copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
1 July 2006
The memoirs (or autobiography) of Edward Gibbon,
the author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,
seem to have held a particular interest for English writers
during the second world war. EM Forster turned to them while
also reading the Roman history to see if any lessons could be
drawn from it for the present day. VS Pritchett at the same
time wrote an essay called "Gibbon and the Home Guard",
drawing an explicit and amused comparison between Gibbon's service
in the militia and the Dads' Army of the 1940s.
Watch out, though, for the condescending tone
of both Pritchett and Forster. They were reading a different
version from the text we read today in the Penguin edition,
as edited by Betty Radice in 1984. And so they are both struck
by the sentence Gibbon uses to sum up the experience of being
forbidden to marry a young Swiss woman with whom he has fallen
in love: "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son."
Forster thinks that Gibbon "never developed
his emotions", but he adds in mitigation that "if
you develop your emotions you have to pay - everything has to
be paid for, and he would have impaired the particular qualities
that made him great". Pritchett depicts Gibbon as never
lifting his nose from his books to contemplate the women rural
society had to offer: "A woman, even one of the West Sussex
chatterboxes, might have prevailed against the eighteenth-century
taste for ruins."
In other words, both authors think bachelor
life was necessary to his particular genius, but that there
is something "undeveloped" about this. As Pritchett
puts it, "The plump little man, only five feet high, with
the bulging forehead and bulbous cheeks, gazes like some imperturbable
and learned baby at his life ..."
Actually Gibbon makes it clear that, while
he had been too timid as a teenager at Oxford to visit the high-class
bagnios or brothels of London, in later life he did so. The
story may not be more admirable, or more "developed",
but it is a different story from the one told to the reader
in the 1940s. Gibbon had his sexual requirements sorted out
after the manner of many men of his day and ours.
As for "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed
as a son", it does not appear in the Penguin text, although
it does come from one of Gibbon's several drafts. The objection
to it as a sentence is that the self-conscious parallelism of
the style covers what later readers think should have been presented
in much more brutal emotional terms. It is too glib. But if
Gibbon never finished his memoirs, and if it was his editor
Lord Sheffield who took the sentence from one draft and inserted
it into another, then this objection evaporates.
Gibbon has a different conception of psychology
from us. He dismisses childhood altogether as a clue to adulthood:
"In the entire period of 10 or 12 years from our birth,
our pains and pleasures, our actions and designs are remotely
connected with our present mode of existence; and according
to a just computation we should begin to reckon our life from
the age of puberty." So we must read him with a consciousness
that he is working from a quite different theory of personality.
He is aware that to write an autobiography
- what he conceives as exhibiting his own portrait - may seem
an act of immodesty, although he claims it would not be difficult
to produce a long list of precedents. Actually his list of authors
ancient or modern is not very long, and from the British 18th
century he cites rather few names: Hume, for his few pages,
and Colley Cibber for his "gay follies" are the closest
Yet if the risk is that he will be charged
with immodesty, Gibbon meets this quite squarely. At the end
of his list of precedents he asserts: "That I am the equal
or superior of some of these biographers the efforts of modesty
or affection cannot force me to dissemble." This refusal
to dissemble is exemplary. Lord Sheffield, who suppressed much,
was nevertheless quite right in saying that "few men, I
believe, have ever so fully unveiled their own character, by
a minute narrative of their sentiments and pursuits as Mr Gibbon
will here be found to have done; not with study and labour -
not with an affected frankness - but with a genuine confession
of his little foibles and peculiarities, and a good-humoured
and natural display of his own conduct and opinions."
Alas, the second part of this sentence imports
the tone of diminishment that we find in Forster and Pritchett.
Gibbon's is one of the founding classics of modern autobiography.