#102: AUBREY, IN BRIEF. James Russell Lowell, in 1898, wrote “Biography in these communicative days has become so voluminous that it might seem calculated rather for the ninefold vitality of another domestic animal than for the less lavish allotment of man...many a worthy, whom a paragraph from the right pen might have immortalized, is suffocated in the trackless swamps of two octavos.” He speaks--how long a century before the invention of the internet?--of “these chattering days, when nobody who really is nobody can steer forth without the volunteer accompaniment of a brass band,” and says, “It is at least doubtful whether gossip gain body by bottling.” Of these first remarks, the book usually referred to as Aubrey's Brief Lives is the antidote, and of the last remark, its cheerful contradiction. John Aubrey’s arrival at Oxford in the mid 1600s, during the great ruckus of Cromwell’s Protectorate and the restoration of Charles II, landed him, ideally, in the storm center of England’s many intellectual revolutions but also in a venerated center of antiquarian studies. In these latter he excelled: he first brought to wide notice the unstudied stone circles at Avebury (“the henge monument of connoisseurs,” one guide-book recently called it, that eclipses Stonehenge in size and interest), and became one of the original ninety-eight members of the Royal Society. A fateful introduction to the splenetic Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood gave his magpie fascinations their focus and opportunity. Wood was compiling a record of the writers and notables of Oxford, and recognized in the affable Aubrey a man who could get hot gossip out of a cloistered nun. Wood treated Aubrey, as he did everyone, with truly execrable manners and ingratitude, but he also opened the door for the bit of immortality Aubrey now enjoys: the vast mass of manuscript now itself cloistered in the Bodleian library, in which Aubrey gleefully and intently noted down every stray bit of information he could chat out of anyone who would submit to be questioned. For others the more mundane details of dates and such: from Aubrey we get just those vivid, almost Pythonesque anecdotes that are often all we retain in memory from weightier books. “How these curiosities would be quite forgot,” he exclaims, “did not such idle fellows as I putt them downe.” Curiosities indeed. Of the playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher, we learn that “They lived together on the Banke side, not far from the Play-house...had one Wench in common between them, which they did so admire; the same clothes and cloake, &c.; betweene them.” Of William Camden, historian, we learn that he was “Astrologically given” (i.e. interested in astrology): “He likewise delivers that when an Eclipse happens in Scorpio that ‘tis fatal to the town of Shrewsbury.” (Imagine that sentence being read by John Cleese.) Of Sir John Colet, scholar and theologian, we learn only that he was pickled when set in his coffin; and that, after the great fire at St. Paul’s, someone poked a hole in his coffin, and “Mr. Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ‘twas of a kind of insipid tast...the body felt, to the probe of a stick which they thrust into the chinke, like boyld Brawne.” Of Thomas Cooper, we learn that he wrote a dictionary, which his wife, in a fit of pique anticipating Carlyle and J. S. Mill’s maid, threw into the fire. He rewrote it; “He was afterwards made Bishop of Winton.” And so on (you’ll notice I haven’t made it out of the C’s) in that wonderfully gnarled seventeenth-century prose (the battlefields of the English civil war were not messier than the pages of Aubrey’s manuscript). Here is another of the books (that was never meant to be a book) ideal to be left in the bathroom or at the breakfast table, to be browsed through and marveled at, one of the great moments of human curiosity. “I will tell you a pretty story,” he says, and he does. Of Isaac Barrow,
mathematician, he closes his account with: “As he laye unraveling in the agonie of death, the Standers-by could hear him say softly, I have seen the Glories of the world.” Amen.
There is a good selection from Aubrey now available from Penguin, but worth searching out is the longtime-standard selection made by Oliver Lawson Dick, which incudes his own graceful biography of Aubrey; my copy was published in London by Secker and Warburg in 1958, but it’s been recently reprinted by Godine. In 1979, Roy Dotrice did a one-man stage show as Aubrey, looking in his makeup for all the world like one of the banking dwarves from Gringott’s; a recording of it is now available on DVD.
The most charming and informative addition to Aubrey’s availability to the common reader is the new book edited and written by Ruth Scurr, John Aubrey: My Own Life (Chatto and Windus, 2015), in which Scurr has (alright, let us use Aubrey’s own favorite word) ingeniously gathered up the autobiographical bits from Aubrey’s manuscripts and strung them into a splendid word-portrait. The book ranges from childhood anecdotes through the tumult of the interregnum (severely felt at Oxford), through his antiquarian work and his final illness--by way of, among other things, a heart-stopping account of being beaten by his Latin teacher--”Hic, haec, hoc” will henceforth figure in your nightmares. (“It is the grammar and rhetoric of violence.”) But the general tenor is that of Aubrey’s noonlit absorption in the world around him--interest edging into fascination. As in the Lives, wonderful bits come tumbling cheek by jowl together: a moving lament on the death of Thomas Hobbes, some superb invective on old Doctor Fell (“a stalking, consecrating engine of hypocrisy”) and a paean to the Wiltshire turnip (“They are not tough and stringy, like other turnips, but cut like marmalade”), all within a few pages of each other. This great delighting trove of a book is like having an old known friend allowing us to a still greater candid and warming level of intimacy--being himself as always, but more so. Scurr’s book is a work of rescue and revelation together.