Another damned thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The Northampton Mercury of 25th of January 1794 reported that the death of the historian Edward Gibbon came after he had suffered “gouty pains in the stomach.” On the same page of the newspaper were a series of adverts for patent medicines: Paregoric Lozenges (“…universally esteemed for their Efficacy in Loss of Appetite…”; Jackson’s Asthmatic Candy (useful in “…Complaints of the Stomach and Lungs, arising from Indigestion and Flatulency…”); Infallible German Corn Plasters; Pectoral Essence of Coltfoot; Dr. Arnold’s Pills (“..a speedy remedy for the Venereal Disease…”; and, of course, Spilsbury’s Antiscorectic Drops which, as the extract from the Lewes Journal that accompanied the advert made clear, cured Mr. Newnham, a capital farmer and timber merchant  from Sussex, when suffering from “…a Virulent Scorbutic Eruption…” It’s unlikely any of the above would have helped Edward Gibbon, having just been operated shortly before his death for a hydrocele, a fluid filled sac in the scrotum which his friends advised was so large it had to be removed.

A search on the British Newspaper Archive leads to only a few references to the life, work and death of Edward Gibbon. Instead the Eighteenth Century emerges in all its smelly glory – absent in Gibbon’s own autobiography, curious when you think of his multi-volume history of the Roman Empire which more than evoked its own glory, if not the smells. Britain was at war with Revolutionary France and an allied army stood on the banks of the Rhine, where 69,000 troops were reported slaughtered, dooming the Royalist cause to failure.  In Lille, a military hospital was set on fire with the deaths of over a thousand men; Tom Paine was reported to be in prison in Luxembourg and Admiral Hood was lauded for his capture at Toulon of nineteen ships of the line and twenty six frigates and sloops, “…a loss we believe never before sustained by the French in the whole of any one war with Great Britain.” In Edinburgh Maurice Margarot was sentenced to fourteen years transportation for sedition and in the House of Commons Charles James Fox, leader of the Whig opposition, and the great conservative politician Edmund Burke, clashed, in very, very, very long speeches over the issue of religious toleration; Fox drawing on Gibbon’s views of Pagan and Christian persecution and Burke drawing on his rejection of any inalienable rights enjoyed by Man, the recent anti-Dissenter riots in Birmingham and cannibalism (in France, of course, not Birmingham).

Elsewhere domestic life continued. In The Caledonian Mercury of June 5th, 1788 Montogomery and Steele, confectioners of Edinburgh, adverstised “For a light groom that can occasionally comb hair”, a reward of three guineas was offered for the identity of a four day old baby girl found on the road to Dalkeith and on the 6th Mr. Breslaw would “…display a variety of New Capital Deceptions and Experiments. Quite in a manner entirely new” in the Town Hall in Musselburgh. In the Guildhall, London, John Reeves was tried for libelling the British Constitution and found not guilty; William Austin was tried for forging the will of the Rev. Henry Lewes, found guilty and sentenced to death. In the Court of King’s Bench Lord Valentine was shown to have connived in the seduction of his wife by the trustee in charge of his inheritance and awarded two thousand pounds (he had asked for ten). Houses caught fire, bankrupts were declared and the Poor who were given dressed meat by the Rev. Hill to help see them through the winter, received also a uplifting message with each gift such as “They that can scarcely keep themselves should never keep a dog.”

From the midst of this hyperbole and wanton use of capital letters, Edward Gibbon managed to write twelve volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (as advertised in The Bath Chronicle for £6.6s in 1790 and worth£587 in 2012) in a cool, limpid, crystal clear prose that must have been at odds with almost everything that people read at the time. As the historian C.V.Wedgwood pointed out in her pamphlet on Edward Gibbon published in 1955 “The English as writers have a false conception of themselves. We do not think of ourselves as passionate, yet the great strength and almost all the faults of English arise from passion.” It’s not that Gibbon was without passion. it’s that “…he kept it within bounds and when he wrote, his first thought was for the whole work of art.” Shakespeare and the translators of the King James Bible have been given the credit for the sound, tone and meaning of English; but as for style, elegant, effortless style that adds to the meaning, that credit must go to Edward Gibbon.

What of literary taste? Using the tried, tested and trusted system of Would-I-Have-A-Pint-With-Him where does that put the coordinates on the graph? Dear God, I would have put up with a dose of Scrofula or taken Trotter’s Asiatic Tooth Powder, and smiled, just to have sat with him for five minutes! As his patron Lord Sheffield, who was deeply affected by his death, said “Those of us who enjoyed the company of Mr. Gibbon will agree with me that his conversation was still more captivating than his writings.” So, it’s to (9,3) we go, which if we were playing Connect 4, would be a game winning move.

Next time, it’s back to the Twentieth Century and two new authors for me: Charles Morgan’s Portrait in a Mirror and Stella Benson’s The Little World. 
Leave a comment


  1. Have you read the whole of ‘Decline and Fall’? I started on the abridged version some years ago but didn’t get far. It was interesting but too many other things got in the way.

  2. I bought the one volume abridged edition published by Pelican for 15/-. 944 pages and I got halfway to the fall of Rome in 410. So, I certainly can’t claim to have read it all but I enjoyed it immensely.

  3. Decline & Fall … I read it twice, actually, awed by Gibbon’s style and erudition. But can you tell me what the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire actually were? Don’t take this wrong, but Gibbon somehow drowned himself in his erudition. Or is it that Gibbon actually did say that the Empire depended on a dynamic equilibrium — it had to grow in order to remain stable — and when the natural boundaries of that expansion were finally reached, decay had to set in. Let me know!

  4. steve kallaugher

     /  July 5, 2014

    Mr. or Ms. Foster: I would gladly buy you a pint if you’re in my neck of the ‘Merican backwoods, if only to get increasingly vehement as the libations flow over your abuse of the comma, the parenthesis and the dash.

    To answer your question: Yes but no about the reading list. Yes, because of the essentials that it includes. No, because no non-Brit or non-Anglo-Irish qualifies as literature according to himself, nor much that transcends the strictures of Victorian good taste. (Seriously: no Sophocles, Herodotus, Virgil, Cervantes, Dante, Moliere, Dostoevsky, Mann, Yeats, Rilke, Whitman, Melville, Twain, Faulkner, Joyce…well, you get my point.)

    Well done. Enjoy “The Compleat Angler.”


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