Thursday, May 01, 2008

"Munday after Christmas was in danger to be spoiled by my horse," or, More Aubreyan Adventures!

In a post last week about the grave illnesses from which John Aubrey suffered as a child, I mentioned that the sketchy autobiographical notes that were appended to the 1696 edition of Aubrey's Miscellaneous Notes Upon Various Subjects tell of the many non-medical travails he endured in succeeding years. General bad fortune--mostly related to the chronic indebtedness caused by the labyrinthine restrictions and complicated debts encumbering his inherited property--alternates with threats of violent death, the reasons for which are often unclear.

Here, as promised, is a bit more detail:
1643. April and May, the Small Pox at Oxon; after left that ingenious place for three years led a sad life in the Country.

1656. Sept. 1655 or rather I think 1656 I began my chargeable tedious lawe Suite on the Entaile in Brcknockshire and Monmouthshire. This yeare and the last was a strange yeare to me. Several love and lawe suites.

1666. This yeare all my business and affairs ran kim kam, nothing tooke effect, as if I had been under an ill tongue. Treacheries in abundance against me.

1669 and 1670 I sold all my Estate in Wilts. From 1670 to this very day (I thank God) I have enjoyed a happy delitescency.

1671. Danger of Arrests.

1677. Latter end of June an impostume brake in my head. Mdm. St John's night 1673 in danger of being run through with a sword by a young templer at M. Burges' chamber in the M. Temple.

I was in danger of being killed by William Earl of Pembroke then Lord Herbert at the election of Sir William Salkeld for New Sarum. I have been in danger of being drowned twice.
Aubrey's equating of lawsuits and love suits in the entry for 1656 prompts a smile every time--especially given the often vexed outcomes of both activities. Another of the great joys of this selection are the disused seventeenth-century words he offers. Delitescence, or secluded retirement, is nice; but nothing can quite compare to kim kam, which the Oxford English Dictionary, drawing on Aubrey's usage and three others from the same period, defines as "Crooked, awkward, perverse, contrary." I see no reason that we all shouldn't try to return kim kam to circulation, posthaste.

Aubrey's autobiographical notes somewhat resemble his brief lives, though they're far more fragmentary; so much is left out that someone unfamiliar with Aubrey's less-than-methodical, drink-fueled work habits might naturally assume that he was being deliberately suggestive, writing with a sly wink. More likely is that, just as with his Lives, Aubrey always meant to put together something more detailed, but his habitual disorganization and dissipation got the better of him.

Perhaps that knowledge is what leads me to detect in these minimal notes some tiny hints of that strain of self-excoriation, of frustrated acknowledgment of failures of character or resolve, that I find so inexplicably charming in other favorite writers such as Cyril Connolly, Samuel Pepys, James Boswell, and even, in his diaries, Samuel Johnson. Edmund Wilson, in his introduction to the 1962 edition of Aubrey's Brief Lives, notes that at the points when Aubrey's Lives most clearly reveal the haziness of his memories of late-night conversations, the original manuscripts are often dotted with the frustrated exclamation, "Sot that I am!"

But fan that I am of the fragment, the incomplete, the hopelessly heterogenous, I find the Miscellanies endless fun; I'll be dipping into it for years. Like when I need a cure for toothache--
Take a new nail, and make the gum bleed with it, and then drive it into an oak. This did cure William Neal's son, a very stout gentleman, when he was almost mad with the pain, and had a mind to have pistolled himself.
--or when my horses have been bewitched--
Mr. Sp. told me that his horse which was bewitched, would break bridles and strong halters, like a Samson. They filled a bottle of the horse's urine, stopped it with a cork and bound it fast in, and then buried it underground: and the party suspected to be the witch, felt ill, that he could not make water, of which he died. When they took up. the bottle, the urine was almost gone; so, that they did believe, that if the fellow could have lived a little longer, he had recovered.
--or, perhaps most important, when I need to save myself from the horror of sour beer on a stormy summer night:
In Herefordshire, and other parts, they do put a cold iron bar upon their barrels, to preserve their beer from being soured by thunder. This is a common practice in Kent.
Sot that Aubrey was, I'll enjoy this messy volume and be grateful.

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