Aubrey’s Brief Lives

The whole ferment of the Elizabethan age and the vigor of the century that followed come alive in these “brief portraits” that have been looted by scholars for centuries. Here are Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Thomas More, Shakespeare, Milton, Marvel, and countless others, who in these pages become not abstract names from a history book, but flesh-and-blood characters. Brief Lives was written by John Aubrey (1626–1697), the greatest gossip columnist of the seventeenth century: a hanger-on among the rich and famous who left posterity a sprawling collection of notes, anecdotes, and morsels of gossip that the editor has sutured together into a series of unforgettable portraits. These men—flawed, vain, ambitious, vulnerable—are more alive and kicking in these pages than in any formal history. As Edmund Wilson writes in his introduction, “I have never read anything else that makes me feel in quite the same way what it must have been like to live then.”

John Aubrey was born in Wiltshire, England to a wealthy, educated country family. This respectable, non-threatening position, along with his natural charm, allowed him to mingle with a wide range of people, from famous writers and aristocrats to merchants and palace seamstresses. He drew upon his genuine interest in these people in his immortally entertaining biographical works. While he is now best remembered as a biographer, Aubrey was also accomplished in the fields of archaeology, folklore, and chorography. Several of the manuscripts he wrote in these fields were never published, but remain preserved at the University of Oxford.

Oliver Lawson Dick was an accomplished writer and editor as well as a longtime companion of the celebrated chef, food writer, and television host Robert Carrier, who collaborated with him on several works.

Edmund Wilson was one of the most influential literary critics of the past century. His groundbreaking explorations of Freudian and Marxist themes in literature inspired many authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work he edited for publication. He used his influence to foster public appreciation for now-beloved authors such as Ernest Hemingway, William Fauklner, and Vladimir Nabokov.