John Aubrey and Prose Style

In the course of reviewing Ruth Scurr’s marvellous first-person biography of John Aubrey (John Aubrey: My Own Life, which is without doubt available in all fine bookstores), I picked up and read a rather pleasing edition of his Brief Lives. Unlike Suetonius, for example, Aubrey is not gossipy in a way modern readers would recognise; in fact, he is not a gossip at all. He has stories which are almost as salacious as those collected by the Roman – though it must be noted that his appraisals of eminent figures do not tend as much towards the grotesque – but in many ways that was not the point.

Aubrey saw the usefulness, indeed the necessity, of marking the lives of people who mattered; and this was as true for those who, in addition to being great, had enjoyed ‘ingenious’ conversations with the author as it was for those who had not. This almost objective sense of the value of history was something I found myself admiring more as I read; but another aspect of Aubrey’s output deserves recognition: his genuine brilliance as a prose stylist.

I cannot claim to know a great deal about great prose. (I certainly can’t produce the stuff.) But I can be declarative in stating that it need not occur – it need not appear – only in description of vital information, or in the conveyance of entirely portentous scenes or activities.

The beauty of some of Aubrey’s writing – and it is truly beautiful – is his invocation of deft, almost melodious descriptions of seemingly unimportant things. (Scurr catches this very well, which I will attempt to demonstrate very soon.)

The way Aubrey describes his first meeting with Thomas Hobbes, a truly important intellectual influence on the man Aubrey became, which took place when the younger was still a child, is worth an extended quotation:

Mr. Thomas Hobbes came into his Native Country to visitt his Friends, and amongst others he came to see his old school-master, Mr. Thomas Latimer, at Leigh de-la-mer, where I was then at Schoole in the church. Here was the first place and time that ever I had the honour to see this worthy, learned man, who was then pleased to take notice of me, and the next day visited my relations.

Aubrey goes on in a similar vein.

His conversation about those times was much about Ben: Jonson, Mr. Ayton, etc. He was then a proper man, briske, and in very good habit: his hayre quite black, and with moist curles. He stayed in Malmesbury and in the neighbourhood a weeke or better. ‘Twas the last time that ever he was in Wiltshire.

Scurr’s version is also beautiful in its quiet, understated grace.

I have invited Mr Hobbes to meet my family tomorrow. He says he will come. He will stay in Malmesbury for a week or so. Something has happened to me and more will happen to me. This meeting seems an end to my loneliness.

Not that such acute self-reflection is denied to Aubrey in his own writing. There is a particularly excellent passage of the same quoted in the introduction to Oliver Lawson Dick’s edition of Brief Lives, which is not entirely unpoetic. Aubrey’s writing has real capacity for economical description; the following is a list – a litany – which describes the attributes of the author in his youth; but it communicates more than the sum of its parts.

Mild of spirit; mightily susceptible of Fascination. My Idea is very cleer; Phantasie like a Mirrour, pure chrystal water which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth. Never riotous or prodigall; but (as Sir E. Leech said) Sloath and carelessnesse are equivalent to all other vices.

The offbeat indirectness of Aubrey’s phrasing – ‘the least wind does disorder and unsmooth’ indeed – is captivating; and it avoids the frustration sometimes inherent in such tricks in phrasing.

In a way this almost poetic sensibility can be seen in Aubrey’s interest in life which is detached from the exactly contemporary and useful. Though it cannot be forgotten that some wisdom can be gleaned from the past, as Aubrey makes clear in his description of the value of hearsay and the sort of rural superstitions he made it his ambition to learn and to collect.

Old Customs and old wives fables are grosse things, but yet ought not to be buried in Oblivion; there may be some trueth and usefulnesse be picked out of them, besides ‘tis a pleasure to consider the Errours that enveloped former ages: as also the present.

That last clause signifies, I think, the arrival of Aubrey’s distinctive and warm sense of humour, which makes frequent appearances in his writings (or at least in those of them I have read).

Aubrey’s case, prose-wise, is an interesting one for two reasons. First, with a rather scholarly perspective (or at least the pretences of one), in the manner of tracing the evolution of the English language as it is spoken and written today; and second, because Aubrey himself, someone justifiably characterised by Scurr as one of the great prose stylists, clearly worried about the quality of his written English (indeed, there exists a message written by Aubrey to his collaborator and sometime friend Antony Wood in which the former asks – almost pleadingly – if his style would serve; his correspondent replied, rather brusquely, that it would more or less do.)

All of this, I suppose, ought to give one hope. But more than that – beyond the rather selfish desire for assurance and historical precedent – it ought also to prompt contemporary readers into giving Aubrey a go, both in the form of Scurr’s book and in Aubrey’s original works – and, as luck would have it, new editions of some of his works have either recently found publication or are about to be published.

Maybe this, and the example he provides, could serve as a positive example, a historical focal point of sorts, both for students of the language and those who aspire to use it with any semblance of skill.

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  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol: #38 | Whewell's Ghost

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