Magazine article The Spectator

'The Adventures of Thomas Browne in the 21st Century', by Hugh Aldersey Williams - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Adventures of Thomas Browne in the 21st Century', by Hugh Aldersey Williams - Review

Article excerpt

The Adventures of Thomas Browne in the 21st Century Hugh Aldersey Williams

Granta, pp.330, £20, ISBN: 9781847089007

On the evening of 10 March 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge settled at a desk in an effort to articulate what he found so appealing about the 17th-century English polymath Sir Thomas Browne, the man he numbered among his 'first favourites' of English prose. He mentions Browne's formal qualities, of course: he is 'great and magnificent in his style and diction'; his Urne-Buriall 'redolent of graves and sepulchres' in every line. Yet most of his praise is reserved for Browne's sensibility, for a man who is 'fond of the curious, and a hunter of oddities and strangeness'; who 'loved to contemplate and discuss his own thoughts and feelings, because he found by comparison with other men's, that they too were curious'.

Coleridge is typical of Browne's admirers. Forster, Woolf, Borges, Sebald, to name just a handful of recent devotees, all give the impression that to read Browne is to make an especially intimate engagement with a particular, and particularly engaging, personality; is to encounter a man who is tolerant, humane, plangent, quietly sceptical, possessed of an almost discomfiting apprehension of what Woolf called 'the curious shades of our private life'.

And it is this sense of Browne that fills the pages of Hugh Aldersey-Williams's new book -- so much so that it is with an impression of Browne, based on his writings but not tied closely to them, that he is primarily concerned. His objective is to 'wrench Browne into the present' in an effort to show how his example can be brought to bear on the way we think today about 'the meaning of order in nature, how to achieve a reconciliation between science and religion, how to think about life and death'.

Before we embark on this rather odd enterprise, we are offered a potted account of Browne's life. Here Aldersey-Williams tells us that he has decided not to make his book a chronological biography because we lack the necessary records. He does so while drawing heavily on Reid Barbour's chronological Life of 2013, which runs to 550 pages. But we press on. Browne was born in Cheapside, London, in 1605; educated at Winchester College; Broadgates Hall (later Pembroke College), Oxford; and the universities of Montpellier, Padua and Leiden, where he completed his medical studies. On returning to England he spent his life working as a doctor in Norwich. He died in 1682.

While working as a doctor Browne developed and nurtured an interest in a bewildering array of subjects, including the natural world, archaeology, mortality and the nature of belief. …

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