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the Complete Review
the complete review - (auto)biographical


John Aubrey, My Own Life

Ruth Scurr

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To purchase John Aubrey, My Own Life

Title: John Aubrey, My Own Life
Author: Ruth Scurr
Genre: Biography
Written: 2015
Length: 432 pages
Availability: John Aubrey, My Own Life - US
John Aubrey, My Own Life - UK
John Aubrey, My Own Life - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : thoroughly entertaining, but limited as biography

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 11/4/2015 .
Financial Times . 13/3/2015 Lisa Jardine
The Guardian A 13/3/2015 Alexandra Harris
The Independent . 25/5/2015 Christopher Hirst
Irish Times C 10/5/2015 Andrew Hadfield
Literary Review . 5/2015 Blair Warden
London Rev. of Books . 8/10/2015 Adam Smyth
New Statesman . 19/3/2015 Frances Wilson
The NY Times A 8/9/2016 Dwight Garner
The Spectator B+ 14/3/2015 Hilary Spurling
The Sunday Times . 15/3/2015 John Carey
The Telegraph . 22/3/2015 Daisy Hay
The Times . 7/3/2015 David Aaronovitch
TLS A+ 27/2/2015 Stuart Kelly
The Washington Post . 7/9/2016 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Almost -- if not quite -- all very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "It fits him perfectly. Aubrey made himself so present in his pages, and wrote so informally -- so "tumultuarily", as he liked to say -- that Ms Scurr’s invention feels entirely natural. She has modernised his spelling and stitched in clarifications, but on the whole this is Aubrey speaking. (...) Ms Scurr has done him proud." - The Economist

  • "It is this mismatch between the volume of unprocessed output, the grand aspirations, and then the hesitations and failures to bring the work to fruition, that Scurr’s diary format manages for the first time poignantly to capture. (...) (I)s it, in the end, justifiable to call the transformation of Aubrey’s life-long jottings and memoranda into a first-person diary narrative a work of history and scholarship ? Sceptical as I initially was, I draw on my own historian’s experience to answer, in the end, in the affirmative." - Lisa Jardine, Financial Times

  • "Scurr’s judgment and scholarship in constructing Aubrey’s own account of events are so flawless that she allows us almost to forget that she is there. Formal inventiveness can be showy, but Scurr’s invention is of the most self-effacing kind. (...) Reading this book, we seem to "catch sight of" the past." - Alexandra Harris, The Guardian

  • "Occasionally, Aubrey’s notes are lacklustre, but his dazzling contemporaries, including Wren, Pepys, Newton and Hobbes are brought to life with striking detail." - Christopher Hirst, The Independent

  • "Clever as the book is, and enjoyable as it is to read in places, I am not persuaded that this is a good idea or an experiment that should be repeated. (...) What we have here is a hybrid, a work that is not really useful as a sensible guide, but nor is it a work of fiction. The style veers uneasily between a cod antiquarianism (...) and a clumsy subacademic prose" - Andrew Hadfield, Irish Times

  • "Scurr’s idea is joyously witty. The diary is a form perfectly suited to Aubrey, a collector of fragments. (...) The principal effect of this paring away of narrative is that Scurr, rather than Aubrey, disappears into the background." - Frances Wilson, New Statesman

  • "(A) thoroughgoing delight. (...) The result is a book that may not rival Samuel Pepys’s diary in terms of absolute freshness of expression (Aubrey and Pepys were contemporaries), but to remark that it comes close is no faint praise. (...) This is a funny book, and a wise and moving one, that delivers to us a man in full." - Dwight Garner, The New York Times

  • "For anyone already familiar with his writing, she eliminates much of his inimitable flavour by smoothing out irregularities, modernising spelling and usage, in general imposing a conformity intrinsically alien to Aubrey. The result is blander than the original, and decidedly more prosaic, if easier to read. (...) But even diehard Aubrey fans will find ample compensation in Scurr, especially in the richness and range of her sources." - Hilary Spurling, The Spectator

  • "It is a risky approach and one that in the hands of a lesser writer could easily descend into parody. Scurr sets herself the challenge of catching the cadences of Aubrey’s voice, and of sustaining that voice over 400 pages. It is testament to her skill that you quickly stop thinking about technique and instead slip happily into the company of the character she has created. The wealth of research and the seams between imagination and reality disappear from view. This is truly selfless biography, in which the biographer renders herself invisible in the service of her subject." - Daisy Hay, The Telegraph

  • "As an experiment in the art of biography, it illuminates both its subject, himself a biographer, and the unquestioned presumptions behind biography itself. (...) The diary form preserves what I suppose must be for many readers the foiling joy of Aubrey’s prose and retains its almost provisional quality (.....) Writing a biography of a biographer that doubles as an experimental analysis of biography itself is a formidable and astonishing achievement. That it is also profoundly affecting is what makes John Aubrey: My own life a triumph." - Stuart Kelly, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Anyone who loves history or human idiosyncrasy will almost certainly love John Aubrey, My Own Life." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ruth Scurr takes an unusual approach in her biography of John Aubrey (1626 to 1697; best known for his collection of Brief Lives). Framed by a brief Introduction ('England's Collector') and a short concluding chapter of 'Aubrey's Afterlife', the bulk of the biography is very much 'in his own words', as Scurr takes bits and pieces from Aubrey's writings (and jottings ...) and pieces them together in a chronological, almost diary-like account entirely in Aubrey's own voice.
       As Scurr explains:

He saw himself more as collector than writer: a collector of fragments of fact that would otherwise be lost because no one else would trouble themselves to write them down and pass them on to the next generation.
       Aubrey barely published anything during his lifetime (just the one volume, Miscellanies: A Collection of Hermetick Philosophy) and never wrote an autobiography, but Scurr re-creates one out of fragments of his writing ("from manuscripts, letters and books, his own and other people's"), in a text that, while consisting of just bits and pieces, with constant breaks and shifts, nevertheless reads remarkable fluidly and well. (Rather disappointingly, however, we don't truly get Aubrey's original voice, as Scurr admits she: "modernised his words and spellings".)
       [The approach isn't entirely new; indeed, it was long fairly common practice to piece together authors' autobiographical writings and other odds and ends to create a faux-memoir. In fact, much of the first Aubrey-biography took a similar approach: John Britton's Memoir of John Aubrey: Embracing his Auto-Biographical Sketches, a Brief Review of his Personal and Literary Merits, and an Account of his Works (Cambridge University Press).]
       There are obvious benefits in almost entirely removing a biographer's voice and greatly limiting her influence (the selection presumably still shapes the narrative, but nowhere near as much as in traditional biography), making for 'a life' that isn't a subjective twenty-first-century interpretation, but a more objective record. The approach also gives the text an appealing immediacy, as diaries often do. Of course, there are drawbacks too: for one, the gaps in the life, as the record is limited to what is on the record -- what Aubrey noted, somewhere (occasionally retrospectively, as, for example, in describing his early, childhood years). Missing, too, is much context -- beyond what Scurr is able to provide in her short Introduction (and in the 'Dramatis Personae'). While much of the surrounding English history -- in Aubrey's event-filled times -- will likely be familiar to most readers, there's still a great deal here that would benefit from, at the least, some annotation.
       A major advantage over an actual diary is that the resulting volume is of manageable size; indeed, the piecemeal presentation -- most of the pieces are only a few sentences or paragraphs long -- makes for a (life-)story that moves along at a fast clip, and doesn't get bogged down in the day-to-day. Scurr shows a nice touch in her selection: the pieces aren't random, either, and there is a real progression beyond the merely chronological here too -- though it varies, depending on the period covered.
       Aubrey wound up living in relative poverty -- his inheritance wasn't quite what he'd hoped for, and he never managed to get a sufficiently wealthy wife -- but he was always scholarly and was close to many of the leading English intellectual lights of the day; he was also very active in the Royal Society. Already as a student, called back from Oxford by his father as he recovers from smallpox, Aubrey complains of being away from the intellectual stimulation he longs for:
I am in the prime of my youth and I am without the benefit of ingenious conversation, and have hardly any good books.
       Aubrey remains unlucky in love: in September 1656 he writes:
My amours with Mary Wiseman continue, but she seems likely to marry another. I have started to pay suit to Katherine Ryves too.

Veneris morbus: I have been sleeping with whores and am stricken now with one of their venereal diseases.
       By November 1657 -- further down on the same page in this quick-moving book -- he regrets to inform: "Katherine Ryves, of the Close, Sarum, Wiltshire, whom I was to marry, has died, to my great loss." Whatever his romantic feelings, the loss is also pecuniary, as he notes that she had a tidy annual income -- her death is indeed: "a terrible blow for us".
       People die left and right, and often at a young age, and Aubrey is aware of his mortality. There's one example of him drawing up a will in 1654, before he's even thirty, while at Christmas 1664 he apparently tumbles off his horse (a relatively frequent occurrence) and moans:
My horse almost killed me, and I have lacerated my testicle, which is likely to be fatal ! My stammer has been terrible since.
My testicle is healing.
       He's a keen preserver of the old -- and, of course, death frequently gets in the way, from widows selling off valuable manuscripts as waste paper before he can get his hands on them, to what is lost in the memory of the deceased:
I am too late ! Old Mr Beeston has died before I could get from him more details of the lives of the English poets ! Alas ! Alas ! Those details have gone with him into oblivion and nothing can retrieve them now.
       Aubrey's interaction with other great minds of the day -- Hobbes, Hooke, and Newton among them -- is fascinating, even if Scurr's approach limits the information about these. So also the many scientific projects Aubrey learned of -- though there are fascinating titbits along the way, such as that William Harvey's "medical practice declined mightily" after he published his groundbreaking work on the circulation of blood:
since the vulgar thought him crack-brained and all the physicians were against him and envied him.
       And strewn throughout are also interesting small details and observations:
Glass is becoming more common in England. I remember that before the civil wars, ordinary poor people had none. But now the poorest people on alms have it. his year, between Gloucester and Worcester, three new houses with glass are being built. Soon it will be all over the country.
       There's also some good sense of the tumultuous political events of the times, much of which Aubrey witnessed in both Oxford and London, though here especially the book's limitations are evident as annotation and explanation would have been welcome, as Aubrey does little more than note the most dramatic happenings.
       Also somewhat lost is the feel for what Aubrey was involved in writing, as the story speeds through his life -- though there are some nice scenes of, for example, him worrying:
I fear the truths set out in my book will breed trouble -- veritas odium parit (truth begets hatred). I have written too much truth, some of it of those who are still alive. In my book the truth is set down in its pure and natural state, not falsely coloured. This pleases me as an antiquary, but my Lives are not fit to be published.
       Surprisingly, there aren't too many specifics about his obviously extensive reading, but there are some nice bits and pieces, including:
I would like to see the boy's carrying Euclid's Elements in their coat pockets as religiously as a monk carries his breverie. I believe Euclid's is the best book ever written.
       But this also highlights the books weakness: there are a few other mentions of Euclid along the way, but this pronouncement comes rather out of the blue; readers surely would never have guessed that Aubrey was this enthusiastic about the Elements -- and also don't learn why Aubrey thinks it is so wonderful. At such points, especially, one longs for a more traditional intellectual biography .....
       John Aubrey, My Own Life is very enjoyable reading and gives a good feel for the man, the times, and the intellectual circles he moved in. But it only offers limited insight into most of these, and given whom Aubrey was dealing with, as well as the incredible political ups and downs of the times, leaves one longing for much more exposition and information.
       John Aubrey, My Own Life is a very good read, but a limited biography.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 September 2016

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John Aubrey, My Own Life: Reviews: Ruth Scurr: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       English author and academic Ruth Scurr was vborn in 1971. She teaches at Cambridge.

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© 2016 the complete review

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