Yet this has been peculiarly Aubrey's fate; for his reputation is founded almost entirely upon hearsay and the piecemeal quotation of his work by other writers. The reason for the extraordinary neglect of this man of genius is not hard to find, and the fault, it must be admitted, is entirely his own. For Aubrey's love of life was so intense, his curiosity so promiscuous and so insatiable, that he proved quite incapable of completing any work he undertook.
Each one was started in a most businesslike and practical fashion, but before long the original plan was always buried beneath the flood of digressions and notes, of horoscopes, letters, and stories, which his restless mind seemed powerless to control.
Having decided to write a life, Aubrey selected a page in one of his notebooks and jotted down as quickly as possible everything that he could remember about the character concemed: his friends, his appearance; his actions, his books, and his sayings. Any facts or dates that did not occur to him on the spur of the moment were left blank, and as Aubrey was so extremely sociable that he was usually suffering from a hangover when he came to put pen to paper, the number of these omissions was often very large. In the first flush of composition, too, his mind raced so far beyond his pen that he frequently resorted to a sort of involved shorthand and made use of signs instead of words.
He then read over what he had just written, and put in any stories that he thought were even vaguely relevant, wrote alternatives to words and phrases, inserted queries, numbered words; sentences, and paragraphs for transposition, and disarranged everything. Any facts that occurred to him later were jotted down quite at random, in the margin if there was still room, otherwise on another page or in the middle of another life, often in a different volume, sometimes even in a letter to a friend.
And there the text was left, for he rarely made a fair copy of anything that he had written, because, as he confessed, he "wanted patience to go thorough Knotty Studies". Even the optimistic author despaired at last of ever reducing his life's work to a manageable shape.
"Considering therefore that if I should not finish and publish what I had begun. My Papers might either perish, or be sold in an Auction, and some body else (as is not uncommon) put his name to my Paines: and not knowing any one that would undertake this Design whilst I live, I have tumultuarily stitcht up what I have many yeares since collected: I hope, hereafter it may be an Incitement to some Ingeniose and publick-spirited young Man, to polish and compleat, what I have delivered rough hewen: For I have not Leisure to heighten my Stile."