From his bleakly solitary childhood onwards, John Aubrey (1626–97) was dogged by misfortune and by disadvantages of temperament. Being ‘never made to manage an estate’, he had to sell his lands, dodge debt collectors and throw himself on the hospitality of others. He was unlucky in love and in his marital hopes. To his pride he became an early fellow of the Royal Society and read papers to it, but for all the range and ardour of his intellectual pursuits (the subject of excellent books by Michael Hunter and William Poole) he lacked the critical exactitude of the leading scientists and was left behind the curve. He is a significant figure in many fields of inquiry, archaeology and the study of antiquities at their head, but he would have contributed far more had he known how to finish his books. Some people thought him a bit cracked, or ‘roving and magotie-headed’. The phrase is from a friend he unwisely trusted, Anthony Wood, who, in Aubrey’s final calamity, silently appropriated the biographical essays we know as Brief Lives and, in publishing material from them, circulated dangerous passages about contemporaries that Aubrey would have held back for posterity.
Such a career might have broken many a spirit. And yet what sunny company Aubrey was to a huge range of friends and acquaintances, and is to us. Lacking the driven ego that authorship demands, he gave himself to the encouragement of others and to collaboration with them. There is