20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 21

Foul papers

Richard Luckett

John Aubrey and the Realm of Learning Michael Hunter (Duckworth £12.50) The first British historian did not write with the intention of supporting a dynasty, of demonstrating the correctness of a deterministic account of human society, or of earning a living. Rather, Nennius wrote to assuage the grief he felt that certain things which he held dear would drift away like smoke; against this, he wrote, "I have made a heap of all that I could find". From the author of the Historia Brittonurn this may appear an over-modest disclaimer, but the emotive truth that it conveys cannot be challenged, nor can its appositeness to the work of a later British historian John Aubrey. Aubrey was "inclined by his genius from childhood to the love of antiquities", but when "Bellona thundered" and civil war broke out much that he valued threatened to pass away. In 1654 he "began to enter into pocket memorandum bookes philosophicall and antiquarian remarques" — thus embarking on a career of.note-taking and writing that was to occupy him continuously, despite law-suits, unluckiness in love, penury and the importunities of those who enjoyed his company, until his death in 1697. The previous year had seen the appearance of his first and only publication, the Miscellanies, which entirely failed to represent his best work. One other book, the 1VIonumenta Britannica, almost achieved publication, and was in something approaching copy-state. The rest (at least ten titles can be distinguished) were in various degrees of readiness or unreadiness, the whole corpus forming a heap beyond the imagining of any monkish chronicler, and offering a sound working definition of what might be meant by

"foul papers".

The disentanglement and deciphering of so much that was, M Aubrey's phrase, "tumultuarily" put together, has occupied a number of scholars, notably Canon Jackson, Andrew Clark and John Buchanan-Brown, whilst Anthony Powell has provided the necessary biographical background in his John Aubrey and his Friends. Very slowly popular awareness of Aubrey, which began with an amused sense

of his credulity and maggoty-headedness, passed through a phase in which (as Mr Powell has said) he was seen as "browsing over black-letter among artificial ruins", and moved on to a view of him as a "character" preserving, with admirable indelicacy, the bawdry of another age, has come to entertain the possibility that he might have had something serious to offer — that his survival, at the expense of so much erudite labour, is justified by something beyond entertainment value.

But how can we assess the hoard which Aubrey put down as though it came to him "tumbled out of a sack . . . mixing Antiquities and Naturall things together", particularly when we consider his willingness to abandon an onerous task of copying documents on the grounds that "they are very delightfull; but I am tyred with transcribing, this hott weather". Michael Hunter has looked over the whole accumulation, set Aubrey's learning against the learning of his time,'and tried to judge it for its originality and its worth. Readers of Mr Powell, he observes, might have wondered just what Aubrey's membership of, the Royal Society amounted to, and exactly where Aubrey stood with his contemporaries, so many of whom, in the Society, looked forward rather than back; it is his aim to vindicate Aubrey as a "serious intellectual".

The terminology jars: I do not think that we can confidently attribute to the later seventeenth century those concepts of seriousness that are characteristic of the present, nor is "intellectual" a wholly satisfactory word in a seventeenth century context. Mr Hunter's book is at its weakest whenever vindication in this sense is his concern. It is a notion that appears superfluous every time he quotes Aubrey — which, fortunately, he does a great deal. Where his book is at its best, and this best is very good indeed, he avoids any collision of worlds, giving us Aubrey in the realm of learning as convincingly as Mr Powell gave us Aubrey in Wiltshire, at law, or at Edmund Wyld's table. Mr Hunter orders the tumultuary mound, to show us Aubrey as naturalist, prospector and projector, proponent of the universal language, enquirer into the occult, astrologer, and archaeologist. He emphasises Aubrey's importance' as a pioneer of field-work, at his best when in the countryside, at his weakest when in the study; he points to those areas where Aubrey was successful, such as archaeology, folk-lore and architectural chronology and to those where his work was incoherent and unconsidered, notably astrology and sympathetic magic.

What emerges from Mr Hunter's learned but terse book is a clear feeling for the scope of all this, and of its background. But in one particular, Aubrey's Platonic tendencies (however expressed; Mr Hunter is understandably wary of the lifting power of much current hot air within the Platonist envelope), he offers conflicting judgments that he does not fully resolve. This is a pity, if only because the writings of Aubrey's one disciple, John Beaumont of Ston-Easton, show how such beliefs might have persisted in Aubrey's case, and even provided a partial explanation for some of his vagaries. These tendencies might also throw a little light on the great unanswered question: how is it that Aubrey remains so intensely readable in fields where greater, more accurate scholars are virtually indigestible? There are, of course, passages in Plot and Boyle, Hooke and Ray, that still interest and delight. But they are few in number, whilst Aubrey is as interesting when he is proposing a quite spurious association.between varieties of trees and minerals as when he is writing about Hobbes or Stonehenge. Perhaps the excellent illustrations to this study afford a clue, since they reveal Aubrey as an artist with an ability to render the immediacy of leaf, tree and contour despite evident limitations of technique. It is this readiness to feel, to respond to both the actual and the conceptual, and to convey this with absolute assurance that gives him a status, which we are only now beginning to grasp. The imagination does not die, and out of the apprehensions that he gathered into his heap Aubrey has given us enough to keep something of his ingathered vitality alive, and available to any responding capacity.