Patrick Garland in 1967

John Aubrey's Brief Lives are amongst the most brilliant of seventeenth century memoirs, but the author himself is not widely known. He was born in 1625 in Wiltshire, and he experienced the changing fortunes of the Civil War while an undergraduate at Oxford.

At the restoration of Charles II, John Aubrey was still a young man, and it was not until 1697 that he died during the reign of William III, at the age of 72. Like the story he tells himself about The Tragical End of the Old Church Raven, John Aubrey lived through many changes of government and religion. In his youth he inherited a prosperous state, but he lacked the ability to secure it, and lost everything by the age of 45.

Most of his life was spent generously collecting scholarly information and scandalous gossip for other people, and he produced a number of literary and antiquarian works, ranging from A History of Wiltshire to An Idea of Education, but only his book Miscellanies was published in his lifetime.

His masterpiece remains, unquestionably, his book Lives of Eminent Men, also known as Brief Lives, which he managed to complete during a lifetime spent in other people's houses or lodgings, relying on the generosity of good friends and relatives. He says, of himself, that gratitude was his chief virtue, and it seems improbable that he was ever an unwelcome guest. The Lives were not published until after his death, and it was only in this century that John Aubrey has begun to be recognized as England's first serious biographer, and that he can now take his place alongside Pepys and Evelyn as the greatest chroniclers of their, and indeed any, age.

...Patrick Garland, from the programme of "Brief Lives"