Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

John Aubrey's Brief Lives: The Edition We Have Been Waiting For

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

John Aubrey's Brief Lives: The Edition We Have Been Waiting For

Article excerpt

Brief Lives is undoubtedly John Aubrey's most significant work. It is for this that he has become widely known in modern times - and deservedly so, since through it we gain an insight into his era that is quite simply unparalleled. Indeed, the work is without compare not only in Aubrey's own period but in any other, and it has been acclaimed accordingly. As the novelist, Anthony Powell, whose John Aubrey and His Friends (1948) remains the definitive biography of Aubrey, put it:

To the question, "What are the English like?" worse answers might be given than: "Read Aubrey's Lives and you will see"; for there, loosely woven together, is a kind of tapestry of the good and evil; the ingenuity and the folly; the integrity and the hypocrisy; the eccentricity, the melancholy, and the greatness of the English race.1

In the view of another commentator, Lytton Strachey:

A biography should either be as long as Boswell 's or as short as Aubrey 's. The method of enormous and elaborate accretion which produced the Life of Johnson is excellent, no doubt; but, failing that, let us have no half-measures; let us have the pure essentials - a vivid image, on a page or two, without explanations, transitions, commentaries, or padding. This is what Aubrey gives us.2

Such adulation of Brief Lives does not mean, of course, that Aubrey lacks significance in other respects, not least as a pioneer of modern archaeology, as has been argued perhaps most forcibly by Alain Schnapp.3 Aubrey's Monumenta Britannica was the first English book that can be described as "archaeological" in a modern sense, bringing together unwritten, tangible relics of the past so that they acquired a significance in their own right as the subject of comparative study, rather than merely forming appendages to the narratives based on written sources that preoccupied his antiquarian contemporaries. Aubrey's novel, technologically oriented view of the past was a kind of backward extension of his involvement in science in the context of the early Royal Society, including a heady optimism about the potential for intellectual progress, and this aspect of him, too, has attracted attention in recent years.4 He was also a pioneer in other fields, not least in the study of folklore and in the analysis of place-names and other relics of linguistic change, from which he realized that more significant conclusions might be drawn than had previously been realized.5 In addition, he wrote books on various other subjects, including An Idea of Education of Young Gentlemen, which is full of shrewd advice based on his own and others' experience; a comedy, The Countrey Revell, which he addressed to the dramatist, Thomas Shadwell; and collections on natural history, topography, astrology and architecture. He was a true virtuoso.

Yet Brief Lives transcends all these other works, which to some extent it encapsulates through the range of people and topics that Aubrey thought it appropriate to memorialize. Not only does it reflect the wide range of interests seen in his other writings; in addition, the details that Aubrey gives of the people who appear in it display the same vivid, tactile quality that is reflected in his antiquarian writings. He described the divine, John Tombes, for instance, as "but a little man, neat limbed, a little quick searching Eie, sad gray," while of Samuel Butler, author of Hudibras, he wrote: "He is of a middle stature, strong sett, high coloured a kind of Sorrell haire. a severe and sound judgement. a good fellowe."6 Brief Lives can also be seen to reflect Aubrey's social role and his relations with his milieu, as Kate Bennett brilliantly illustrates in the lengthy introduction to her new edition of the work. For one thing, the social institutions of Restoration London, and particularly the coffee-houses that had proliferated since the mid-seventeenth century, provided unprecedented opportunities for social interchange. Aubrey himself was acutely aware of "the moderne advantage of Coffee-howses in this great Citie; before which, men knew not how to be acquainted, but with their owne Relations, or Societies. …

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