john Aubrey: biographer, antiquarian and procrastinator

Fbc54c3e-97d0-4447-976e-e7cd6f2715d9Lisa Jardine at the Financial Times:

We may not have entirely endorsed his contemporary Anthony Wood’s unkind assessment of Aubrey as “a shiftless person, roving and magoty-headed, and sometimes little better than crazed”. But neither did we take Scurr’s care to listen to his personal authorial voice.

Aubrey was born in north Wiltshire in 1626, to a gentry family whose precarious finances collapsed after his father’s death. He attended Oxford as a gentleman-commoner during the 1640s at the height of the English civil war, when the university was the headquarters of Charles I and besieged by the Commonwealth forces. The intellectual, social and emotional upheaval Aubrey experienced in his early years presaged a lifetime of disruption and disturbance, exacerbated by his frequent need to prevent his creditors from catching up with him.

He had an irrepressible urge to record everything around him that took his attention. His curiosity matched the intellectual ferment of the times. He was, wrote his friend George Ent, one “whose boundlesse mind/Scarce within Learnings compasse is confin’d”. He was an early Fellow of the Royal Society, a restless and insatiable pursuer of fragments of material and written culture from the past, and an inveterate compiler of obscure information. As Scurr has written, he was “an antiquary, collecting remnants of history to save them from the deluge of time.

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