A friend who teaches in New York told me that the historian Peter Lake told him that J.G.A. Pocock told him that Conrad Russell told him that Bertrand Russell told him that Lord John Russell told him that his father the sixth Duke of Bedford told him that he had heard William Pitt the Younger speak in Parliament during the Napoleonic Wars, and that Pitt had this curious way of talking, a particular mannerism that the sixth Duke of Bedford had imitated to Lord John Russell who imitated it to Bertrand Russell who imitated it to Conrad Russell who imitated it to J.G.A. Pocock, who could not imitate it to Peter Lake and so my friend never heard it. But all the way down to Pocock was a chain of people who in some sense had actually heard William Pitt the Younger’s voice.
Or at least that’s how the story goes. New versions of this cross-generational vaulting circulate now and then: a man who saw Abraham Lincoln being shot in 1865 was on a TV show in 1956; a retired friend in Canada recalls her now deceased Hungarian friend Dorothy telling her that her mother had been walking in the park at the age of four with her mother when the Emperor Franz Joseph bowed to them from his carriage.
‘In time,’ Borges wrote, ‘there was a day that extinguished the last eyes to see Christ.’ Something like this sense of a past on the very edge of oblivion is the force that haunts and animates much of John Aubrey’s 17th-century writing. ‘My great Uncle … remembred him,’ Aubrey wrote of Philip Sidney, dead for three generations, ‘and sayd that he was wont, as he was hunting on our pleasant plaines, to take his Table booke out … and write downe his notions as they came into his head when he was writing his Arcadia.’ Searching for memories of John Dee in Mortlake, Aubrey tracks down ‘Olde Goodwife Faldo (a Natif of Mortlak)’, aged 80 ‘but still a lusty woman’, who tells Aubrey that her mother ‘tended’ Dee ‘in his Sicknesse’ and that ‘the Children dreaded him, because he was accounted a Conjurer.’ These vignettes pulse on the page because they seem to revive the dead even as they recognise that the dead are gone. Like all antiquaries, Aubrey is fascinated with the loss his endeavours would seem to oppose.
‘There are few persons,’ Anthony Powell wrote in John Aubrey and His Friends (1948), ‘of whom it would be more true to say that they were interested in everything.’ Aubrey, born in Wiltshire, attended Trinity College, Oxford in the 1640s, but his studies were interrupted by the rumble of civil war. He watched squadrons of soldiers train in New College gardens. He noted that John Denham’s topographical poem Cooper’s Hill (1642) was printed on ‘a sort of browne paper’ because the depleted printers ‘could gett no better’. Fascinated with Roman remains, Aubrey took Charles II to see Avebury in 1663 after discovering the stones while hunting with aristocratic friends; he commissioned drawings of the 12th-century Osney Abbey before it was demolished. Like all busy people, he worked all the time, and felt he wasn’t working enough: ‘If I could get up by 7 a.m., I could finish my Book of Lives in a month.’ He loved astrology (his life was a process of ‘labouring under a Crowd of ill Directions’) but also the latest scientific advances: alongside Newton, Hooke, Boyle, he attended Royal Society meetings where he stammered when he talked in public. ‘Blood has been moved between two dogs for the first time. Before the Society, Mr King and Mr Thomas Coxe successfully performed the experiment on a small bulldog and a spaniel.’ He fled debtors; was bankrupt from 1671; had to shift households and sell many of his books. He travelled to Paris with his friend George Ent, where he suffered ‘a terrible attack of piles’. More than anything else, he collaborated with other antiquaries, riding across Surrey to contribute to John Ogilby’s county survey; answering Anthony Wood’s hail of questions (‘What is Francis Potter’s epitaph? When and where did Dr John Godolphin die?’) as Wood prepared his history of Oxford University. There could be a guileless enthusiasm to Aubrey that meant he was often betrayed: when Wood’s Athenæ Oxonienses was published in 1691, there was no mention of Aubrey’s decades of labour, although Wood carefully cites his more socially eminent contributors.
Aubrey had only one book printed in his lifetime – his Miscellanies: A Collection of Hermetick Philosophy (1696) – but left a sprawl of largely incomplete projects in manuscript, including the Natural History of Wiltshire; A Perambulation of Surrey; An Idea of Education of Young Gentlemen; notes towards a never written play called ‘The Countrey Revell’, based on his drunk Wiltshire neighbours; a collection of handwriting samples, to help detect forgeries; and Brief Lives, a riveting experiment in biography seen by his peers as most expressive of Aubrey’s character: ‘’tis my opinion (as of others),’ Wood wrote, ‘that your Excellencies lay that way.’
The enthusiasm that courses through all these writings is Aubrey’s sociability, his delight in the atoms of news whirling around him. We could call him a gossip, but he was more benign than that; Wood described him as ‘roving and magotieheaded, and sometimes little better than crased’, but Aubrey’s information-gathering had at its heart a desire to preserve a present that was fading even as it occurred: he was haunted, like a Shakespeare sonnet, by the life that passes without memorial. Always, according to Powell, ‘trying to draw the chill of his childhood’s loneliness from his bones’, Aubrey thrived in an Oxford that was (in his own words) ‘facetious and diverting’, a place of anecdote and conversation. He lived in coffee houses; he scribbled as people talked; he watched his friends rise and fall; he travelled miles to see them. ‘It seems to me that between the years 1649 and 1670, I was never off horseback.’ The flipside of Aubrey being, in William Poole’s words, ‘politically tone-deaf’ is a ranging inclusivity in his social relations: John Dryden, Andrew Marvell, Edmund Waller, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, John Milton, Wenceslaus Hollar. As Kate Bennett writes in the introduction to her superb new edition of Brief Lives, ‘we may be able to hear, through him, the 17th century talking to and about itself.’
What do we hear? We hear that William Petty teaches anatomy at Brasenose and keeps a partially pickled body as a teaching prop, ferried to Oxford from Reading. That Thomas Hobbes ‘all year round … wears boots of Spanish leather, laced or tied along the side with black ribbons’. That Robert Hooke is ‘melancholy and giddy … and … has strange dreams of riding and eating cream’. That Mary Sidney, countess of Pembroke, with her lovers, peered through a ‘vidette’ or peephole to gaze on mating horses at Wilton House. That William Harvey used to say: ‘Man is but a great mischievous baboon.’ That John Denham’s ‘Eie was a kind of light goose-gray; not big: but it had a strange piercingness … when he conversed with you, he look’t into your very thoughts.’ That the corpse of Robert Braybrook, bishop of London (d. 1404) ‘was like a preserved fish: uncorrupted except for the ears and pudenda’. (Aubrey visited after the roof of St Paul’s fell in during the 1666 fire, causing the lead coffins to break open.)
Most audible of all, perhaps, is Aubrey’s description of Ralph Kettell, president of Trinity College and a walking archive of the Elizabethan age: almost eighty years old and ‘irreconcileable to long haire’, Kettell was a figure ‘gigantic and terrible in his russet cloth gown’ who dragged one foot ‘so we hear him coming before he rounds the corner, like a rattlesnake’. Kettell was fond of saying that ‘Seneca writes as a boar does piss: by jerks,’ and he himself sprayed out coinages of abuse at less favoured students: ‘Rascal-Jacks’; ‘Scobberlotchers’ (the sort of undergraduate who ‘went idleing about the Grove with their hands in their pocketts’); and ‘Tarrarags’. In the manuscript, the word ‘Turds’ is written and then crossed out.
The subject of Aubrey’s writing is often its own materiality: he describes a torrent of scraps, chests of his own books he hasn’t seen for 11 years, pages of notes lodged with friends like Wood who fail to return them, a scattered culture of notebooks and papers. Aubrey pulls out his hair as he watches soldiers scouring their guns with old manuscripts. Writing, for him, is rarely organised around the tidy codex: it’s a sea of moving parts. The handwritten pages of Brief Lives, as Bennett meticulously shows, are littered with gaps Aubrey never had the time (or knowledge) to fill; slips of paper with notes like ‘pray remember to looke upon Mr James Harrington’s life: upon my alterations there’; marginal references to ‘quaere iterum’ (‘inquire again’); and references to a crowd of other texts with which Aubrey’s writings are always chattering. Often, in fact, what he is doing is not writing, exactly, but ‘stitching’ (he uses the word) bits of texts together: sometimes literally (‘I will write only on one side of the paper, so that the notes can be cut and transposed’), or through the gathering and laying out of anecdotes and pieces of the past.
Out of the scattered scraps that Aubrey left behind, and with some additions of her own, Ruth Scurr has built the diary that Aubrey never quite wrote. Scurr assembles a somewhat Pepysian, first-person Aubrey – paradoxically, given Aubrey’s evasive presence in his own biographical and antiquarian writings (he called himself ‘a whetstone’ to the achievements of others). There are certainly precedents for Scurr’s book – Oliver Lawson Dick’s edition of Brief Lives (1949), used by generations of Aubrey fans, included passages from printed books and other people’s letters – but Scurr’s book is a refreshing literary experiment, and a quick route to a sense of Aubrey’s age; the textual equivalent of Eric Morecambe’s rendering of Grieg, with ‘all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’.
Here is Scurr’s Aubrey, writing about Hobbes’s account of the death of Francis Bacon:
Mr Hobbes told me that the cause of his lordship’s death was conducting an experiment on Highgate Hill. He was taking the air in a coach with Dr Witherborne (a Scotsman and physician to the King) when snow lay on the ground. It occurred to his lordship that flesh might be preserved in snow as well as in salt. These two went into a poor woman’s house at the bottom of Highgate Hill, bought a hen and had her kill it, then stuffed the body with snow. The snow so chilled his lordship that immediately he fell extremely ill, and could not return to his lodgings, but was taken instead to the Earl of Arundel’s house at Highgate. There he was put in a good bed warmed with a pan, but the bed was damp as no one had been in it for about a year, this gave his lordship such a cold that he died within two or three days.
This is pretty close to what Aubrey wrote, but not identical. Bennett’s edition shows us that what Aubrey wrote is messier, trickier; his prose doesn’t unfurl but proceeds through darts and twitches with struck-through first thoughts and marginal additions and a sense of the jagged particular lost in Scurr’s smooth revision. Not ‘It occurred to his lordship’, but ‘it came into my Lords thoughts’; not ‘could not return to his lodgings’, but ‘could not returne to his lodgeings (I suppose then at Grayes Inne)’; not ‘bought a hen and had her kill it’, but ‘bought a Hen, and made the woman exenterate it’; not ‘this gave his lordship such a cold that he died within two or three days,’ but ‘which gave him such a cold that in 2 or 3 dayes as I remember he told me, he dyed of Suffocation’. ‘I have written as I rode,’ Aubrey notes in his discussion of Avebury and Stonehenge, ‘at a gallop’, and his prose is alive with doubts, speculations, lapses in memory. It is a breathing, flawed thing. In Elizabeth and Essex: A Tragic History (1928), Lytton Strachey collapsed this passage into an unforgettable final vignette of Francis Bacon: ‘an old man, disgraced, shattered, alone, on Highgate Hill, stuffing a dead fowl with snow’. Strachey, serenely unworried about textual fidelity, was after new ways of generating the effect of psychological depth; the moral he drew from Bacon’s decline was that ‘it is probably always disastrous not to be a poet.’ But the gap between Scurr’s version and Aubrey’s matters more because Scurr makes big claims for Aubrey the stylist: if Aubrey really is ‘one of the finest English prose writers there has ever been’, then slicing and dicing his words to produce a text he never wrote is an odd kind of homage.
Scurr’s book draws Aubrey’s written selves into coherence: she makes his subjectivity, and the text that conveys it, tidy and centripetal. But diary-writing in this period was only in the process of stabilising into the form we recognise today: even Pepys’s diary, which in many ways stands for the genre, is not the autonomous document of immediacy and personality we thought we knew. Pepys’s apparently impulsive prose began life as lists of expenses (‘At Barnet for milk 6d’; ‘Dinner at Stevenage 5s 6d’) that were gradually and subsequently worked up into seemingly candid prose. His diary represents not spontaneity, but the artful construction of spontaneity. John Evelyn, too, wrote his diary by looking back to notes he’d scribbled in almanacs forty years before: the diary that looks so much like the direct transcription of lived experience is the result of successive revisions of prior texts. Most 17th-century life-writing is similarly dispersed and palimpsestic: it takes place in the margins of other texts, in commonplace books of other people’s quotations, in financial records that tip into narrative, across several notebooks, in spiritual autobiographies that articulate a sense of self by recycling biblical scripts or searching minutiae for signs of God’s grace. Aubrey wrote that his brief outline autobiography was ‘to be interponed [inserted] as a sheet of wast-paper only in the binding of a Booke’. The urge to write a life often finds expression in forms that are, to modern eyes, odd, ungathered, unyielding, and all the more compelling for it: the challenge for the critic is to treat these texts, and the 17th century, on their own strange terms, rather than collapsing them into something we already know.
Aubrey, always unmarried, saved some of his most fervent prose for Lady Venetia Stanley, ‘a most beautifull, desireable Creature’, and the subject of endless court gossip: ‘a most lovely sweet turn’d face, delicate darke browne haire … her face, a short ovall, darke-browne eie-browe: about which much sweetness, as also in the opening of her eie-lidds. The colour of her cheekes, was just that of the damaske-rose: which is neither too hot, nor too pale.’ Sir Kenelm Digby was besotted and married her in 1625: he commissioned several portraits of her (some of which sparked Aubrey’s posthumous description), and ‘had her hands cast in playster: and her feet: and her Face’.
‘About 1676, or 5,’ Aubrey writes in his Life of Stanley, nine years after the Great Fire, and 42 years after Venetia’s sudden death, ‘as I was walking through Newgate street, I sawe Dame Venetia’s Bust standing at a Stall at the golden Crosse, a Brasiers shop.’ This was the ‘sumptuouse and stately’ bust ‘of Copper gilt’ that Kenelm Digby had erected over his wife’s vault in Christ Church Newgate Street after her death in 1633, before the fire ‘utterly destroyed’ the church 33 years later. ‘I perfectly remembred it,’ Aubrey said, but before he could return to the stall, the bust had been melted down for the copper.