Wednesday, March 12, 2014

`With Old Men, As Living Histories'

The membrane between biography and gossip, document and dish, is highly permeable. Without gossip (and genius) there would be no Duc de Saint-Simon, no Henry James, no Anthony Powell. Gossip is the opium of the masses, not religion. It’s as human as duplicity and usually a lot more fun. In the right hands, it can even be judged literature: 

“He was of a middling stature, pretty strong sett, roundish faced, cherry cheek’t, hazell eie, browne haire. He was in his conversation very modest, and of very few words: and though he loved wine he would never drinke in company, and was wont to say that, `he would not play the good-fellow in any man's company in whose hands he would not trust his life.’” 

Any guesses who this prudent, secretive drinker might be, or who is writing [gossiping] about him? A clue? How about this: “The grave's a fine and private place, / But none, I think, do there embrace.” No, not Larkin. The biographical excerpt above, from John Aubrey’s Brief Lives, is devoted to Andrew Marvell. No documentation is provided, of course, but one admires Aubrey’s economy of portraiture. He’s like the artist at the county fair who renders your likeness with a few deft strokes of the chalk. Scholars may read Aubrey’s Lives for the minutiae of seventeenth-centruy life. We read him for the gossip. Here he is on Sir John Denham, the Dublin-born poet and courtier: 

“He was much rooked by gamesters, and fell acquainted with that unsanctified crew, to his ruine. His father had some suspition of it, and chid him severely, wherupon his son John (only child) wrot a little essay in 8vo, printed ... Against gameing and to shew the vanities and invonveniences of it, which he presented to his father, to let him know his detestation of it. But shortly after his father's death (who left £2,000 or 1,500 in ready money, 2 houses well furnished, and much plate) the money was played away first, and next the plate was sold.” 

This is amusing and confirms our suspicion that human nature hasn’t changed much in four centuries. Dr. Johnson is skeptical. He quotes Aubrey’s Miscellanies in his “Life of Roscommon,” and adds: “The present age is very little inclined to favour any accounts of this kind, nor will the name of Aubrey much recommend it to credit: it ought not, however, to be omitted, because better evidence of a fact cannot easily be found, than is here offered.” 

During leaves from military service during World War II, Anthony Powell researched Aubrey’s life and writing, and in 1948 published John Aubrey and His Friends. The following year he edited and published Brief Lives: and other Selected Writings of John Aubrey. In the latter’s introduction, Powell explains and tacitly defends Aubrey’s methods, including his inclusion of what prigs might judge gossip: 

“The outline of Aubrey’s career given here does the barest justice to his intelligence, modesty, friendliness—and good sense where anyone but himself was concerned. His own writing is the best index of his character…Most of what is now reproduced was only intended to be unsifted material, scored in the original with `quaere’ or `from so-and-so’ to show Aubrey’s own uncertainty….his good faith can be relied upon absolutely.” 

Aubrey was born on this date, March 12, in 1626, and died on June 7, 1697. In an autobiographical fragment, written in the first- and third-person, Aubrey recalls: “When a boy, he ever did love to converse with old men, as living histories.”

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