He had a knack for friendship, Aubrey. An only child of respectable Wiltshire gentry, he was given to wandering the countryside and chatting up the locals, not least of all the geriatrics whose memories went back as far as King Edward VI. He was educated somewhat haphazardly at home (a stray copy of Bacon, another of geometry) and later more traditionally at Malmesbury Grammar School before matriculating at Trinity Oxford just in time (1642) for the English Civil War to cut short his studies.* He was off then to study law at Middle Temple – another line of inquiry he dropped.
The problem for Aubrey was his expansive nature. Law, or any other single subject, was too small an arena for a restless curiosity and a natural ebullience. He was interested in everything and anything, and more to point, everyone and anyone. He wrote letters in their hundreds on every subject under the sun – natural philosophy, mathematics, astronomy, architecture, education, topography, musicology and more, enough to qualify him as an early member of the Royal Society. He had interest early English archaeology- his survey of Stonehenge did not overlook the small depressions outside the stone bits, the so-called Aubrey Holes, now understood to be the intended for sighting posts.
Inspiration was never lacking, nor even the manic energy of putting pen to paper. His failing grace was the inability to see any large project through to the end. There was simply too much of interest in the world. Over time, he managed to gather and jot down enough material to fill several books, not once of them (excepting his Miscellanies) published in his lifetime.
In 1652 his father died leaving him a good deal of land and a lot of bad debts. A savvier man might have found a way to juggle the two and find satisfactory resolution. Aubrey, alas, was of a different temperament, and a good deal of his time ever after was spent in shrinking from creditors, who had stronger laws on their side than they do today. One by one the various estates were put on the block to satisfy the creditors, and in the time between these auctions, Aubrey continued his various inquiries.
By 1670, it was all gone – “From 1670 I thank God I have enjoyed a happy Delitescency” – and he had to rely on the kindness of friends.
And friends he had in abundance. It was that amiable disposition, joined with his natural and genuine curiosity. Any journalist worth his salt will tell you that people love nothing better than to talk about themselves, and Aubrey liked nothing better than to listen. High, low, young, old, obscure, famous, infamous – he didn’t care, and as a result, he got anecdotes stretching from the veterans of Shakespeare’s England all the way through the Restoration, and made a point of writing them all down. Long, well oiled meals were one means of getting people to open up. While others slept it off, he woke early and, in the face of hangover (“Sot that I am!”), struggled to write down all he could remember of the previous evening’s indiscretions. And as with so many good gossips, he was wonderfully disorganized.
In 1667 he met the Oxford antiquarian Anthony Wood (1632-1695), a harmless drudge with a taste for archives but a limited acquaintanceship with the good and the great. Aubrey by contrast knew everyone. Aubrey offered to pass on material that he picked up in the course of his endless socializing for the scholar to use as he saw fit. Much that Aubrey jotted down was hot stuff indeed, but he trusted Wood’s discretion, and for some years the unlikely partnership seemed to work.
Problems arose in that Wood ill advisedly published some insinuations about Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon. Libel law has a long a cherished tradition in England, and Wood was served . His defense rested on the fact that the information in question had originated with Aubrey. The defense did not hold, and when the antiquarian lost the case, he held it against Aubrey ever after. (Wood got his own back in destroying about a third of what would have been the Brief Lives, including the account of Sir Christopher Wren.) His summing up of his one time friend: “He was a shiftless person, roving and magotie-headed, and sometimes little better than crased… And being exceedingly credulous, would stuff his many letters sent A. W. with follies and misinformations.”
Possibly true. His account of John Colet (1467- 1519 Scottish theologian), or rather, his corpse, does rather stretch credulity: “After the Conflagration, (his monument being broken) somebody made a little hole towards the upper edge of his Coffin, which was closed like the coffin of a Pye and was full of a Liquour which conserved the body. Mr Wyld and Ralph Greatorex tasted it and ‘twas of a kind of insipid tast, something of an Ironish tast.”
But what great works do not contain error, and how few books at all give such consistent pleasure? Here as in life, the famous and the obscure mingle, and in the doing Aubrey giving us a portrait of the age itself. He shows respect where respect is due, compassion where appropriate, and to the extent that he is a moralist at all, it is to point out that we can learn from other peoples’ errors, and bemoan the fragility of human endeavour.
Consider his Sir Charles Cavendish (1591-1654), who on the continent bought “of many Manuscript Mathematical books as filled a Hoggesheadwhiched he intended to have printed.” He died unexpectedly soon and his executrix “sold this incomparable Collection aforesaid, by weight to the past-board makers for Wast-paper. A good Caution for those that have good MSS. to take care to see them printed in their life-times.”)
The travails of the Mathematician Thomas Allen 1542-1630) who, visiting a friend, left his “Watch in the Chamber windowe. The maydes came in to make the Bed, and hearing a thing in a case cry Tick Tick Tick, presently concluded that there was his Devill, and tooke it by the String with the tongs, and threw it out of the window into the Mote (to drown the Devill). It so happened that the string hung on a spring of an elder that grew out of the Mote, and this confirmed them that ‘twas the Devill. So the good old Gentleman gott his Watch again.”
The unfortunate Elizabeth Broughton, who was locked up in a tower by her father when he discovered her “inclinations” but who escaped to London “and did sett up for her self. She was a most exquisite beautie, as finely shaped as Nature could frame; had a delicate Witt. She was soon taken notice of at London, and her price was very deare – a second Thais. Richard, Earle of Dorset, kept her…At last she grew common and infamous and gott the Pox, of which she died.”
Or how about the dramatic end of Gunpowder plotter Sir Everard Digby? “When his heart was pluct out by the Executioner (who, secundum formam, cryed, Here is the heart of a Traytor!) it is credibly reported, he replied, Thou liest!”
And to end on a base note, here he is describing Edward De Vere (putative Shakespeare author) : “This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell, 7 yeares. On his returne, the Queen welcomed him home, and sayd, My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.”
Aubrey himself died in 1697 of apoplexy and is buried in Oxford. The first edition of his sketches came out in 188?, greatly redacted to spare delicate sensibilities. Other editions have followed, all of them of the snippets and best of variety, and now at long last we are promised from Oxford University Press and the painstaking efforts of Prof. Kate Bennett a complete edition.
* At least, he was supposed to be studying. In practice he was drawn to the doings of mathematicians and chemists who provided much for the entertaining side of science. Chemistry was a matter of let’s put these things together and see what happens. Well, absent the atomic model, it’s really a matter of hit or miss. Here he was introduced to aurum fulminans, a byproduct of the quest of turning base matter to gold. Normally failed experiments would be melted down to recover the seed gold (required to get the transformation process going). This worked fine until they began to work with aqua-regia, in which case gold hydrazide appeared. This green compound would, if scratched, pounded, or heated, react explosively. As a bar trick, his friend Robert Hooke would put a measure of the stuff in a spoon, place a coin on top, then strike a table with the spoon. Explosion and airborne shillings.