Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. 6 vols.
Of Edward Gibbon's brilliance as a historian there can be no doubt. Beyond dispute, he was one of the most important and influential writers in eighteenth-century Europe. Of this Gibbon himself was well aware. At his house in Lausanne in Switzerland -- where he lived for most of the last ten years of his life and finished The Decline and Fall -- he would regularly hold court to receive admirers. On such occasions, Gibbon insisted that he was the centre of attention. Ernst Langer (librarian to the duke of Hanover), who visited Lausanne in the 1780s, remarked that Gibbon planned his dinner parties even down to the conversation. Guests were allotted topics in advance. Gibbon -- never caught unprepared -- ensured that he was able to cap each of these prescripted conversation pieces with a wittier and more memorable anecdote.(1)
Gibbon also prided himself on being amongst the best dressed in any gathering. He was well known for his foppish liking for fine clothes and silver snuff boxes.(2) A surviving receipt for some of the purchases made in 1780-1 lists four new frock coats, one in burgundy cloth to be worn with an orange waistcoat laced with gold and silver. At the same time, his tailor also repaired (or altered) a puce-coloured spring velvet suit, a spotted feathered-velvet waistcoat, another in green silk with black-and-white spots, and a violet cloth frock coat.(3) Given Gibbon's short stature and remarkable girth, such sartorial splendour must have appeared even more extraordinary. In vicious vein, following a heated conversation on the treatment of Christianity in The Decline and Fall, Horace Walpole mercilessly satirized Gibbon's misplaced pride in his appearance (and by implication his intellectual achievements): `I well know his vanity, even about his ridiculous face and person, but thought he had too much sense to avow it so palpably.'(4)
But Walpole's criticism was in part unfair. Gibbon had every right to be proud of `his children'(5) -- the six volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in three instalments between February 1776 and May 1788. The Decline and Fall was an instant intellectual and commercial success. Within six weeks of its publication, Volume I had sold nearly one thousand copies, within nine months, nearly two and a half thousand.(6) Gibbon's share of the profits from the first three editions of Volume I amounted to somewhere around 1000 [pounds sterling]. Eleven years later, with the success of his history almost guaranteed, Gibbon negotiated with his London publishers Cadell and Strahan for a 500 [pounds sterling] advance and 4000 [pounds sterling] for the copyright to the last three volumes.(7)
Importantly too, Gibbon took great care in the presentation of The Decline and Fall. Following advice from the great Scottish humanist David Hume, footnotes for the third edition of Volume I (published in April 1776) were printed at the bottom of page.(8) In a stronger position a decade later, Gibbon insisted on revises to the last three volumes after submission to the printers. Even at this late stage, he took the trouble to consult `several rare and useful books'(9) newly available in order to put the finishing touches to this monument to his scholarship, erudition, and historical perspicacity: `After building a great house, a thousand little alterations, improvements, and ornaments present themselves to the architect ... besides the trouble of painting and glazing some of the last apartments.'(10) The final construction was, of course, magnificent. Gibbon was rightly and justifiably proud of his achievement. In a draft of his Memoirs written in the last years of his life, `the historian' (as Gibbon liked to hear himself affectionately called)(11) charmingly confessed: `I am at a loss to describe the success of the work without betraying the vanity of the writer.'(12)
The new edition of The Decline and Fall published by Routledge in association with the Thoemmes Press at 595.00 [pounds sterling] offers late twentieth-century readers the chance to share something of that vanity. The text used is not re-set. Rather, it is a facsimile of the first editions of Volumes II-VI and the third edition (with the footnotes at the bottom of the page) of Volume I. Importantly, this edition -- in all its typographical splendour - is The Decline and Fall as Gibbon would have wished his readers to view it. The result is as close to the real thing as can possibly be achieved The whole is introduced by a brief, but characteristically elegant, essay by David Womersley.
Of course, the Routledge edition is not the only one currently available. A complete re-set text of The Decline and Fall, with a much more extensive introduction also by David Womersley, can be had in three hardback volumes from Penguin (Allen Lane Press) for only 75.00 [pounds sterling]. But this is not the real thing -- or at least not a facsimile of it. Where Penguin has prized an affordably priced and an easily readable text, Routledge has chosen expensive magnificence -- a beautiful boxed set of six dark Pompeian-red volumes printed on the highest-quality acid free paper. The results are impressive. The Routledge edition takes up at least double the shelf-space of its poorer rival. It is bound to stand out in any library. Weighing down (or holding up) the coffee-tables of the cognoscenti, it could not be other than an object of immediate admiration. In the face of such unashamed opulence, only a small-souled critic might observe that for the difference in price between these two editions (some 500.00 [pounds sterling]) one could purchase most of Routledge's current ancient history list.
But that would be to miss the point. Unlike the Penguin edition, the Routledge Decline and Fall is not designed for meticulous scholarship, nor for detailed research. Rather, it is for dazzling display. It is for those who take pride in their libraries and enjoy showing them off to their friends and acquaintances. That too Gibbon would have appreciated. He was proud of his library in London at his house in Bentinck Street where he began to write The Decline and Fall surrounded by his books on white-painted bookshelves off-set by light-blue wallpaper trimmed with gold.(13) Ernst Langer, shown Gibbon's library in Lausanne by `the historian' himself, was also suitably impressed. He admired its size and the range of subjects it covered: `and, as was to be expected with such good fortune and fine taste in everything, the elegance of the bindings, the exteriors of his books, all bespoke their value.'(14)
With its tasteful facsimile of the early versions of The Decline and Fall, one might, just for a moment, imagine that the Routledge edition could have stood in Gibbon's own library. It too might have been prominently displayed by its author and openly praised by his visitors. This is a pleasant fantasy. For admirers of `the historian', Routledge offers a harmless, if rather costly, self-indulgence. Moreover, given his evident pride in the magnificent appearance of both his person and his publications, it is a vanity (and an expense) of which Gibbon himself might have all too enthusiastically approved.
(1.) P. B. Craddock, Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian 1772-1794 (Johns Hopkins U.P., 1989), 219-20; see too J. H. Adeane (ed.), The Girlhood of Maria Josepha Holroyd [Lady Stanley of Alderley] recorded in Letters of a Hundred Years Ago: from 1776 to 1796 (London, 1896), 77.
(2.) J. E. Norton (ed.), The Letters of Edward Gibbon, 3 vols. (London, 1956), vol. 2 no. 247 p. 14 (21 April 1774) and no. 387 p. 151 (16 June 1777 both to J. B. Holroyd, later first Lord Sheffield and Gibbon's literary executor); see too A. Heal, Notes and Queries 194 (1949), 474-6 at 476.
(3.) Craddock (n. 1), 175; see too Heal (n. 2), 475-6.
(4.) W. S. Lewis et al. (edd.), Horace Walpole's Correspondence, 48 vols. (Yale U.P., 1937-83), vol. 29 p. 98 (27 Jan. 1781 to William Mason).
(5.) Letters (n. 2), vol. 2 no. 341 p. 105 (7 May 1776 to Georges Deyverdun); see too W. B. Carnochan, Gibbon's Solitude: the Inward World of the Historian (Stanford U.P., 1987), 19-20.
(6.) Letters (n. 2), vol. 2 no. 334 p. 100 (26 March 1776 to Dorothea Gibbon); J. E. Norton, A Bibliography to the Works of Edward Gibbon (Oxford, 1940), 36-43.
(7.) Norton (n. 6), 44-5.
(8.) J. Y. T. Greig (ed.), The Letters of David Hume, 2 vols. (Oxford U.P., 1932), vol. 2 no. 518 p. 313 (8 April 1776 to William Strahan, the publisher of both Gibbon and Hume).
(9.) J. Murray (ed.), The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon (London, 1896), 336 (Memoir E).
(10.) Letters (n. 2), vol. 3 no. 653 pp. 75-6 (23 Sept. 1787 to Dorothea Gibbon); see too vol. 3 no. 646 p. 64 (2 June 1787 to Lord Sheffield).
(11.) Craddock (n. 1), 224; Adeane (n. 1), 21, 212, 225, 252, 25%
(12.) Murray (n. 9), 311 (Memoir E).
(13.) Letters (n. 2), vol. 1 no. 210 p. 353 (15 Dec. 1772 to J. B. Holroyd); Craddock (n. 1), 7.
(14.) Craddock (n. 1), 219.