‘My head’, John Aubrey once said, ‘was always working, never idle, and even travelling did glean some observations, some whereof are to be valued.’
No doubt at all about that, even if, as he admitted, he ‘set things down tumultuarily, as if tumbled out of a Sack’. Indeed, his lack of discipline is perhaps the chief reason why the collection of his biographical notes, known as Brief Lives, survives as one of the most delightful of all books about life in seventeenth-century England and the personalities who lived it.
Aubrey was born in 1626, and happily for us never needed to work. The son of a debt-ridden Wiltshire squire, he squandered what money he saved from the wreck of his inheritance on good living and women (‘several love and law-suits’, he noted for the year 1656) and was finally bankrupted by Joane Sumner, who he planned to marry but who instead sued him, and won. From then on he ‘enjoyed a happy delitescency’, trading on his cheerfulness, good humour and generous talent for friendship to become a permanent guest, moving from one amiable friend’s or patron’s house to another, carrying with him on horseback his ‘dust basket’ crammed with up to two quires of folio paper covered with random notes.
His wit was equal to paying for his keep as a guest in the houses of his patrons. Almost every day he must have come down to dinner with another good anecdote, and it is not surprising that he never ran out of refuges, or that his hosts often plied him with liquor to draw out more and more dangerously libellous stories, with the result that when he rose early in the morning, as was his habit, to write up his notes, he was often (‘sot that I am’) suffering from a hangover, which led to some of the more obvious inaccuracies. (To do him justice, he often later corrected them.)
He began collecting other people’s memories almost in childhood: ‘When a boy’ (he wrote of himself, in the third person) ‘he did
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