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and biographer, was the author of a fragmentary but extraordinarily rich series of mini-biographical studies, unpublished in his lifetime, of his contemporaries and near contemporaries, known as his Brief Lives.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 his lifetime was a collection of stories relating to omens, ghosts, apparitions, and other occult phenomena. (“Credulities” indeed.) And so it was that, with Collier’s help, by the mid-twentieth century Aubrey was becoming little more than a figure of fun. In the late 1960s thousands of London theatergoers would be introduced to this version of him by Patrick Garland’s acclaimed dramatization of Brief Lives, a one-man show, designed by Julia Trevelyan Oman, in which the comic actor Roy Dotrice portrayed him as a geriatric oddball floating in a murky sea of books, papers, curios, and discarded, half-eaten food.

It has taken decades, and the work of several talented and dedicated scholars, to rub out this caricature. In its place, gradually, they have assembled a portrait of a highly intelligent, well-informed, and original thinker. An initial step was taken by the novelist Anthony Powell, whose carefully researched biography of Aubrey came out in 1948; this showed how well connected Aubrey was with significant writers and thinkers, but it was essentially an account of his personal and social life, not a study of his ideas.

The first in-depth account of his thinking was Michael Hunter’s John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning (1975), which, more than forty years later, remains an indispensable work. As Hunter wrote, Aubrey was “a serious intellectual, many of whose interests and views were respected by the most advanced scientific thinkers of his age.” Important later studies included a book on the origins of modern archaeology by Alain Schnapp, which presents Aubrey as a pioneering thinker, and a brief but penetrating study of Aubrey’s interests and ideas by William Poole, emphasizing his links with some of the Royal Society’s most adventurous natural philosophers, such as Robert Hooke.1 Most recently, an account of Aubrey’s historical thinking by Kelsey Jackson Williams has explored the whole range of his “antiquarian” interests, showing him to have been a very modern thinker whose ideas were in step with those of important innovators in continental Europe.2


What then does the new, noncaricature version of John Aubrey look like? On the “scientific” side (to use a post-seventeenth-century term), we have someone who became a fellow of the Royal Society within a few years of its founding and remained an active member, sitting on some of its committees and auditing its accounts. His close friends included Robert Hooke and Christopher Wren, and he rubbed shoulders with Robert Boyle, Edmond Halley, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. He had fully absorbed the new, Baconian concept of “natural history,” which began with the collecting of phenomena and observations about them; he was passionate about promoting some forms of experimental science, including what may have been the earliest attempts at blood transfusion; and he had a keen interest in innovative grand theory, both cosmological and geological. For good measure, he was also a serious student of mathematics.

But it was on the “antiquarian” side that he really contributed—supplying not just interest and enthusiasm, but new thinking of his own. The terms “antiquary” and “antiquarian” have a particular history. In the seventeenth century an antiquary was, generally speaking, someone with a passion for the past; the most typical motive was local piety, which meant that the focus was on genealogy and the history and monuments of a particular district or county. Among scholars, the antiquary was primarily concerned with those physical remains that could supplement the traditional, text-based study of the classical world: inscriptions, statues, coins, and so on. Aubrey was interested in all of these things, but he also sensed that there was a much larger field of study to be explored: a human past of a very longue durée that was mostly impossible to investigate by means of texts.

He began by studying the great megalithic structures of Stonehenge and Avebury, making detailed measurements and drawings and analyzing dimensions and materials; he tried to develop a comparative method, relating them to other such monuments elsewhere in the British Isles; he extended his study to grave mounds and burial chambers; he paid attention to the study of layers of soil, what we would now call stratigraphy. Having attributed the stone circles to the Druidical practices of the ancient Celts, he also looked at Celtic etymologies and the survival of Celtic place-names in order to map, by indirect means, the distribution of a long-extinct culture.

All of this was related to textual evidence where possible; but the evidence of things was primary. In this spirit, too, he systematically compiled, in chronological order, images of datable examples of medieval architecture, dress, and handwriting, as a guide for dating any new object or manuscript that might come to light. The words “antiquary” and “antiquarian” would later undergo a sorry decline in meaning, being typically preceded by the qualifier “mere” and implying an empty-headed stamp-collector mentality. Only since the historian Arnaldo Momigliano began to rehabilitate these terms in the 1950s have we learned to see the antiquarianism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as developing the sort of rich historical approach that can fully situate a past culture in its own physical world. In the story of that development, John Aubrey played a significant part.

And what about Aubrey the biographer? Here our understanding has been transformed by what is one of the most astonishing feats of scholarly editing in recent decades: Kate Bennett’s extensive, painstakingly exact, and omnisciently annotated edition of the original manuscripts of the Brief Lives.3 Previous editors (of whom Andrew Clark, the prudish Victorian, was the only really scholarly one) had assumed that these manuscripts were just the raw materials for some kind of biographical dictionary, and that the editor’s task was therefore to knock them into shape, put them in alphabetical order, and cut-and-paste into them any relevant biographical material that could be found elsewhere in Aubrey’s papers. Bennett’s research has shown that while the manuscripts certainly do not represent a finished product, they do constitute a work with its own special character, both intellectual and physical, which can only be harmed or obscured by such treatment.

The bitty nature of some of Aubrey’s less polished Lives reflects his Baconian insistence that the collection of evidence must come first. The frequent gaps left for dates or place-names, and the little memos that he addressed to himself (usually with the Latin word quaere—inquire) and scattered like tiny Post-it notes through his pages, were signs not of “maggotty-headed” amnesia but of the conscientiousness of a scholar who knew that facts had to be checked. That many pages consist of rough notes rendered even rougher by hasty insertions and annotations is to be understood in the light of the fact that while Aubrey was still working on the project but leading a wandering life, the manuscripts were sent to Anthony Wood for safekeeping; they remained inaccessible to the author for many years, and his only opportunity to correct and add to them was a very brief one.


Thomas Hobbes; portrait by John Michael Wright, circa 1669–1670

National Portrait Gallery, London

Thomas Hobbes; portrait by John Michael Wright, circa 1669–1670

Illuminatingly, Bennett also characterizes the manuscripts as a “paper museum”—not just a text, but a set of objects including letters from third parties, drawings of buildings, tombs, and heraldic crests, specimens of handwriting, and astrological “genitures” (horoscopes cast for the precise time of a person’s birth).

Aubrey had been supplying biographical information to Wood for a long time, but the idea of compiling his own series of “brief lives” came to him in 1680, following the death of his most revered friend, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes. At the urging of a publisher he quickly put together an account of Hobbes’s life; no sooner had he done so than he realized that he possessed both the information and the talent to write biographically about many other people too. His life of Hobbes (by far the longest one he wrote) set the tone, as he struggled to free himself from the conventions of traditional after-death eulogies. “Now I say,” he wrote to Wood,

the offices of a panegyrist, and historian, are much different. A life is a short history, and there minuteness of a famous person is grateful.

For Aubrey, “minuteness” meant not only accuracy but attending to the kinds of human detail that could characterize a person, regardless of their relevance to questions of status or virtue or achievement. Thus he recorded Hobbes’s humble social origins, while noting that other historians would have suppressed them; and he described his manners, accent, dress, taste in food and occasional drinking to excess, his solitary singing late at night, the way his eyes crinkled up when he laughed, and his irritation in old age at the flies that would land on his bald patch. What the modern reader looks for most of all in a biography is a sense of the sheer quiddity of an individual. For that reason it would not be absurd to claim that John Aubrey was the first truly modern biographer.

Which raises the question: How does one write the biography of John Aubrey? Anthony Powell’s book is the best “straight” biographical study; it is balanced, learned, and finely written, but it is also sixty-eight years old. While it does provide a survey of Aubrey’s writings in an appendix, it rather assumes that the reader already knows, on picking up the book for the first time, why Aubrey is both interesting and significant.4 Powell skillfully guides the reader through dense thickets of seventeenth-century English social life, identifying minor characters, establishing connections, explaining allusions. Yet the one thing that makes Aubrey come alive on the page is the frequent resort to direct quotation from his manuscripts. Even the simplest detail becomes arresting when seen through Aubrey’s eyes. Opening Powell’s book at random, I am immediately struck by Aubrey’s description of the walls of a farm building on his little estate in Wiltshire, which “do shoot out, besides nitre, a beautiful red, lighter than scarlet: an oriental horseflesh colour.”

Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey, My Own Life solves the problem of how to present Aubrey’s life in a way that is both simple and radical. Scurr has trawled through Aubrey’s writings, printed and manuscript, extracting anything that seems both significant and datable. She has arranged these passages—some a sentence long, others consisting of lengthy paragraphs—in chronological order, starting with remarks about his birth in Wiltshire in 1626. Often she has converted the text into a first-person narrative format, but otherwise she has changed the wording as little as possible, just adding a minimum of explanatory or linking passages (which are presented also as Aubrey’s own words). The result is, as it were, the diary that Aubrey never actually wrote. The final entry is from 1697, the year of his death, in which he writes, “I have rescued what I could of the past from the teeth of time.”

Scurr is lucky—and so are her readers—that Aubrey left the kinds of materials that permit such treatment. He did write some autobiographical jottings, which she has put to good use; a large body of his correspondence survives, which means that we have many lively personal documents with precise dates on them; and colorful accounts of people or places in his general writings (including the Brief Lives, of which Bennett’s edition was ready just in time for Scurr to make use of it) can often be linked to the period when he visited the place in question or had dealings with the person.

So the diary format carries us through, almost continuously, from the eight-year-old Aubrey starting his Latin lessons to the sixteen-year-old freshman at Oxford (in 1642, the year of the outbreak of the Civil War), and thence to his fateful discovery of the megaliths at Avebury in 1648 and the gradual flowering of his intellectual enthusiasms. From the mid-1650s until his death in 1697 there are two trajectories at work, one upward, the other downward: a positive growth in interests, knowledge, and personal contacts, including his membership in the Royal Society (from 1663) and his connection with Wood (from 1667); and on the other hand a dismal and spasmodic decline in his personal fortunes, as he struggled to clear the large debts left by his father, was taken to court for financial misdealing by the woman he unsuccessfully wooed, was sued by his brother for embezzling his inheritance, and was finally bankrupted, spending years on the run from creditors.

Scurr’s is a generously conceived book, capacious enough to track Aubrey’s enthusiasms across almost the whole range of his intellectual pursuits. (Only mathematics is relatively neglected.) And his character constantly shines through, with its mercurial combination of skittishness, dreamy contemplation, self-deprecating personal modesty, strong familial pride, bright facetious humor, despondent resignation, resentment of slights and insults, and—the character trait he himself described as his “chief virtue”—gratitude. (With almost cruel perceptiveness, Bennett has glossed this last quality as “a way of showing a magnanimous spirit whilst never being able to pay the bill.”)

When the British edition of Scurr’s book was published in 2015, the critics were bowled over. John Aubrey, My Own Life would be listed as “Book of the Year” by more reviewers than any other work, and it is not hard to see why: Aubrey’s voice is distinctive and peculiarly appealing, the human story is a deeply engaging one, and the patience and care with which Scurr has woven her materials together are as impressive as they are self-effacing. But many reviewers went further than that. Stuart Kelly wrote that the book “illuminates…the unquestioned presumptions behind biography itself.” Mary Beard called it “a game-changer in the world of biography.” And Michael Holroyd, doyen emeritus of modern literary life-writing, called Scurr “no less a pioneer biographer than Aubrey himself.”

That Scurr has done something novel here, and that the result is a marvelously engrossing book, can easily be agreed. That she has changed the terms of the whole biographical enterprise, setting a new standard that all biographers must aspire to, is much harder to accept, and one must doubt whether she would make such a claim herself. According to Kelly:

As much as the form Scurr has chosen puts the subject, for once, centre stage, owing to the biographer’s gracious retiring, it also cedes her absolute control over him.5

Yet there is still a large degree of “control” here, as Scurr selects her material, arranges it, and ventriloquizes Aubrey to express thoughts or feelings that he may have had but never set down in those words. If one could find five other people as talented and dedicated to the task as Scurr, one would end up with half a dozen quite different versions of Aubrey.

Anyone who has written a biography—or any work of history—knows that “absolute control” is not at all what it feels like. You start as a servant to the evidence, and to the facts that (you hope) emerge from it; but as you interpret and write you must also act in the service of a more nebulous and differently demanding master, your audience. Making sense of the past, for the benefit of your readers, will always involve some filling in of gaps and adducing of explanations, using a whole range of modalities from “may possibly have” to “might well have” to “must have.” If all gaps are left blank, what you produce will be not so much a historical study as a do-it-yourself kit for the reader’s own use, conditioned by all the unspoken interpretative decisions that took place when you selected your material.

More obviously, at a distance of hundreds of years all kinds of things will need to be explained to the modern reader: events, people, ideas, and issues that may have loomed large at the time but whose significance is now grasped only by specialists. Here too the modern writer must act in the service of his or her audience. Scurr’s practice in this book is absolutely austere: of her hundreds of endnotes, the overwhelming majority are mere source references.

To give just one example: Aubrey records a conversation with Hugh Cressy, an Anglican priest turned Benedictine monk, who

says he was the first to bring Socinus’s books into England, and Lord Cary borrowed them from him soon afterwards.

A conventional biographer might pause to explain the nature and importance of the Socinian heresy, the special role of Lord Cary (Viscount Falkland) in the religious-political history of pre–Civil War England, and indeed the unusual career of Cressy himself. Scurr offers no such help. To omit all such assistance to the reader may indeed be an innovation, but should it be acclaimed as a positive one?

It might have been useful, too, if Scurr could have indicated which words in her text are Aubrey’s own and which have been added. On page 244 Aubrey writes that the printers in Oxford are going to insert into one of Wood’s publications “Dr Fell’s abusively defiant reply to Mr Hobbes’s complaints.” I stumbled over the phrase “abusively defiant,” which did not sound very seventeenth-century, sensing at the same time that it was oddly familiar—until it came to me that the author of this bit of Aubrey’s “diary” was not John Aubrey but…myself.

At least, when I wrote that phrase (in a short essay on Wood’s relations with Aubrey and Hobbes), I was not trying to write in seventeenth-century prose. Scurr herself does not attempt pastiche, which is just as well, but the more neutral English in which she composes her additional material sometimes has an awkwardly modern twang: “get lost,” “go for a pee,” “lots of,” “in a terrible state,” “to end up.” Such wordings rub shoulders with many seventeenth-century terms that are left unexplained in Aubrey’s own texts: “barb” (a type of horse), “eluctuary” (for “electuary,” a medicinal concoction), “impostumation,” “delitescency,” “ataxies,” “vidette,” “piggard,” “invecked.” Here too the do-it-yourself reader is left with work to do.

These points are minor ones. The achievement of this book, and the pleasure it will give to all who read it, are major. But it does not rewrite the rules of biography. While satisfying its readers in many ways, it will also make them hungry for more information—which they can gain by seeking out Anthony Powell’s traditional biography, Michael Hunter’s searching account of Aubrey’s mental world, and—if they can afford it—Kate Bennett’s huge, hugely expensive, but altogether stupendous edition of Brief Lives.