More Than a Social Animal

Review – John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr

The art of biography has undergone many transformations over the centuries. Where hagiography was once its primary mode, more realistic portraits have since become essential to the form. Good biography now features praise, damnation and even a complement of anecdote, often of little immediate significance, but which contains the potential for great illumination. Much of the latter development in particular can be traced, to some extent, to the writings of John Aubrey, whose pioneering work Brief Lives – though he thought its contents inappropriate to publish in the course of his lifetime – is now justly famous for its masterful and witty cultivation of the incidental details which can tell us so much about historical figures and yet are often lost to posterity by the practices of less assiduous writers.

In addition to this redefining of biographical writing, Aubrey was also an innovator in other respects; his works concerning antiquarianism, early archaeology (he was one of the first to take an interest in the stones at Avebury, for example) and the collection of folk traditions were adventurous. These often required the author to travel, and he frequently made long walks.

In keeping with this pioneering spirit, Ruth Scurr’s biography of Aubrey is unusual. Instead of a straightforward narrative, she chooses to tell his story more thematically; and rather than studying the man from a distance, she immerses herself in his life and writings. The remarkable book takes the form of a first-person diary.

Because Aubrey’s life was so compulsively social, including many significant friendships with the great minds of his age, and because he published only one book, his ill-considered Miscellanies, which dealt with supernatural phenomena in his lifetime, Scurr writes that a narrative biography would fail to capture Aubrey’s unique essence. He would sink somewhat to the background, a victim of his impressive talent for making and retaining friends.

Scurr writes, ‘if only we had Aubrey’s diary, his modesty, self-effacement, attention to others would not be such a problem. No one gets crowded out of his or her own diary.’ When rendered in the form of a diary, the litany of Aubrey’s meetings and correspondence with friends, his endless time debating in coffee houses, and his association with the Royal Society are cast in a very different light. Rather than a bit player in all of these vignettes, he is the thread which binds them all together; Scurr creates the narrative centrality Aubrey deserves with no literary contrivance.

This book follows Aubrey from cradle to grave, documenting who he met, where he travelled, and what he wrote – works concerning natural history, the theory of education, and remarkably thorough surveys of Wiltshire and Surrey, in addition to two plays, only one of which survives. Rather than being a background character, Aubrey the man is brought to the forefront. He is portrayed as energetic, intellectually curious and genuinely concerned about and protective of history in its broadest aspects. He hunts after private papers, trying to prevent them from falling into cooks’ fires; he has his writings sent to those who could best look after them in his troubled era; and he had copies and drawings made, sometimes undertaken personally, of inscriptions, monuments and artefacts.

Scurr brings all of this to life, and she does so in a lively, humane way. Aubrey’s worries are made manifest, especially regarding the fate of his many unfinished books. His legal travails are communicated in noteworthy, but not oppressive, detail. The foundation for this book is not, at heart, invention (though it is truly inventive and original in design); instead, the raw material of the book is drawn primarily from Aubrey’s own words. For one who has read an edition of his Brief Lives, to see elements of that work appear throughout this one, in descriptions of individuals and the times in which they lived, may at first appear disconcerting. But it is like being greeted by an especially witty collection of old friends; and this is something Aubrey, with his impressive sociability, may well have liked.

One such friendship which to an extent defined Aubrey’s life is the one he forged with Anthony Wood, a historian of the University of Oxford for whom Aubrey undertook a great deal of work. While Scurr does not catch Wood’s noted prickliness – Oliver Lawson Dick describes how, as ‘[a]n Oxford don, vain, touchy, spiteful and lacking in every social grace, he was impertinent to his superiors, rude to his equals, overbearing to his juniors, ungrateful to his benefactors and unbearable to his family’, and the criticism of an erstwhile acquaintance was characterised as ‘words as ugly as his face’ – that is ultimately unimportant. In many ways this is communicated through the bare facts of Aubrey’s association with Wood, who tasked him with much in pursuit of the latter’s Athenae Oxonienses, a history of the writers and clergymen associated with Oxford University.

Unceasing in his demands for information on past potentiaries, Wood was unwilling to obey Aubrey’s requests regarding his manuscripts, many of which he had lodged with Wood for safekeeping. Scurr’s Aubrey issues many plaintive wishes for ‘Mr Wood’ to answer his letters or to return this or that book; this continual, if low level, disagreement eventually boils over when Wood is charged with libelling the Earl of Clarendon and accuses Aubrey of supplying the troublesome passage. (The fact that the latter did – though, pace Scurr, he never meant for it to be included in the book proper – is almost beside the point.)

One thing Aubrey’s modern readers can thank Wood for, however, is his part in the genesis of what became Brief Lives. Without Aubrey’s pursuit of the biographical information of former Oxford men, he may not have had the impetus to begin a collation of such stories as he or his friends remembered about famous figures more broadly. In a way, this unpleasant (or at the least excessively demanding) task had its own – though doubtless unintended – rewards.

Another lifelong friend was Thomas Hobbes. The great political theorist first met Aubrey when his future biographer was but a schoolboy. Scurr records the significance of the moment with beautiful understatement. As her Aubrey returns home from that first meeting, he reflects: ‘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.’

The ensuring friendship in many ways provided a counterpoint to that between Aubrey and Wood. Friendships of this sort defined Aubrey’s life and his work for, as a man who suffered greatly as a result of legal battles over property, he was always in need of money and lodging. Scurr peppers the latter portions of the book with notes concerning the loans received by Aubrey.

Through his long-standing work with the Royal Society, as well as his friendship with many men more famous than he, John Aubrey could continue to be known more as a social animal than as a personality in his own right. He could be reduced to the sum of his friendships (Anthony Powell’s biography is called John Aubrey and His Friends). In this book, though the social aspect is never far away, the reader is given a tremendous insight into the personal; after the meetings and the conversations finished, Aubrey engaged in the necessarily solitary work of reading and writing. These largely unglamorous pursuits – sometimes the stuff of footnotes – are vividly brought to life in Scurr’s biography. Hers is an ingenious book, providing valuable insights into a figure of real interest; it is also wise, containing real empathy for Aubrey’s sometimes unfocused and rather erratic brilliance.

This piece was originally published in the Autumn 2016 issue of The Salisbury Review.