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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XIII. Historians

§ 3. Gibbon’s earlier life

Edward Gibbon, born at Putney-on-Thames on 27 April, 1737, came of a family of ancient descent, tory principles and ample income. His grandfather, a city merchant, had seen his wealth engulfed in the South Sea abyss—it was only very wise great men, like Sir Robert Walpole, or very cautious small men, like Pope, who knew when to withdraw from the brink; but he had realised a second fortune, which he left to a son who, in due course, became a tory member of parliament and a London alderman. Edward, a weakly child—so weakly that “in the baptism of each of my brothers my father’s prudence successively repeated my Christian name … that, in case of the departure of the eldest son, this patronymic appellation might still be perpetuated in the family,” was, after two years at a preparatory school at Kingston-upon-Thames, sent to the most famous seminary of the day, Westminster school. But, though he lodged in College street at the boarding-house of his favourite “Aunt Kitty” (Catherine Porten), the school, as readers of Cowper do not need to be reminded, was ill-suited to so tender a nursling; and Gibbon remained a stranger to its studies almost as much as to its recreations. More than this—he tells us, in words that have been frequently quoted, how he is

  • tempted to enter a protest against the trite and lavish praise of the happiness of our boyish years, which is echoed with so much affectation in the world. That happiness I have never known, that time I have never regretted.
  • Yet, even his boyhood had its enjoyments, and the best of these was, also, the most enduring. His reading, though private, was carried on with enthusiasm, and, before he was sixteen, he had, in something more than outline, covered at least a large part of the ground which he afterwards surveyed in The Decline and Fall. Before, however, his boyhood was really over, his studies were suddenly arrested by his entry, as a gentleman-commoner, at Magdalen college, Oxford, on 3 April, 1752. No passage of his Memoirs has been more frequently quoted than his account of his Alma Mater, whom, if not actually “dissolved in port,” he found content with the leavings of an obsolete system of studies, varied by prolonged convivialities, tinged, in their turn, by way of sentiment, with a futile Jacobitism. The authorities of his college made no pretence of making up by religious training for the neglect of scholarship. He was, he says, forced by the “incredible neglect” of his tutors to “grope his way for himself”; and the immediate result was that, on 8 June, 1753, he was received into the church of Rome by a Jesuit named Baker, one of the chaplains to the Sardinian legation, and that, in the same month, his connection with Oxford came to an abrupt close. He had, at that time, barely completed his sixteenth year; but he tells us that, “from his childhood, he had been fond of religious disputation.”