Editor, essayist, critic, biographer, and novelist,LOUIS KRONENHERGER is a literary scholar specializing in eighteenth-century subjects. He is the author of Company Manners, Kings and Desperate Men, and Thread of Laughter, and is the editor of many anthologies. This is another in the Atlantic’s series of biographical essays dealing with the decisive events in the lives of famous men.
by LOUIS KRONENBERGER
I WAS born” — so Gibbon begins his Autobiography — “I was born at Putney in the county of Surrey, the 27th of April O.S., in the year 1737.” The date of his birth had a good deal to do with the tenor of his life — few people have been more the child of their age; while the family he was born into had its eighteenth-century significance also. His father —also named Edward — had received a gentleman’s education and, both before and after marriage, had come to indulge a gentleman’s tastes. Capricious and unstable, a Tory M.P., a London alderman, he had of his wife seven children, of whom Edward alone survived. Mrs. Gibbon did not survive the final childbed; and the motherless boy, who had been an invalid baby and continued sickly through childhood, was fortunately cared for by a most devoted maiden aunt.
At school, Gibbon showed no interest in games, nor talent for friendship. He early became a bookworm—“the dynasties of Assyria and Egypt were my top and cricket ball.” His aunt was his ally: they read Pope’s Homer and the Arabian Nights together, while by himself the boy was soon reading volume after volume of the Universal History. He was fourteen when, paying a visit to his father, he pitched on a work dealing with the later Roman Empire, and had just become—as he puts it— “immersed in the passage of the Goths over the Danube, when the summons of the dinner bell reluctantly dragged me from my intellectual feast.”
We can easily credit his account of his entering Oxford at not quite fifteen: “I arrived . . . with a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed.” He considered his fourteen months at Oxford the most wasted period of his life. There were things he much wanted to do, such as study Arabic; but his tutor promptly discouraged him, and Gibbon, bound as he was to devour books and think about them, could only, if he wasn’t to be guided, explore for himself. He got deep into the Church Fathers, and then into Bossuet and the Elizabethan Jesuit, Parsons; he got in so deep, indeed, that at sixteen, with the help of a London bookseller, he was admitted a proselyte to the Catholic Church.
It was not without a certain satisfaction, an air blending mischievousness with martyrdom, that Gibbon informed his father of what he had done. As a Roman Catholic, he could not continue at Oxford; and his father, acting for once with sagacity and dispatch, decided he had better not remain in England, either. He was packed off to the house of a Protestant clergyman at Lausanne; and the sixteen-year-old boy, who had no friends there and spoke no French, whose very room displayed a strange stove rather than a fireplace, and whose penance included bad cooking, might have pondered the paradox of being cured of Catholicism by being sent to purgatory. But matters very quickly grew better: the pastor was an understanding man, who reclaimed the culprit from Romanism and rebellion by letting him gradually reclaim himself.
Gibbon soon came to enjoy Lausanne. At first he went about with a group of pleasure-loving young Englishmen; once, indeed, he lost 110 guineas at faro and was suflieiently perturbed to flee the city, though his father, on hearing of such unexpected frivolity, was pleased to make good the debt. But inevitably — and all the more as French became his daily language — Gibbon turned toward the native life, and the intellectual life, of Lausanne. There were glimpses of Voltaire acting in one of his own comedies; there were exchanges of letters with Swiss scholars. Thus early in life, Gibbon successfully attempted an emendation in Ovid; thus early, too, he began to respond to the discipline, he began to acquire the balance, of one of the most stable of cultures. How thoroughly he responded he made plain in the matter of his celebrated romance.
Celebrated the romance may surely be called, however special the reasons. When they met, both Gibbon and Suzanne Curchod were extremely young. Suzanne was a Swiss clergyman’s daughter and a girl with ambitions; these included marrying outside the clergy and, if possible, above her class. How deeply Suzanne loved the short, gauche, socially desirable young Englishman is open to conjecture, though how deeply Gibbon loved Suzanne is open even more. Intrigued he certainly was, and smitten possibly; he swore, at any rate, “an attachment beyond the assaults of time.” There is also a story of his stopping strangers at sword’s point to compel their praises of Suzanne’s superlative charms; a story that can just be believed because it is so out of character — because it reveals a Gibbon who protests too much. Both Gibbon and Suzanne were perhaps in love with love; in any case, after a number of meetings and a regular exchange of letters, they found themselves engaged.
The matter of marriage, however, was something else: Suzanne lacked a fortune, Gibbon his own income. And at the moment there were other complications. Gibbon’s father, as it happened, had just got married himself, and Edward was now, on the eve of his twenty-first birthday, summoned home. It was an opportunity for the young lover, who while saluting his father’s marriage might try to seal his own. His father greeted him, after five years, in the friendliest fashion, and his stepmother proved in every way kind. Between her and her stepson there began a lifelong relationship of affection and esteem.
Actually his father’s main reason for calling him home was to dock his son’s inheritance: he offered Gibbon three hundred a year for life if he would agree to break the entail. The son consented and now, in respect of Suzanne, sought his father’s consent in turn. He was refused it; Mr. Gibbon could not approve his son bringing an unknown foreign girl to England, and even less his settling down in a foreign land. He did not forbid the match: he merely reminded Edward of his duties, he merely spoke of an action that would bring his father the earlier to his grave. Highly overwrought, Edward thereupon — as he wrote to Suzanne — retired for two hours to his room. When he emerged, it was to do as his father asked. “Farewell!” he wound up the letter. “I shall always remember Mlle Curchod as the worthiest and most charming of women. . . . Assure M. and Mine Curchod of my . . . regrets.”
Suzanne’s answer mixed self-pity with real feeling, and indignation with both. “You made up your mind in two hours!” she breaks out; but soon good sense reasserts itself and she wonders why Gibbon can’t marry her with the idea of passing a few months each year in Switzerland till set free by his father’s death. But Gibbon had already lowered their romance into its grave and would in due time carve out its monstrous epitaph: “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son.” The result could hardly have been happier: Gibbon achieved the serene bachelor life that suited him so well, and Suzanne in due course married the great French finance minister Necker and became the mother of Mine de Staël; became, too, a notable hostess, with Gibbon among the most famous and favored of her guests.
HE, back in England at the age of twenty-one, now set about becoming an Englishman again, and mapping out a career. He took rooms in London, but socially—what with a lack of exalted sponsors — things were inclined to be slow. Many of his evenings he spent at dull family parties or with “old Tories of The ocoa Tree”; many others he passed, “while coaches were rattling through Bond Street,” alone with his books. In the matter of a career, no choice was really necessary. “I know that from my early youth,” he wrote in the Autobiography, “I aspired to the character of an historian.”
The real question was what history to write. In the next few years he chose and rejected the crusade of Richard I, the Barons’ War, the history of the Black Prince, of Sir Philip Sidney, of Sir Walter Raleigh, of Florence under the Medici. He was plainly just glancing about; and between strolls along the corridors of history, he sat down and wrote, in French, an essay on the study of literature. By the time it got published, his quest of a theme had to be put aside. The Seven Years’ War was on, and largely as a gesture Gibbon and his father had obtained commissions in the South Hampshire Regiment, But in 1760 the regiment, to their surprise, was called up. Gibbon’s response was at first good-humored; to be a captain of militia for a season might be rather a lark. But it was quite something else to cease, for two years and more, to be the captain of one’s fate, and lead “a wandering life of military servitude.” Entry after entry of the Journal he kept begins “We marched” or “We paraded” or “We haltedwhile the only thing the young scholar learned, beyond how to drill, was how to drink. In time, however, the Journal entries tend to start off with “I read . . .”and before he was finished with soldiering, he had begun to resume a life of scholarship.
As an officer Gibbon, though not very effective, was fiercely efficient; and since his superiors were not, he exercised on occasion real authority. But the chief value of peregrinating the South of England, from Alton to Winchester, from Ringwood to Fareham, was best summed up — as so much concerning Gibbon is best summed up — in his own words: “The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the Phalanx and the Legions, and the Captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers . . . has not been useless to the historian of the Roman Empire.”
It was not yet to Rome, however, that Gibbon hurried as soon as his regiment was disbanded: it was to Paris, where he breathed an atmosphere, he entered into a way of life, that were at least as vital to him as those of London and Lausanne. Moreover, now was the perfect moment for imbibing this new element that his temperament craved, since he had quite banished certain other elements he did not want. The spiritual life, early and immaturely embarked on, had been early and unregretfully cast aside; for religion Gibbon would thereafter feel no need. The emotional life, flaring up before Gibbon came of age, produced no second crisis; for romance Gibbon would in future sigh no more. The physical life, the thirty months of camps and countermarches, had ended with the peace; for action and the out-of-doors, Gibbon would not even briefly pine. What now beckoned was intellectual and social life only, the life—in the age that gave the phrase its luster—of the scholar and the gentleman.
THANKS to his French essay, to some letters of introduction, and to the prevailing Anglomania, Gibbon achieved the entree in Paris: through Mme Geoffrin he got to know Helvétius and d’Holbach; there were morning calls and evening parties; operas, dinners, duchesses, a whole enchanting milieu where the life of the monde and the life of the mind were one. “In a fortnight ... I have heard more conversation worth remembering,” he wrote to his stepmother, “. . . than I had done in two or three winters in London.” But socially he was, for all that, pretty much an arriviste, and in fine company still something of a duffer; besides, if he was to enter society not just as a writer but as a man of fashion, it would prove highly expensive. Money had to be husbanded for an Italian journey; and Gibbon husbanded it, after fourteen weeks in Paris, by revisiting Lausanne.
He was welcomed back; the scene of his adolescent recantation began ministering to his adult desires, “A holiday resort for all Europe,” Lausanne offered much by way of well-bred intellectual intercourse: all sorts of cosmopolites and notabilities stopped over, summered, wintered there. Gibbon resumed his friendship with the scholarly young Deyverdun, began his friendship with John Holroyd, the future Lord Sheffield — they were to be the two warmest friendships of his life. There he saw Voltaire act again — “a very ranting, unnatural performance” — and mingled with some pleasant girls who, by banding together into a Société du Printemps, went freely about with young men, unchaperoned and unscathed. He saw Suzanne there, too — a governess now, who might make a most charming friend if she could bo dismissed as a fiancee; yet — as things stood — “fills dangereuse ef arfificielle,” to be kept distinctly at arm’s length. But the young scholar at Lausanne quite kept pace with the young worldling: thoughts of Italy were uppermost, and the matter of career, of the project that should crown it, was never far away. Burrowing for the one, studying for the other, he read on and on — books, learned journals, the first thirtyfive volumes of the Bibliothèque raisonnée; writing, at the same time, a 214-page treatise on Italian geography. His were detailed preparations indeed; and when the coming of spring “unlocked the mountains,” he set forth, like a scholar knight, for Italy.
Turin first, where Gibbon, being presented to the King’s daughters, “grew so very free and easy, that I drew my snuff-box, rapped it, took snuff twice” — a scandalous violation of presence-chamber etiquette. Then Milan, Genoa, Bologna, Florence, whose annals he perhaps still toyed with chronicling; then Pisa and Lucca, Leghorn and Siena; and finally, at the beginning of October — with sudden beating pulses—Rome. “From the Milvian Bridge,” he wrote in his Journal, “I was in a dream of antiquity.” “After a sleepless night,” he recalled long afterwards, “I trod with lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye.” The dream hold: avoiding society, neglecting to go kiss the Pope’s slipper, Gibbon inhabited the past, talked “with the dead rather than the living.” The dream deepened; and suddenly, amid a concourse of images, there came what proved a moment of inspiration: —
It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted fryars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.
Commentators are careful to remind us that the friars were singing in the Temple, not of Jupiter, but of Juno; but a man, in the moment of encountering his destiny, perhaps ought not have a too clear sense of his whereabouts.
The clock had struck, but a good many years were to tick away before Gibbon would read—let alone write—with his whole mind and force about Rome. In his own opinion, they turned into the least happy years of his life—partly, no doubt, because so little got done where so much was waiting to be; partly because full manhood had not yet brought entire independence, while independence itself, when it came, would at first bring cares. After wintering in Rome and Naples, he started for home, touched at Venice, all “ruined pictures and stinking ditches,” paused for “ten delicious days" in Paris, where he encountered Suzanne, now Mme Necker, “as handsome as ever” and full of affection for her former suitor. As for Necker himself, he would each night “go to bed, and leave me alone with his wife.” “Could they,” Gibbon demanded of Holroyd, “insult me more cruelly?” But now that love had flown out of the window, lifelong friendship might come in at the door.
Back in England, Gibbon made headway in London society, when not condemned to provincial society by v isits to his father. There was work to show, too: an essay on the sixth book of the Aeneid; and wilh Deyverdun — who came over each year from Lausanne — a series of critiques, the Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande Bretagne, and the beginnings of a book about Switzerland. The chief profit from all this was less how to write history than what language not to write it in. French was now to be abandoned for English — even if an English that had a certain air of Latin. Five more years, in any case, slipped away, during which Gibbon had but very slowly advanced “from the wish to the hope, from the hope to the design, from the design to the execution” of the Decline and Fall. Moreover, as his plans matured, his project itself grew larger: what was first envisaged as the decline and fall of a city broadened into that of an empire.
In 1770 when Gibbon now thirty-three—was at last deep in his subject, his father died. Having to settle a somewhat tangled estate and remove his stepmother from Buriton to Bath diverted Gibbon from his studies again; but these obligations accomplished, he was fully and permanently free.
IF NO vulgar climber, Gibbon had yet to make a place for himself in London, which he did chiefly through people he met outside it—at Lausanne, in the militia, in Rome. He became, in his own sedate, pompous, snuffbox-rapping fashion, something of a diner-out and a quite prodigious clubman. There was a Roman Club, dotted with earls and spattered with honorables; there was the old Augustan Cocoa Tree; and Boodle’s and Almack’s and Brooks’s; and White’s, that great stronghold of Tory rulers; and the Literary Club, where a ‘Tory held forth for posterity and ruled. There was finally what in those days was as much club as legislature, the House of Commons. Despite having very good friends at the Literary Club — Garrick and Sir Joshua in particular — he was not very vocal there. He and Dr. Johnson disliked each other; Johnson — whom no glass house ever deterred from throwing stones —— dilated on how uglv Gibbon was; and Gibbon, speaking of Johnson, on how ursine.
In the House of Commons, where he owed his seat to a cousin, Gibbon was less vocal still. He sat, from 1774 on, for almost ten years; but though they were scarcely humdrum years, he was the most silent, as also the most steadfast, of Tories. He not only never spoke, he did not very often listen: the great speakers, he remarked, filled him with despair, the bad ones with terror. On the subject that most agitated the House — the American Revolution — Gibbon, having looked into the facts, took King George’s side. He presently confessed, however, that it was easier to approve the justice of that side than the policies; and he eventually murmured that one might be better off humbled than ruined.
To be sure, Gibbon found the year 1776 momentous enough, for on February 17 was published the first volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Homan Empire. Into it had gone many years of reading and writing and polishing and recasting — the scholarly resolution, really, of a lifetime; and in the course of those years Gibbon had not simply mastered his subject, he had forged a style.
The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.
It was a style that in good time would breast the Bosporus as well as the Tiber: —
The dissolute youth of Constantinople adopted the blue livery of disorder: the laws were silent, ami the bonds of society wore relaxed; creditors were compelled to resign their obligations; judges to reverse their sentence; masters to enfranchise their slaves; fathers to supply the extravagance of their children; noble matrons were prostituted to the lust of their servants; beautiful boys were torn from the arms of their parents; and wives, unless they preferred a voluntary death, were ravished in the presence of their husbands.
Sentences had learned, as seldom before, to be endowed with majesty while being crammed with violence and overlaid with malice.
The success of the first volume was instantaneous and tremendous. “My book,” wrote its author, “was on every table, and almost on every toilette.” Horace Walpole hailed it with rapture; Hume’s praise recompensed “the labor of ten years”; nor, said Gibbon, “was the general voice disturbed by the barking of any profane critic.” Godlier critics were, to be sure, in different case. They violently attacked the even now notorious fifteenth and sixteenth chapters for being attacks, themselves, on Christianity: so much so as for Gibbon to say later that, had he foreseen the effect on “the pious, the timid, and the prudent,” he would perhaps have softened those chapters. But as he had not foreseen the effect, he chose instead to rebut an assailant named Davies in a Vindication quite as trenchant and almost as pitiless as one of A. E. Housman’s floggings of his fellow classicists. Toward the Church itself he showed, in his personal life, no animus, and is said to have kept, during his later years, a Bible at his bedside.
Thereafter he was an extremely famous man. Yet he never ceased working, though he might interrupt one kind of work for another. The second and third volumes of the Decline and Fall were five years appearing, partly because of Gibbon’s interest in chemistry and anatomy, and his dive “into the mud of the Arian controversy.”When in 1781 the two volumes did appear, there was not the furor of five years earlier; but there was not, on the other hand, the need for it. The Duke of Gloucester might respond with his famous “Another damned thick, square book — always scribble, scribble, scribble — eh! Mr Gibbon?"; and less high-born critics might register complaint or disappointment. But the scope and solidity of Gibbon’s History were beyond dispute, and the new books “insensibly rose in sale and reputation to a level with the first.”
SEVEN years more were to elapse before the three final volumes appeared, by which time Gibbon would have long since quitted London for Lausanne. The move, which he never regretted, was partly a matter of money: with the fall of the North administration, Gibbon lost his seat in Parliament and some £800 a year on the Hoard of Trade. The clubman and diner-out who needs must drastically retrench to squeak through in London could live in perfect comfort by removing to Lausanne. He had a deep a fleet ion for the place: he had been happy there, or at any rate young; he could live there now with immense prestige; and, most enticingly of all, could perhaps share the burdens of living with his old friend Deyverdun. In September, 1783, he returned once more to Lausanne. Thereafter the greatest historian of the age varied the writing of his history with whist and chess, strolls or calls on neighbors, and bread and cheese for supper.
Caught in this serene light, he stands forth to much his best advantage. He is a curious figure: among a few men in history no less ridiculous than sublime. On the one side, it would be hard to overpraise the achievement of Gibbon, who was equally the architect of a monumentally vast and classic work and of an exquisitely proportioned Georgian existence. To be sure, he had the good judgment to get himself born in the eighteenth century — an age that encouraged its scholars to be men of the world, and an age that, while shielding the better-born from all brusque intrusions, did not shut out light and air. Intolerably stilted the age could be, but it was never oppressively stuffy: its complacence was that of statues rather than churchwardens. To Gibbon’s ironic temper, to his urbane, dry, skeptical set of mind, England offered much, Paris and the Continent still more. A hundred years later, scholar and gentleman would not have been so closely or so harmoniously welded; a hundred years later Gibbon would have belonged to the Athenaeum instead of A1mack’s, been a regius professor rather than a member of Parliament, overflowed with neurotic crotchets rather than seignorial airs; the enormous and continuous advance of scholarship would have allowed him far less time for society, the marked deterioration of society would have doomed him to a pundit’s role, or a don’s. Not his personal experiences only, but his very angle of vision, would have become a great deal more provincial: he would have escaped to the Continent to be caught in the toils of German “method”; or, like his distant kinsman Lord Acton, might have whittled away his brilliance trying to cope with some 60,000 books.
If Gibbon can’t help seeming comic, the wonder is he doesn’t seem more so. Extremely short, increasingly fat, extraordinarily ugly, he stressed his shortcomings by his habit of preening himself. There is the tale of Gibbon getting down on his knees at fifty to pay romantic court to Lady Elizabeth Foster and being too fat to gel up again; servants had to be summoned and an accident invented.
Again, there is the pendant to the tremendous compliment that Sheridan paid Gibbon in his great oration at the opening of the Warren Hastings trial. No parallel could be found for Hastings’s crimes, Sheridan thundered, “in ancient or modern history, in the correct periods of Tacitus or the luminous page of Gibbon.”Wanting a second portion of praise, Gibbon — who was present — affected deafness and asked his neighbor what Sheridan had said. “Oh,” he got back, “something about your voluminous pages.” He habitually conducted himself like a prelate and wrote of himself as though he were dead. Yet, having smiled, we must end by acknowledging how stupendously the man succeeded. In a way, the comic side only emphasizes his success; in other words, there is no pathetic side—the few small shadows derive from the sunlight in which he basked. His, moreover, is a serenity that his age, for all its reputation, seldom attained to—that age that steeped Johnson and Boswell and Gray in melancholy, that saw Swift and Smart and Cowper go mad. Gibbon represents the triumph — however large or limited it may seem in itself — of the eighteenth-century ideal. No doubt, to revive the old fling, he mistook himself at times for the Roman Empire; but so perhaps did the eighteenth century mistake itself for Gibbon.
Even that twilit flash of inspiration among the barefooted friars at Rome had to be long pondered in broad daylight before being acted upon. It was a real inspiration, moreover, because it told him, not whom for the moment he loved but whom he should marry. The Roman Empire was a parti rather than a passion, which is perhaps why things so magnificently succeeded. No mere callow infatuation at the outset, it turned with time into a real union, into twenty years and more of fond, devoted, truly close companionship; and when on that June night, between ihe hours of eleven and twelve, he set down the last words of his History in a summerhouse in his garden, he felt impoverished as well as elated, widowed as well as set free. It had been an all but unparalleled alliance. To be married to the Roman Empire, even in its declining years, is a formidable exertion; but Gibbon proved more, even, than its worthy mate: he emerged its undoubted master.
On finishing the Decline and Fall, Gibbon himself carried the manuscript of the last three volumes to London. It was purchased for the then great sum of £4000, and published — with a dinner to mark the occasion — on Gibbon’s fifty-first birthday. All particulars of its reception pale before the fact that it was everywhere received as a classic. In the 105 years since, its prestige has hardly diminished and more probably increased. Much has been said and must continue to be said in derogation; but the work remains one of the grandest of all achievements. It was most sharply attacked in the generation after it was written — by Romantics who as greatly disliked its style as its tone. To Shelley, Gibbon was “cold and unimpassioned"; to Coleridge, worse even than the language was Gibbon’s using “nothing but what may produce an effect. . . . All is scenical and, as it were, exhibited by candlelight.”Even more classicalminded critics, even profoundly admiring ones, have deplored Gibbon’s habit of sneering and his tendency to snicker. His erudite defender and eulogist, Porson, said what a thousand others have repeated: that Gibbon’s humanity never sleeps save “when women are being ravaged or Christians violated.”And yet, on this head, there is Cardinal Newman’s characterizing Gibbon as “the only Church historian worthy of the name who has written in English.”
Doubtless Coleridge put is finger on Gibbon’s great limitation — on his being far more interested in creating effects than discovering causes. And though that, in the end, is only to point out his unequaled merit, clearly the Decline and Fall is the work of a dramatist rather than a psychologist or philosopher. A true thinker Gibbon was not, or even an acute student of human nature. A scientific historian he certainly was not; nor, had he been, would his History have so triumphed over 165 years; for what scientific theory of history, or of very much else, has ever held sway so long? The Decline and Fall, being art, is a presentation rather than a re-enactment; it stakes its all on a theme — plainly set forth in the title — rather than a theory; it shows no interest in depth, as it possesses no equal for span. As Suzanne said, it projects across chaos a bridge joining the ancient to the modern world. It remains too a great feat of erudition, whether in the amassing or the disposing of its materials. If insight was blunted by prejudice or sacrificed to effect, accuracy — an accuracy that Robertson was impelled to verify and Porson was equipped to attest — was not. The inferiority of the second half of the History to the first, of the account of the Eastern Empire to that in the West, is partly a matter of inadequate scholarship, but much more so of temperament: to Gibbon what was Byzantine could only seem barbaric or decadent. But his book may call itself history even now when it is more than ever a triumph of literature.
His life’s great work behind him, Gibbon, while ruminating new projects, began chronicling that life itself. He wrote no finished version, merely six sketches out of which, after his death, Lord Sheffield wove the Autobiography that bears his name and, better than the Decline and Fall, asserts and glorifies his manner. Gibbon had, in a sense, not so much a life to record as a way of life. Even those elements that smack of drama or hint at tragedy — expulsion and exile, stepmother and blighted romance—far from leaving scars, seem almost a vindication of the eighteenth-century precept, “Whatever is, is right.”Yet if few lives have been, in a way, more undramatic, few have been better dramatized. Gibbon’s fateful moment at Rome vibrates almost as memorably as Caesar’s a few miles north of it; and not Hector taking leave of his family, or Mary Queen of Scots of the world, catches the light more vividly than Gibbon bidding his History adieu.
There is little for any biographer to add beyond where the autobiographer leaves off. Deyverdun died; but Gibbon obtained a life tenure on the house they shared and continued in the old way of living. The Bastille fell; but though the French Revolution shocked Gibbon, it scarcely discommoded him: indeed, by bringing the Neckers and other congenial spirits as refugees to Lausanne, it really brightened his existence. English friends also came to Lausanne, among them the Sheffields. Their sharp-eyed daughter found Gibbon’s circle deadly dull, and thought their flattery “the only advantage this place can have over England for him.”
He talked much of an English visit; but the Revolution had made travel rather hazardous, and the visit kept being put off. The death, however, of Lady Sheffield in April, 1793, prompted Gibbon to return at once, to bring any comfort he could to his most intimate friend. But it was the friend who must soon think of Gibbon: back in England he took ill. A hydrocele, or swelling of the testicle, that had been diagnosed as far back as his militia days, and been totally disregarded ever since, now grew acute. Operations afforded temporary relief; there were even intervals of dining out and of driving to Bath and Apthorp and Sheffield Place. But there could be no cure; and Gibbon died in London on the 16th of January, 1794, at the age of fifty-six.