Intellectual Biography as Memorialisation


My last two posts have focused on methods of memorialisation,  specifically funeral monuments and commemorative events. In this post I want to explore what is in some ways a more lasting method of memorialisation - the biography. A relevant example is John Aubrey’s Brief Lives which comprised accounts of almost three hundred lives, and marked an important moment in the shift towards the modern biographical model. Aubrey writes particularly eloquently on the role of the biographer. He described his main aim in Brief Lives as being to avoid 'worthy men's Names and Notions' from being 'swallowed-up in oblivion'. As his recent biographer Ruth Scurr writes: 'He had an acute sense of how quickly living memory dies, and wanted to preserve what he could on paper'. (Ruth Scurr, 'Faithful innovator', Times Literary Supplement, 18 March 2016.) Ultimately, Aubrey likened the biographer's task to that of a magician:

'So that the retriving of these forgotten Things from Oblivion in some sort resembles the Art of a Conjuror, who makes those walke and appeare that have layen in their grave many hundreds of yeares: and to represent as it were to the eie, the places, Cuystomes and Fashions, that were of old Times'. (Aubrey's Brief Lives, ed. O. Lawson Dick, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1949, p. 162)


Bringing the dead back to life might seem like a tall order for a potential biographer, but it can hardly be doubted that Aubrey succeeds in this aim. Excellent examples can be found in the life which sparked Brief Lives, that of Thomas Hobbes. In the first place, Aubrey had a wonderfully precise and idiosyncratic way of describing his subject's visual features:

'In his old age he was very bald (which claymed a veneration) yet within dore, he used to study, and sitt bare-headed, and sayd he never tooke cold in his head, but that the greatest trouble was to keepe-off the Flies from pitching on the baldnes... Face not very great; ample forehead; whiskers yellowish-redish, which naturally turned up - which is a signe of a brisque witt. Belowe he was shaved close, except a little tip under his lip...

He had a good eie, and that of a hazell colour, which was full of Life and Spirit, even to the last. When he was earnest in discourse, there shone (as it were) a bright live-coale within it. He had two kinds of lookys: when he laugh't, was witty, and in a merry humour, one could scarce see his Eies; by and by, when he was serious and positive, he opene'd his eies round.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, pp. 313-4.)

Yet, Aubrey was equally good at describing, the more private aspects of his subjects. As, for example, in this extract on Hobbes's manner of writing Leviathan

'He sayd that he sometimes would sett his thoughts upon researching and contemplating always with this Rule that he very much and deeply considered one thing at a time... He walked much and contemplated, and he had in the head of his Staffe a pen and inke-horne, carried always a Note-book in his pocket, and as soon as a notion darted, he presently entred it into his Booke, or els he should perhaps have lost it. He had drawne the Designe of the Booke into Chapters, etc, so he knew whereabouts it would come in. Thus that booke was made.' (Aubrey's Brief Lives, p. 311).


Aubrey is perhaps the most important contemporary source for Harrington's life, and the description of his appearance is equally vivid: 'He was of a middling stature well trussed man strong, and thick, well sett, sanguine. quick-hott-fiery hazell-Eie. thick curld moyst haire' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, ed. Kate Bennett, I, p. 322.) Aubrey also offers enlightening information on Harrington's ideas and how he came to them:

'He made severall Essayes in Poetry; viz. love-verses etc. and translated ... booke of Virgills Aeneid but his Muse was rough: and Mr Henry Nevill, an ingeniose, and well-bred Gent, a member of the House of Commons, and an excellent (but concealed) Poet, was his great familiar and Confident friend: and disswaded him from tampering in Poetrie which he did in vitá Minervâ and to improve his proper Talent, viz Politicall Reflections. Whereupon he writ his Oceana, printed London...


Now this Modell upon Rotation, was that the third part of the Senate Howse, should rote out by Ballot every yeare, so that every ninth yeare the Howse would be wholly alterd. no Magistrate to continue above 3 yeares, and all to be chosen by Ballot. then which manner of Choice, nothing can be invented more faire, and impartiall.' (John Aubrey, Brief Lives, pp. 318 and 320.)

The nature of biography and its functions is currently on my mind since not only am I in the midst of writing a book entitled James Harrington: An Intellectual Biography for Oxford University Press, but I am also hosting a workshop on Early-Modern Intellectual Biographies at Newcastle University on Tuesday 4 July.


At this workshop five other scholars will join me in discussing their recent experience of writing about a leading seventeenth-century English figure or figures. Several Newcastle colleagues with experience of working on intellectual biographies about people of other places and times will also contribute. By listening to these papers and commentaries, and discussing the issues they raise, I hope we will be able to explore some of the opportunities and challenges that this genre offers. These might include exploring appropriate ways of integrating biographical detail with analysis of the subject's thought and writings; considering the ways in which an individual life might illuminate a period more generally; and addressing the issue of how to balance a concern with enhancing the memory of a person with documenting all of the relevant facts about their life and thought.

There is also a sense in which the life of the mind can potentially continue to play a role posthumously; whereas death, literally, places a final date on the life of action. This fact is in my thoughts at present since my husband John Gurney's final article 'Gerrard Winstanley and the Left', which he was working on when he died, has just been published in Past and Present. Despite two and a half years now having elapsed since his death, John's mind now has a fresh opportunity to influence others. 

All of this also makes me wonder about my own motives for turning to the genre of intellectual biography in the aftermath of John's death. I was conscious from the start of being driven into working on Harrington because of the research that John had already undertaken, and the notes he left to me. I have commented elsewhere on how this project operated as a bridge between my old life with him and my new one without. But now I wonder also whether there is not something especially appealing to me at this time about Aubrey's idea of biography as a conjuring trick.