The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century by Hugh Aldersey-Williams, book review: Genial, thorough look at a beautiful mind

Captures Browne's bracing embrace of 'uncertainty'

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Consider this list of words: medical, carnal, electricity, amphibious, biped, migrant, follicle, polarity, botanist, hallucination. I could go on, at length. Sir Thomas Browne of Norwich (1605-1682) – doctor, writer, scientist, philosopher – coined 784 words and fixed the modern usage of more than 1,600 more. In keeping with his outlook, Browne’s lexical novelties tend to be handy, precise and irreplaceable, rooted in observation but not without an aura of mystery.

The author of Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall, who quietly practised his healing art in Norwich for 45 years, thought and wrote while England shook with civil strife. Browne has never lacked literary admirers for what Hugh Aldersey-Williams calls “his civility, his tolerance, his good humour, his wit, and his sheer style”. Beyond the illustrious fans he cites – from Virginia Woolf to WG Sebald – I recall an interview at his book-stacked home in Milan with the legendary Italian polymath, Roberto Calasso. It turned out that Calasso had written his PhD thesis on Browne.

Rather than echo the many tributes that hail Browne’s hyper-imaginative fusion of “baroque prose” with “scientific investigation”, Aldersey-Williams has written the sort of book the good doctor might himself applaud. Not a conventional biography, this genial, generous but tough-minded excursion through its subject’s life and afterlife explores 10 topics that inspired or troubled Browne. From “physic” (medicine) to tolerance, faith to melancholy, Aldersey-Williams salutes but also interrogates an ever-fertile mind.

Aldersey-Williams backs Browne’s quest for an open-minded middle way between blind faith and reductive materialism; the secularity of Richard Dawkins gets short shrift. But he knows that his sceptical, humane hero could stumble. He puts critical stress on the Bury St Edmunds witch trial which, in 1662, summoned Dr Browne as an expert witness. “Equivocal to a fault”, he failed to state outright that two accused old women had not practised witchcraft. Both were hanged.

Aldersey-Williams has fewer doubts about the doctor’s achievements. From archaeological fieldwork to the psychological aspects of illness, the serene physician strode far ahead of his time. In his hero’s footsteps, the disciple takes us on his own scientific journeys, from a quest for five-fold patterns in nature to a hunt for Norfolk funerary urns. Aldersey-Williams relishes Browne’s plentiful contradictions: “He is curious, he is fallible, he is doomy, he is hopeful”. Above all, the book celebrates his bracing embrace of “uncertainty”; his taste for the anomalous rather than the incontrovertible. Both of those adjectives we also owe to Browne.