Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"It brings him to a Loosenesse," Or, John Aubrey and Dr. John Pell

In the midst of poet Ted Walker's charming, modest memoir of childhood, The High Path (1982)--one of a number of minor memoirs I've read lately, the result of having falling for UK publisher Slightly Foxed's irresistible list of same--the author describes the poor quality of the school he attended as a teen, Steyning Grammar School, and its staff of "ungifted amateurs." World War II was partly to blame, competent teachers having been called away to address the realm's more pressing needs, and Walker acknowledges that by the 1950s,
better men were to replace most of--but not all--the incompetent, the cruel, the ignorant, the snobbish, the prejudiced, the mad, the dangerous, the sexually perverted.
Yet, puzzlingly, the school was well thought-of among parents in the region. Walker can't figure it out: Steyning seems to have shown no signs of academic distinction at any point in its three-plus centuries--its only claim to fame being
a former pupil [who was] a seventeenth-century mathematician who invented the division sign and earned himself a page in Aubrey's Brief Lives.
And that's where I had to put the book down for a bit--for if ever a passage called out, "Levi, investigate!", this was clearly it.

The mathematician is Dr. John Pell (1611–1685), and Aubrey's account of his life and achievements is a wonderful reminder of the strange and entertaining qualities that make Aubrey worth returning to again and again. He begins with the bare facts, in his usual fashion:
John Pell, S. T. Dr., was the son of John, who was the son of John. His father dyed when his son John was but 5 yeares old and six weeks, and left him an excellent library.
Am I wrong in imagining that Aubrey's presentation suggests that to be a reasonable tradeoff, to be fatherless but well booked?

Aubrey traces Dr. Pell's career, which leads him, against all his inclinations, to the church, for, as the Lord Bishop of Lincoln laments to him,
Alasse! what a sad case it is that in this great and opulent kingdome there is no publick encouragement for the excelling in any Profession but that of the Law and Divinity.
After at first turning down offers of benefices in favor of continuing his mathematical studies, Pell eventually was driven by poverty (brought about in part because Oliver Cromwell died before getting around to paying him for some work as envoy of the Protectorate to Switzerland) to accept two parishes, one from "Gilbert Sheldon, Lord Bishop of Lundon," and one from the newly crowned Charles II. The livings were far from auspicious: he was given
the scurvy Parsonage of Lanedon cum Basseldon in the infamous and unhealthy (aguesh) Hundreds of Essex (they call it Killpriest sarcastically) and King Charles the Second gave him the Parsonage of Fobing, 4 miles distant.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a smart pastor might want to make his seat in Fobing rather than in Killpriest, but you'd be wrong:
At Fobbing, seven curates dyed within the first ten yeares; in sixteen yeares, six of those that had been his Curates at Laindon are dead; besides those that went away from both places; and the death of his Wife, servants, and grandchildren.
And J. F. Powers's curates think they have it bad!

Pell not unreasonably thought this worthy of complaint, but when he put his case for the "unhealthinesse" of his benefice to Sheldon, who in the interim had been raised to the Archbishopric of Canterbury, he received scant sympathy:
[S]ayd my Lord, I doe not intend that you shall live there. No, sayd Pell, but your Grace does intend that I shall die there.
If a library is sufficient compensation for a lost father, perhaps the opening for a perfect bon mot is compensation for the ague?

Aubrey goes on to profess his personal friendship for Pell, and to display astonishment that one so learned should continue on so poor, living in
an obscure lodging, three stories high, in Jermyn Street, next to the signe of the Ship, wanting not only bookes but his proper MSS, which are many.
Poverty, however, seems not to have kept Pell from his studies in mathematics; while Aubrey fails to mention the invention of the division sign, he does note more vaguely that Pell "was the first inventor of that excellent way or method of the marginall working in Algebra." Oh, and that
Dr. Pell haz often sayd to me that when he solves a Question, he straines every nerve about him, and that now in his old age it brings him to a Loosenesse.
Money, nonetheless, continued to be a problem, and death found him "so indigent that he wanted necessarys, even paper and Inke, and he had not 6d in his purse."

The Life closes with an almost too perfectly Aubreyan touch, a bit of information seemingly out of nowhere, left on its own without support or clarification:
He dyed of a broken heart.
It is always a thing to be hoped that the gods pay little attention to the idle curses of ten-year-olds, but it seems especially important in this case, lest poor Pell be roasting in hell for all eternity on a spit shaped like this: ÷.

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