Brief Lives by John Aubrey

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Brief Lives by John Aubrey

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: Travel back through time to the 1600's, and enjoy the company of John Aubrey. Insightful, witty, and incredibly funny, these written portraits of figures from his era are immensely readable today. A must read for lovers of history, who'll be sure to enjoy the anecdotal insights, but also the glorious sense of humour that pervades this book.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: April 2016
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 9781784870331

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John Aubrey was a modest man, an antiquarian and the inventor of modern biography. His lives of the prominent figures of his generation include Shakespeare, Milton, and Sir Walter Raleigh. Funny, illuminating and full of historical details, they have been plundered by historians for centuries. Here Aubrey's biographical writings are collected, painting a series of unforgettable portraits of the characters of his day – all more alive and kicking than in a conventional history book.

Aubrey was born in 1626, and an isolated childhood led him to becoming a hugely social adult – always surrounded by people, he found himself among the movers and shapers of 17th century England. Aubrey always intended for his Brief Lives to be private works – not fit for public consumption. As a result, they are filled with salacious details, and instead of being dry academic biographies, they are fit to burst with juicy hearsay and second hand gossip.

I can't deny that I was a little worried when I chose to read a book written in the 1600's – the differences in language and style can often make it a bit of a chore to read books of that age. However, I had heard that Aubrey's Brief Lives were required reading for anyone with an interest in history, so took the plunge.

Happily, I was rewarded for that decision! If you can imagine (this is a little far-fetched, so please bear with me), having a bewigged 17th Century best friend, talkative, witty, clever, and hugely fond of sharing gossip with his wonderfully sharp tongue – then you have a fairly good summary of what it's like to read Brief Lives. You'll be taken on a rapid journey through dozens of lives – some the subjects you'll be familiar with, and some of whom will be unknown. It's actually these unknowns who I enjoyed the most – Aubrey really goes to town with the salacious details on some of them, and others paint pictures of lives that many of us would recognise today. Some lives do drag a little, and some subtleties and meanings of the language were lost on me – but overall, the experience was a good one.

An introduction by Ruth Scurr, and a foreword by Oliver Watson Dick provide context and background, with Watson Dick's foreword lengthy but ultimately fascinating. The cover design is rather lovely too – the simple red and black design of Vintage classics really makes the book stand out.

A charming, informative and hilarious read – I heartily recommend Brief Lives to those history lovers who have yet to read it. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy. For further reading I would recommend John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr - with the writing by Ruth Scurr who wrote the introduction for Brief Lives. It serves as a detailed insight into the fascinating life of Aubrey – another life that was funny, exciting, and all too brief.

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