The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIII. Scholars and Antiquaries

§ 21. John Aubrey

Two of the chief contributors to Wood’s Athenae were his friends Andrew Allam and John Aubrey. The former of these, though well versed in sectarian controversial writings and highly esteemed by Wood, has left nothing of his own which has found a place in literature. John Aubrey’s genial and disinterested but erratic spirit did not lend itself to finished schemes, and it seems to have been his fate that his work should be incorporated in that of others. His Perambulation of Surrey, begun in 1673, was, eventually, included in The Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey, which Richard Rawlinson published in 1719; and his Wiltshire collections he turned over to Tanner, who was engaged upon the same subject; but the only outcome was the supply of some material for Gibson’s edition of Camden.

The chief assistance Aubrey gave to Wood took the form of a series of Brief Lives of eminent persons, which, as he said in a characteristic covering letter, had been put in writing “tumultuarily, as they occur’d to my thoughts or as occasionally I had information of them.” These much-quoted, haphazard, gossiping notes are full of vivid and intimate touches concerning character, actions, and personal appearance, often freely expressed but always kindly and without malice. In some of the portrait sketches, notably that of Venetia Stanley, he displays the insight of an artist; eyes have an especial attraction for him, and, occasionally, he describes them in words which are in themselves a portrait. His wide acquaintanceship enabled him to write at first hand of many of his contemporaries; and the sketches of men of an earlier generation, such as Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Ralegh, and Bacon, may be taken to represent reports and anecdotes, more or less authentic, which were in current circulation. The longest and most important of these lives, that of Aubrey’s friend Thomas Hobbes, was written at length, to furnish material for Blackburne’s Latin biography of the philosopher. The only book which Aubrey himself published, Miscellanies (1696), reveals that susceptible side of his character which probably called down upon him Wood’s epithets of “credulous” and “magotieheaded.” Besides being an entertaining volume of stories, it contains much current folklore concerning omens, ghosts, second-sight and other supernatural beliefs.