The Modest Biographer: John Aubrey

Ruth Scurr’s new biography takes an innovative form – although being a lecturer, at Cambridge, she is hesitant to admit to doing anything so dangerous as innovation.  Nonetheless, it is innovative and she may well have just launched a new vogue in biography or more precisely literary studies.  What she has done is to give John Aubrey, the writer famous for his brief lives of others, his own voice, his own life, in the form of a diary.


Aubrey lived from 1626 to 1697, through the unrest and chaos of religious upheaval and two political revolutions. Ruth Scurr maintains it was this that made him dedicate his own life to preserving the past, not only buildings, artefacts, books and letters, but above all the detailed description of individual lives. Yet Aubrey, she said, has been unfairly portrayed as a gossip. Instead, quite the reverse seems more likely: he sought to preserve trust at all costs, by not publishing the Brief Lives until those he described, and he too, were “rotten in the ground, as medlars”.

The event was chaired by Stuart Kelly, undoubtedly one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable critics attending the Festival. He started by asking Ruth about friendship and the biographer: to what extent, as a biographer, do you have to befriend the person you are writing about? Ruth Scurr’s first book, a biography of Robespierre, created a neat comparison: how do you approach the blood-stained monster of the Revolution vs the quietly assuming man of letters? However, Ruth answered evenly that the biographer is like a painter, and you have to find the resonance between you and the subject. Much easier to do, she admitted, in Aubrey’s case, but she clearly also succeeded with Robespierre. This is confirmed by Hilary Mantel, writing in the TLS:

Just as Scurr understands the powerful religious impulse behind Robespierre’s thought, she also understands revolution. […]

Many years later, when he was an old man, Merlin de Thionville was asked how he could have brought himself to turn against Robespierre. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘if you had seen his green eyes . . .’

It seems doubtful whether Merlin or many others ever got close enough to see his green eyes. Scurr seems to have got closer than most.

But back to Aubrey: the astonishing nature of Scurr’s book has been endorsed by many reviewers, but none possibly in more forthright terms than Stuart Kelly this morning: “I’ll cartwheel down Princes Street,” he said, if this book doesn’t win an avalanche of prizes next year. Stuart, we’d love to hold you to that, but (sadly) I think you’re right and so your acrobatic skills will have to be put to the test another time!

One of the brilliant solutions offered by this “diary form” is that it enables the biographer to cope with gaps, or silences, in the archival material. In any historical life there are bounds to be moments, months sometimes stretching to years, when the biographer doesn’t know what the subject was doing.  Hence, the usual formula:  “In the meantime, he/she must have continued to …” (and you fill in the dots for what might be the most informed guess). Instead, the diary allows you to leave the gaps: not every day requires an entry.

John_AubreyScurr said that it had been easy to find Aubrey’s “very distinctive” voice, and to include his sometimes flamboyant turns of phrase. Her own gift for the telling detail echoes the ability of Aubrey “to find the small, defining details that make a person who they are”. The example she gave was his description of Thomas Hobbes who was nicknamed “Crow” at school because of his jet black hair.  It is for this ability and for the desire to preserve such details that Aubrey is sometimes referred to as the “father of biography” – a phrase Ruth Scurr found a little too catchy.  “What about Plutarch?” was her reply.

Scurr admitted that her overall concern in using this form was to include as much material as possible. She compared it to restoring a tapestry: some areas have remained more frayed and worn, but nothing has been consciously left out.  However, to say that by using this invented diary form the biographer writes herself out of the picture is, according to Scurr, incorrect: the writing is still subjective, and the historian remains in control, selecting and rewording, notwithstanding the overall intention to make objective use of the materials.  And those materials, his books and papers in the Bodleian, the Royal Society archives and elsewhere, are certainly richly rewarding, despite Aubrey’s fears that they would not survive.

Thank you, Ruth, for a wonderful event and for giving John Aubrey, this most modest man, his Own Life.

Rarely in Edinburgh…

have I been in a room, possibly with fifty or so other people, where about thirty languages are spoken. It was a refreshing and dramatic change to the fairly monoglot norm!

The event was part of the Jura Unbound series at the Edinburgh Book Festival and it was run by Daniel Hahn (a translator and director of BCLT, one of the UK’s most active hubs for promoting literature in translation) and Adam Thirlwell (a novelist). The title of the event, Multiples, was taken from Adam’s latest (co-authored) work which provided the premise for the evening: translation, and specifically how meanings are changed, lost, gained, and completely morphed when translating an apparently simple sentence from one language to another.

MultiplesAudience participation was essential, but luckily (helped in some cases perhaps by the generous sponsorship of one of Scotland’s best whisky distilleries) the audience was very willing to oblige, and soon we were all engaged in a series of linguistic “games”.  It was all playful, but also revealing – as quite a few people commented later. Volunteers even staged mime shows (charades with a difference), and a mysterious “Gibberish” game, a sort of interpreter’s nightmare in which you can’t understand what your “client” is saying (he or she is talking gibberish) but you have to turn it into “proper” English and try to keep the conversation going!

Lastly, throughout the evening, a black notebook circulated through the room in which people were asked to translate a particular sentence into whatever language they could: it started with English, and progressed through French, Spanish, Portuguese, English, Italian, and finally (and conclusively, because no one could translate out of it) Norwegian. The original Chinese whisper was the opening sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez:

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

I happened to get the final English translation, out of Italian. The results of the Chinese whisper effect were extraordinary (the following is approximate, because I don’t have the text in front of me). This is what the last English text was:

He recognised some of the guys who had tried to kill him. Then at midday, his father asked him to fetch water. It was very icy, he remembered well, but that was not what was important.

Poor Marquez! What a disaster.  But at the same time, how revealing!  Of what? Of how soon chaos intervenes, or how easily it is to go off at a tangent to the meaning when you don’t quite understand what is written, or what is being said.

The evening encapsulated, certainly not as elegantly as Adam Thirlwell’s book, but nonetheless surprisingly eloquently, the multiple meanings, multiple originals, multiple languages, multiple translations (by multiple translators) of literature. Sometimes a version will get close to the original, possibly even surpass it, but there will always be another translation waiting in the wings, or in the future.