At first glance, you might assume this is just another biography. A scholar and recorder of antiquities, John Aubrey had a seat at the top table of 17th century society. He was friends with the intelligentsia of the period, including architect, Sir Christopher Wren and scientist, Robert Hooke.
Aubrey recorded his life, not so he might be remembered, but to preserve the past for future generations. A unique figure, even against the backdrop of a rapidly changing century, author Ruth Scurr decided a simple biography would not suit her subject. Aubrey’s notes, sketches and letters have been taken by Scurr and transformed into a diary – the diary that Aubrey never wrote. In John Aubrey: My Own Life Scurr has modernised the language, drawing Aubrey closer to his audience. The result is an eminently readable book, and a hero that never intended to be centre stage.
Aubrey had the (questionable) fortune to be living in “interesting times”. He was witness to the execution of Charles I, the turmoil of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II to the throne. As history was being made (and then remade), our understanding of the physical world was also shifting. Mysticism and superstition, inherited from the Middle Ages, was giving way to scientific debate and application that would herald the Age of Enlightenment. In poetry, means of expression also began to expand. Donne’s breathless confessionals jostle against Milton’s archly formal verse. Differing perspectives permeating all aspects of intellectual life. This is a pivotal phase in English history, and it’s one that can be difficult to get your head around. Scurr’s biography circumvents this problem by launching a charm offensive. Aubrey’s warmth and wit make him feel like a contemporary. In his ‘diary’, he confides in us, discussing the last traces of the old world; the book burnings; the rumours and trials of witchcraft, on the same page as advances in astronomy and medicine.
As he travelled around the country, Aubrey kept scrupulous notes, covering subjects from nature, science, architecture as well as stories and anecdotes. This patchwork evolved into a talent for biography. Moving on from the elegiac praise of great men (usually saints and clergy), Aubrey recorded, in detail, the men of the moment. Scientists, mathematicians, philosophers. In a collection of 55 completed biographies, compiled posthumously as Brief Lives (plus over 400 unpublished fragments), Aubrey records the age in a manner that we would recognise as modern biography. The novelist Anthony Powell called Aubrey’s work “as striking a record of Englishmen and English ways as has ever been written”.
Looking towards the future
But his heart – and the heart of the book – lies with not only preserving antiquities (his efforts in getting Osney Abbey sketched before its collapse is now the only recorded image of the building); but in looking towards the future and scientific innovations.
The gift of making friends
He was a founder and Fellow of the Royal Society, and while he was not to be a great man like Wren or Hooke, he had the gift of making friends. Aubrey was astonishingly well-connected. Scurr’s accounts of Aubrey’s social life are dizzying. When he was not attending Royal Society meetings with Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hobbes, he was having drinks with astronomer Edmund Halley. As in Halley’s Comet. Yes, that one made my head hurt a little, too. Critics of Aubrey have suggested that his work is Brief because he was too busy chasing gossip and dining out with his famous friends. This is an unfair charge, especially considering Aubrey never sought the limelight.
Order from chaos
Aubrey’s modesty is such that an invented diary makes perfect sense. He saw himself as a conduit, pouring his energies into preserving the past as his 17th century world often edged towards anarchy. He maintained order from chaos, and his message of honouring the past, but choosing to live in the present, resonates with us today. His legacy, when it comes to biography, is even more significant. From James Boswell’s fan-girling biography of Samuel Johnson, to an irreverent, ballsy take on Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf’s fictionalised satire on the genre itself, in her novel Orlando. The form has not only evolved because of Aubrey, it exists because he took the first steps; capturing idiosyncrasy on the page, rather than saintly virtue.
The danger with biographies is that they risk looking at their subject through plate glass, and this becomes more of an issue the further back in history we go: With this book, Ruth Scurr has allowed Aubrey to speak for himself and his voice travels down the centuries to greet us. The dividing 300 years don’t feel like a barrier, and that is in no small part due to Scurr’s ability as a biographer. A polymath without the ego, John Aubrey hasn’t just found an audience – he’s making friends.
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