I am a fan of Ulysses S. Grant. And I am a fan of big books.
Neither stopped my heart from sinking a bit when I hefted the 1,100 pages of Ron Chernow's 2017 biography of Grant. That's . . . a lot of biography.
It may be justified. Grant was a truly consequential figure in American history, owner of an improbable life story and holder of a presidential legacy that is overdue for reevaluation by general readers. There is a staggering amount of detail to be compassed. Modest figures involved in the key events in Grant's life have warranted biographies of their own.
Yet I couldn't help but think of John Aubrey, who in his Brief Lives gathered more than 400 biographies in less than half that many pages. At the same time, perhaps we can put some of the blame for this bloat on Aubrey: he, after all, was one of the first people to see value in and actively pursue the preservation of the kind of documents that form the backbone of today's doorstop biographies. And he was one of the first to argue that there is value in taking down and preserving the anecdotes and trivial details that form the ephemeral train of an important figure.
Aubrey was after different game than Chernow. Yet even the most meticulously complete of contemporary biographers can recognize the seeds of their work in Aubrey's sketches. And an honest one will acknowledge that there's some lightning quality in the brevity of Aubrey's work, in his eye for the unforgettable detail (as when news is brought to a man of his enemy's death on Christmas, and the man responds "The devill haz a Christmas-pye"; or that Edward Davenand "always dranke his beer at meales with a Toast, winter and summer, and sayd it made the beer the better.") that no complete biography can aspire to match.
Virginia Woolf once wrote of James Boswell, "It is strange to reflect what numbers of men and women live in our minds merely because Boswell took a note of their talk." The same is true of Aubrey. Read his Brief Lives and the English seventeenth century, in all its turbulence and transformations, becomes a strikingly human proposition, powerfully peopled.
It's only fitting that someone do the same for Aubrey himself. In honor of his birthday--his 392nd--I'm pleased to share this appreciation of Ruth Scurr's 2015 biography of Aubrey that originally ran in issue 51.2 of the Denver Quarterly."
– Levi Stahl
Let’s start with some examples. Here is John Aubrey’s life of Sir William Fleetwood:
He was a very severe Hanger of Highwaymen, so that the Fraternity were resolved to make an example of him: which they executed in this manner. They lay in wayte for him not far from Tyburne, as he was to come from his House in Bucks; had a Halter in readinesse; brought him under the Gallowes; fastned the rope about his neck and on the Tree, his hands tied behind him (and servants bound) and then left him to the Mercy of his Horse, which he called Ball. So he cryed, Ho Ball. Ho, Ball—and it pleased God that his horse stood still till somebody came along, which was halfe a quarter of an hour or more. He ordered that this horse should be kept as long as he would live, and it was so; he lived till 1646.
One day goeing on foote to Guild-hall with his Clarke behind him, he was surprised in Cheapside with a sudden and violent Loosenesse, neer the Standard. He turned up his breech against the Standard and bade his man hide his face; For they shall never see my Arse again, sayd he.
And here is Aubrey’s life of William Twisse:
His sonne Dr. Twisse, Minister of the New-church neer Tothill-street Westminster, told me, that he had heard his father say, that when he was a schoole-boy at Winton-colledge, that he was a rakell; and that one of his Schoole-fellowes and camerades (as wild as himself) dyed there; and that, his father goeing in the night to the house of office, the phantome or Ghost of his dead schoolefellow appeared to him, and told him I am damn’d; and that this was the Beginning of his Conversion.
Memorandum:—the Dr. had a melancholique and Hypocondriaque temperament.
Fleetwood was a member of Parliament and the Recorder, or senior judge, of London. Twisse was Vicar of Newbury. Aubrey doesn’t tell us that—not so much, one senses, because he thinks it’s unimportant as because he assumes we’ll know it. Aubrey’s portraits carry an air of familiarity: he’s writing about people he knows, the heights of the society on whose fringes he lived, and though posterity was never far from his mind, he seems not to have doubted that readers down the line would know the basic facts about the people he portrayed.
So he tells us instead what he fears won’t be preserved. He shares the scraps of anecdote and oddity that he’s gleaned from his constant conversations, like the fact that Sir Thomas Morgan, a distinctly short military man, used to “cry-out to the Soldiers, when angry with them, Sirrah, I’le cleave your skull! As if the wordes had been prolated by an eunuch.” Or of Henry Martin, a member of Parliament, “He was wont to sleepe much in the House (at least dog-sleepe).” Or that lawyer and writer James Bovey, “Red-haired men never had any kindnesse for him.”
What kind of biography is this? It is magpie biography, composed of snippets and snatches of information assembled over the years, often through the fog of hangovers after a night of convivial conversation. It is a form of biography that while on its face is clearly inessential at the same time feels more urgent than a standard treatment. These anecdotes and asides would have been lost were it not for Aubrey’s ear and pen—they have no place in the typical biography of his time, which tended to relate the doings of a great man to impart a moral lesson. Aubrey, an antiquarian who was forever lamenting the loss of pieces of the past, hoarded these stories all the more fiercely for their ephemerality.
None of Aubrey’s Lives makes a pretense to completeness. They are presented more in the spirit of “here are interesting things I have heard about this person.” And that’s what makes them live for us today. Since Lytton Strachey’s gleeful pantsing of the Victorian heroes of his parents’ generation, at least, we’ve been skeptical of biographies that verge on hagiography. We are more open to the messy reality created by flawed, silly humans. Aubrey’s lives fit that mood and that moment, and they make him, along with James Boswell, the greatest English biographer.
Of Aubrey’s own life we have far less of that sort of material. He left the briefest account of his life, three pages, which he said were fit only “to be interponed as a sheet of wast-paper only in the lining of a Booke.” From those and the standard tools of the biographer’s art, the facts of Aubrey’s life can be assembled, though the picture lacks much color. Born in 1626 in Wiltshire, he grew up in privilege, though he was a sickly, solitary child:
‘Twas a great disadvantage to me in my childhood, to be bred up in a kind of Parke, far from Neighbours and no Child to converse withall: so that I did not speake till late. My father had one to teach me in the house, and I was pent-up in a Roome by my selfe melancholy.
His father seems to have been ill-suited to his bookish son: “My studies (geometry) were on horse back, and in the house of office: (my father discouraged me),” wrote Aubrey. Elsewhere he put his father’s manner in context, but we can’t help but see pain in the attempt: “In those dayes, fathers were not acquainted with their children.” At sixteen, he enrolled at Trinity College, Oxford. His studies there, like everything in English life in the 1640s, were disrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War. During the war, Aubrey moved between Oxford, Wiltshire, and London, and while he inclined to the Royalist side, the violence and the partisanship of the period seem to have repulsed him; of Wiltshire at the time he wrote, “Surely this tract of land enclines people to zeale.” His disapproval of zealotry calls to mind Montaigne, who drew a similar lesson from unsettled times.
By that point, Aubrey had also begun to develop a lifelong interest in antiquities. The study of Britain’s ancient past was not unknown, but it was far from well developed or appreciated, and Aubrey lamented the cavalier handling of irreplaceable monuments and documents. “[T]he fashion then,” he writes, “was to save the Ferrules of their Bookes with a false cover of Parchment, sc. old Manuscript.” He tells of a rector who
was a proper Man and a good Fellow, and when He brewed a barrell of Special Ale, his use was to stop the bung-hole (under the clay) with a Sheet of Manuscript; he sayd nothing did it so well; which me thought did grieve me then to see.
Aubrey’s greatest achievement as an antiquary was his discovery of the neolithic henge at Avebury, which eventually led to an audience with Charles II and likely helped preserve the henge at a key moment, as local residents had a habit of chipping of pieces for use around their farms.
Aubrey was educated for life as a landed gentleman, but his father died owing more than the value of the family’s estates. Aubrey spent £1200 on a “chargeable and taedious Lawesuite” about some distantly held family lands. It failed, and subsequent attempts to extract income from his inheritance would fare similarly. He would spend much of his life “plagued with a suite in Lawe.” The combination of inherited debts and failure to secure real employment would leave him a perpetual guest in late adulthood, trading wit and company for food and shelter. At times he was forced into hiding to avoid debtors’ prison, puzzling friends with his obfuscatory instructions for mail delivery. (“Your lodging like an enchanted castle, never to be found out,” one friend wrote.) He considered advantageous marriages, multiple times, stymied once by death and once by yet another lawsuit. He sought, not importunately, place and preferment, only to have promising opportunities slip away. He even entertained ideas of emigrating to America, once at the invitation of Sir William Penn. He seems to have had a talent for a muddle.
All the while, however, Aubrey was collecting—and writing. He collected folk tales, wisdom, and remedies, which he felt were disappearing all around him, driven out not only by the growing rationalism of that ever more scientific age but also by the war, which “do not only extinguish Religion and Lawes: but Superstition; and no Suffimen is a great fugator of Phantosmes than Gun-powder.” Those would make up Miscellanies, which, in 1696, became the only book Aubrey would publish in his lifetime. He also became a charter member of the Royal Society, a reminder that the worlds of science and superstition were not as distinct as they would later become. He made notes on the ancient monuments of Britain and on the natural history of Wiltshire, both of which would be published as books after his death. He laid out, and attempted to rope in patrons for, a scheme of educational reform. For all that his papers lament his laziness (“I love not businesse and rising earling is death to me.”), he was a prodigiously hard-working, if almost wholly disorganized man. (There areechoes of Samuel Johnson’s similarly unwarranted self-castigation, though without Johnson’s linkage between sloth and sin.)
Along the way, Aubrey got to know most of the leading lights of his day, including such major figures as Thomas Hobbes, Christopher Wren, William Harvey, Robert Hooke, Izaak Walton, and John Evelyn. But his most important—and most tempestuous—friendship was with Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood. The men met in 1667 and were close friends and collaborators for twenty-five years. While the circumstances of their eventual falling out are complicated, involving, at minimum, Wood’s appropriation of credit for some of Aubrey’s lives, a libel suit, and Wood’s rough handling of some of Aubrey’s papers, it nonetheless seems relatively easy at this distance to place the blame: whereas Aubrey was known for being congenial, everyone eventually fell out with Wood. Writing in 1949, Oliver Lawson Dick described him as “suspicious, lonely, intolerant, envious, mean,” while Anthony Powell called him “an uneasy, bad-tempered man” who was “at odds with almost everyone with whom he came in contact.”
Soon after their first meeting, Wood enlisted Aubrey in a project he’d been mulling: Athenae Oxoniensis, a biographical account of the major figures in the history of Oxford. Realizing that Aubrey’s combination of a country-house-to-country-house lifestyle and his antiquarianism fitted him perfectly for the task, Wood essentially made Aubrey his uncompensated legman, sending him ever more peremptory letters asking for details about various figures. But whereas what Wood wanted from Aubrey were things like epitaphs and dates from tombstones, Aubrey seems to have quickly realized that conversation was more promising: the right question put to the right person could open floodgates of unexpected information—stories and memories that stretched back to the Elizabethan age.
Thus, to put it perhaps too simply, the Brief Lives were born. There is a fair amount of uncertainty about when, and to what extent, Aubrey began to conceive of the project as his own rather than Wood’s, but regardless it seems to have been galvanized, perhaps even crystallized, by the death in 1679 of Thomas Hobbes, whom Aubrey had known since boyhood. He had promised Hobbes that he would write his life, and as “‘Tis religion to perform the will of the dead,” he set to it, turning out what would be, at more than 6,500 words, the longest of his Lives. By the next year, he was writing to Wood,
I have to my Booke of Lives made a Kalendar of 55 persons, and have donne 10 of them: 3 or 4 leaves a folio a piece. . . . ‘Twill be a pretty thing, and I am glad you put me on it. I doe it playingly.
But Aubrey was not a systematic man. So while he continued to add to his store of lives over the years, collecting (with a perhaps too trusting ear) every scrap of anecdote he could—to the extent that, like James Boswell a century later, he was at times a figure of fun in his set—when he died in 1697 his papers were but “tumultuarily stitch’t up.” The Lives wouldn’t see print until 1813, and then in partial form; a later nineteenth-century edition was more nearly complete, but prudishly bowdlerized.
In fact, until the twentieth century, Aubrey was known primarily for his other work. The eighteenth century knew him as the perhaps unduly credulous author of the Miscellanies,while the nineteenth, with the Romantic rediscovery of antiquity, admired his role in the preservation of Avebury and got to know his posthumous history of Wiltshire. But the Brief Lives are unquestionably his masterpiece, as vivid a window into the past as any we have and one of the most detailed sources historians have of the life of the period. Even for the nonspecialist, they remain wonderfully fun to read. While there is much that has staled (Who but a scholar cares that the Countess of Kent gave her men “twenty pounds per annum,” or that the Earls of Pembroke had an income of £16,000?), on any given page there are anecdotes, insights, or turns of phrase that a reader will never forget.
Take this, from the life of Thomas Bushell, a mining engineer who worked at times with Francis Bacon:
Mr. Bushell was the greatest Master of the Art of running in Debt (perhaps) in the world: and lived so long that his depts were forgott, so that they were the great-grandchildren of the creditors. . . . He had so delicate a way of making his Projects alluring and feazible, profitable, that he drew to his Baits not only rich men of no designe, but also the craftiest Knaves in the countrey, such who had cosened and undone others. . . . He had the strangest bewitching way to drawe-in people (yea, discreet and wary men) into his projects that ever I heard of. His tonge was a Charme.
Or this startling incident, from the life of Dr. William Butler:
A Gent. with a red ugly, pumpled face came to him for a cure. Said the Dr., I must hang you. So presently he had a device made ready to hang him from a Beame in the roome, and when he was e’en almost dead, he cutt the veines that fed these pumples and lett out the black ugley Bloud, and cured him.
Or this scene of the death of jurist John Selden:
He dyed of a Dropsey; he had his Funerall Scutcheons all ready moneths before he dyed. When he was neer death, the Minister was comeing to him to assoile him: Mr. Hobbes happened then to be there, sayd he, “What, will you that has wrote like a man, now dye like a woman?” So the Minister was not let in.
More than four centuries after Aubrey fought his hangovers to scribble them down, the Brief Lives remain compulsively readable. One by one, they entertain; taken together, they give a remarkably distinctive sense of an age of great ferment, inquiry, and transformation.
So who would dare to write a life of this unparalleled writer of lives? Not many, it turns out. John Britton, a member of the Wiltshire Topographical Society, published in 1845, under the Society’s auspices, Memoir of John Aubrey, F. R. S., embracing his autobiographical sketches, a brief review of his personal and literary merits, and an account of his works; with extracts from his correspondence, anecdotes of some of his contemporaries, and the times in which he lived. Anthony Powell, who would publish his own biography of Aubrey in 1948, while acknowledging Britton’s “creditable description of Aubrey’s life and writings,” said that the book’s “haphazard arrangement” and “rambling and apologetic style” contributed to its being “somewhat uneasy reading.” Powell’s own biography, though deserving far better than Graham Greene’s famously petulant assessment (“a bloody boring book”), nonetheless suffers a bit from Powell’s own too keen interest in genealogy; while Powell makes deft use of Aubrey’s own writings, on the whole the biography remains a bit flat. Powell’s genius was for fiction; though his admiration for Aubrey shines through, the inability to fill gaps or impose form ultimately tells.
Part of the problem is the relative paucity of materials. Lives of the well-to-do (including those, like Aubrey, who barely clung to the bottom rung of that category) in the seventeenth century were reasonably well documented. As Aubrey’s own antiquarianism demonstrates, it was an era when the idea that preserving records could have value was beginning to take hold. But at the same time, the material evidence available to a biographer is limited. Compare what an aspiring Aubrey biographer has to work with to what, say, Hermione Lee or Leon Edel had at hand for their biographies of major writers from a few centuries later and you’ll see that the Aubrey biographer is doomed to accept vast gulfs of ignorance. An honest* Aubrey bio includes blank spaces, times when we don’t know what he was doing or thinking. There was a reason Powell’s biography was called John Aubrey and His Friends. It’s a tough assignment. And that’s before you get to the problem of attempting to write a life of a man who wrote the lives of others so well—think of it as the Boswell problem, which has faced aspiring biographers of Samuel Johnson for more than two hundred years. How does one begin to write the life of John Aubrey?
Ruth Scurr is the most recent to make the attempt. She had previously shown some daring in writing a clear-eyed yet not wholly unsympathetic biography of Robespierre, but that pales in comparison to what she decided to attempt with John Aubrey: My Own Life: no less than the creation, out of the mare’s nest of Aubrey’s writings, of a personal, private journal of his own life. A telling, by Aubrey, of his own story.
I can’t think of a move in biography as audacious as this. Even Edmund Morris, in his much-derided biography of Reagan, didn’t presume to tell Reagan’s story in his own words; Peter Ackroyd, in his thousand-page biography of Dickens, spent mere dozens of pages on his misguided imaginary conversations with the Inimitable. A whole book purporting to be Aubrey’s own? Scurr’s introduction succinctly lays out the seductive appeal of the approach:
After much experiment, trial and error, I decided to write Aubrey’s life as a diary. I was inspired by the vivid sense of self that emerges from the diaries of Pepys, Evelyn and Hooke. I thought: if only we had Aubrey’s diary, his modesty, self-effacement, attention to others would not be such a problem. No one gets crowded out of his or her own diary.
All too often, however, what seduces us turns out not to be a good idea. I was extremely skeptical.
I was wrong to worry. John Aubrey: My Own Life is a brilliant, deeply satisfying achievement. Scurr has done what she set out to do: give us, as she writes in her introduction, the “vivid sense of self” of a diarist, showing him “living vividly, day by day, month by month, year by year.” Inventing no scenes, filling no gaps, but rather fitting Aubrey’s skein of words to the skeleton of what’s known of his daybook, she has created a marvel. I knew Aubrey as a writer when I opened this book; when I closed it, I grieved for him as a man.
More detail is warranted. What Scurr did, essentially, is chop up all of Aubrey’s writings that offered any detail on his life and thought: his scant autobiography, his many letters, asides in the Brief Lives, Miscellanies, Remains of Gentilism, etc. She then arranged those—with, let’s be clear, relative abandon—within the structure of what is definitively known about his life. In her introduction, she writes,
There are three distinct kinds of entry in the diary I have conjured for Aubrey: discursive descriptions of events and conversations within specific months or years based on his writing and correspondence; shorter notes about personal events that occurred on particular days; and entries providing brief accounts of public events which begin “On this day.”
It’s a method that invites suspicion. What in here is really Aubrey’s, and what is Scurr’s? There are notes, but they’re limited and not hugely helpful. Can a reader relatively unversed in his work trust her version? The answers, respectively, are that nearly all is Aubrey’s, and, yes, Scurr is a scrupulous guide. As I read, a part of me wanted a red letter version, where Aubrey’s words (like Jesus’s in some Bibles) were in red, Scurr’s receding in black. But such a version would ruin the reading experience—and what I quickly realized through cross-referencing memorable phrases was that what she’d said was true: the muscle was all Aubrey; only the integument was hers.
Here’s an example, chosen all but at random, from August of 1673:
The Earl of Rochester has smashed the glass dials in the garden at Whitehall that were made by the Jesuit Father Franciscus Linus, who printed a discourse on dials in Latin. The Earl and his friends were returning from their evening revels. “What!” Said the Earl. “Doest thou stand there to mark time?” Then he and his drunken friends set about destroying the dials. How it pains me to record this. I have heard Andrew Marvell say that the Earl of Rochester is the only main* England that has the true vein of satire, but nothing can excuse this wanton destruction.
The majority of this comes not from Aubrey’s exceedingly brief life of Rochester—all that renders up is the assessment from Marvell (“a good Judge of Witt”), but from his life of Linus, under the name Francis Hall, which tells of the Father’s creation of sundials, which were
one night in 1674 (as I take it), broken all to pieces (for they were of glass spheres) by the Earl of Rochester, Lord Buckhurst, Fleetwood Shepherd, etc., coming in from their revels. “What,” said the Earl of Rochester, “dost thou stand here to tell time?” Dash, they fell to work.
As you can see, there is unquestionably editorial intervention here: we have words (“evening,” “his drunken friends”) interpolated; we have opinions (“nothing can excuse this wanton destruction”) added. But does any of it feel even the slightest bit off? If there was anything Aubrey loathed, it was wanton destruction; that comes through crystal clear in his anguish over the losses of the Civil War. Aubrey was an amiable, convivial drunk; Rochester a vicious, lacerating one—Scurr is barely stretching a point in having the former react to the latter in this way.
I’m not a prosecutor, so I didn’t check every line, or every page. But spot check after spot check—triggered, time and again, by a memorable phrase—ultimately gave me almost boundless confidence in Scurr’s fidelity to Aubrey’s own words. The book, as promised, is built on them. After a close reading, and numerous comparisons to Aubrey’s own writings, I’m convinced that what Scurr has offered here is legitimate: the journal Aubrey might have kept, had his habits and temperament allowed.
And if you’re willing to grant her that, if you’re willing to trust her daring, the payoffs are wonderful. Suddenly, in back of the odd pleasures of the Miscellanies and the Remains of Gentilism and Judaism and, most important, the Brief Lives—and of the personality that peeps through each and every page of them—we are able to see the man in full. We are, for the first time, actually in Aubrey’s head. And we believe it. Here, in July of 1680, he worries about his work and his posthumous reputation:
I am concerned that in my Lives there are things that will cut my throat if they are not cut out. There are, for example, severe touches in my account of the life of Sir Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork (father of Robert Boyle)—perhaps I should not have included what my friend Anthony Ettrick told me about his amours and bastards. My Life of Dr Wallis is another difficulty.
If I die in London, as seems most likely, I wonder where I should be buried? Perhaps in my parish church, St Martin’s Outwych, near the door, like a poor penitent with a foot-square inscription. Or perhaps in the non-conformist churchyard by the artillery ground in Moorfields?
When Aubrey, who had been “surprized by age,” came to die, however, he was in Oxford, and he was buried in the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, where the register noted: “1697, John Aubrey A stranger was Buryed June 7th.” In this context, “stranger” meant simply one from outside the parish, but it’s hard not to allow it the additional resonance it carries for this man to whom friendship and company mattered so much. Reading Scurr’s account of his approaching death, we believe the impression we receive: that he was unsure of his accomplishment and continually worried about the fate of his many haphazard papers. When he expresses his hope that his work will in some way be “registred for posterity,” we ache to reassure him.
There’s real pain in the final pages of Scurr’s book, the pain of the man who faces age with neither family nor certain monument, of the antiquarian who’s unsure that he’s left his mark; reading them, we form a childlike wish that he could somehow know that he had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Posterity knows his name, and, thanks to him, far more than just the names of his friends and colleagues. Now, thanks to Ruth Scurr, it also knows his life.
Levi Stahl is the editor of The Getaway Car: A Donald E. Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany and the promotions director at the University of Chicago Press. He blogs at www.ivebeenreadinglately.com, and you can find him talking about books on Twitter as @levistahl.