the life of one of the most curious historical figures: John Aubrey

John_AubreyMichael Dirda at The Washington Post:

If one were to make a list of English literature’s great comfort books, those that generations of readers have returned to again and again for intelligent amusement, it would almost certainly include Boswell’s “Life of Samuel Johnson,” Jane Austen’s novels and the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. These are the old reliables that we discover in youth and are still happily rereading at 70.

To this select company I would not only add John Aubrey’s“Brief Lives,” but also now include Ruth Scurr’s innovative biography of its author, perhaps the most endearing figure of 17th century England. As a committed antiquary, collector and preservationist, as well as an inveterate scribbler, Aubrey (1626-1697) left a huge mass of papers about everything that interested him, from the natural history of his home county of Wiltshire to the stone circles at Avebury to tales of ghosts and fairies. Not just studious, he was moreover always eager for “ingenious conversation,” so that his learned friends soon included philosopher Thomas Hobbes, architect Christopher Wren, scientists Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke and William Harvey, diarist and gardener John Evelyn, mapmaker Wenceslaus Hollar, collector Elias Ashmole (after whom the Ashmolean Museum is named) and even William Penn, who would emigrate to America. Eventually Aubrey drafted fact-filled and anecdote-rich pen portraits of all his friends and many other eminences of the era, though the “Brief Lives” were never quite completed and were only published long after his death. Even now, a fair amount of this curious polymath’s more specialized writing remains in manuscript.

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