My 2009 reading ended on a high note, with Edward Gibbon’s short and entertaining autobiography, telling the story of his life and of how he wrote the Decline and Fall.
(Incidentally I shall be writing up the most controversial chapters, XV and XVI, on early Christianity on
The two chapters in which Gibbon describes the completion, publication and reception of the Decline and Fall ought to be essential reading for anyone planning a writing career. In particular, his reflections on completing the twenty-year project are poignant:
It was on the night of the 27th of June 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last line of the last page in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau, or covered walk of acacias . I will not dissemble the first emotions of joy on the recovery of my freedom, and, perhaps the establishment of my fame. But my pride was soon humbled, and a sober melancholy was spread over my mind by the idea that I had taken an everlasting leave of an old and agreeable companion, and that whatsoever might be the future fate of my history, the life of the historian must be short and precarious.
There is lots more here as well: his political career (which was entirely the result of Gibbon’s recepit of patronage – two different seats in parliament for pocket boroughs, and a junior government position which appears to have involved no actual duties in return for a large salary), his experience of Oxford (and some of his trenchant criticisms of the Oxbridge system remain valid), his reflections on living in Lausanne rather than London, his experience as an officer in the militia. Gibbon comes across as, of course, tremendously intelligent, but also rather modest with it: he is conscious of some of the flaws of Decline and Fall, but claims that his own satisfaction at a job well done is more important than public praise or condemnation, though at the same time praise is always welcome. He expresses the vague hope, in 1791, that people will still read his work in a hundred years’ time. I was reading this aloud to Anne as she drove us home from England yesterday, and I found I had got something in my eye, also affecting my throat, as I got to the end:
The present is a fleeting moment, the past is no more; and our prospect of futurity is dark and doubtful. This day may possibly be my last: but the laws of probability, so true in general, so fallacious in particular, still allow about fifteen years…. The warm desires, the long expectations of youth, are founded on the ignorance of themselves and of the world: they are gradually damped by time and experience, by disappointment and possession; and after the middle season the crowd must be content to remain at the foot of the mountain; while the few who have climbed the summit aspire to descend or expect to fall. In old age, the consolation of hope is reserved for the tenderness of parents, who commence a new life in their children; the faith of enthusiasts, who sing Hallelujahs above the clouds; and the vanity of authors, who presume the immortality of their name and writing.
The Penguin edition is not the text made famous by Gibbon’s friend Lord Sheffield, but a new (well, 1983) treatment of the manuscripts by Penguin’s editor Betty Radice, who steps from behind the curtain and explains her methodology in an interesting introduction. Well worth getting.