Imatges de pÓgina

fox-hunting, horse-couping cousins than was Gibbon in the society in which he was compelled to live. In his unpublished Diary he thus describes his brother officers: no manners, no conversation, they were only a set of fellows all whose behaviour was low, and most of whose characters were despicable.' The sarcastic lines of Dryden might have been the motto of the battalion:

Of seeming arms they make a short essay;

Then hasten to be drunk-the business of the day.

His Diary is a curious mixture of criticism of Greek and Latin authors, analyses of the books which he read, reflections on historical characters, excursuses on Greek particles, and of such entries as the following:

August 22, 1762.-Last night Captain Perkins led us into an intemperance we have not known for some time past. I could do nothing this morning but spew. I scarce wonder at the Confessor who enjoined getting drunk as a penance.

August 28, 1762.-To-day Sir Thomas [Worsley, the Colonel of the Battalion] came to us to dinner. Pleased to see him, we kept bumperising till after rollcalling, Sir Thomas assuring us every fresh bottle how infinitely soberer he was grown.

September 29, 1762.-We drank a vast deal too much wine to-day, and had a most disagreeable proof of the pernicious consequences of it. I quarrelled when I was drunk with my good friend Harrison (the Lord knows for what), and had not some of the company been sober, it might have been a very serious affair.

Yet Gibbon had the good sense to see that his military training was an advantage to him. If it initiated him into one of the vices of the age, it also taught the raw youth, 'quiet, retired, somewhat reserved' as he describes himself, to hold his own in the world. He agreed with Dr. Johnson in thinking that 'a camp, however familiarly we may speak of it, is one of the great scenes of human life,' and, from his own experience, he might have said with Lord Chesterfield that Courts and camps are the only places to learn the world in.'

In the summer of 1762 the Seven Years' War began to draw to an end. Peace was in the air. Gibbon was preparing for the Grand Tour, on which his heart had long been set. His first step was to break off his engagement with Mademoiselle Curchod, for part of his plan was a visit to Lausanne. An attempt has been recently made to show that he behaved badly towards the girl whose affection he had won. Probably there were faults on both sides. He had heard from his friend M. d'Eyverdun that Mademoiselle Curchod had been inconstant, and there is no reason to suppose that he did not believe the report. When he reached Lausanne he received a letter from her in which she said that she had never ceased to love him. He thus comments upon it in his unpublished Diary:

J'ai reçu une lettre des moins attendues. C'étoit de Mademoiselle C. Fille dangereuse et artificielle! Elle fait une apologie de sa conduite depuis le premier

moment qu'elle m'a connû, sa constance pour moi, son mepris de M. de Montplaisir, et la fidelité delicate et soutenue qu'elle a cru voir dans la lettre oû je lui annoncois qu'il n'y avoit plus d'espérance. Les voyages à Lausanne, les adorations qu'elle હૈ y a eû, et la complaisance avec laquelle elle les a ecouté formoient l'article le plus difficile à justifier. Ni d'Eyverdun (dit elle), ni personne, n'ont effacé pendant un moment mon image de son cœur. Elle s'amusoit à Lausanne sans y attacher. Je le veux. Mais ces amusements la convainquent toujours de la dissimulation la plus odieuse, et, si l'infidelité est quelquefois une foiblesse, la duplicité est toujours un vice. Cette affaire singulière en toutes ses parties m'a été très utile; elle m'a ouvert les yeux sur le caractère des femmes et elle me servira longtemps de preservatif contre les seductions de l'amour.

In January 1763 Gibbon left England for the Continent. His letters are not mere topographical descriptions, but are full of interest from their notes on men and things. In the eighteenth century we were almost continuously at war with France; yet we were then as popular with our avowed enemies as we are now disliked by our socalled friends.


What Cromwell wished [he writes from Paris] is now litterally the case. name of Englishman inspires as great an idea at Paris as that of Roman could at Carthage after the defeat of Hannibal. Indeed, the French are almost excessive. From being very unjustly esteemed a set of pirates and Barbarians, we are now, by a more agreable injustice, looked upon as a nation of Philosophers and Patriots.

His own position at Paris is interesting. On the score of his Essai, which in England was ignored, he was received as a man of letters. The one fly in the amber of his pleasure was that he could not satisfy his ambition to be regarded as a man of fashion. The salon at which he was most welcomed was that of Madame Geoffrin, the widow of a wealthy ice-merchant, and nicknamed by Madame du Deffand la mère des philosophes. His reception at Paris in 1777 was very different, and marks the advance that he had made in the social position, which he valued more highly than literary fame.

At Lausanne he lingered several months, engaged, as he tells his stepmother, 'in a considerable work, which will be a most usefull preparation to my tour of Italy.' It is the first hint of the design which took shape at Rome in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 'It is,' he continues,


a description of the ancient Geography of Italy, taken from the Original writers. If I go into Italy with a work of that kind tolerably executed, I shall carry everywhere about with me an accurate and lively idea of the country, and shall have nothing to do but to insert in their proper places my own observations as they tend to confirm, to confute, or to illustrate what I have met with in books. should not even despair, but that this mixture of study and observation, properly digested upon my return to England, might produce something not entirely unworthy the eye of the publick on a subject upon which we have no regular or compleat treatise.

With this object in view he worked hard at Lausanne and subsequently travelled through Italy. Scarcely a detail of his plan

appears in his letters, which are rather written to distract his own mind from such serious subjects than to instruct his father and stepmother. Here, for example, is a picture of Voltaire in his retirement at Ferney, which will serve as a sample of his letters from abroad. It should be mentioned that in 1757-58, when Voltaire was settled at Monrepos, Gibbon had seen him act in his tragedies of Zaïre Alzire, Zulime, and his sentimental comedy, L'Enfant Prodigue.

After a life passed in courts and Capitals, the Great Voltaire is now become a meer country Gentleman, and even (for the honor of the profession) something of a farmer. He says he never enjoyed so much true happiness. He has got rid of most of his infirmities, and tho' very old and lean, enjoys a much better state of health than he did twenty years ago. His playhouse is very neat and well contrived, situated just by his Chappel, which is far inferior to it, tho', he says himself, 'que son Christ est du meilleur faiseur de tout le pays de Gex.' The play they acted was my favourite Orphan of China. Voltaire himself acted Gengis, and Madame Denys Idamé; but I do not know how it happened: either my taste is improved or Voltaire's talents are impaired since I last saw him. He appeared to me now a very ranting unnatural performer. Perhaps, indeed, as I was come from Paris, I rather judged him by an unfair comparaison than by his own independent value. Perhaps too I was too much struck with the ridiculous figure of Voltaire at seventy acting a Tartar Conqueror with a hollow broken voice, and making love to a very ugly niece of fifty. The play began at eight in the evening, and ended (entertainment and all) about half an hour after eleven. The whole Company was asked to stay and set Down about twelve to a very elegant supper of a hundred Covers. The supper ended about two, the company danced till four, when we broke up, got into our Coaches, and came back to Geneva just as the Gates were opened. Show me in history or fable, a famous poet of Seventy who has acted in his own plays, and has closed the scene with a supper and ball for a hundred people. I think the last is the more extraordinary of the two.

After Gibbon's return to England in June 1765, he resumed his old manner of life, spending his summer months at Beriton and the winter in London, occupied either in literary work or in the less congenial task of endeavouring to extricate his father from his pecuniary embarrassments. In 1770 the elder Mr. Gibbon died, and the son succeeded to the wreck of what had once been an ample fortune. 'Economy,' he tells his aunt, Miss Hester Gibbon,

was not amongst my father's Virtues. The expences of the more early part of his life, the miscarriage of several promising schemes, and a general want of order and exactness involved him in such difficulties as constrained him to dispose of Putney, and to contract a mortgage so very considerable that it cannot be paid unless by the sale of our Buckinghamshire Estate. The only share that I have ever taken in these transactions has been by my sensibility to my father's wants and my compliance with his inclinations, a conduct which has cost me very dear, but which I cannot repent. It is a satisfaction to reflect that I have fulfilled, perhaps exceeded, my filial duties; and it is still in my power with the remains of our fortunes to lead an agreable and rational life.

Even this satisfaction he was at first denied. His stepmother had heard a rumour that his own imprudence was the cause of the financial difficulties. He repudiates the suggestion with some warmth and

considerable dignity.


As a raw lad of one and twenty, unacquainted with law or business, and desirous of obliging' his father, he had consented to join in cutting off the entail and raising a mortgage of 10,000l. But he had none of the money for himself, neither was it raised to pay his debts. His allowance was never more than 300l. a year, and on that he lived. He had never had any other debts than common tradesmen's bills, trifling in amount and annually paid. 'I have never lost at play a hundred pounds at any one time; perhaps not in the course of my life. Play I neither love nor understand." He had probably, for the moment, forgotten his losses as a boy at Lausanne. 'I should deserve the imputation,' he continues, 'could I submit to it with patience. As long as you credit it, you must view me in the light of a specious Hypocrite, who meanly cloaked his own extravagancies under his father's imprudence, and who ascribed to filial piety what had been the consequence of folly and necessity.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Gibbon was now a landed proprietor, and no man could be more unfitted for the part. For a few weeks the novelty of the position amused him, and he asks with some show of interest after the breaking in of the colt, the progress of the rot among the sheep, or the prospect of improved prices in wheat. He even hugs himself with selfsatisfaction at the shrewd bargains which 'Farmer Gibbon' has driven in letting his farms, or at the judgment with which he has sold his hops. But to a man of his tastes and temper the details of estate management and the strenuous idleness of country life grew intolerably irksome. Dilatory in his habits, his letters are a treasury of excuses for unpunctuality in correspondence. He had no country pursuits. His sporting friends are savages who hunt foxes. Neither a pack of hounds, nor a stable of running horses, nor a large farm' had any interest for him. Magisterial work did not appeal to him. 'I detest,' he says, 'your races, I abhor your assizes.' The rustic mind was unintelligible to him, and he to it. If his tenants wished to see him, he would make any concession to avoid a deputation of the 'savages.' While he is negotiating the sale of one of his estates, he has an interview with the agent and the proposed purchaser: 'though we did not speak the same language,' he says, 'yet by the help of signs, such as that of putting about the bottle, the natives seemed well satisfied.' In all matters of business he was careless, forgetful, impatient of legal forms, helpless as a child. If his signature is required to a deed, he is sure to sign his name in the wrong place. If he is asked to make interest on behalf of a friend, the letter is probably placed in the wrong enclosure, and 'Lord Milton's heir was ordered to send me without delay a brown Ratteen Frock, and the Taylor was desired to use his interest with his cousin the Duke of Dorset.' It is not therefore surprising that he soon grew 'tired of


sticking to the earth by so many Roots,' or that before many months Beriton was let, and Gibbon settled in London.

In 1773 he took from Lady Rous the lease of No. 7 Bentinck Street. It was now that his real life began. He was like a child with a new toy, immersed in the mysteries of furnishing, and closeted for hours with Ireland, the Upholder.' His library especially was to be a triumph of art. Mahogany bookcases were proscribed. The paper of the Room will be a fine, shag, flock paper, light blue with a gold border, the Book-cases painted white, ornamented with a light frize: neither Doric nor Dentulated Adamic.' Once settled in his house, with his books round him, he left his library with reluctance except for society.

This abominable fine weather [he says] will not allow me a quiet hour at home without being liable to the reproaches of my friends and of my own conscience. It is the more provoking as it drives me out of my own new, clean, comfortable, dear house, which I like better every week I pass in it. I now live, which I never did before, and if it would but rain, should enjoy that unity of study and society in which I have always placed my prospect of happiness.

London was to him never dull; there at least he could keep 'the monster Ennui at a respectfull distance.' For him its heat was always tempered; even its solitude was delicious.' In 'the soft retirement of my bocage de Bentinck Street,' the dog days pass unheeded.

Charming hot Weather! I am just going to dine alone. Afterwards I shall walk till dark in my gardens at Kensington, and shall then return to a frugal supper and early bed in Bentinck Street. I lead the life of a true Philosopher, without any regard to the world or to fashion.

Master of a good house, possessed of rare conversational powers, as an Amphitryon où l'on dine, the giver of the 'prettiest little dinners imaginable,' Gibbon soon made his way in London society. He had come up to the metropolis knowing only a few second-rate men of letters. His militia training had made him acquainted with the county members and a few of the county gentlemen of Hampshire and Berkshire. His grand tour had widened the circle of his friends. Now he was a welcome guest in London houses. The doors of exclusive clubs, though he was a bad whist-player and never gambled, were opened to him. He joined the Catch Club; he became a member of Boodle's, of Almack's, and of Brooks's. At the latter he was a wellknown figure. In some verses written by Richard Tickell in 1780 to celebrate the election of the Hon. John Townshend for the University

of Cambridge occur the lines:

Soon as to Brookes's thence they footsteps bend,
What gratulations thy approach attend!
See Gibbon rap his box: auspicious sign

That wit and classic compliment combine.

« AnteriorContinua »