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INTRODUCTION - Edward Gibbon, Autobiography 
The Autobiography of Edward Gibbon (London: Dent, 1911). Introduction by Oliphant Smeaton.
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If Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire now justly takes rank in the domain of history among those select masterpieces of genius to which the common consent of succeeding epochs has assigned a place not to be disturbed by later criticism, his Autobiography, in its own department, may claim as a work of art, a station little less distinguished. The remark made by Dr. Birkbeck Hill in his edition of the work, if it held true then, does so with increased cogency now, that “for one reader who has read his Decline and Fall, there are at least a score who have read his Autobiography, and know him, not as the great historian, but as a man of the most original and interesting nature.” In other words, many know of Edward Gibbon the historian through his Autobiography who are innocent of knowledge of his History. That being so, there must be qualities of more than average excellence to keep the memory of such a work green for over a century.
The question has been asked times and oft wherein lies the charm of this Autobiography? It is more easily asked than answered. Perhaps, however, this analysis, by those familiar with its contents, may not be judged far from the truth—that in these pages we have the most accurate literary portrait ever drawn of the great historian. Not one of his little foibles and peccadilloes but peeps out in that pre-eminently truthful representation, though the lines are limned by the subject of the portrait himself. Mark Pattison has aptly said that Milton and Gibbon are the two men “who are indulged without challenge in talk about themselves.” In Gibbon’s case we positively welcome the harmless vanity and self-esteem which chronicles such details as:—“The favourable judgment of Mr. Hayley, himself a poet and scholar” [on Gibbon’s Critical Observations of the Sixth Book of the Æneid].
These little outcrops of egotism are by no means wholly repellant. By revealing how very human the historian was they interpret him to us. Had he not betrayed some such little foibles, the colossal greatness of the writer would overshadow the natural quality of the man. In addition, we now live in an age when personal details regarding the life, habits, appearance, and pursuits of our leading authors, artists, musicians, singers, etc., lend zest to our appreciation of their art, just as the minutiæ we learn of the individual predilections of Nelson, Wellington, and Livingstone impart flesh-and-blood vraisemblance to the literary portraits of the men themselves. Not the great qualities of head or heart are those that arouse and retain our sympathetic interest, but those minor traits, oftentimes those foibles which reveal the fact that the popular idol is no demigod, but merely a man of like passions with ourselves, are the attributes that capture and keep our interest.
The Autobiography of Edward Gibbon is one of those books without which no library can be considered complete. Sir John Lubbock (Lord Avebury) in his list of “One Hundred of the Best Books” contained in his Pleasures of Life does not include it. In that I consider he is untrue to his own principle of selection. For he has ranked the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire among the indispensable works in the historical section; yet how can we adequately understand that masterpiece without learning from the Autobiography the principles on which its author proceeded in planning it and in carrying the plan into execution.
There are passages in this book throwing a flood of light on the methods of composition pursued by Gibbon, which should be read with care by all who contemplate the study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The Autobiography is practically the key to the latter, and he will essay the latter work with increased zest and understanding who has previously perused the former, mastering thereby the great historian’s method and obtaining an insight into his mind and character. For Gibbon’s mode of working was all his own. Methodical as he was in many matters, he was also exceedingly desultory in others, albeit the whole scheme was subject to rules which suited the aim he had in view.
His retentive memory was a talent upon which he never seemed to set sufficient store. To few men has the gift been given of possessing an endowment at once so capacious and so reliable. Seldom did it ever play him false, and then only in one or two minor instances in his later years after the burden and heat of the day of life had been borne for long.
Of course we must remember that the Autobiography in its present state is only a fragment. Practically pieced together by Lord Sheffield from the materials left by Gibbon, it was not only left incomplete, but it never received that final revision in proof form which to the writer often reveals, better than aught else, much that is faulty and infelicitous in his work.
Some critics have blamed Gibbon for saying so little regarding his contemporaries, or amusing the reader with a gallery of portraits and a collection of anecdotes. To have done so would have been foreign to his plan. He was preparing an Autobiography or a record of his own life, and to have acted otherwise than he did would, as Dr. Birkbeck Hill says, have lessened its perfection as a whole. It is the life of the author of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and his life alone, that we read from the first page to the last.
Gibbon is always the supreme artist, and as such he reveals himself in every line of his work. One cannot, however, add that he also portrays himself as an entirely lovable man. He is too vain to be natural, and though the revelation of these foibles imparts vraisemblance to the work, it also lowers our respect for him, despite all his candour.
While we admire the genius of the great historian and the conscientious industry of the careful craftsman who will take no fact on trust, while we are compelled to praise the indefatigable zeal which sustained him amid the toil of examining mountains of material in which only a pebble or two might reward his sifting, while finally we reverence the noble impartiality which enabled him to hold the scales of critical judgment with unbiassed fairness save in cases where the claims of Christianity and the Christians entered into the problem, we cannot say that Edward Gibbon was a character whom we should have rejoiced to know because of the love we bore to his qualities of heart and head. Nay! His vanity and his self-love prompted a hypocritical insincerity which deals death to the respect whereon love must be based. As Dr. Birkbeck Hill remarks:—
“Whether we like him is another question—love him we certainly do not. . . . He had too much of the ‘rational voluptuary’ to be able to win our affection. His self-indulgence we are the more inclined to despise as in his later years it rendered his person ridiculous through its unwieldy corpulence. He had besides other and greater failings. In a young man in the full flow of his life we are less ready to forgive untruthfulness than when we come across it in one who is stricken with the timidity of age. . . . We are set against him moreover by the indecency of his writings however much he ‘veiled it in the obscurity of a learned language.’ We might have found some excuse for a wantonness which sprang from strong passions; but who can forgive une obscénité érudite et froide?”
To such opinions nine out of every ten readers will add their assent. We admire, we commend, we like, but we cannot love the character of Edward Gibbon!