John Aubrey, who flourished between 1626 and 1697, was an English country gentleman of lively intellectual interests but rather infirm character. He was, one suspects, made unsure of himself by an obtuse and obstructive father, and his life became a series of projects that almost invariably ended unsatisfactorily. His education at Oxford was interrupted by the Civil Wars; the estates that he inherited from his father were heavily involved in lawsuits, and he was eventually obliged to sell them all; an attempt to marry resulted in the lady's clapping another suit on him; a collection of biographical material that he had allowed to get into the hands of professional scholars was partly used by them without acknowledgment and partly destroyed or lost. Yet Aubrey was an antiquary of some distinction and a charter member of the Royal Society, and his collection of biographical data turned out to be extremely valuable. As "Aubrey's Brief Lives," it has figured as a source book for historians. Now it has a splendid new edition at the hands of Oliver Lawson Dick.
This edition is, indeed, the first one that has been faithful to Aubrey's text and that has attempted to make a book from his manuscripts. For what Aubrey left was not a book. He loved to compile gossip about famous men and to note their peculiarities, and in pursuit of this information he often went to considerable trouble. It was said of him by one of his friends that he expected to hear of Aubrey's breaking his neck someday as the result of dashing downstairs to get a story from a departing guest. But he did not keep his records in order. He would try to get things down on paper the morning after a convivial evening--"Sot that I am!" is the apologetic cry that is reiterated in his writings--when the people he was visiting were still in bed and he himself was suffering from hangover. He sometimes mixed anecdotes about different people, sometimes wrote the same story several times, and sometimes noted down under a subject's name only a few words or a mere list of dates and facts.
Mr. Lawson Dick has selected from the 426 headings in Aubrey's manuscripts 134 that have something substantial attached to them; he has restored to them the passages expurgated by nineteenth-century editors; he has arranged them alphabetically; and he has written for them an introduction, itself as long as a small book, called "The Life and Times of John Aubrey," which is a masterpiece of its kind--for, using wherever possible the words of Aubrey himself, put together from his scattered writings, Mr. Lawson Dick has succeeded in producing an intimate portrait of his subject embedded in the density of current events. You can see . . .