Thursday 23 September 2010

"The greatness of the English race" - Aubrey according to Anthony Powell

From John Aubrey and his friends by Anthony Powell, 1948:

'[Aubrey's] Lives - that extraordinary jumble of biography from which later historians have plundered so much of their picturesque detail - remain his masterpiece and gave him the distinction of being England's first serious biographer.

'Between the Lives' two extremes of length - forty or more pages to Thomas Hobbes, and to Abraham Wheloc the sole phrase "simple man" - are anecdotes and descriptions of writers, statesmen, soldiers, lawyers, scientists, astrologers, schoolmasters, rakes, ladies of the town, and obscure old friends, related in a manner truly without parallel.

'Indeed, to the question: 'What are the English like?' worse answers might be given than: 'Read Aubrey's Lives and you will see' ; for there, loosely woven together, is a kind of tapestry of the good and evil; ingenuity and the folly; the integrity and the hypocrisy; the eccentricity, the melancholy, and the greatness of the English race.'

[John Aubrey - 1626-1697; Anthony Powell - 1905-2000]



Well, that was written in 1948.

At that time the world of Aubrey was alive and well - for example The Inklings were an Aubrey-esque collection. Yet this aspect of the national life was already much less pronounced than before the 1914-18 war.

Even thirty years ago there was an slight yet real association between Aubrey's collection of eccentrics and 'humorists' and the people I knew around me in England, especially in the universities and medicine.

But not any more. That world is gone. Heigh-ho!

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