Re-reading this has primed me for some more Austen. For six months Persuasion has been a brick in my bedside to-read tower, and at no point of that time have I found myself in the mood to read the novel. I’m in the mood now. In the lofty ironic style with which he traced the dissipation of Roman dynasties and the dispersion of Roman power, Gibbon recounts the household anxieties – and squalors and disasters – of three generations of precarious English gentry. There’s a general background of mercantile humiliation, cruel entail, and mortgaged rural seats. Gibbon’s father was a well meaning but hopelessly improvident patriarch who squandered much of his inheritance paying down lifelong debts contracted in a few short seasons of fashionable metropolitan appearance. His mother was one of those wives constantly impregnated until she died of it. Gibbon had a ghost family of siblings dead in their first months. Six male infants were successively christened “Edward” in hope that one might survive to carry his father’s name; and one did. “My five brothers, whose names may be found in the Parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament…”
This is one of the great literary testaments (it exists in a number of incomplete manuscripts, combined differently by various editors; I think I first read Sheffield’s, in a textbook; this one was made by Georges Bonnard). Through sickliness and neglect and straitened finances Gibbon struggled to get an education, and beyond that a classical command of Greek and Latin; through abortive experiments to find his subject, to master the sources, and to find a style that had “the proper tone, the peculiar mode of historical eloquence,” “the middle tone between a dull Chronicle and a Rhetorical reclamation”; to build his library, and fund his independence (“I might say with truth that I was never less alone than when by myself”). Love and marriage are breezily, and probably sincerely dismissed. Studious bachelorhood was his perfect state.
Freedom is the first wish our heart; freedom is the first blessing of our nature: and, unless we bind ourselves with the voluntary chains of interest or passion, we advance in freedom as we advance in years.
As English stylists I have always associated Gibbon and Santayana. And now as men. Gibbon’s book made me slightly pity Santayana, who from the evidence of Persons and Places(published in 1944 by Scribners whose editors arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Axis Rome, where the middle-aged Santayana had settled in 1912 “after the fashion of the ancient philosophers, often in exile, but always in sight of the marketplace and the theatre”) had a much longer journey through family obligation and wage-earning to “solitude and independence,” “philosophic freedom,” worldly hermeticism.
I laughed when Gibbon revisited Lausanne. As a youthfully rebellious Catholic convert he had been confined to and deprogrammed in the house of a Protestant pastor there. There he had also mastered French, prepared his first compositions, and cut a respectable figure among the locals. During his second sojourn, drinking habits picked up in the army during the Seven Year’s War
betrayed me into some riotous acts of intemperance; and before my departure, I had deservedly forfeited the public opinion which had been acquired by the virtues of my better days.
There is much more to say about this book but I am tired.
On France: But upon the whole I had reason to praise the national urbanity which from court has diffused its gentle influence to the shop, the cottage and the schools.
On the linguistic empire founded with England’s military-commercial one: The conquests of the language and literature are not confined to Europe alone; and the writer who succeeds in London is speedily read on the banks of the Delaware and the Ganges.
On cutting a figure: The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study. But I lamented, that at the proper age, I had not embraced the lucrative pursuits of law or of trade, the chances of civil office or India adventure, or even the fat slumbers of the Church…
On immortality: 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.