John Aubrey. Photo: Wikimedia
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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.

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

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Sexless in space: the post-apocalyptic novels re-imagining the future of gender

In these fictions, the future has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

Devastating the world has a persistent lure for authors – not just because it gives them spectacular backdrops and unconstrained possibilities for their fiction. There’s also a political imperative to imagining catastrophe. “People are forever thinking that the unthinkable can’t happen,” says off-world survivor Christine Pizan in Lidia Yuknavitch’s post-apocalyptic The Book of Joan. “If it doesn’t exist in thought, then it can’t exist in life.” That’s a delusion that has proved costly to Christine’s society. Now, above a scorched and trashed Earth, a fragment of the elite is sustained on a vessel named CIEL, which Christine calls an “idiotic space-condom”.

The dream up on CIEL is of impenetrable self-reliance. Even the inhabitants’ bodies, mutated by radiation, seem to be conspiring in this idea: hair gone, skin blanched, primary and secondary sexual characteristics withered and sealed. “I have a slight mound where each breast began, and a kind of mound where my pubic bone should be, but that’s it,” explains Christine. “Nothing of woman is left.” The world, she says, has caught up with “those of gender-fluid persuasions”.

But this dream is both a lie and unsatisfactory. CIEL can only be sustained by extracting resources from the remnant Earth below. Its residents’ lives are docked at 50 years: any longer and they’d be an unacceptable burden on the finite reserves. Unfortunately, there’s no one to replace them. No sexual dimorphism means no having sex, which means no reproduction. CIEL is a dead end for humanity, and wombless, vaginaless Christine yearns for what used to be “between my legs, where a deeply wanting cavern used to cave toward my soul”. Female organs, so often presented as nothing but lack, are substantial enough to be missed when they’re gone.

In the absence of sex, the only thing left to do with one’s person is turn it into text. Culture on CIEL consists entirely of grafts – elaborate acts of storytelling scarified deep into pallid tissue, scrolls of skin stretched out and pouring down from the body, faces barely recognisable as faces after extreme modification. Christine is one great artist of the form; the other is Jean de Men, CIEL’s despotic leader, who converted trash fame into tyranny as the world fell apart. And yes, that does seem like a very on-the-heavily-customised-nose reference to Trump – but that’s not all the character is.

De Men is also a resurrection of his medieval The Romance of the Rose-author namesake, vicious misogyny and all – “all the women in his work demanded to be raped. All the women in his stories used language and actions designed to sanction, validate, and accelerate that act.” Stories are inscribed on bodies, shaping them to the culturally-imposed narrative; but stories can also be rejected, new ones written. Like the historical Christine de Pizan who blasted The Romance of the Rose in her 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies, Yuknavitch’s Christine kicks against the patriarch in writing. She authors a resistance by grafting a new and forbidden myth about the girl-soldier Joan of Dirt, who opposed Jean and was burned for her insurrection.

In Danny Denton’s debut The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow, the dystopia stays on the ground, in a version of Ireland where the rain is constant, surveillance universal and violence ubiquitous: “The city festered; the suburbs drowned. And the countryside changed forever… Ireland became a cesspool for deranged life.”

Like Yuknavitch’s, the tale Denton tells is one of storytelling. There’s a Sweeney who sits on a barstool, sputtering disregarded truths into his cups like the mythical mad king. The slammed-together science fiction and folklore echo Flann O’Brien, and so does Denton’s dizzying playfulness as he flits through narrators – parts are told by a Death-like figure called Mister Violence, parts in script form, all in a densely allusive future-dialect.

It’s another world where resources are overstretched and fertility is at a premium. “Are simply too many people fighting over what’s left?” asks one character, and the most fought-over thing of all is the baby that the Kid in Yellow begets by T, the daughter of gangster chief the Earlie King. T dies in childbirth, and now the two men (well, the Kid and the man) war for custody of their progeny, to Mister Violence’s delight. This leads to some spectacular set-pieces, but for all Denton’s stylish bluster, the story slips away. These are ciphers, not characters (compare The Third Policeman for proof that it’s entirely possible to do character while populating a fantastical hellscape), and what happens to them holds little weight.

Slight as the Kid, the King and the rest of them are, they do at least have the benefit of existing. Women, on the other hand, are thin on the ground. The Kid wonders: “Where the fukk are all the mothers?” It’s a good question, but an even better one is this: where has Denton put all the women who aren’t mothers, or substitute mothers, or whores, or dead? Unlike those of Yuknavitch, Denton’s metatextual flits don’t extend to an interest in the politics of who gets to tell these stories.

Maybe it takes Yuknavitch’s smarts about gender to write environmental dystopia: it’s impossible to think seriously about what humans are doing to the planet if you can’t think beyond the old macho ideas that fix the human subject as male (penetrating, hard, whole) and women (penetrated, soft, holed) as a subsidiary material. Vulnerability and humanity are not mutually exclusive, although our stories have long insisted otherwise.

In her own reading of the Joan of Arc story, Andrea Dworkin noted that Joan’s virginity wasn’t a statement of purity but “a radical renunciation of civil worthlessness rooted in real sexual practice”. In other words, Joan refused intercourse because
it would have marked her as female, with all the inferiority that entailed.

Yuknavitch’s weirdly beautiful Joan is a reinvention of what being human is. We are not something against nature but something within nature, permeable and dependant on the world, no matter how we tell ourselves we can stand above our planet and exploit it. 

The Book of Joan
Lidia Yuknavitch
Canongate, 288pp, £14.99

The Earlie King and the Kid in Yellow
Danny Denton
Granta Books, 368pp, £12.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist