About this Recording
NA237812 - AUBREY, J.: Brief Lives (Abridged)

John Aubrey
Brief Lives


John Aubrey, probably English literature’s greatest collector of gossip, anecdotes and personal trivia, lived through difficult times. The English Civil War, with the downfall and execution of Charles I, dominated his life. An attentive observer of his contemporary world, Aubrey nevertheless felt himself to be an antiquarian, a collector and guardian of the values and manners of an earlier age. To his contemporaries, he failed to fulfil the promise of his youth; to us, he remains the pre-eminent compiler of the doings and sayings of the major and minor figures of the 16th and 17th centuries. To each of the figures he recalls, he adds his own particular voice —sometimes melancholic but, more often than not, wittily ribald. The voice that emerges from a reading of Brief Lives is that of a kindly, intelligent, sometimes querulous but always generous human being.

Born in Wiltshire in 1626, Aubrey spent much of his life engaged in lengthy, expensive legal actions against relatives, selling off bits and pieces of his estates in order to pay lawyers. He spent just four months as a student at Trinity College, Oxford, in 1642, but so enjoyed the company he fell in with there that he never lost his affection for the town. He died and was buried there in 1697, having endured the massive upheavals of the Civil War, the regicide of Charles I and the eventual restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II.

Essentially a Royalist, Aubrey nevertheless had friends across the often confused political spectrum of the day. So much did he enjoy carousing with his friends that this gifted scholar and antiquarian could hardly ever bring himself to complete any of the numerous writing projects he undertook. He published only one book in his lifetime, Miscellanies, being far too busy hob-nobbing with the intelligentsia of the time, such as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

The origin of his Brief Lives lies in work he undertook for the Oxford scholar Anthony Wood. In 1667 Aubrey began compiling notes for Wood’s Antiquitates Universitatis Oxoniensis (published 1674) and Athenae Oxonienses (published 1691–2). By quirk of history—and Aubrey’s gift for lively anecdotal reminiscences—it is Aubrey’s work which has survived in popular esteem.

The original manuscripts of Aubrey’s Lives fill 66 volumes in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and other libraries; he wrote more than 420 Lives, which range in length from just two words to one of 23,000 words; many of them have little or no intrinsic interest today, being simply collections of dates and facts. His general technique was to alight upon a Life, then immediately write down everything he could remember about the individual concerned, leaving blanks for dates and facts he could not immediately recall, which were to be filled in later. Often the blanks remained as Aubrey, true to his own nature, was off onto another project, or another Life.

Aubrey himself described his Lives as ‘like fragments of a shipwreck’. He was very conscious of his role as a harvester of transient life, which he hoped to preserve in the face of oblivion. He was also conscious that his jottings—occasionally inaccurate though they are—took on a particular importance, given the context of the massive social upheaval he and his memories lived through. ‘So that the retrieving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their grave many hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Customes and Fashions, that were of old Times’.

What comes through these Lives most strongly is Aubrey’s own personality. Sometimes crotchety, mostly genial, Aubrey loves a joke almost as much as he loves learning. Occasionally sad—as when he recalls the funeral of a dear friend, or the wanton destruction of a rare manuscript—but usually wry, what emerges is a picture of an elderly, avuncular, kindly figure, full of regret for the absurdities and frailties of the world and humanity. One of his favourite sayings was ‘the best of men are but men at the best’. What it must have been to have shared a bottle with John Aubrey, certainly one of ‘the best of men’!

Notes by Gary Mead


The music on this CD is taken from the NAXOS catalogue

GIBBONS Music for Viols, Voices and Keyboard

Rose Consort of Viols / Red Byrd

Early English Organ Music Vol 1

Joseph Payne

Early English Organ Music Vol 2

Joseph Payne

The Fairy Queen

The Scholars Baroque Ensemble

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