A historian and literary critic offers a unique and revealing look at the life of English philosopher John Aubrey (1626-1697), told in Aubrey’s voice in the form of a diary.
Scurr (History and Politics/Cambridge Univ.; Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution, 2006) has hit upon a compelling narrative device. Although she has traditional introductory and closing chapters, the bulk of the biography deals with the quotidian affairs of Aubrey, who was a friend and/or acquaintance of some of the great early Enlightenment names, including Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke (with whom Aubrey often hung out in coffee shops, new to London), Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, and numerous others. Aubrey also lived during some of the most tempestuous times in English history—Charles I, Cromwell, the Restoration, the Great Fire of London, the ascent of William and Mary, the unspeakable violence practiced upon Roman Catholics: Aubrey wrote about all of it. Scurr also shows us, through Aubrey’s work, the birth and growth of science in England, including Hooke’s contention that Newton had stolen his ideas. As the author notes, Aubrey was obsessed with English history and geography. He did massive, detailed studies of the countryside (including Stonehenge), studies not duly credited until centuries later. But among the delights of Scurr’s account are the practices and beliefs that conflicted with the emerging science of his day—e.g., witchcraft, astrology, and primitive medicine (Aubrey recommended egg white and sugar to palliate/cure gonorrhea). We also witness Aubrey’s struggles with finances (he frequently borrowed from Hooke), his internecine struggles with his brother, his failures in love (one woman he’d hoped to marry took him not to the altar but to court—more than once), his aches and pains, and his moods.
A creative, engaging, and profoundly moving account of a man’s fierce desire to discover, understand, and preserve.