Reconstructing the life of one of the most curious historical figures: John Aubrey


If one were to make a list of the comfy books of English literature, those to which generations of readers have returned over and over for clever fun, this would almost certainly include Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” the novels of Jane Austen and the adventures of Sherlock. Holmes. These are the old secrets that we discover in youth and that we still reread with happiness at 70 years old.

To this premier company I would not only add John Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’, but I would now also include Ruth Scurr’s groundbreaking biography on its author, perhaps the most endearing figure of 17th century England. . As a committed antique dealer, collector and curator, as well as an avid scribbler, Aubrey (1626-1697) left an enormous mass of papers on everything that interested him, from the natural history of his native county of Wiltshire to Avebury stone circles to ghost and fairy tales. Not only studious, he was increasingly always eager for “ingenious conversation”, so that his learned friends soon included the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the architect Christopher Wren, the scientists Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and William Harvey, the diarist and gardener. John Evelyn, cartographer Wenceslaus Hollar, collector Elias Ashmole (hence the name of the Ashmolean Museum) and even William Penn, who emigrated to America. Eventually, Aubrey wrote pen portraits filled with facts and anecdotes of all his friends and many other eminent people of the time,h the “Brief Lives” were never quite completed and were not published until long after his death. Even now, much of the more specialized writing of this curious polymath remains in manuscript.

“John Aubrey, My Own Life” by Ruth Scurr (NYRB)

Displaying admirable mastery as well as learned care and sensitivity, Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr actually narrates Aubrey’s life using only her own words. Indeed, she has extracted her archives and printed works to create her own diary – and extremely entertaining. When “John Aubrey, My Own Life” was published in Britain in 2015, critics were eager to name it their book of the year.

How could it not be, since – among many unknowns – Scurr is repurposing some of the most famous passages from “Brief Lives”. In 1670 Aubrey notes that “not far from Cirencester there was an apparition which, when asked if it was a good or a bad spirit, returned no response, but disappeared with a scent. curious and a most melodious twang. My friend Mr. William Lilly thinks he was a fairy. Again, on a visit to the sinister Mortlake, which once housed the Elizabethan mage John Dee, he learns that the children playing in the graveyard “would use Dr. Dee’s gravestone as a base and run there in their games.” These inimitable details are Aubrey’s business assets.

Throughout “John Aubrey, My Own Life,” the immortals in the story appear as people you could drink or chat with. After meeting a “wonderful young astronomer,” Aubrey urges Edmund Halley to study astrology. Regarding Descartes, he recalls that visitors to the great Frenchman sometimes begged to see his mathematical instruments. “He would pull from a small drawer under his table, and show them a pair of compasses with one of the legs broken; and then, for his ruler, he used a sheet of paper folded in half.

In several places in this diary, Aubrey swoons over the greatest beauty of the time, Venetia Stanley, who was courted by many gallants before becoming the mistress of the Earl of Dorset. Despite his past, Sir Kenelm Digby – courtier, diplomat, alchemist and many others – married her saying “he could make a whore a virtuous wife”. Aubrey adds, “I’ve heard some people say. . . that after her marriage, she redeemed her honor by her strict life. Quite commendable, no doubt, but the truly romantic detail of Venetia involves her former lover :. ”

Author and biographer John Aubrey (CE Wagstaff, from a drawing by Fairthorne in the Ashmolean Museum)

As Aubrey himself exclaims, “how these curiosities would be altogether forgotten, if idlers like myself had not rejected them”. As it “unfolded in the world” it recorded details of Oxford during the English Civil War, life in London during the time of the plague and after the great fire destroyed much of the city, the actions of the natural philosophers of the Royal Society and scientists, and the unfolding of the so-called papist plot to bring a Catholic to the throne of England. The highlights abound: We learn that Aubrey’s friend, Francis Potter, attempted a blood transfusion between two chickens and that Christopher Wren’s sister, Susan, has become a doctor, “a rare surgeon”. contract, then roughly exploited by his fellow antiquarian Anthony Wood for whom he does extensive but unrecognized biographical research for a history of the University of Oxford. When the shortage eventually forces her to borrow money, Aubrey repays the loan with valuable books. In his last years, he did everything to save his papers from what he liked to call the wreck of time.

Today, John Aubrey might be surprised to learn that he is being honored not only as a historian and biographer, but also as a master of very readable and flexible English prose. As simple and empirical as his phrases are, they can nonetheless create verbal music out of nothing more than simple place names: “At Minty Common, at Malmsbury Hundred, near the road to Ashton Kayne, there is has a rising of blue clay.

Anyone who likes history or human idiosyncrasy will almost certainly love “John Aubrey, my own life”. I only wish Ruth Scurr had found a reason to include perhaps the most enticing anecdote from “Brief Lives”. It has two versifiers of the time. During the First English Civil War, George Wither risked execution for treason, but Sir John Denham begged the king not to hang him, claiming that as long as Wither lived he himself “shouldn’t be the worst poet. from England. “Wither continued to write for another 25 years.

Michael Dirdabook review Thursdays in style.

John Aubrey, My Own Life

By Ruth Scurr

New York Review Books. 518 p. $ 35


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