrologer, and the only book he published in his lifetime was Miscellanies, a gazeteer of omens and superstitions retailed as fact, with engaging anecdotes, such as Arise Evans who rubbed his “fungous nose” on Charles II’s hand. Yet he was also, as Anthony Powell noted in John Aubrey and His Friends (1948),

…one of the most arresting figures of the seventeenth century.

This stargazer and teller of tattle (Powell defends him against the charge of excessive credulity, saying he always wrote half-humorously) was simultaneously a noted antiquarian, who as Alain Schnapps opines in The Discovery of the Past, “ushered the antiquaries into a new world”, through pioneering the typological-chronological classification of monuments. Aubrey’s childhood of “eremetical solitude” in the haunted “thin blew landscape” around Stonehenge (he was the first to survey Avebury) lent impetus to a lifelong melancholia. His concern for the future of old monuments  and documents (it was common for medieval manuscripts to be used to clean guns, line pie-dishes or bung beer barrels) mirrored his concern about whether his writings would survive him; in a touching aside, he records watching the covers of his notebooks turn mouldy in the damp downland weather.

Unusually, the discoverer of the past was also a finder of the future, fascinated by developments in science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, education, and the arts. He knew Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Browne, Edmund Waller, Edmund Halley,  John Locke, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, Robert Hooke and scores of others, from experimental chemists to poets, cartographers to politicians. He played an active role in the Royal Society, and wrote “tumultuarily” among all the noise of Civil War, Protectorate, Restoration, plague and Great Fire, legal tussles, bailiff-dodging, and endless money problems. He spent twenty years living in friends’ houses, carrying on voluminous correspondence and indefatigable researches from spare rooms. That he was able to do this for so long without falling out with any of these friends attests to his agreeability; one of the very few who spoke ill of him was, ironically, the ingrate Anthony Wood.

Although instinctively conservative, Aubrey’s non-doctrinaire outlook enabled him to form friendships with Royalists and Roundheads, Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics, give credit when due, and report foibles with amused tolerance. So unassuming was he that he almost disappeared from history, despite constant fretting about whether his writings would survive him. Powell observes,

He contemplated the life around him as in a mirror – the glass of the Lady of Shalott – scarcely counting himself as one of the actors on the stage.

The only nod Aubrey made to a putative Boswell or Lockhart were a few notes, fit only, he said with what feels like genuine modesty,

…to be interponed as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book

Powell’s profile of Aubrey set a standard unlikely to be surpassed – although he concentrates on Aubrey’s nostalgia and scants his neophilia. Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr has sensibly done something quite different – consider how Aubrey might have chronicled his own career had he had the leisure and inclination, using his words when possible, and filling in lacunae with empathetic imagination. Some might term this infotainment, but that always implies shallowness, whereas she succeeds admirably in adding to rather than taking away from Aubrey’s reputation. From the front cover illustration onwards she displays both deep sensitivity towards her subject and knowledge of his context.

The author cleverly interlards likely day-to-day worries – money, health, lack of success in amours, footpads, menacing politics, the perennial peevishness of Anthony Wood – with longer-term preoccupations about posterity and progress, and of course colourful anecdotes. All are rendered with an excellent ear for his gossipy language, including some words lamentably fallen into desuetude. She transmits an acutely alive and likeable personality – one who was kind in a cruel era, constructive among a mass of destruction, sane in a sea of “fanatiques”, appreciative of brilliance whoever its originator and engirdled by whatever “inurbanitie”.

She wrote My Own Life, she tells us in her foreword, “playingly…but with purpose”, drawn to his quiet conservatism by its marked contrast to her previous biographical subject, the wholly antithetical Robespierre. Her tribute may be lightly written but it is not lightly conceived, and must surely bring new readers to the Lives, and new attention to that redolent, revolutionizing England.

This review first appeared on, and is reprinted with permission

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