John Aubrey is an attractive figure. Curious, impecunious, sociable and modest but determined, a patriot but not a nationalist, Aubrey (1626-97) spent his interesting life wandering around England seeking out odd facts and pieces of information.
In the late 1960s and 1970s Patrick Garland's one-man play starring Roy Dotrice, Brief Lives, established a record 1,800 performances, a sign of how captivating the man could be for us moderns. Aubrey was the first person to realise that there were a series of holes in the outer ring of Stonehenge, and the Aubrey Holes appropriately bear his name. He had a keen interest in surveying and was a friend of William Petty , the first surveyor of Ireland.
Aubrey travelled extensively in a number of English counties (most significantly Wiltshire and Surrey), recording natural phenomena, ruins and remains of antiquarian interest. He was inspired by natural science and was proud that he helped to found the Royal Society, where he witnessed a number of experiments.
Aubrey’s most significant gift was probably for friendship, principally male, although he also was on good terms with women. He was close to the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the scientists Robert Hooke and William Harvey, and the antiquarian William Dugdale, as well as to academics, divines, doctors and aristocrats. Even if Aubrey had been dull he would still provide us with a fascinating window into later 17th-century England.
Aubrey put his natural sociability to good use in writing a series of biographical sketches of important and unusual people he knew or knew of, recording conversations with interested parties he encountered on his travels, some planned, some accidental. Aubrey had a gentle rather than a salacious interest in gossip, recording odd features that made people what they were. If he is not always reliable that is because the people he talked to were not always reliable, many of them aged and recollecting encounters more than half a century earlier.
Aubrey spoke to William Beeston, son of Christopher Beeston, an actor who had appeared with Shakespeare in Ben Jonson's Every Man in His Humour, and it is from this source that we have been told that Shakespeare spent time before joining the theatre as a country schoolmaster.
He had a splendid eye for telling detail. He repeats an anecdote of Thomas More, which has the saint urging his company to witness a “prodigious Dragon in the skye”. They look hard until all are convinced that they can see it, “Whereas there was no such phantome, only he imposed on their phantasies”, a token of More’s habitually jocular nature.
Aubrey’s brief sketches are, in many ways, the foundation of modern biography, because he realised that incidental detail is what makes the genre function. Before he was writing, most biography had a purpose: to persuade the reader to copy the virtuous life in question or to avoid the pitfalls of the wicked life they had just witnessed. Many were based on funeral sermons. Aubrey’s interest in individual detail helped make it possible for writers to reassemble and analyse lives.
Biography is now one of the most widely read forms of writing and perhaps the most significant way in which readers approach the past. Indeed, readers are often frustrated and upset when they realise that certain mysteries cannot be solved because no one thought to write down what happened or why people did things.
Aubrey is a case in point. He was interested in detail but not in narrative, assembling reams of notes in a variety of forms that are only now being edited. His life has to be pieced together from scraps and fragments in his writings. There is a lot of information, but it is not easy to navigate.
Ruth Scurr has written what the press readers of her book on the jacket describe as pioneering, ingenious and inspiring. She has used Aubrey’s writings, modified them, added some passages and joined them together to form a diary, as if written by Aubrey, to present us with his life.
Clever as the book is, and enjoyable as it is to read in places, I am not persuaded that this is a good idea or an experiment that should be repeated. (And Scurr’s description of Aubrey as “quintessentially English” will not inspire some readers.)
Aubrey did not write a diary and did not have the sort of mind that would have produced one. Samuel Pepys, his almost exact contemporary – and a very different type of thinker and writer who was experimenting with literary forms – did write a diary. Scurr makes Aubrey seem more like Pepys, imposing a coherence on his thinking that is not really there and that does not help us understand a figure who is fascinating enough without recourse to a gimmicky format. What would have been wrong with a conventional biography?
What we have here is a hybrid, a work that is not really useful as a sensible guide, but nor is it a work of fiction. The style veers uneasily between a cod antiquarianism – “Revels are fallen from fashion now”; “he overweens, and cuts sour faces that would turn the milk in a fair lady’s breast” – and a clumsy subacademic prose, such as this: “While I think it very probable that Stonehenge already existed long before the Romans became masters of Britain, they would have been delighted with the stateliness and grandeur of it, and (considering the dryness of its situation) would have found it suitable for urn-burial.”
Some of the words are Aubrey’s own, but this is not. It’s what can happen if you wrench writing out of its context.
A friendly man
Perhaps the real problem is that of expectations. Aubrey was a friendly man, and we would have liked him; therefore it would be a good idea to write a book that makes him seem as if he really were a friend we could talk to.
The past is too stubborn and different for us to absorb it so easily: it’s another country, and they do things differently there. The job of a biographer is to explain how a life was lived and why it might have mattered, not to provide us with another friend; we should either have enough of those already or we should get out more.
Readers who are really interested in Aubrey should turn to his Brief Lives, newly available in a magnificent Oxford University Press edition, the work of years of patient scholarship by Kate Bennett. Unfortunately, it costs £250.
Andrew Hadfield is the author of Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford University Press)