Passions for the Past: The Aubrey Story

John Aubrey; portrait by William Faithorne, seventeenth century
Picture Library, Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford
John Aubrey; portrait by William Faithorne, seventeenth century

In 1931 the English novelist (and future Hollywood screenwriter) John Collier published a book with the arresting title The Scandal and Credulities of John Aubrey. The idea behind it was a simple one. John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century antiquary, natural philosopher, and biographer, was the author of a fragmentary but extraordinarily rich series of mini-biographical studies, unpublished in his lifetime, of his contemporaries and near contemporaries, known as his Brief Lives. Among them were Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, John Dee, Edmond Halley, Ben Jonson, Milton, and Shakespeare, to mention only a few. At the end of the nineteenth century these were printed from the original manuscripts by the Oxford scholar Andrew Clark; but the edition had a dry-as-dust feel to it, thanks to Clark’s determination to include every tiny factual detail recorded by Aubrey, and also because of the Victorian prudishness that made him omit or rewrite most material related to sex. Collier’s idea was to put the fun back into Aubrey, selecting only those passages that were vivid, amusing, interesting—and salacious.

For anyone captivated by the Brief Lives and keen to introduce them to a wider readership, this was not an unreasonable aim. Aubrey had a wry appreciation of human foibles, a memory well stocked with good anecdotes, and an appealingly brisk way of telling them. That the boy Shakespeare would kill a calf “in a high style, and make a speech”; that Bacon died from catching a chill after experimenting on preserving a chicken by stuffing it with snow; that Hobbes’s mother went into labor out of fright at the coming of the Spanish Armada—these and dozens of other classic stories owe their origin, or at least their survival, to Aubrey.

Nevertheless, Collier’s choice of title wronged Aubrey badly, suggesting that he was both an idle gossip and a man of no critical judgment. And the offense was compounded in Collier’s introduction, where he asserted (following an unfounded speculation by Clark) that Aubrey’s notes were so fragmentary because, having spent his nights getting blind drunk with friends, he wrote in the morning with a hangover, when the words were “no more than spots before the eyes.”

This belittling of Aubrey fitted into an earlier tradition of talking down his abilities. Aubrey’s friend and fellow antiquary Anthony Wood wrote that he was “a shiftless person, roving and maggotty-headed, and sometimes little better than crazed.” (This showed a remarkable lack of gratitude on Wood’s part, as he had depended for years on Aubrey’s willing services as an information-gatherer while he was compiling his own works on the history of Oxford University and the lives of its alumni.) It also did not help Aubrey’s posthumous reputation that the only one of his major works to be printed in…

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