John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr

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John Aubrey: My Own Life by Ruth Scurr

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: Seventeenth-century antiquary and archaeologist John Aubrey was one of the earliest biographers, although his 'Brief Lives' remained unpublished for more than a century after his death. Scurr's book is a fascinating work which combines biography and memoirs through arranging extracts from his writings to form a continuous journal telling his story from childhood to old age, with perceptive observations of the natural world around him, great events and the work of a scholar writing around the time of the restoration.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 544 Date: April 2016
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099490630

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John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century antiquary, writer and archaeologist, occupies a peculiar, even unique place in English literature. When he died, the work for which he is most famous, 'Brief Lives', was a disorganised collection of manuscripts which remained unpublished for over a century. Only in the last hundred years or so has be become more widely recognised as an interesting character and perceptive commentator on society, scholarship and on his contemporaries during the post-restoration era.

This unusual man has given rise to an unusual book. Historian Ruth Scurr presents us with a volume which is partly biography, partly memoirs, based on extracts from his notes to form a kind of journal. The story begins with recollections of his childhood, written in 1634, when he was aged eight, to shortly before his death in 1697. In the opening pages we come face to face with the slightly precocious observations of a sickly child, a loner who learnt much from watching people around him, and from exploring the countryside and coastal areas of Wiltshire, the county of his birth. As a small boy he feels bored and isolated. 'My imagination is like a mirror of pure crystal water, which the least wind does disorder and unsmooth.'

The young man who evidently supported the monarchy, and feared the consequences of havoc wrought by the regime of Oliver Cromwell, seems to have been motivated partly by a mission to help preserve the heritage of old England before the commonwealth destroyed everything he loved. He was only sixteen years old and beginning to discover a love of libraries and intellectual company at Oxford when the civil war broke out, and made the unhappy discovery that soldiers were starting to destroy the treasures of the Bodleian and nearby colleges. This drove him to salvage medieval manuscripts from abbeys and churches which were being used as lining for pastry dishes, as well as pursue his hobbies of collecting petrified cockle shells, and digging up Roman coins. Soon he began to interview local people with interesting tales to tell, as if conscious of a need to document social history before the knowledge was lost altogether.

He was the first person to make records of prehistoric monuments and remains, and is credited as the man who discovered the Avebury stone circles. Aware of the importance of his work and that he had a major role to play in bequeathing his knowledge to later generations, he became a member of the newly-established Royal Society. From time to time he also commented on important events of the day, noting in May 1660 that after the recall and return of King Charles II there was so much rejoicing in Malmesbury, 'so many volleys of shot and cannon fired in celebration by the inhabitants of the hundred, that the noise thoroughly shook the abbey church.'

Early in his adult life, he realised that there was much interest to be derived in writing about his contemporaries, and became preoccupied with the idea of producing the short lives with which his name will forever be associated. Friends urged him to 'make haste' before anybody else stole his ideas. It was partly the threat of legal action and partly his inability to organise his records which prevented him from publishing them during his lifetime. When he knew that he was dying, he wrote sadly that his papers were chaotic; 'I wish I had transcribed them into a fair copy soon after my perambulation.'

His generous trusting nature and willingness to help fellow-antiquaries less conscientious than himself sometimes threatened to be his undoing. In one entry, we learn that two volumes of notes he lent to a friend via a third party had probably been lost as the latter had since died of smallpox, and at the same time his draft natural history of Wiltshire had reached another friend, but in a box 'broken to splinters' after having been months in transit. 'Thus we see how manuscripts are apt to be lost!' But he admitted that transcribing them was a tedious task, and one day he awoke in anguish, thinking he would die before he completed doing so, in which case all his work would have been lost.

Ruth Scurr has done us a grand service in writing, or rather compiling, this book. It is Aubrey's voice that speaks to us throughout, bookended by essays on the man's life, on 'England's Collector', and on his afterlife, or how he came to be appreciated long after his death. This is a remarkable insight into one of the man who gradually came to be recognized as one of the pioneer names of early British non-fiction writing.

For an alternative look at the seventeenth century and the age of Aubrey, we also recommend The Age of Genius: The Seventeenth Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind by A C Grayling.

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