Aubrey and Biography

Aubrey is known to most people today as the pioneer biographer. He collected ‘minutes of lives’ for his friend the Oxford antiquary and biographer Anthony Wood for the latter’s celebrated Athenæ Oxonienses (1691-2). But, with Wood’s encouragement, he also began to compose his own biographies. Prior to Aubrey, biography had typically been a moralistic genre, concerned to praise or blame. Aubrey, however, prized the anecdote, the oddity, the personal detail: the physician William Harvey ‘was wont to say that man was but a great mischievous baboon’; the philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ ‘greatest trouble was to keep off the flies from pitching on his baldness’; the experimentalist Robert Hooke ‘invented thirty different ways of flying’.

Aubrey was not a gossip. He restricted his work to manuscript, and was angry at Wood for publishing material he had considered private. But he stood by his decision to record controversial material for posterity: ‘Now I say the Offices of a Panegyrist and a Historian are much different. A Life is a short History and there the Minuteness of a famous person is gratefull.’

Aubrey was also driven by a conviction that he lived in a generation of remarkable thinkers, and that he was uniquely placed to record their lives. These may have included statesmen and poets and adventurers and eccentrics, but most of all it was his fellow virtuosi Aubrey admired. Indeed, Aubrey adapted biography for a new purpose: to record and defend rights of scientific priority. The most famous such example is his defence of his friend Hooke against Newton. Hooke felt that Newton had adapted without acknowledgment Hooke’s own, earlier ideas on universal gravitation. Aubrey urged Wood to record the theft and vindicate Hooke. In his letter to Wood, illustrated here, we can see that Aubrey allowed Hooke to draft in the more technical sections himself.

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