John Aubrey (1625-97) has done it again – namely, got someone else to write his book for him. An odd chain of events is thereby generated. Aubrey – endlessly busying himself in retrieving, preserving, and collating other people’s work, whether contemporary or in England’s recent past – left himself little time or energy to do the same for his own important antiquarian activities. It fell to others to do this for him posthumously. His many efforts to see publication (including of his now famous proto-biographical Brief Lives), were constantly blocked by other people’s priorities, and by the deaths of possible patrons. Ruth Scurr is the latest scholar to consult Aubrey’s voluminous notebooks with their desultory scribblings. She has arranged extracts from these into a diary of sorts, although, unlike Pepys, Aubrey was no diarist. At a stroke, therefore, he acquires a diary and an autobiography, in a referred burst of literary activity he could never personally get around to.
Aubrey moved in (to adopt his favourite word of praise) “ingenious” company. The list of his seventeenth century acquaintances contains the great and the good: Hobbes foremost, Marvell, Pepys, Hooke, Newton, Dryden, not to mention Charles I, Charles II and James II, and many others. This lonely child – actively discouraged by an uncomprehending father from his bookish, curious ways, his lifelong stammer aggravated by stress – became at length an early member of the Royal Society, and one of our first archaeologists. He may have been the first to realise that fields at harvest time could reveal older subterranean settlements. He offered interpretations of both Stonehenge and, separately, of Avebury (which he re-discovered) that anticipated current theories. He pioneered non-human blood transfusion with Francis Potter. Both men took their first impulse from Ovid’s Medea – who restored her lover’s father by draining and replacing his blood – and their science from Harvey’s ideas on circulation. Such a trail of inspiration and experiment, along with Aubrey’s permanent addiction to horoscopy, identifies him as typical of his period.
Yet Aubrey’s compulsive, bibulous socialising, his interminable but unfruitful courtship of various women (a few of whom he loved), and his increasing money worries, meant he was constantly distracted from research and writing. He lacked guile, and was not wise on his own behalf. He appears to have written in his own character, and his manner – candid, generous, quick to praise, slow to condemn, realistic – lends itself to biographical treatment. Often disappointed in friends, he was, it seems, universally loved, except by misanthropes. Scurr’s experiment introduces us to this living, likeable, frustrating (and frustrated) person so like ourselves. Reading him, one often feels this must have been written the day before yesterday, so direct and unmediated is his prose, and so recognisable his nature. It is a pleasure to know John Aubrey. For those who don’t, Scurr’s book is an excellent place to take the man’s measure.
Scurr’s annalistic method traces Aubrey’s life through frequently very short extracts. It is worth comparing this procedure with, for instance, Oliver Lawson Dick’s 149-page biographical introduction to his 1949 edition of Brief Lives. For Dick’s very readable account is seamless; he derives a sense of cohesion, that of a whole life, recursively drawing into his presentation much that is scattered and fugitive in Aubrey. By comparison, Scurr writes for the soundbite generation, her Aubrey but a piecemeal figment. He is encountered in abrupt shards of research ideas, gossip, half-baked resolutions, superstitions, terrors and delights. What she loses in any holistic continuity, she gains in suggesting the spirit of this easily distracted but persistent man, who was too interested in too much to settle into any one project. These approaches are complementary, and both are necessary if we are to acquire a fuller sense of Aubrey.