April 29, 2013

John Aubrey’s autobiography is one of the longer and more disorganised entries in his ‘Brief Lives’ manuscripts. Aubrey changes between past, present and conditional tenses, and between the first- and third-person throughout. He begins by accounting for his life in ‘an astrological respect’, and goes on to describe his parentage, birth, education and career, financial fortunes, and other affairs, often giving insight into personal dispositions and inclinations. As a child, for example, Aubrey wished he lived in Bristol, where he would have access to ‘watchmakers, locksmiths etc’. ‘At 8, I was a kind of engineer’. Endearingly, Aubrey writes of himself: ‘His chief virtue: gratitude’.

Several pages in, Aubrey begins a new heading, ‘Accidents of John Aubrey’, which covers a range of occasional, unexpected events including his father’s death, and his own broken engagement in 1666, a year when ‘all my affairs ran kim kam’. As well as these incidents, the section also includes accidents as we would now define them, as an unfortunate and unforeseen physical incident. A list of dated entries describe Aubrey’s memories of falling off his horse, falling over or suddenly being taken ill:

1655: (I think) 14 June, I had a fall at Epsom, and broke one of my ribs and was afraid it might cause aposthumation


1659 March or April, like to break my neck in Ely minster

One of the entries, recounting a narrow escape from being stabbed by a drunk stranger, seems to imply that Aubrey was attempting to set his accidents in the context of some astrological arrangement, as he adds a note: ‘(Memorandum: horoscope thus)’. The passage gravely concludes: ‘I have been twice in danger of drowning’.

In an article on ‘Editing Aubrey’, Kate Bennett describes Aubrey’s ‘Brief Lives’ manuscripts as ‘not [as] a closed literary text in the making’, but a ‘survey and map of the areas to be explored’. Bennett suggests that Aubrey’s brief autobiography, amongst the other biographies, is a work-in-process, asking questions of its own content: her (forthcoming) edition of Aubrey’s manuscripts is ‘intended to present the text as a process or project, rather than as a series of steps towards a closed, completed biographical moment’. A page of one of Aubrey’s manuscripts, showing his sketches, corrections, and on the upper right-hand-side, a partly completed horoscope, has been reprinted by Bennett (click on the image for a clearer picture):

BL image

(In Bray at al, eds, p.282, image taken from a British Library handout from here)

Accidents also features in Samuel Jeake’s diary. Jeake, a Nonconformist merchant and amateur astrologer from Rye in Sussex, kept a record of his life which he plotted against the constellations. He back-dated his diary to his own birth, and the first entry of July 1652, when he was four months old, records how ‘I fell out of bed but had no hurt’. Like Aubrey, Jeake recorded accidents and other important events of his life up to the time he embarked on the diary: in 1660, when he was eight, or ‘About this year (but I remember not exactly) as I was catching of Crabs at full Sea; I fell from a Rock into the Tide up to the middle’.

As the diary unfolds more detail is given with the memory of each accident, or near-accident. On 16 August 1693, coming home in the dark, ‘I was in great danger of falling over a Load of Wood which lay out in the Middlestreet, which being just in my way, I was within Two steps of stumbling on it, not seeing it. But it pleased God to send a Flash of that Lightning which was very frequent that evening’. On 30 September, Jeake was again going home in the dark, this time on horseback. Riding downhill along ‘a Rivulet of water’, Jeake’s saddle slipped forward onto the horse’s neck, and ‘I was twice like to be thrown off into the water’ – if this had happened, Jeake speculates, he might have been drowned, or ‘trod underfoot’ by his horse, ‘or at least have been all wet’.

A similar near-accident on 10 January 1683 resulted in Jeake catching his feet in his own stirrups. ‘The Sun at the time of this Accident was in the 15th degree of Aquarius which is supposed to signify the legs’, he notes. Almost (but not quite) falling out of bed in January 1693, Jeake is also put in mind of the astrological context: ‘I would therefore refer the accident to the opposition of Mercury out of an airy sign’.

Elsewhere, Jeake made a horoscope which includes an impressive list of 202 unpredicted injuries. As Michael Hunter and Annabel Gregory have written in the introduction to their edition of the diary, ‘one of Jeake’s motives in compiling the diary was to subject the events of his life to astrological analysis’; he was trying ‘to refine the techniques and test the principles of astrology by careful empiricism’. Horoscopes Jeake made for himself, similar in form to those Aubrey made for himself and his other subjects (though Jeake’s are tidier), are reprinted in the Hunter/Gregory edition, as shown on the dust-jacket:


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(Cover Hunter and Gregory, eds, image from here)

The experience of traffic accidents, dangerous illnesses, broken bones and embarrassing falls are things that remain for a long time in human memories. Aubrey’s and Jeake’s autobiographical writings seem to show a particular interest in the memory of what we would now call ‘accidents’ – though they would have defined this word more broadly, as any occasional or chance event. In particular, Jeake and Aubrey set these ‘accidents’, or disordered events, against the constellations, which they believe to be orderly but inscrutable. By recording their lives, both Aubrey and Jeake seem to have been trying to assess a correspondence between very real events on earth: horses falling over in mud, men tumbling into rivers – and movements in the sky above the earth. Each man, stores up a memory, and seems to attempt to reveal a pattern in a series of otherwise random collisions.


* John Aubrey, Brief Lives, Woodbridge: Boydell 1982-98, ‘John Aubrey’ pp.7-15

* Kate Bennett, ‘Editing Aubrey’, in Ma(r)king the Text: The presentation of Meaning on the literary page, Joe Bray, Miriam Handley & Anne C.Henry, eds., Aldershot: Ashgate 2000, pp. 271-290

*  Samuel Jeake, An Astrological Diary of the Seventeenth-Century: Samuel Jeake of Rye, 1652-99, eds., Michael Hunter and Annabel Gregory, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1988