The Death of the Moth, and other essays, by Virginia Woolf

The Historian and “The Gibbon”

“Yet, upon the whole, the History of the Decline and Fall seems to have struck root, both at home and abroad, and may, perhaps, a hundred years hence still continue to be abused.” So Gibbon wrote in the calm confidence of immortality; and let us confirm him in his own opinion of his book by showing, in the first place, that it has one quality of permanence — it still excites abuse. Few people can read the whole of the Decline and Fall without admitting that some chapters have glided away without leaving a trace; that many pages are no more than a concussion of sonorous sounds; and that innumerable figures have passed across the stage without printing even their names upon our memories. We seem, for hours on end, mounted on a celestial rocking-horse which, as it gently sways up and down, remains rooted to a single spot. In the soporific idleness thus induced we recall with regret the vivid partisanship of Macaulay, the fitful and violent poetry of Carlyle. We suspect that the vast fame with which the great historian is surrounded is one of those vague diffusions of acquiescence which gather when people are too busy, too lazy or too timid to see things for themselves. And to justify this suspicion it is easy to gather pomposities of diction — the Church has become “the sacred edifice”; and sentences so stereotyped that they chime like bells —“destroyed the confidence” must be followed by “and excited the resentment”; while characters are daubed in with single epithets like “the vicious” or “the virtuous,” and are so crudely jointed that they seem capable only of the extreme antics of puppets dangling from a string. It is easy, in short, to suppose that Gibbon owed some part of his fame to the gratitude of journalists on whom he bestowed the gift of a style singularly open to imitation and well adapted to invest little ideas with large bodies. And then we turn to the book again, and to our amazement we find that the rocking-horse has left the ground; we are mounted on a winged steed; we are sweeping in wide circles through the air and below us Europe unfolds; the ages change and pass; a miracle has taken place.

But miracle is not a word to use in writing of Gibbon. If miracle there was it lay in the inexplicable fact which Gibbon, who seldom stresses a word, himself thought worthy of italics: “ . . . I Know by experience, that from my early youth I aspired to the character of an historian.” Once that seed was planted so mysteriously in the sickly boy whose erudition amazed his tutor there was more of the rational than of the miraculous in the process by which that gift was developed and brought to fruition. Nothing, in the first place, could have been more cautious, more deliberate and more far-sighted than Gibbon’s choice of a subject. A historian he had to be; but historian of what? The history of the Swiss was rejected; the history of Florence was rejected; for a long time he played with the idea of a life of Sir Walter Raleigh. Then that, too, was rejected and for reasons that are extremely illuminating:

. . . I should shrink with terror from the modern history of England, where every character is a problem, and every reader a friend or an enemy; where a writer is supposed to hoist a flag of party, and is devoted to damnation by the adverse faction. . . . I must embrace a safer and more extensive theme.

But once found, how was he to treat the distant, the safe, the extensive theme? An attitude, a style had to be adopted; one presumably that generalized, since problems of character were to be avoided; that abolished the writer’s personality, since he was not dealing with his own times and contemporary questions; that was rhythmical and fluent, rather than abrupt and intense, since vast stretches of time had to be covered, and the reader carried smoothly through many folios of print.

At last the problem was solved; the fusion was complete; matter and manner became one; we forget the style, and are only aware that we are safe in the keeping of a great artist. He is able to make us see what he wants us to see and in the right proportions. Here he compresses; there he expands. He transposes, emphasizes, omits in the interests of order and drama. The features of the individual faces are singularly conventionalized. Here are none of those violent gestures and unmistakable voices that fill the pages of Carlyle and Macaulay with living human beings who are related to ourselves. There are no Whigs and Tories here; no eternal verities and implacable destinies. Time has cut off those quick reactions that make us love and hate. The innumerable figures are suffused in the equal blue of the far distance. They rise and fall and pass away without exciting our pity or our anger. But if the figures are small, they are innumerable; if the scene is dim it is vast. Armies wheel; hordes of barbarians are destroyed; forests are huge and dark; processions are splendid; altars rise and fall; one dynasty succeeds another. The richness, the variety of the scene absorb us. He is the most resourceful of entertainers. Without haste or effort he swings his lantern where he chooses. If sometimes the size of the whole is oppressive, and the unemphatic story monotonous, suddenly in the flash of a phrase a detail is lit up: we see the monks “in the lazy gloom of their convents”; statues become unforgettably “that inanimate people”; the “gilt and variegated armour” shines out: the splendid names of kings and countries are sonorously intoned; or the narrative parts and a scene opens:

By the order of Probus, a great quantity of large trees, torn up by the roots, were transplanted into the midst of the circus. The spacious and shady forest was immediately filled with a thousand ostriches, a thousand stags, a thousand fallow deer, and a thousand wild boars; and all this variety of game was abandoned to the riotous impetuosity of the multitude . . . . The air was continually refreshed by the playing of fountains, and profusely impregnated by the grateful scent of aromatics. In the centre of the edifice, the arena, or stage, was strewed with the finest sand, and successively assumed the most different forms. At one moment it seemed to rise out of the earth, like the garden of Hesperides, and was afterwards broken into the rocks and caverns of Thrace. . . .

But it is only when we come to compress and dismember one of Gibbon’s pictures that we realize how carefully the parts have been chosen, how firmly the sentences, composed after a certain number of turns round the room and then tested by the ear and only then written down, adhere together.

But these are qualities, it might be said, that belong to the historical novelist — to Scott or to Flaubert. And Gibbon was an historian, so religiously devoted to the truth that he felt an aspersion upon his accuracy as an aspersion upon his character. Flights of notes at the bottom of the page check his pageants and verify his characters. Thus they have a different quality from scenes and characters composed from a thousand hints and suggestions in the freedom of the imagination. They are inferior, perhaps, in subtlety and in intensity. On the other hand, as Gibbon pointed out, “The Cyropaedia is vague and languid; the Anabasis circumstantial and animated. Such is the eternal difference between fiction and truth.”

The imagination of the novelist must often fail; but the historian can repose himself upon fact. And even if those facts are sometimes dubious and capable of more than one interpretation, they bring the reason into play and widen our range of interest. The vanished generations, invisible separately, have collectively spun round them intricate laws, erected marvellous structures of ceremony and belief. These can be described, analysed, recorded. The interest with which we follow him in his patient and impartial examination has an excitement peculiar to itself. History may be, as he tells us, “little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind”; but we seem, at least, as we read him raised above the tumult and the chaos into a clear and rational air.

The victories and the civilization of Constantine no longer influence the state of Europe; but a considerable portion of the globe still retains the impression which it received from the conversion of that monarch; and the ecclesiastical institutions of his reign are still connected, by an indissoluble chain, with the opinions, the passions, and the interests of the present generation.

He is not merely a master of the pageant and the story; he is also the critic and the historian of the mind.

It is here of course that we become conscious of the idiosyncrasy and of the limitations of the writer. Just as we know that Macaulay was a nineteenth-century Whig, and Carlyle a Scottish peasant with the gift of prophecy, so we know that Gibbon was rooted in the eighteenth century and indelibly stamped with its character and his own. Gradually, stealthily, with a phrase here, a gibe there, the whole solid mass is leavened with the peculiar quality of his temperament. Shades of meaning reveal themselves; the pompous language becomes delicate and exact. Sometimes a phrase is turned edgewise, so that as it slips with the usual suavity into its place it leaves a scratch. “He was even destitute of a sense of honour, which so frequently supplies the sense of public virtue.” Or the solemn rise and fall of the text above is neatly diminished by the demure particularity of a note. “The ostrich’s neck is three feet long, and composed of seventeen vertebrae. See Buffon. Hist. Naturelle.” The infallibility of historians is gravely mocked. “ . . . their knowledge will appear gradually to increase, as their means of information must have diminished, a circumstance which frequently occurs in historical disquisitions.” Or we are urbanely asked to reflect how,

in our present state of existence, the body is so inseparably connected with the soul, that it seems to be to our interest to taste, with innocence and moderation, the enjoyments of which that faithful companion is susceptible.

The infirmities of that faithful companion provide him with a fund of perpetual amusement. Sex, for some reason connected, perhaps, with his private life, always excites a demure smile:

Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.

The change upon such phrases is rung again and again. Few virgins or matrons, nuns or monks leave his pages with their honour entirely unscathed. But his most insidious raillery, his most relentless reason, are directed, of course, against the Christian religion.

Fanaticism, asceticism, superstition were naturally antipathetic to him. Wherever he found them, in life or in religion, they roused his contempt and derision. The two famous chapters in which he examined “the human causes of the progress and establishment of Christianity,” though inspired by the same love of truth which in other connections excited the admiration of scholars, roused great scandal at the time. Even the eighteenth century, that “age of light and liberty,” was not entirely open to the voice of reason. “How many souls have his writings polluted!” Hannah More exclaimed when she heard of his death. “Lord preserve others from their contagion!” In such circumstances irony was the obvious weapon; the pressure of public opinion forced him to be covert, not open. And irony is a dangerous weapon; it easily becomes sidelong and furtive; the ironist seems to be darting a poisoned tongue from a place of concealment. However grave and temperate Gibbon’s irony at its best, however searching his logic and robust his contempt for the cruelty and intolerance of superstition, we sometimes feel, as he pursues his victim with incessant scorn, that he is a little limited, a little superficial, a little earthy, a little too positively and imperturbably a man of the eighteenth century and not of our own.

But then he is Gibbon; and even historians, as Professor Bury reminds us, have to be themselves. History “is in the last resort somebody’s image of the past, and the image is conditioned by the mind and experience of the person who forms it.” Without his satire, his irreverence, his mixture of sedateness and slyness, of majesty and mobility, and above all that belief in reason which pervades the whole book and gives it unity, an implicit if unspoken message, the Decline and Fall would be the work of another man. It would be the work indeed of two other men. For as we read we are perpetually creating another book, perceiving another figure. The sublime person of “the historian” as the Sheffields called him is attended by a companion whom they called, as if he were the solitary specimen of some extinct race, “the Gibbon.” The Historian and the Gibbon go hand in hand. But it is not easy to draw even a thumbnail sketch of this strange being because the autobiography, or rather the six autobiographies, compose a portrait of such masterly completeness and authority that it defies our attempts to add to it. And yet no autobiography is ever final; there is always something for the reader to add from another angle.

There is the body, in the first place — the body with all those little physical peculiarities that the outsider sees and uses to interpret what lies within. The body in Gibbon’s case was ridiculous — prodigiously fat, enormously top-heavy, precariously balanced upon little feet upon which he spun round with astonishing alacrity. Like Goldsmith he over-dressed, and for the same reason perhaps — to supply the dignity which nature denied him. But unlike Goldsmith, his ugliness caused him no embarrassment or, if so, he had mastered it completely. He talked incessantly, and in sentences composed as carefully as his writing. To the sharp and irreverent eyes of contemporaries his vanity was perceptible and ridiculous; but it was only on the surface. There was something hard and muscular in the obese little body which turned aside the sneers of the fine gentlemen. He had roughed it, not only in the Hampshire Militia, but among his equals. He had supped “at little tables covered with a napkin, in the middle of a coffee room, upon a bit of cold meat or a Sandwich,” with twenty or thirty of the first men in the kingdom, before he retired to rule supreme over the first families of Lausanne. It was in London, among the distractions of society and politics, that he achieved that perfect poise, that perfect balance between work, society and the pleasures of the senses which composed his wholly satisfactory existence. And the balance had not been arrived at without a struggle. He was sickly; he had a spendthrift for a father; he was expelled from Oxford; his love affair was thwarted; he was short of money and had none of the advantages of birth. But he turned everything to profit. From his lack of health he learnt the love of books; from the barrack and the guardroom he learnt to understand the common people; from his exile he learnt the smallness of the English cloister; and from poverty and obscurity how to cultivate the amenities of human intercourse.

At last it seemed as if life itself were powerless to unseat this perfect master of her uncertain paces. The final buffet — the loss of his sinecure — was turned to supreme advantage; a perfect house, a perfect friend, a perfect society at once placed themselves at his service, and without loss of time or temper Gibbon entered a post-chaise with Caplin his valet and Muff his dog and bowled over Westminster Bridge to finish his history and enjoy his maturity in circumstances that were ideal.

But as we run over the familiar picture there is something that eludes us. It may be that we have not been able to find out anything for ourselves. Gibbon has always been before us. His self-knowledge was consummate; he had no illusions either about himself or about his work. He had chosen his part and he played it to perfection. Even that characteristic attitude, with his snuff-box in his hand and his body stretched out, he had noted himself, and perhaps he had adopted it as consciously as he observed it. But it is his silence that is most baffling. Even in the letters, where he drops the Historian and shortens himself now and then to “the Gib,” there are long pauses when nothing is heard even at Sheffield Place of what is going on in the study at Lausanne.

The artist after all is a solitary being. Twenty years spent in the society of the Decline and Fall are twenty years spent in solitary communion with distant events, with intricate problems of arrangement, with the minds and bodies of the dead. Much that is important to other people loses its importance; the perspective is changed when the eyes are fixed not upon the foreground but upon the mountains, not upon a living woman but upon “my other wife, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” And it is difficult, after casting firm sentences that will withstand the tread of time. to say “in three words, I am alone.” It is only now and then that we catch a phrase that has not been stylized, or see a little picture that he has not been able to include in the majestic design. For example, when Lord Sheffield bursts out in his downright way, “You are a right good friend . . .,” we see the obese little man impetuously and impulsively hoisting himself into a post-chaise and crossing a Europe ravaged by revolution to comfort a widower. And again when the old stepmother at Bath takes up her pen and quavers out a few uncomposed and unliterary sentences we see him:

I truely rejoice, & congratulate you on your being once more safely arrived in your native Country. I wish’d to tell you so yesterday, but the joy your letter gave would not suffer my hand to be steady enough to write. . . . Many has been the disappointments I have borne with fortitude, but the fear of having my last and only friend torn from me was very near overseting my reason. . . . Madame Ely and Mrs. Bonfoy are here. Mrs. Holroyd has probably told you that Miss Gould is now Mrs. Horneck. I wish she had been Mrs. Gibbon . . .

so the old lady rambles on, and for a moment we see him as in a cracked mirror held in a trembling hand. For a moment, a cloud crosses that august countenance. It was true. He had sometimes on returning home in the evening, sighed for a companion. He had sometimes felt that “domestic solitude . . . is a comfortless state.” He had conceived the romantic idea of adopting and educating a young female relative called Charlotte. But there were difficulties; the idea was abandoned. Then the cloud drifts away; common sense, indomitable cheerfulness return; once more the serene figure of the historian emerges triumphant. He had every reason to be content. The great building was complete; the mountain was off his breast; the slave was freed from the toil of the oar.

And he was by no means exhausted. Other tasks less laborious, perhaps more delightful, lay before him. His love of literature was unsated; his love of life — of the young, of the innocent, of the gay — was unblunted. It was the faithful companion, the body, unfortunately, that failed him. But his composure was unshaken. He faced death with an equanimity that speaks well for “the profane virtues of sincerity and moderation.” And as he sank into a sleep that was probably eternal, he could remember with satisfaction the view across the plain to the stupendous mountains beyond; the white acacia that grew beside the study window, and the great work which, he was not wrong in thinking, will immortalize his name.

March 1937.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01