If one were to make a list of English literature’s great comfort books, those that generations of readers have returned to again and again for intelligent amusement, it would almost certainly include Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” Jane Austen’s novels and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These are the old reliables that we discover in youth and are still happily rereading at 70.
To this select company I would not only add John Aubrey’s “Brief Lives,” but also now include Ruth Scurr’s innovative biography of its author, perhaps the most endearing figure of 17th century England. As a committed antiquary, collector and preservationist, as well as an inveterate scribbler, Aubrey (1626-1697) left a huge mass of papers about everything that interested him, from the natural history of his home county of Wiltshire to the stone circles at Avebury to tales of ghosts and fairies. Not just studious, he was moreover always eager for “ingenious conversation,” so that his learned friends soon included philosopher Thomas Hobbes, architect Christopher Wren, scientists Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and William Harvey, diarist and gardener John Evelyn, mapmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, collector Elias Ashmole (after whom the Ashmolean Museum is named) and even William Penn, who would emigrate to America. Eventually Aubrey drafted fact-filled and anecdote-rich pen portraits of all his friends and many other eminences of the era, though the “Brief Lives” were never quite completed and were only published long after his death. Even now, a fair amount of this curious polymath’s more specialized writing remains in manuscript.
Displaying an admirable chuztpah as well as scholarly care and sensitivity, Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr actually relates Aubrey’s life using only his own words. In effect, she has mined his archival and printed work to fashion his own personal — and wildly entertaining — diary. When “John Aubrey, My Own Life” was published in Britain in 2015, reviewers could hardly wait to name it their book of the year.
How could it not be, since — among much that is unfamiliar — Scurr reuses some of the most celebrated passages from “Brief Lives.” In 1670 Aubrey notes that “not far from Cirencester, there came an apparition, which when asked if it be a good spirit or bad, returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang. My friend Mr. William Lilly believes it was a fairy.” Again, during a visit to the ominous-sounding Mortlake, once home to the Elizabethan magus John Dee, he learns that children playing in the churchyard “would use Dr. Dee’s gravestone as their base and run to it in their games.” Such inimitable details are Aubrey’s stock in trade.
Throughout “John Aubrey, My Own Life” history’s immortals appear as people you might drink with or gossip about. After meeting a “prodigious young astronomer,” Aubrey urges Edmund Halley to study astrology. Discussing Descartes, he recalls that visitors to the great Frenchman would sometimes beg to see his mathematical instruments. “He would draw out of a little 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 double.”
At several places in this diary, Aubrey swoons over the greatest beauty of the age, Venetia Stanley, who was courted by many gallants before becoming the mistress of the Earl of Dorset. Despite her past, Sir Kenelm Digby— courtier, diplomat, alchemist and much else — married her, saying “he could make a virtuous wife out of a whore.” Aubrey adds: “I have heard some say . . . that after her marriage she redeemed her honour by her strict living.” All quite commendable, no doubt, but the truly romantic detail about Venetia involves her former lover: “Once a year the Earl of Dorset invited her and Sir Kenelm to dinner, where the Earl would behold her with much passion, and only kiss her hand.”
As Aubrey himself exclaims, “how these curiosities would be quite forgot, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down.” While “tumbling up and down in the world,” he records details about Oxford during the English Civil War, life in London at the time of the plague and after the Great Fire destroyed much of the city, the doings of the Royal Society’s natural philosophers and scientists, and the unfolding of the so-called Popish Plot to bring a Catholic to England’s throne. Striking factoids abound: We learn that Aubrey’s friend Francis Potter attempted a blood transfusion between two chickens and that Christopher Wren’s sister Susan became a doctor, “a rare she-surgeon.”Aubrey himself is hounded for years with a punitive lawsuit over a broken marriage contract and then grossly exploited by fellow antiquary Anthony Wood for whom he does extensive, but unacknowledged biographical research for a history of Oxford University. When penury eventually forces him to borrow money, Aubrey repays the loan with valuable books. In his last years, he does all he can to save his papers from the what he liked to call the shipwreck of time.
Today John Aubrey might be surprised to learn that he is honored not only as a historian and biographer but also as the master of a highly readable, loose-limbed English prose. Plain and empirical as his sentences are, they can nonetheless create verbal music from nothing more than simple place names: “In Minty Common, in Malmsbury Hundred, near the road that leads to Ashton Kayne, there is a boggy place called Gogges, where springs rise up out of blue clay.”
Anyone who loves history or human idiosyncrasy will almost certainly love “John Aubrey, My Own Life.” I only wish Ruth Scurr had found reason to include perhaps the most winsome anecdote from “Brief Lives.” It features two versifiers of the time. During the First English Civil War, George Wither was in danger of being executed for treason, but Sir John Denham pleaded with the king not to hang him, saying that so long as Wither lived he himself “should not be the worst poet in England.” Wither went on to write for another 25 years.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
By Ruth Scurr
New York Review Books. 518 pp. $35