John Aubrey (1626-1697) lived through the English Civil War and the Great Fire of London. He knew Thomas Hobbes, Christopher Wren, Edmund Halley, and Isaac Newton. He was a founding member of the Royal Society. But after his death, he was considered a gossipy eccentric. It took years for his manuscripts to be organized and edited; eventually, Brief Lives, was recognized as a landmark literary work. How do you write the life of a man who transformed biography by including unvarnished details? Ruth Scurr, a Cambridge historian and biographer of Robespierre, does it in John Aubrey, My Own Life (NYRB, $35) by letting Aubrey narrate those details. She searched his papers for autobiographical passages, annotated and arranged them chronologically. Through his own words, we learn about Aubrey’s childhood in an affluent Wiltshire family and his plunge from privilege to hardship in his twenties when his father died. Scurr lets Aubrey reveal his fascinations with science, educational theory, ancient British history, and architecture. He loved village traditions and the innovation of coffee houses. He berated himself for not capturing all he saw. Then there were the money woes, an engagement gone spectacularly wrong, reliance on friends for support, sketching ancient churches, describing (and theorizing about) standing stones, and talking, always talking, to anyone, regardless of social status. He had deep feelings for friends, and never let political and religious differences interfere. He wanted to be remembered through his words. His works could have shared the fate of the old manuscripts he saw used to line pie pans—but eventually his books appeared and his biographical approach was appreciated.
Richard Holmes’s vivid and affectionate story of 19th-century ballooning, Falling Upwards (Pantheon, $35), grew out of his award-winning The Age of Wonder and, like that earlier chronicle, it’s a rich narrative encompassing science and literature, camaraderie and conflict. Balloons excite the imaginations of his rich and diverse cast of characters, and he details what his American and European aeronauts envisioned with this new enterprise, which changed the horizons of scientific research, travel, and entertainment. These adventurers aspired to go ever higher, to the point of asphyxiation, or to travel for longer distances; they dreamed of crossing the Atlantic or reaching the North Pole. Some, like James Glaisher, used ballooning to learn about the planet’s atmosphere. Others, for instance, Sophie Blanchard, performed heart-stopping feats of acrobatics. Holmes also shows how this new means of flight influenced writers, and how figures such as Poe and Verne in turn inspired the balloonists. Falling upwards, of course sometimes led to plunging downward, and the mishaps of the brave and foolhardy are part of the story as well.