It’s amazing how many different subjects Sir Thomas Browne’s latest biographer doesn’t care about

Hugh Aldersey-Williams ‘wrenches’ the brilliant 17th-century polymath into the 21st century — simply in order to express his own disappointment with the modern world

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

The Adventures of Thomas Browne in the 21st Century Hugh Aldersey Williams

Granta, pp.330, £20, ISBN: 9781847089007

On the evening of 10 March 1804, Samuel Taylor Coleridge settled at a desk in an effort to articulate what he found so appealing about the 17th-century English polymath Sir Thomas Browne, the man he numbered among his ‘first favourites’ of English prose. He mentions Browne’s formal qualities, of course: he is ‘great and magnificent in his style and diction’; his Urne-Buriall ‘redolent of graves and sepulchres’ in every line. Yet most of his praise is reserved for Browne’s sensibility, for a man who is ‘fond of the curious, and a hunter of oddities and strangeness’; who ‘loved to contemplate and discuss his own thoughts and feelings, because he found by comparison with other men’s, that they too were curious’.

Coleridge is typical of Browne’s admirers. Forster, Woolf, Borges, Sebald, to name just a handful of recent devotees, all give the impression that to read Browne is to make an especially intimate engagement with a particular, and particularly engaging, personality; is to encounter a man who is tolerant, humane, plangent, quietly sceptical, possessed of an almost discomfiting apprehension of what Woolf called ‘the curious shades of our private life’.

And it is this sense of Browne that fills the pages of Hugh Aldersey-Williams’s new book — so much so that it is with an impression of Browne, based on his writings but not tied closely to them, that he is primarily concerned. His objective is to ‘wrench Browne into the present’ in an effort to show how his example can be brought to bear on the way we think today about ‘the meaning of order in nature, how to achieve a reconciliation between science and religion, how to think about life and death’.

Before we embark on this rather odd enterprise, we are offered a potted account of Browne’s life. Here Aldersey-Williams tells us that he has decided not to make his book a chronological biography because we lack the necessary records. He does so while drawing heavily on Reid Barbour’s chronological Life of 2013, which runs to 550 pages. But we press on. Browne was born in Cheapside, London, in 1605; educated at Winchester College; Broadgates Hall (later Pembroke College), Oxford; and the universities of Montpellier, Padua and Leiden, where he completed his medical studies. On returning to England he spent his life working as a doctor in Norwich. He died in 1682.

While working as a doctor Browne developed and nurtured an interest in a bewildering array of subjects, including the natural world, archaeology, mortality and the nature of belief. He wrote copiously and brilliantly about each, most notably in Religio Medici (1643), Pseudo-doxia Epidemica (1646), The Garden of Cyrus (1658), and Hydriotaphia, orUrne-Buriall (1658). The literary qualities of these works, two of which (Religio Medici and Urne-Buriall) might justly be regarded as the finest of their genre, hold little interest for Aldersey-Williams. What does interest him is the opportunity they afford to ruminate on his own disappointment (the pages of this book are thick with the vertical pronoun) with the modern world.

Much of that disappointment is directed at the character and atheism — more loud than new — of Richard Dawkins. Fair enough, in a way; but Browne’s work deserves something better than to be plundered for the purposes of present-day polemic. More irritating still are the many occasions on which Aldersey-Williams drifts into the subjunctive mood and wonders what position Browne might have adopted on this or that appurtenance of 21st-century life (the wares of Body Shop, for example). At one stage this pointless exercise results in an imagined interview with Browne in which he wanders around Norwich with Aldersey-Williams, nattering about the competing claims of reason and revelation.

The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century is strongest on the few occasions that it allows Browne to speak for himself; but even here it exhibits a tendency to distort its subject to suit its own ends. Browne’s misogyny is cleaned up and dismissed as ‘disingenuous’ on the grounds that he would sometimes cite women as authorities in his work (this is hypocrisy, not disingenuousness). And his tolerance of other religions, impressive by the standards of his time but by no means complete, is made to look more enlightened than it was on the grounds that ‘even the greatest minds of Browne’s age never imagined a day . . . when there was freedom of religion’. Not so: some in the 1640s (Richard Overton among them) were prepared to argue in print for freedom of (and freedom from) belief, and did so at great risk.

This is hardly in the spirit of Browne’s determination to get things right. But perhaps it does not much matter. Browne claimed to have no interest in his legacy, writing in Religio Medici: ‘At my death, I meane to take a totall adieu of the world, not caring for a Monument, History, or Epitaph.’ There’s a chance he even meant it. But writing like Browne’s does not ask to be forgotten: in its monumental cadences, its resonant elegies, it insists it will endure. It might never allow him his total farewell.

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  • I believe Sir Thomas Browne could well be the subject-matter of this verse from Coleridge’s Notebooks.

    He looked at his own soul.
    With a Telescope.
    What seemed all irregular he showed to be
    Beautiful constellations.
    And he added to the consciousness
    Hidden worlds within worlds.