Book review: John Aubrey: My Own Life, by Ruth Scurr

A revealing portrait of a polymath who was no bumbling old fool

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The Independent Culture

John Aubrey, the 17th-century antiquarian, gained modern fame through Patrick Garland’s 1967 play Brief Lives, in which he was hilariously portrayed by Roy Dotrice as an ancient, bumbling scatterbrain.

My Own Life, deftly constructed by a Cambridge historian from several of Aubrey’s works, corrects this image of an entertaining dotard. Scurr’s hero (“a wonderful friend”) emerges, rather,  as an impressive polymath.

Best known today as the inventor of a racy form of biography in which, according to Aubrey’s splendid description, “the very pudenda are uncovered”, he was also a folklorist, keen experimenter (he was an early member of the Royal Society) and devoted archaeologist, who discovered the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge and helped preserve Avebury (“it excels Stonehenge as a cathedral does a parish church”).

He envisaged the Kennet & Avon canal a century before it was built and presaged the balloon age by a similar period. His interests encompassed both blood transfusion and fairies. He famously reported “a spirit that disappeared with a curious perfume and most melodious twang.”

Scurr has conjured up another transporting diary of the era, one that oscillates between the intellectual curiosity of John Evelyn and the entertaining fallibility of Samuel Pepys. Occasionally, Aubrey’s notes are lacklustre, but his dazzling contemporaries, including Wren, Pepys, Newton and Hobbes are brought to life with striking detail. We learn, for example, that the scientist Robert Hooke was obliged to “stay in bed until 11 after drinking a gallon of posset”.

The researchers of four centuries ago put our own academics to shame with their fearless probing. It is hard to imagine modern archaeologists following the example of predecessors who took advantage of the Great Fire to explore the exposed graves in St Paul’s. “They found the body lay in liquor like boiled brawn. They both tasted it. Mr Wylde said it had something of the taste of iron.”

Aubrey’s view of women tended to depend on their financial prospects. “Katherine Ryves, whom I was to marry, has died to my great loss…her portion was more than £2,000 a year and her husband [would receive] another £1,000 a year.” But he was hugely generous to colleagues. Sadly, this altruism was ruthlessly exploited by his fellow antiquary Anthony Wood. The pain this caused echoes across the centuries: “My heart is ready to break at Wood’s betrayal.”

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