Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ruth Scurr on John Aubrey

I'm 100 pages into Ruth Scurr's unusual new biography of John Aubrey (at this point available only from the UK), which has put Aubrey back front and center in my brain. He never strays too far from there, which I suspect is the case with anyone who falls under his spell: Aubrey's magpie eye for odd detail is catching; read a lot of Aubrey and it's hard not to see the world through his eyes, hear the stories of friends with his ear, walk past the remnants of the past on your city block with his antiquarian's interest directing your gaze.

Scurr wins us over with her introduction, which demonstrates that she gets Aubrey:
John Aubrey loved England. . . . From an early age, he saw his England slipping away and committed himself to preserving for posterity what remained of it--in stories, books, monuments and buildings. Aubrey was wonderfully imaginative. By posterity he meant us: people of the future, who would hear his voice through his writing and be grateful for the information he bequeathed. Throughout Aubrey's lifetime, the English were losing assuredness of their identity to a degree not to be repeated till the late twentieth century.
On its own, that could give a false impression of Aubrey as little more than a Colonel Blimp with an antiquarian bent. But such certainty and dismissal weren't in Aubrey's character:
Aubrey exemplifies an English sensibility to be proud of--charming, self-deprecating, moderate in all matters political and religious, learned but never ponderous.
As Anthony Powell--who wrote an underrated biography of Aubrey in an act of postwar throat-clearing before embarking on Dance--noted in his introduction to an edition of the Brief Lives, Aubrey displayed:
Intelligence, modesty, friendliness--and good sense where anyone but himself was concerned. His own writing is the best index to his character. . . . He is notably fair to political opponents, or to persons who had quarrelled with himself or his friends.
Scurr expands on that:
Agnostic and afraid of fanaticism, Aubrey tended always toward tolerance and open-mindedness in his religious and political views. He had both royalist and republican friends. He was close to Protestants, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.
He was fundamentally, to risk wordplay, an interested and disinterested man: someone who listened and collected stories largely as if he personally had nothing at stake--a quality, by the way, that he shares with Powell's Nick Jenkins.

It's good that Scurr earns our trust early, because what she's asking of us as readers is unusual: her book is not a traditional biography, but rather the diary she imagines Aubrey might have written--but a diary that is, crucially, built on Aubrey's own writings. She explains:
In constructing Aubrey's diary, I have used as many as possible of his own words. It is a diary based on the historical evidence; a diary that shows him living vividly, day by day, month by month, year by year, but with necessary gaps where nothing is known about where he was or what he was doing. I have not invented scenes or relationships for him as a novelist would, but neither have I followed the conventions of traditional biography. When he is silent, I do not speculate about where he was or what he was doing or thinking. When he speaks, I have modernised his words and spellings and indicated the original sources in endnotes. I have added words of my own to explain events or interactions that would otherwise be obscure and to frame or offset the charm of Aubrey's own turns of phrase.
In other words, this is a daring book. Biography, often a dreadfully conventional form, is also one that has long been open to experiment, as biographers from Plutarch to Strachey could attest. And if any author lends himself to this sort of patchwork approach, it's Aubrey: his writings were, as Powell notes in his biography, "tumultuarily" assembled, if assembled at all. He published but one book in his lifetime, leaving behind an absolute mare's nest of papers. These days, to be an Aubrey fan means having a nice edition of the Brief Lives on one's shelves alongside, at best, a few hideous print-on-demand editions of the Miscellanies and the Remains of Gentilism and Judaism. To have a biographer who is willing to jigsaw his scrap heap into a readable whole is an unexpected gift.

And yet . . . I find myself wanting to know just a bit more than Scurr's notes give me, thus far. Maybe it's my own odd relationship with quotation: I will admit that when I read these days in the back of my mind is always the question of whether a well-turned phrase would fit on Twitter.  I am, in a sense, always commonplace-booking. (FWIW, I don't think it's harming my reading, but I could be deluding myself.) And Aubrey is a writer I love quoting. So as I'm reading Scurr's book, I keep hitting phrases that stop me in my tracks--like this one, from September 1643, after Osney Abbey, pressed into service as a gunpowder factory during the Civil War, is blown up: "I was fearful the ruins would collapse from neglect, but war has helped them on their way." It reads like Aubrey, certainly--but is it him? There's no note for that paragraph, so I'm assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that the note to the preceding paragraph remains controlling. If so, the source is a volume of letters to Aubrey. So is that phrase his, or--impressively--Scurr's?

What I want would, I realize, be unmarketable: basically an Aubreyan version of a red-letter Bible, where every word that is Aubrey's is marked as such, all interpolations indicated. The result would be clear in its construction, but borderline unreadable. And is that even a reasonable way to read the book? I suspect not, honestly, that it's not fair to Scurr's intentions nor to the quality of the book itself. I suspect I should simply put my desire to quote in abeyance for a few days, and trust to what I see on the page: namely, that Scurr knows what she's doing, and that, whatever paste-up is going on behind the scenes, her work as presented is seamless, and convincing. For in those moments on the train today when the questioning part of my brain unexpectedly slipped into idle, I found myself wholly wrapped up: this feels like Aubrey's voice, and it's incredible. If it were fiction, and built in exactly the same way, I would be in awe. That Scurr is making an additional claim, while being honest about her methods, should add, rather than detract.

In that spirit, I'll close by sharing a passage that I think must come from Aubrey's writings on education, and which Scurr places right after the young Oxford student's rapturous statement, "All this time I am falling deeper and deeper in love with books":
In London, I get lost among the piles of books for sale in St Paul's churchyard; most of them are sold in sheets, but some are already bound. I pick up one after another without any idea where to begin: the books that are bound all look alike. How to tell which will be worth buying with my spare money? I come away empty-handed, overwhelmed, as though the books have become trees again and I am wandering blind in a forest. Back in Dr Bathurst's library, I can explore more calmly; I am starting to find my way.
As am I, I think, through this remarkable book.

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