John Aubrey was interested in the biographical rather than the historical elements of great events. He found out all he could about the people of his time; some of it is gossip, some of it actual historical fact. At Oxford he came under the influence of antiquaries, and he began to do research on biography of a more sophisticated and indeed scientific kind than had previously been practiced. He worked from local records, birth and death registers, letters, legal documents, and even from tombstones in order to acquire information for his great series of BRIEF LIVES. He evaluated this material as well as he could and wrote frequently of the need to possess accurate information of the past lest it become simply a myth. For his scientific spirit of inquiry he was honored by the Royal Society, becoming one of the original founding members.
The people described in the BRIEF LIVES, first published as LIVES OF EMINENT MEN in 1813, are the great men and women of the seventeenth century. There is very little in this biographical work that reflects on those who are not notable, who have not, by birth or accomplishment, become the leaders of their time, among them John Florio, George Herbert, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Raleigh. Aubrey’s method of dealing with his subjects is both factual and interpretative. In his life of Milton he begins, for example, with a short account of the verifiable facts of the poet’s birth and ancestry. Next he presents an account of the subject’s family. Aubrey then devotes sections to education, travel, and accomplishments. The latter are treated with much care, and his account of things done and written is an important repository for our own historical inquiries. Aubrey is particular to add other information about the men and women in his work; of great interest is his recounting of their appearance and taste. He frequently concludes his biographical sketch with a brief evaluation of the work or character of the subject.
One of the great constants of BRIEF LIVES is its emphasis on what may be called the human element. Aubrey, like most men of his age, was fascinated not so much by facts of a statistical kind as he was by the human personality itself. In this respect his book is a landmark of interpretative biography. For example, we find that John Milton had an “ingeniose Soul” in “a beautifull and well proportioned body.” Aubrey then remarks that he and Milton were approximately of the same size and build. The comparison is not intended to be invidious; Aubrey is simply interested in the most obvious and actual things about the subject. He adds other information that would seem superfluous if it did not reveal matter of interest both about the subject and the man describing him, pointing out that Milton was generally a healthy man, and that he seldom “tooke any physique.”
Aubrey is able to write about things that a historian would give a great deal to have witnessed. When he writes about General Monk, the man responsible for the restoration of Charles II, he goes to his own memory of the events of 1660 and describes his personal impressions of the event. He mentions not only the day but the very hour, noting that Monk arrived in London at mid-day and went shortly thereafter directly to the House of Parliament. Aubrey adds that Monk refused, in modesty, to sit down while in the house, that he went to dinner with certain of the members, and that he was instrumental in causing the Parliament to vote for the return of Charles Stuart. In the midst of these recollections, some trivial and some vital, Aubrey delivers himself of obiter dicta: his own opinion of certain members of Parliament and their actions.
Often the matter of the biography seems...
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