Book Review

Brief Lives by John Aubrey

Brief Lives by John Aubrey

My Lords, Ladies, and Libertines

If you think tabloid tales of sex in high places are a modern thing, there is no more pleasurable way of disabusing that notion than by a look into the Brief Lives of John Aubrey. Born in 1626, he was seven years older than his more famous contemporary Samuel Pepys: both lived through the Civil War, Cromwell’s Protectorate, and the Restoration under Charles II, Aubrey dying in 1697 and Pepys in 1703.

Pepys’ Diary enjoys a well-deserved reputation for the frank recordings of its author’s extra-marital dalliances with mistresses and maids, especially Deb Willet and the black girl Nan. “Staid a great while with Nan idling away the afternoon with pleasure,” is a typical entry, though in other moods Pepys wrote either in code or language so gross that his great Victorian editor Henry Wheatley felt obliged to leave out “a few passages which cannot possibly be printed.” While Pepys was not uniquely sex-mad for his time - his Diary runs a wide gamut from his brother Tom’s illegitimate children by maids to Lord Brouncker’s scuttling between the houses of his concurrent mistresses to England’s first-recorded streakers, Lords Buckhurst and Sidly “running up and down all night with their arses bare through the streets” - he did earn his modern association with the phrase And So To Bed.
The Diary’s final entry describes some moments with a married woman: “I knew her husband to be out of town. And here je did baiser elle, but had not opportunity para hazer some with her as I would have offered if je had had it.” Pepys seems more in need of French and Spanish lessons than Viagra, though goes on to announce the end of his journal and his adventures -”my amours are past, and my eyes hindering me in almost all other pleasures.”
John Aubrey, on the other hand, wrote about the goings-on of other men, and women, not his own, and for publication, putting his large collection together at the behest of another great gossip, Anthony Wood, author of the readably ramshackle Athenae Oxonienses. What makes Aubrey so much fun, subject-matter apart, is his gorgeously idiosyncratic English, with which it would be a sin to tamper. At times, it stands comparison with the Authorised (King James’) Version of The Bible, a recent (1611) publication in his day. When Aubrey asked, “Is my English style well enough?” the cantankerous Wood had to admit, “’Tis well.” I defy any reader of these samples to disagree.

In 1949, worrying over “the vexed question of obscenity,” his editor Oliver Lawson Dick observed, “in the seventeenth century sex had not yet been singled out as the sin par excellence,” and decided “not to bowdlerise it in the slightest degree, but to print it as it was written.”

As Dick goes on to say, “Aubrey’s were the first biographies that did not point a moral.” Hence the laconic style that makes the Brief Lives so entertaining, be he reporting Sir Henry Blount’s philosophy of life (“Drunkenness he much exclaimed against, but wenching he allowed”), or advertising one Mariana Morgan as “a swidging lustie woman,” or encapsulating the life of a certain Mrs Abigail Sloper in this impeccable sentence: “Borne at Broad Chalke, near Salisbury, A.D. 1648: Pride; lechery; ungratefull to her father; married; runne distracted; recovered.” What a career Aubrey wwould have had as a writer of Hollywood synopses!

Aubrey is as invigorating on social history as in biographical vignettes. Contrast this sketch of London brothels with any modern committee or sociological report on such a matter: “Next the Bear-Garden was formerly the Bordello, or Stewes, so called from the severall licensed Houses for the Entertainment of lewd Persons, in which Women were prepared for all Comers. The Knights Templar were notable wenchers; for whose convenience and use these Stewes were erected and constituted. They were subject to several laws and regulations (viz. No single Woman to lye with any Man, except she lye with him all Night, till the Morrow). In 1506, King Henry VII for some Time shut up these houses; and not long after renewed their Licence and reduced them to Twelve; at which Number they continued till their final Suppression by Sound of Trumpet in 1546 by King Henry VIII, whose tender Conscience startled at such scandalous and open Lewdness.”

These last words imply no judgement on Aubrey’s part; they are his savouring of the irony of such professed moral indignation from Henry VIII of all monarchs. His description of more brothels, in England and Italy, makes irresistible advertising copy: “At Leghorn, and other Ports in Italie, when Shippes arrive, the Courtizans runne to the Mariners with their Lutes and Ghitarres, playing and singing, with their Haire dissheveld, and Breasts naked, to allure them. In like manner at Gosprit neer Portsmouth, where the Seamen lye, the Towne is full of wanton wenches, and there is never a house but hath a Virginall in it.”

Whatever the erotic twist, Aubrey stays imperturbable. It did not trouble him that the theologian William Chillingworth “dyed of the ‘morbus castrensis’ (syphilis) after the taking of Arundel castle by the Parliament.” Nor that the philosopher Viscount Francis Bacon (Pope called him “the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind”) “was a pederast. His Ganimeds and Favourites tooke Bribes; but his Lordship always gave good and just Judgement.” Nor that William Harvey, famous for his theory of the circulation of the blood, “kept a pretty young wench to wayte on him, which I guess he made use of for warmeth-sake as King David did, and tooke care of her in his Will.” Nor that the playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher “lived together, both batchelors; lay together; had one wench in the house between them.”
Aubrey was also one of Shakespeare’s early biographers, but has nothing on the Bard’s love life, as distinct from his account of Ben Jonson’s last years in which “his pentions (so much as came yn) were given to a woman that govern’d him, with whome he lived and dyed nere the Abie in Westminster; neither he nor she tooke much care for next weike, and would be sure not to want wine, of which he tooke too much before he went to bed, if not oftner and soner.”

The anecdotes come thick and fast, a sexual whirligig. Complaisance and brazenness were well linked in Sir Edward Cooke and his new bride: “His second wife Elizabeth, the relickt of Sir William Hatton, was with Child when he married her; laying his hand on her belly (when he came to bed) and finding a Child to stirre, What, sayd he, Flesh in the Pott. Yea, quoth she, or else I would not have maried a Cooke.” Episcopal incest on the part of Richard Corbet, Bishop of Oxford, is tranquilly reported; “He married Alice Hutton, whom ‘twas said he bigott. She was a very beautiful woman, and so was her mother.” Playwright Sir William Davenant, friend of John Milton, was less fortunate; “He gott a terrible clap of a Black handsome wench that lay in Axe-yard, which cost him his nose, with which unlucky mischance many witts were too cruelly bold.”

Whenever Aubrey skirts dangerously close to a morality tale, his deadpan prose comes to the rescue. Ignoring his doctors’ warnings, the rakish poet Sir Philip Sydney “would not forbeare his carnall knowledge of his wife, which cost him his life; upon which occasion there were some roguish verses made” - a pity Aubrey does not quote these. Then there was Francis Bacon’s Dowager who “married her gentleman-usher Sir Thomas Underhill, whom she made deafe and blinde with too much of Venus.”

Sexual predators enjoy mixed fortunes. Aubrey’s godfather, the merchant adventurer John Whitson, was a real-life Tom Jones: “His Mistress one day called him into the Wine-Cellar and had him broach the best Butt in the Cellar for her; and truly he broach’t his Mistrisse, who after married him. This story will last perhaps as long as Bristol is a City.”
Deservedly less lucky was the ungallant gallant Mr Caisho Burroughs, “one of the most beautiful Men in England,” pursued by “a very beautiful Italian Lady, who fell so extreamly in Love with him, that she did let him enjoy her, which she had never let any Man do before.” Pepys, incidentally, was told “a very pretty trick” to confirm a girl’s virginity; “By a string going round her head to meet at the end of her nose, which if she be not will come a great way behind.” She begged Burroughs not to kiss and tell, then died, whereupon he bragged of his conquest in a tavern, but “there going to make water, the Ghost of the Gentlewoman did appear to him.” Burroughs was ever after troubled by this apparition, but his supernatural problems were doubled by a second ghost, that of another Italian woman who, “very passionately enamour’d,” killed herself after he abandoned her. This spirit was the more tenacious, appearing to him many times, especially when he was in bed with his brother or a certain Colonel Remes - doing what?

Caisho, though, was harmless compared to Carlo Fantom, the one completely dislikeable character in Aubrey’s gallery. A Croatian mercenary soldier who spoke thirteen languages, he drifted to England where he in turn fought for both sides in the Civil War. At least he was honest about his motives: “I care not for your Cause: I come to fight for your half-crowne, and your handsome woemen. I have fought for the Christians against the Turkes; and for the Turkes against the Christians.’” Dogs of war were not invented by Frederick Forsythe. Fantom was “a great ravisher of women: and he was not content only to ravish himselfe, but he would make his soldiers doe it too, and he would stand by and look on.” It is satisfying to record that the Royalists hung him at Oxford for this crime.

The Life of Sir George Monk provides an unbeatable combination of soap opera and Country & Western. “He was a prisoner in the Tower, where his seamstress, Nan Clarges, was kind to him; in a double capacity. Here she was gott with child. She was not at all handsome, nor cleanly. Her mother was one of the five Woemen-Barbers. There was a married woman in Drury Lane that had clap’t a woman’s husband, a neighbour. She complained of this to her neighbour gossips: so they concluded on this Revenge, viz. to gett her and whippe her and shave all the haire off her pudenda; which severities were executed and put into a Ballad. ‘Twas the first Ballad I ever cared for the reading of; the Burden of it was thus:

Did yee ever heare the like
Or ever heard the same
Of five Woemen-Barbers
That lived in Drewry-Lane?

Aubrey grew to like this kind of ballad. He quotes nine stanzas of one that mocked the extra-marital affairs of the wife of theologian John Overall, a collaborator on the Authorised Version. Like many an old fool, he acquired a sexy young trophy bride with whom he could not keep up, though since he conversed more in Latin than in English, she is entitled to some compassion: “She was the greatest Beautie of her time in England. She was not more beautifull than she was obligeing, and kind, and was so tender-hearted that truly she could scarce denie any one. She had the loveliest Eies that were ever seen, but wondrous wanton. The good old Deane, notwithstanding he knew well enough that he was horned, loved her infinitely: in so much that he was willing she should enjoy what she had a mind to.”
Every stanza ends with the line “Hye nonny nonny noe,” in euphemistic reference to her vagina, e.g:

Face she had of Filberd hue
And bosom’d like a Swan
Back she had of bended Ewe,
And wasted by a span.
Her Haire she had as black as Crowe
From the head unto the toes
Downe downe all over her
Hye nonny nonny noe.

Kingsley Amis called this the best poem in the Faber Book of Comic Verse and, after Rochester’s (mentioned by Aubrey for his private collection of “lascivious pictures”) Song of a Young Lady to her Ancient Lover, the most successful in combining the obscene and the affecting.

Other lusty ladies had a taste for rough trade, toy-boys, and the louche life. Mrs Elizabeth Broughton “lost her Mayden-head to a poor young fellow, then I believe handsome, but, in 1660, a pittiful old weaver.” Locked in the attic by her father when he found this out, she escaped and went to London where she traded her “most exquisite beautie and delicate Witt” until “she grew common and infamous and gott the Pox, of which she died.”
Likewise the Countess of Sussex, also alluring and good company: “After her Lord’s death (he was jealous), she sends for one (formerly her Footman) and makes him groom of the chamber. He had the Pox and shee knew it; a damnable Sott. He was not very handsom, but his body of an exquisite shape, hence the arrows of love. His nostrils were stufft and borne out with corkes in which were squills to breath through. About 1666 this Countess died of the Pox.’

Thomas Sutton, the model for Ben Jonson’s Volpone, profited from the appetites of another hot-blooded lady: “He was a lusty, healthy, handsome fellowe, and there was a very rich Brewer that brewed to the Navy who was ancient and he had married a young buxome wife, who enjoyed the embraces of this more able performer as to that point. The old brewer doted on his desirable wife and dies and left her all his Estate, which was great.”
The comic erotic obliquity of “as to that point” recalls the narrative prose style of the late Anthony Powell, author of A Dance to the Music of Time, the great roman fleuve that rivals Proust. This may not be a coincidence: Powell was both biographer and editor of Aubrey.
I likewise wonder if Kingsley Amis in The Green Man bestowed the name Thomas Underhill on his ghostly seventeenth-century sexual deviant as a deliberate joke on Aubrey’s Thomas Underhill who was “made deafe and blinde with too much of Venus.”

What writer could better this cameo of a lady who out-uses her user? “Sir William Petty had a boy that whistled incomparably well. He after wayted on a Lady, a widowe, of good fortune. Every night this boiy was to whistle his Lady asleepe. At last shee could hold out no longer, but bids her chamber-mayde withdrawe: bids him come to bed, seetts him to worke, and marries him the next day. This is certeyn true.”

That “setts him to work” speaks volumes!

Aubrey devoted several of his Lives to women. Venetia Stanley in some ways makes one think of Diana, Princess of Wales. Though brought up in a remote Oxfordshire stately home, reports of “this most beautifull desireable Creature” reached the capital: “The young Eagles had espied her, and she was sanguine and tractable, and of much Suavity (which to abuse was great pittie).” Many “young Sparkes” courted her, the winner being the author-naval commander-diplomat Sir Kenelme Digby, said to have fled France after Marie the Queen Mother made lecherous overtures to him at a Ball. Aubrey rhapsodises over her beauty in a long paragraph which includes this lovely sentence: “The colour of her cheekes was just that of the Damask rose, which is neither too hott nor too pale.”

Venetia’s Looks were painted in oils by Vandyke and in words by Ben Jonson. She bore Sir Kenelme three children. Then, “she dyed in her bed, suddenly. Some suspected that she was poysoned. When her head was opened there was found but little braine, which her husband imputed to her drinking of viper-wine” - Digby was widely supposed to have forced her to imbibe this brew to keep her looking young. Remembering all the conspiracy theories posted about Diana’s death, one can just imagine a cyber-Aubrey on the Internet.

Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, was a very different proposition. Sister of the poet Philip Sydney, “she was a beautifull Ladie. She had a pritty sharpe-ovall face. Her Haire was of a reddish yellowe.” But fruity stories circulated about her private tastes and their indulgence: “She was very salacious and she had a Contrivance that in the Spring of the yeare, when the Stallions were to leape the Mares, they were to be brought where she had a vidette to looke on them and please herselfe with their sport; and then she would act the like sport herselfe with her stallions. One of her great Gallants was Crooke-back’t Cecill, Earl of Salisbury.”

A tabloid editor’s dream. Not even Madonna has attracted quite such publicity as that; older readers may compare Sixties’ tales of Margaret, Duchess of Argyle, involving among many gallants Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Mary Herbert had more respectable fame in the fields of chemistry and literature. But late in life, after being widowed, she rekindled gossip by living with the well-known medical man Sir Matthew Lister without benefit of clergy.
Aubrey casts some delightful erotic light upon a great name nowadays famous for quite other things. Sir Walter Raleigh is forever associated with potatoes, tobacco, and the courtly throwing of his cloak upon a puddle for the Queen to walk over. Aubrey has only the tobacco, managing to give his version a modern-looking tinge: “Sir W.R., standing in a Stand at Sir Robert Poyntz parke at Acton which was built by his grandfather for to keep his Whores in tooke a pipe of Tobacco, which made the Ladies quitt it till he had done.”
Raleigh’s son let the cat out of the bag when he blurted out at a High Society dinner, “I this morning went to a Whore. I was very eager of her, kissed and embraced her, and went to enjoy her, but she thrust me from her and vowed I should not. ‘For your father lay with me but an hower ago’.”

Raleigh stars in what must be the most hilarious ‘knee-trembler’ (a quite Aubreyesque word) in English literature: “He loved a wench well; and one time getting up one of the Mayds of Honour up against a tree in a Wood (‘twas his first Lady) who seemed at first boarding to be something fearfull of her Honour, and modest, she cryed, sweet Sir Walter, what doe you me ask? Will you undoe me? Nay. sweet Sir Walter! Sweet Sir Walter! Sir Walter! At last, as the danger and the pleasure at the same time grew higher, she cryed in the extasey, Swisser Swatter Swisser Swatter. She proved with child, and I doubt not but this Hero tooke care of them both, as also that the Product was more than an ordinary mortal.”

It would be hard to beat Swisser Swatter Swisser Swatter (an _expression that recurs in a mock professorial lecture in chapter seven of The Egyptologists by KIngsley Amis and Robert Conquest in 1965) for amorous onomatopoeia. We may be grateful that John Aubrey, as he states in his covering letter to Anthony Wood, “putt in writing these Minutes of Lives tumultuarily...nothing but the trueth: the naked and plaine trueth, which is here exposed so bare that the very pudenda are not covered.”

Glancing between Aubrey’s age and our own, one more tru(e)th is equally bare - only the spelling is different.

For Further Reading:

John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. John Buchanan-Brown (Penguin, 2000)
Michael Hunter, John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning (Duckworth, 1975)
Anthony Powell, John Aubrey and his Friends (Heinemann, 2nd ed., 1975)
J.E. Stephens (ed.), Aubrey on Education (Routledge, 1972)
David Tylden-Wright, John Aubrey: A Life (HarperCollins, 1991)
For editions of Aubrey’s other works, see Buchanan-Brown, pps. xxxiv-xxxvi


-- Reviewed by Barry Baldwin on 14/08/2005

Further Information
ISBN-10: 0140435891
ISBN-13: 9780140435894
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: 30/03/2000
Binding: Paperback
Number of pages: 528

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