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THE LOVES OF FAMOUS MEN
BY PERCY FITZGERALD, M.A.
No. IV. Edward Gibbon.
ONCE rummaging those pleasant boxes of old books which line the quais of Paris opposite the Academy, and which certainly offer the best returns for any careless digging, and down towards the Quai Conti, where Yorick bought his gloves from the famous grisette, the writer of these papers came on a little morocco-bound almanac interleaved. It had belonged to some royalist family, and was full of interesting addresses, such as that of Target the lawyer and others. Among them, however, was one of special interest--that of Mademoiselle Curchod, then living close to Geneva. The name of this young lady-an obscure Swiss parson's daughter-gave the little book all its interest.
For she was to become celebrated—first, as the early love of Edward Gibbon, when he was merely a clever young man travelling, or pursuing diligently his studies for the great book which was to make him famous; later, as the wife of a real statesman, Necker ; presently, on account of her own brilliancy, accomplishments, and sterling virtues, the faithful admiring wife and clever writer; and lastly, as the mother of a daughter far more famous—the restless, half-manly, and brilliant observer, Madame de Staël. These are substantial claims to notice. Yet she belongs to a class of characters who are not at all conspicuous, and whose name, rather than life, is familiar to the popular mind. But by a careful reader and student they are considered with extraordinary respect, on the grounds of weight and of worth ; and the eye that follows the strange chaos of the Revolution, and the frenzy which seemed to sweep away all honour and principle, settles with satisfaction on this image of a true woman-calm, firm, gentle, beloved by all who had the happiness of knowing her. It is to be regretted that, like other remarkable ladies of her day, she did not leave detailed memoirs of her life; for her history would have been a perfect romance.
The figure of Gibbon is very familiar to us from the black profile usually found at the beginning of his collected works. The testimony of foreigners as well as of Englishmen, both, contemptuously enough, prove its accuracy. To corroborate it farther, there is the well-known story of the blind French old lady and Charles Fox's coarse lines, neither of which testimonies could be well produced here. Yet this great man was a lover—a lover when he was old as well as when he was young.
The style of his letters was always pedantic and like a page of his History, and the result proved that he was not what is called a successful lover.
The story of his early life is well known; his conversion to the Catholic religion, and his expatriation by his father to Switzerland, to be placed under the care of a divine there, who was to reconvert him. Change of scene, and perhaps an absence of sincerity, made the task not difficult; and the tutor was soon able to report that grace and conviction had done their work. How successful that labour had been, a famous chapter in his History was presently to show; but these were times when infidelity was held to be harmless compared with what were thought the superstitions of Rome.'
He was established at Lausanne, read a great deal, saw not a few remarkable people, and being known as 'an Anglais of fortune' —crowds of whom were then overrunning Europe under the charge of bear-leaders,' a subject which Sterne was to choose presently for a sermon—was taken much notice of. His extraordinary information and studiousness was another recommendation. Not very far away there was a little village up in the mountains that separated the Pays de Vaud from Burgundy, and there a humble clergyman looked after a more humble flock. The learned convert, who soon made his acquaintance, could praise his gifts in a phrase that reads very much like a note out of his Roman History. His profession did not extinguish the philosophy and moderation of his temper ;' a strange sort of compliment, pleasantly in keeping with the satiric vein of this profound writer. The clergyman's wife was a French lady, to whom the young student was more gallant, saying that she had preferred her religion to her country—having, in short, been obliged to quit France through the severity of the penal laws.
But this pair had a daughter Susanne. She seems to have been a charming person; and her later career showed that the young man at that time was at least as well able to judge of human character in real life as he was when he had to decide on its old incomplete manifestation in books. She used occasionally to pay a short visit to her friends, and come across the mountains to Lausanne ; and she left behind her every mouth filled with the praises of the wit, beauty, and erudition of the clergyman's daughter. Young Mr. Gibbon soon heard of this prodigy, and became curious to see her. He was presently introduced, and was quite captivated by her.
Not many years later a Frenchman-Suard—met Mr. Gibbon, and described him in rather a malignant fashion. Leaving a margin for ill-nature, it must be accepted as tolerably accurate. · The root of Mr. Gibbon's nose seems to be sunk deeper into his forehead than ever Calmuck's was; and the shapeless trunk of his body, with its stomach of Silenus, rests on a pair of spindleshanks.' His blemishes had not of course been developed at this time, but were in posse, as it were. But the young lady that attracted him had many charms. He himself gave a graceful and illustrative description of her attractions. He found her learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in her sentiments, and elegant in her manners. The young élère was fascinated.
•I saw her,' he says, “and loved.' His ‘first sudden emotion' was fortified by the habits and knowledge of a more familiar acquaintance. His advances were encouraged. From mere meetings at Lausanne, it came to formal visits at her father's modest little parsonage over the mountains at Crassey. He looked back to these as very happy days. The father and mother honourably 'encouraged the connection.' In a calm retirement,' says Mr. Gibbon in his stately historic way, as though he were describing the Empress Helena, 'the gay vanity of youth no longer fluttered in her bosom. She listened to the voice of truth and passion, and he might venture to hope that he had made some impression on a virtuous heart.'
Mr. Gibbon pursued his studies for a year or two longer, still speaking in the voice of truth,' and was then summoned home to England by his father. If some supernatural return' could be ordered and made as to the various typical incidents of human life and character, it would be found that the conditions are about the same; the result repeats itself in millions of incidents.
Here was Mr. Gibbon, with his voice of truth and passion,' and his 'impression on a virtuous heart,' his vows to a simple country girl, very much like a modern officer in a garrison town. Like the latter, he is ordered away, or has to go and see his family,' and, as invariably,
person steps upon the scene and forbids the banns. Mr. Gibbon dispatches the rest of the business very quietly. On my return to England I found that my father would not hear of this strange alliance, and that without his support I was destitute and helpless. I sighed as a lover ; I obeyed as a son. The reader will note the curious use of the word strange' in the sense of ' foreign' or 'incompatible;' and the awkwardness of the confession that he only discovered his dependence on his father at so convenient a moment. The voice of truth' and even of passion was hushed in presence of this unsentimental argument. We may think of the poor girl in the lonely mountains, waiting for the lagging English post, then having this news broken to her with all the ingenious and elegant diction of the author of the Decline and Fall; her mortification too before the Lausanne coterie, with nothing left to console her but the “ erudition without pedantry,' which had so charmed her faithless admirer.
When he said he had obeyed as a son,' it must be owned that Mr. Gibbon gives rather an unhandsome account of the short sequel
of the affair ; or it may be that his lofty Decline-and-Fall manner had made him view everything as having historical bearings of some kind. That strange irony, sometimes unintentional with him, had grown into a habit ; and so he goes on : “My wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life. My cure was accelerated by a faithful report of the tranquillity and cheerfulness of the lady herself, and my love subsided into friendship and esteem.' Sensible Mademoiselle Curchod!
But she had made a large circle of friends, among whom this desertion caused no little indignation. Rousseau did not care to conceal his opinion. Some one had written to him with a message or commission for Mademoiselle Curchod, and he wrote back to say that he was certain to acquit himself badly in it, on account of his esteem for her. The cooling-off of Mr. Gibbon has made me think meanly of him. I have been going over his book, and he seems to me to be straining at esprit. He is not the man for me; nor can I think that he will be the one for Mademoiselle Curchod. Any one who does not know her value is not worthy of her ; but a man who has come to that knowledge and then withdraws himself, is only worthy of contempt. .... I would sooner a thousand times that he left her poor and free among you than that he brought her rich and miserable away to England.' This was plain-speaking, and later was duly published with the rest of the philosopher's letters, and read by Mr. Gibbon, who made a half-good-humoured, half-indignant protest against such treatment; but through the protest we almost see a secret consciousness of wrong.
Mr. Gibbon then went into the militia, and passed through the pleasant .mumming' of encampment. It is stated that it was this training that really made him give such graphic power to the military portions of his History; and some distinguished person lately, speaking of the Volunteers, quoted this passage. It was received with good-humoured merriment-a good test of the value of so ridiculous a statement. The deserted young lady remained in her retirement until the death of her father left her almost penniless. She then went to Geneva, and was driven to the calling of a governess; and there, says Mr. Gibbon oddly, she earned a hard subsistence for herself and her mother ; but in her louest distress she maintained a spotless reputation and a dignified behaviour.' This mixture of compliment and awkward reminder was scarcely in the best taste.
But by and by was to come the reward. A rich Swiss banker, who did business in Paris, M. Necker, came that way, and, Gibbon says oddly, ‘had the good sense to discover this inestimable treasure.' Accident and labour, rather than good sense, generally guide discoveries. Her later career is well known, and the compensation for that early trial was destined to be brilliảnt. The banker became the minister ; not only the minister, but a sort of heavensent' one, called in to save France. The world now knows Madame Necker as one of its heroines—the clever charming wife, the pleasant agreeable writer, the devoted partner, the good and pious woman, and the mother of the more famous Corinne'-Madame de Staël. Mr. Gibbon found his way to Paris, where they were living, when the past was prudently forgotten ; and in her salons was exhibited the distinguished Englishman, now very famous.
He, however, paid this homage to his early love—he never married. He was wealthy, and might have done so with advantage. The curious society at Lausanne and in Switzerland, where he saw Voltaire act, had a special charm for him. And so he pored over his Tillemont and Baronius, collected books and wrote, and grew fat and gouty and almost absurdly out of shape; and it was precisely at that crisis, when he was just fifty years old, he chose to fall in love again. The dramatic finale of that attachment was so comic, and placed him in so ridiculous a light, that it almost seems a Nemesis in consequence of his old desertion. It took place in the same locality.
Lady Elizabeth Foster, who afterwards became Duchess of Devonshire,-a daughter of the eccentric Bishop of Bristol, of whom we had a glimpse in the account of Nelson's weaknesses,—was on her travels over Europe. She was a true specimen of the dilettante English who were then found on the Continent, and who really did noble and liberal acts with their money in the service of art. Fancy a lady of title nowadays printing an édition de luxe of Horace at an Italian press, exquisitely illustrated, and costing a fortune.
Mr. Gibbon was at that really dramatic passage of his life, in the middle of the year 1787, when he was completing his History, and on a certain night in June had written the last line of the last page of the great work. Great as it is, it seems now to be regarded more with respect and awe than affection ; a feeling that Mr. Dickens has very happily expressed when he made Mr. Boffin choose it for the work with which he was to make his first acquaintance with literature. Very familiar is the description of the almost solemn act performed in a pavilion at the end of his garden. Laying down his pen, he took several turns in the acacia alley,' with a feeling of joy at getting back his liberty after this long and arduous servitude ; but dashed with a certain melancholy, as he thought, however lasting might be the reputation of the book, the days of the writer might be numbered.
The lady arrived shortly after, and struck him, as she struck all, with the elegance of her form and manner, her esprit, cleverness, and, above all, the nice apropos of her compliments. She took a great interest in that dramatic completion of the great History, and was one morning asked to breakfast to inspect the very