In feather light sentences, antiquarian John Aubrey captured the spirit of an age

Ruth Scurr's biography of the draughtsman, archeologist and diarist is a moving, delicate record of a man - and an era.

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John Aubrey
Ruth Scurr
Chatto & Windus, 544pp, £25  

John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian, historian of architecture and England’s first archaeologist, is best known for Brief Lives, a collection of portraits that catches, in a matter of brushstrokes, the spirit of his age. “A life,” as Aubrey put it with his usual clarity, “is a short history in which minute details about a famous person should be gratefully recorded.” Thus John Selden, praised by Milton as “the chief of learned men reputed in this land”, is memorialised by Aubrey for getting “more by his prick than ever he had donne by his practice”.

A lover of minutiae, Aubrey had no in­terest in the eulogies of conventional biography. “Pox take your orators and poets,” he declared. “They spoile lives & histories.” Lives and histories, he said, should get at “the naked and plaine truth”, exposed “so bare that the very pudenda are not covered”. It is easy to forget that biography, like the novel, was born raffish – that those Victorian volumes were the joyless offspring of bohemian parents.

He was friends with Thomas Hobbes, Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Elias Ashmole and Lord Rochester; he took Charles II to see the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge, which are named after him; he lived through the Great Fire of London, the civil war, the Interregnum and the Restoration. Aubrey, who taught us to date buildings by their windows, is not a man we see so much as see through: he lends us his eyes. So rich is the tapestry of his life, writes Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge historian and biographer of Robespierre, that he is in danger of disappearing into the background, of being “crowded out” by both his companions and historical events.

What, then, is his biographer to do? How, with so much going on around him, can we glimpse Aubrey’s own “pudenda”? His was the great age of the journal and Scurr, in an act of nerve-racking boldness, has chosen to get at the naked and plain truth of John Aubrey by turning the tables on biography altogether and giving us his life as a series of diary entries. “No one,” as she puts it, “gets crowded out of his or her own diary.”

As with Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B Toklas (which was really the biography of Stein), Scurr’s idea is joyously witty. The diary is a form perfectly suited to Aubrey, a collector of fragments. And as a man less interested in the present than the past – “This searching after antiquities is a wearisome task,” one entry reads, “yet nobody else will do it” – he can look backwards while we look down into his soul.

Lifting his voice from manuscripts and published sources such as Monumenta Britannica and The Natural History of Wiltshire, Scurr gives us Aubrey in as many of his own words as possible. “I have made my first address to Joan Sumner,” he notes after several failed courtships, “whom I hope I shall marry and thereby rescue my finances.” At first, things go well: “Joan has given me a recipe to stop dogs barking which, she tells me, thieves used to use. It involves mixing boar’s fat and cumin seeds in a horn.” But then, disaster: “There are treacheries and enmities in abundance against me. Joan Sumner is now claiming that she never agreed to marry me.”

Sumner’s litigations are never given too much space. Despite his problems with women and the debts he inherited, Aubrey saw himself as a fortunate man. He thought deeply but never about himself. “Mr Hooke and I watched the eclipse of the moon,” he notes of 19 October 1678. When he looked at the moon, it was the moon he was looking at and not his mortality. It was the thingness of things that Aubrey loved.

The principal effect of this paring away of narrative is that Scurr, rather than Aubrey, disappears into the background. These days, it is rare to find a biography in which the author does not interrupt the reader’s journey like a Tannoy system on a train, or elbow their way in to tell you how they feel about the subject. John Aubrey: My Own Life has no evident narrator, nor any narrative tension. Diaries are great levellers of experience. What is important to Aubrey – “My fine box has been stolen from me” – and what is important to us – “On this day the King summoned Parliament for the first time since 1629” – rub shoulders in parity.

Scurr’s voice is heard only in the opening section, in which she gives us a brief life of the man: the dates (1626-97), the facts, the curriculum vitae. We are then, in the slow motion of the diary entries, reminded of the stillness of his days. His father, a gentleman, was “born for hawking”, Aubrey notes as a child, “whereas I know already that I am made for books and drawing” – which is exactly what he did. He never married or travelled; he explored Surrey and Wiltshire with a pencil and paper and his topological and architectural drawings, generously reproduced here, are exquisite.

For all this walking and riding and digging, John Aubrey trod softly on the earth and this is what is caught in these feather-light sentences. “Life,” as Virginia Woolf put it, “is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” It is precisely Woolf’s sense of a life that is captured in this moving and delicate book. 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War