There are books with titles that we are all very familiar with but have never read.
So let me confess at the beginning of this week’s column that this is indeed my situation in respect of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” by Edward Gibbon.
However, I do not believe that not having read Gibbon’s famous tome disqualifies me from writing about the life and times of the author who was a frequent visitor to Sussex and although not a son of the county is buried here in the village church at Fletching.
Edward Gibbon was born in 1737. He had five brothers and a sister who all died when very young. Edward himself was a sickly boy and later described himself as “a puny child, neglected by my mother, starved by my nurse”.
Edward was around ten years old when his mother died. In consequence he was sent to Westminster School boarding house, an establishment owned by his Aunt Kitty. After she died in 1786 he wrote of her as rescuing him from his mother's disdain, and imparting "… the first rudiments of knowledge and reason and a taste for books which is still the pleasure and glory of my life."
Aunt Kitty sounds wonderful but I can’t help feel sympathy for Edward’s poor mother and father having to bear losing so many of their children in infancy. What an awful tragedy.
Aged 15, Gibbon attended Magdalen College, Oxford. He described his 14 month sojourn at the school as the "most idle and unprofitable" of his life. But while there in June 1753 he embraced Roman Catholicism.
His father did not approve of his son’s conversion and became concerned that Oxford was exerting an unhealthy theological influence. Adolescent Edward was sent abroad to live under the tutelage of Pastor Daniel Pavillard in Lausanne. It was in Switzerland that Edward met John Baker Holroyd who would later acquire Sheffield Place in Sussex. The pair forged an enduring friendship. Just a year and a half later in 1754, after his father threatened to cut him out of his will, Edward quit Catholicism: "The various articles of the Romish creed," he wrote, "disappeared like a dream". He lived in Lausanne for the next half a decade, during which time he matured into a hugely accomplished scholar.
Switzerland also gave him the first and indeed only romantic encounter of his life when he met Suzanne Curchod, the beautiful daughter of a pastor. Gibbon proposed they marry but his father intervened and in August 1758 ordered his son home. Gibbon wrote ruefully: "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son." Though Suzanne vowed to wait for him the romance was doomed. She would later marry Jacques Necker, Finance Minister to Louis XVI of France. Their daughter, Germaine, found fame as “Madame de Stael”, a French woman of letters. Her antipathy to Napoleon led to her exile from Paris. Her pithy quotes include: “The more I see of man, the more I like dogs.”
But I digress. Upon his return to England, Gibbon published his first book in 1761. He actually wrote it in French and it seems to have gone down well over there.
In 1773 he undertook a “Grand Tour” of Europe. Twenty five years later, Gibbon recalled his excitement as he neared Rome: “...I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached the Eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step, the ruins of the Forum and visited each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Julius Caesar fell.”
It was in the city in October 1764 that Gibbon conceived his history of Rome, later extended to encompass the entire empire, a moment celebrated in literary history as the "Capitoline Vision”.
Gibbon returned home in June 1765. After his father died, he was left enough money to buy a posh house in London where he was quickly accepted into society. He was invited to join Dr. Johnson's Literary Club and the Royal Academy made him Honorary Professor in Ancient History.
He also frequently visited his friend Holroyd in Sussex. Holroyd’s Sheffield Park home was set in glorious gardens begging exploration but his daughter, Maria, mischievously claimed the rotund Gibbon to be “mortal enemy to any person taking a walk”.
Gibbon meanwhile persisted with his “magnum opus” though he said later that he was "often tempted to throw away the labours of seven years". However, when the first volume of “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” was published in February 1776 it attracted great acclaim. The concluding sixth volume was published in 1788 whereupon Adam “Wealth of Nations“ Smith opined that Gibbon’s achievement put him “at the very head of Europe’s literary tribe”.
Gibbon himself was a little less sanguine about his triumph, remarking: “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”
Edward Gibbon died in January 1794 at the Sussex home of his friend Holroyd. The latter by then had been created the 1st Earl of Sheffield. Following Gibbon’s demise he compiled a book based on autobiographical pieces left to him by the historian. “Memoirs of My Life and Writings” was published in 1796. Lord Sheffield himself died in May 1821.