A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
It’s a strange thing, deferred gratification. Ruth Scurr’s ingenious reconstruction of John Aubrey’s life story has been sitting on my bedside table for most of the past year, until I decided that for shame I couldn’t let it be overtaken by this year’s Christmas book haul. And yet, it was the book I most looked forward to reading. I knew I would love every page, and I was not disappointed. So why did I leave it so long? I’m sorry that I did.
John Aubrey, antiquarian and pioneer biographer, was born in 1626 and died 70 years later, after living through two revolutions and an explosion of learning. Throughout his life, he observed, collected and wrote. But in his lifetime he only published one work, not well-regarded, rushed out the year before he died. Since his death, his papers have been mined by other writers, and some of his literary projects realised. He is known today primarily for being a pioneer biographer, a collector of people’s lives, who worked on his method of capturing their character through life events, achievements and anecdotes. He also deserves credit for his early appreciation of the rich prehistoric remains of his native Wiltshire – Stonehenge, and particularly Avebury, whose stones he rediscovered from obscurity, and did what he could to preserve. He also made a perambulation of my home county, Surrey, recording its places, antiquities and remains, which is an invaluable record of its time. But it is for his ‘Brief Lives’ that he is chiefly known today, even though in his lifetime he wrote them almost entirely for the benefit of fellow-authors.
Ruth Scurr’s brilliant book has as it starting point the belief that, as well as recording his contemporaries, in his copious writings he also told the story of his own life. She has combed his papers for references to his family, antecedents, homes, relationships, triumphs and reverses, and has crafted them into a consistent life story, in Aubrey’s own words.
We owe our contemporary knowledge of Aubrey to the novelist, biographer and diarist Anthony Powell, whose John Aubrey and His Friends revived interest in him and his times. Our image of Aubrey is heavily influenced by the stage and TV play Brief Lives by Patrick Garland, starring Roy Dotrice as a kindly, garrulous old man, reminiscing. It was wonderful to see the memory of such an ingenious man revived, but Aubrey’s character really needed rescuing from this simplistic image too, and Ruth Scurr’s highly original biographical method, of using Aubrey’s own words wherever possible, is just the way to do it. Through this work we learn to recognise Aubrey’s voice, and to appreciate his character, ever consistent, from his optimistic teenage years at Oxford, through the disappointments of his middle years and the loss of his fortune and estate, to the frustrations of his later life.
He was unlucky, financially, in love, and in seeking preferment; his work unpublished, undervalued by others and in danger of being lost for ever. Yet this reconstructed diary reveals his character as stoical, kind, his faith in his friends ever undiminished. His pleasures lay in observation, recording and conjecture, and in conversation and active friendships with both men and women. It is almost as though his true character was collegial – he made enduring friendships at university where he was a gentleman commoner of Trinity College, with fellow students and with his teachers, and throughout his life Oxford remained one of the three places he loved the most, along with London and his beloved Wiltshire, places where he knew solace and friendship could always be found. In London he replicated this collegial spirit by becoming an active and valuable member of the Royal Society. His instinct was for friendship, and we read here mostly of cordiality and occasional disappointment, scarcely ever of enmity and conflict. He comes through as diffident, charming, kind and selfless.
Aubrey’s life spanned a period of extraordinary political upheavals, and his connection with Oxford placed him as a (rather timid) observer at the heart of the Civil War. He learnt then to keep his head down, a lesson he revisited at the Popish Plot and the accession and fall of James II. It also covered a time of revolution in knowledge and science. Aubrey’s antiquarian instincts to record, preserve and value the remains of the past extended to ancient beliefs and customs, and his persistent belief in astrology and other phenomena earned him the scepticism of some of his friends. His sole publication in his lifetime, Miscellanies (1696) recorded a series of supernatural beliefs and brought him some ridicule, while the manuscripts of his copious and careful observation of landscape and antiquities risked being lost in transit, forgotten by those to whom he’d lent them, and borrowed wholesale for others’ works.
My love for this book was sudden and passionate, and occurred on page 20. He wrote as a schoolboy of his feelings about manuscripts, of learning to read through the manuscript leaves used to cover the books of the older boys. This theme recurs throughout his life, his passionate care and concern for the fate of writing, that cannot be retrieved once lost. He came from Wiltshire, close to Malmesbury, and the manuscripts that used to belong in the Abbey’s great library were still turning up in everyday life nearly 100 years after the Dissolution.
I have moved to Mr Latimer’s school at Leigh Delamere, which is in the next parish and better. Manuscripts are used to cover books at my new school too. Now I can decipher some of them. My grandfather says that in his time all music books, account books, copybooks etc. were covered with pages of antiquity, and the glovers at Malmesbury even used them to wrap their gloves for sale. He says that over the last century, a world of rarities has perished hereabouts. Before that, they were safe in the libraries of Malmesbury Abbey, Broad Stock Priory, Stan Leigh Abbey, Farleigh Abbey, Bath Abbey, and Cirencester Abbey. All these old building are within twelve miles of my home. But when the great change – the Dissolution – came, the religious houses were emptied, the occupants all turned out in the road, and their manuscripts went flying around like butterflies through the air. A hundred years later it seems to me that they are still on the wing. I would net them if I could. It hurts my eyes and heart to see fragile painted pages used to line pastry dishes, to bung up bottles, to cover schoolbooks, or make templates beneath a tailor’s scissors.
Love at first sight, for Aubrey, and this book of his life.
The whole book is a complete pleasure to read, from the affectionate foreword by Ruth Scurr, through Aubrey’s edited words, his travels and travails, his family and friends, to the author’s afterword, which describes Aubrey’s reception and reputation after his death. All the sources for his reconstructed life story are documented in endnotes, there is an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources and an excellent index. Above all, it is elegantly written both by Scurr and Aubrey, immensely readable, and a work of brilliant scholarship. It rescues Aubrey from the partial view we have of him, as collector of lives, as gossipy old man, as someone who clung to old beliefs in an age of scientific progress. It shows him as a man whose curiosity and love of scholarship bridged the impulses to discover and to preserve. And above all, it portrays a loveable man, gregarious, loyal, with a talent for friendship.
Ruth Scurr: John Aubrey. My Own Life. London: Chatto and Windus, 2015. 518pp
Paperback ed. London: Vintage, 2016