Duncan Campbell Scott

Addresses‚ Essays‚ and Reviews

Literature and Life:  A Booklover’s Corner
[V.  Edward Gibbon]


About 200 years ago, to be exact, on the 27th April 1737, a boy was born to parents of moderate wealth and intermediate social position.  The locale was Putney, then not so surrounded by a Greater London as it now is, a suburb six miles from St. Paul’s.  His mother bore seven children, six boys and one girl, and only two survived.  That was a habit of the eighteenth century.  The boy who survived was spared to write of his brothers who just blinked at life, “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament.”  He lost his mother when he was 10; he was nurtured by an aunt and after preliminary tuition he went to Oxford.  He had vicissitudes there and troubles of faith.  He read much, travelled a little, fell in love, and by his father’s command, fell out again—gained a few good friends and not a few enemies—thought very well of himself, wrote a good deal, and enjoyed it, and before he grew old, in 1794, he died.  That seems like a reasonable life and many millions have lived such lives since 1737, and such a life will be indefinitely multiplied in all ordinary characteristics.  But in this life there was a difference, “he wrote a good deal.”  He was Edward Gibbon, the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and of the Autobiography.
     Someone is sure to make the rude assertion, “Nobody reads The Decline and Fall.”  We are not to be put upon oath in such a cause, but I cheerfully affirm that I, for one, have not.  The reason probably was that the copy I inherited, published a hundred years ago, was as Nashe called one of Harvey’s books, “a vast, gorbellied volume.”  One had to support it, and to read one had to pore over it, poring is not a natural attitude, and the procedure became too onerous, an act of duty or of homage.  Still, guilty as I am, I feel indignant when [page 459] someone says “nobody reads The Decline and Fall,” and I hazard an aphorism:  The books that nobody reads are the glories of our literature.  However, one can say he knows a country without having trampled over every square mile, and I have read enough of the History to say that I know it as I know Canada.  I am as frank as Silas Wegg, who was engaged by Mr. Boffin, you will remember, to read aloud the work of which he knew nothing.

     “His name is Decline-and-Fall-Off The-Rooshan-Empire.  You know him, Wegg?”
     “I haven’t been not to say right slap through him, very lately,” Mr. Wegg made answer, “having been otherways employed, Mr. Boffin.  But know him?  Old familiar declining and falling off the Rooshans?  Rather, sir!  Ever since I was not so high as your stick.”

     But when he was put to the test (as I hope I shall not be), and saw for the first time the title of the book, he failed to make good these pretensions. 

“I think you said Rooshan; ain’t it, Wegg?”
“No, sir, Roman.  Roman.”
“What’s the difference, Wegg?”
“The difference, sir?”  Mr. Wegg was faltering and in danger of breaking down, when a bright thought flashed upon him.  “The difference, sir?  There you place me in a difficulty, Mr. Boffin.  Suffice it to observe, that the difference is best postponed to some other occasion when Mrs. Boffin does not honor us with her company.  In Mrs. Boffin’s presence, sir, we had better drop it.”

     Anyone so minded may follow the comedy in the fifth chapter of Our Mutual Friend. 
     Until Mr. D.M. Low published this year his Edward Gibbon, 1737-1794, the historian’s life had not received full and fair treatment from his biographers; the default is made good by Mr. Low’s book.  In 1929 he published and edited Gibbon’s Journal, and thus proved himself the person for the greater task.  His knowledge of the eighteenth century is full and his experience as a novelist is all to the good, as he is dealing with characters that require presentation with sympathetic insight.  There is want of proportion between Gibbon the man and Gibbon the author.  The work of genius should have been created by a powerful, self-centered individual, one would presuppose, and we find a fussy, vain, time-serving personage, and [page 460] have to look closely before we discover the character that lay behind the labor and social success.
     With one exception Gibbon was not very fortunate in his forbears and relatives.  His grandfather had part in that historic speculation, the South Sea scheme, of which he was one of the directors.  He was able to rebuild his fortune and left to his son, what the historian thought, and inequitable share of it.  This share was mismanaged, much to Gibbon’s disadvantage, by a father who was impulsive, careless and exacting.  His mother died when he was 10, “too young,” he says, “to feel the importance of my loss.”  His two aunts on his father’s side had little influence on his life.  His Aunt Hester, who was a saintly person under the influence of William Law, who wrote A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, was a source of annoyance.  She continued to live year after year in possession, as he thought, of too large a share in his grandfather’s estate.  He called her the Northampton Saint, and he wished to find “a correspondent in that neighborhood who, without noise or scandal, might send regular and early notice of her decline and fall.”  Later he wrote, “The Saint seems ripe for heave.” —Gibbon was ever ready with his sharp wit.  His mother’s sister was an aunt of superfine quality.  Mr. Low writes, “Catherine Porten has a secure place among the world’s perfect aunts.  Perhaps she is beyond compare.”  Gibbon lavished his praises on her.

To her care I am indebted in earliest infancy for the preservation of my life and health.  I was a puny child, neglected by my mother, starved by my nurse—without her maternal vigilance I should either have been in my grave, or imperfectly lived in a crooked rickety monster, a burthen to myself and others.

     Until his health was established, his education was rather neglected, but early he became an omnivorous reader and went to Oxford with a store of curious learning.  At Oxford he came under Roman Catholic influences, and without consultation with his family took preliminary steps to join that communion.  He got no sympathy from his father, nothing but threats of banishment and disinheritance.  This was the first of two crises in which his father deflected the course of his life.  He did more than threaten; actually he banished his son; with headlong speed he packed him off to Geneva and placed him with a Calvinistic minister, M. Daniel Pavillard.  [page 461]  His situation there can best be understood by quoting Mr. Low:

Pavillard he found kindly and tactful, but of his wife, on whom he was dependent for comfort, he could only say in later years “in sober truth she was ugly, dirty, proud, ill-tempered and covetous.”  Everything was wrong.  He had nothing left to console him but his new-found religion.  Even here, to his lasting amazement, he was abandoned.  No one followed up the young convert or even wrote to him!

     It was not until 1754 that he was found worthy for the Protestant fold.  This discipline did not change the rationalistic bias of his mind.  It is present in the History, although no one now pays much attention to it.  Mr. Low, in one of the best chapters in his book, “A Vindication,” says that Gibbon “broke down for good the frontiers between sacred and secular history,” and he disposes of all questions which arise from Gibbon’s treatment of the Christian religion. 
     He did not return to England until 1758.  In five years he had mastered the French language, discovered in himself lively social qualities, and had fallen in love.  Many years after the event he deals with it in the Memoirs.

I hesitate, from the apprehension of ridicule, when I approach the delicate subject of my early love.  By this word I do not mean the polite attention, the gallantry, without hope or design, which has originated with the spirit of chivalry, and is interwoven with the texture of French manners.  I understand by this passion the union of desire, friendship and tenderness, which is inflamed by a single female which prefers her to the rest of her sex, and which seeks her possession as the supreme or the sole happiness of our being.

     This was indeed a serious view of the passion and he came home with hope of a happy consummation.  His father crushed it; he said:  “Marry your foreigner, you are independent.  But before you do so remember you are a son and Englishman,” Gibbon records in the Memoirs: “After a painful struggle I yielded to my fat.  I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.”  His letter to his fiancée does not make good reading, but the destinies of the pair were not seriously affected.  Gibbon developed a bachelor existence and enjoyed it.  The lady obtained a mane in the annals of the time.  She was Mlle. Suzanne Curchod.  Mr. Low draws an engaging portrait of this lively Swiss girl.  She made a fortunate marriage with Jules Necker, [page 462] who was the Director General of the French finances in revolutionary times.  Their daughter, Germaine, celebrated as Mme. de Stael,  had an eventful career of her own.  The family and even Gibbon himself suffered anxieties during the French Revolution, but a warm friendship grew up and flourished between the members of the group.  Mr. Low remarks that “It used to be the fashion to sneer at Gibbon’s perturbations over the French Revolution.  In the smugness of the last century this may have been very well.  In our own days it will not do.”
     I cannot give space to the details of Gibbon’s career as a soldier, politician, and servant of the state.  These activities are dwarfed by his literary achievements.  Birbeck Hill is severe on his political conduct, always guided by the hope of appointment to a sinecure office; he says—sitting in Parliament for eight sessions during the term of the American Revolution, a man deeply read in the reverses of great empires might have been swayed by the loftiest motives, but he supported those measures which gave his country the deepest wound she has ever suffered.
     The first volume of the History appeared on 17th February 1776.  It sold at a guinea, unbound, and was bought “like a threepenny pamphlet on current affairs”; and the initial success was continuous.  The work was finished at Lausanne on 27th June, 1787.  “After laying down my pen I took several turns in a covered walk of acacias.  The air was temperate, the sky was serene, the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, all Nature was silent.  I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom and perhaps the establishment of my fame.”  His fame was assured.  He became the centre of controversy, praise and execration broke over his head.  The charm of his manners and the brilliance of his conversation secured friendships with men of equal or greater parts.  He was usually called The Gibbon, as if that were a title—half in affectionate banter, half in amused toleration of his vanity.  For he was vain of his person and was foppishly careful in its adornment.  He said, “Personal beauty is an outward gift which is seldom despised, except by those whom it has been refused.”  There are several pen-portraits, the best is by the German poet, Mathisson.

His face is one of the most singular spectacles in physiognomy on account of the irregular proportions of the individual parts to the whole.  The eyes are so small that they afford the strongest contrast with the high and splendidly arched brow; the rather snub nose almost disappears [page 463] between the extremely prominent cheeks, and the large double chin hanging far down makes the already elongated oval of the face still more striking.  In spite of these irregularities Gibbon’s face has an extraordinary expression of dignity, and proclaims, at the first glance, his deep and sagacious thoughts.  Nothing can surpass the intellectual fire of his eyes.

     This was his face, in stature he was diminutive and he grew enormously stout.  Malicious folk like Mme. de Genlis, circulated ridiculous gossip; she originated the story that Gibbon proposed on his knees to a lady and “being unable to rise unaided had to wait while she rang for a footman.”
     Evidence of this celebrated obesity is more convincing when it comes from a trusted friend:  “He amuses himself with the notion that he is not grown fatter, but he appears to me greatly increased in bulk.  I was obliged to threaten him yesterday that if he would not do as he was bid, we should be obliged to lay him on his back that, like the turtle, he may not be able to get up.  I think he indulges too much with oysters, milk, etc., at supper.  Two breakfasts are never omitted and at dinner he seems to devour much more than he used to do.”
     But neither trifling gossip nor physical disabilities could injure his social prestige.  Intellectually this was secure when he was elected to the famous Club organized by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which Boswell has made famous.  Bozzy hated him and called him “an ugly, affected, disgusting fellow and poisons our literary club to me.”  What Gibbon thought of Boswell has not been preserved; if the aversion was mutual he would have uttered, not such a scolding phrase, but a specimen of his biting wit.
     Will this give the reader some idea of the personality of Gibbon and the charm of Mr. Low’s book?  I hope so.  His purpose was to separate the man from the work and give a full-length portraits of a personality.  This he succeeded in doing brilliantly, but he has not slighted the masterpiece, and it is easy for the reader to agree with him that “Gibbon’s bridge between the ancient and modern worlds remains remarkably safe.” [page 464]


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