Sir Thomas Browne: A Life by Reid Barbour - review by Blair Worden

Blair Worden

The Sage of Norwich

Sir Thomas Browne: A Life


Oxford University Press 534pp £70 order from our bookshop

William Hazlitt affectionately embellishes or invents a conversation at Charles Lamb’s home in which the company are invited to say which two writers from the past they would most like to meet. One of the guests perplexes his host by plumping for Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke, ‘the two greatest names in English literature’. ‘Yes,’ stammers Lamb, ‘the greatest names, but they were not persons … not characters, you know.’ Lamb asks for ‘something peculiar in the individuals, more than we can learn from their writings’. The ‘two worthies’ whom he ‘should feel the greatest pleasure to encounter on the floor of his apartment in their nightgowns and slippers and to exchange friendly greeting with’ are those ‘most mysterious of personages’, Sir Thomas Browne and Sir Philip Sidney’s friend Fulke Greville. Later in the conversation he concedes that his choice of Greville was capricious, but sticks to Browne.

Others have paired Browne with the essayist Montaigne and the premise is the same: the personal presence at the centre of their writings. Our liking for the prose of both men rests on our sympathy with the character it reveals, and on the style that is the character’s image. Were

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