Edward Gibbon


Edward Gibbon : biography

27 April 1737 – 16 January 1794

Within weeks of his conversion, the youngster was removed from Oxford and sent to live under the care and tutelage of Daniel Pavillard, Reformed pastor of Lausanne, Switzerland. It was here that he made one of his life’s two great friendships, that of Jacques Georges Deyverdun (the French language translator of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther); the other being John Baker Holroyd (later Lord Sheffield). Just a year and a half later, after his father threatened to disinherit him, on Christmas Day, 1754, he reconverted to Protestantism. "The various articles of the Romish creed," he wrote, "disappeared like a dream".John Murray (ed.), The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon. Second Edition (London: John Murray, 1897), p. 137. He remained in Lausanne for five intellectually productive years, a period that greatly enriched Gibbon’s already immense aptitude for scholarship and erudition: he read Latin literature; travelled throughout Switzerland studying its cantons’ constitutions; and aggressively mined the works of Hugo Grotius, Samuel von Pufendorf, John Locke, Pierre Bayle, and Blaise Pascal.

Thwarted romance

He also met the one romance in his life: the daughter of the pastor of Crassy, a young woman named Suzanne Curchod, who would later become the wife of Louis XVI’s finance minister Jacques Necker, and the mother of Madame de Staël. The two developed a warm affinity; Gibbon proceeded to propose marriage,Norton, Biblio, p. 2;   Letters, vol. 1, p. 396. a concise summary of their relationship is found at 396–401. but ultimately wedlock was out of the question, blocked both by his father’s staunch disapproval and Curchod’s equally staunch reluctance to leave Switzerland. Gibbon returned to England in August 1758 to face his father. There could be no refusal of the elder’s wishes. Gibbon put it this way: "I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son."Murray, p. 239. The phrase, "sighed [etc.]" alludes to the play Polyeucte by "the father of French tragedy," Pierre Corneille. Womersley, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, p. 11. He proceeded to cut off all contact with Curchod, even as she vowed to wait for him. Their final emotional break apparently came at Ferney, France in the spring of 1764, though they did see each other at least one more time a year later.Womersley, 11–12.

First fame and the grand tour: 1758–1765

Upon his return to England, Gibbon published his first book, Essai sur l’Étude de la Littérature in 1761, which produced an initial taste of celebrity and distinguished him, in Paris at least, as a man of letters.In the Essai, the 24 year-old boldly braved the reigning philosoph[e]ic fashion to uphold the studious values and practices of the érudits (antiquarian scholars). Ibid., p. 11; and The Miscellaneous Works, First edition, vol. 2. From 1759 to 1770, Gibbon served on active duty and in reserve with the South Hampshire militia, his deactivation in December 1762 coinciding with the militia’s dispersal at the end of the Seven Years’ War.Womersley, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, pp. 11, 12. Gibbon was commissioned a captain and resigned a lieutenant colonel, later crediting his service with providing him "a larger introduction into the English world." There was further, the matter of a vast utility: "The discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the phalanx and the legion; and the captain of the Hampshire grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the Roman empire." Murray, p. 190. The following year he embarked on the Grand Tour (of continental Europe), which included a visit to Rome. In his autobiography Gibbon vividly records his rapture when he finally neared "the great object of [my] pilgrimage":

…at the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod, with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Tully spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.Murray, pp. 266–267.