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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

§ 4. His residence at Lausanne

No sooner had Gibbon left Oxford than his taste for study returned, and he essayed original composition in an essay on the chronology of the age of Sesostris. But the situation had another side for a “practical” man like the elder Gibbon, who might well view with alarm the worldly consequences entailed, at that time, by conversion to Roman catholicism. He seems to have tried the effect upon his son of the society of David Mallet, a second-rate writer patronised in turn by Pope, Bolingbroke and Hume. But Mallet’s philosophy “rather scandalised than reclaimed” the convert, and threats availed as little as arguments. For, as he confesses, in his inimitable way, he “cherished a secret hope that his father would not be able or willing to effect his menaces,” while “the pride of conscience” encouraged the youth “to sustain the honourable and important part which he was now acting.” Accordingly, change of scene (and of environment) was resolved upon as the only remedy left. In June, 1753, he was sent by his father to Lausanne, where he was settled under the roof and tuition of a Calvinist minister named Pavillard, who afterwards described to Lord Sheffield “the astonishment with which he gazed on Mr. Gibbon standing before him: a thin little figure” (time was to render the first epithet inappropriate), “with a large head, disputing and urging, with the greatest ability, all the best arguments that had ever been used in favour of Popery.”

To Lausanne, Gibbon became so attached that, after he had returned thither in the days of his maturity and established reputation, it became, in Byron’s words one of

  • the abodes
  • Of names which unto [them] bequeath’d a name.
  • His Swiss tutor’s treatment of him was both kindly and discreet, and, without grave difficulty, weaned the young man’s mind from the form of faith to which he had tendered his allegiance. In matters spiritual, Gibbon inclined rather to frivolity than to deliberate change; nor was this the only illustration of a disposition of mind “clear” as the air and “light” like the soil of Attica, and one in which some of the highest and of the deepest feelings alike failed to take root. It is, at the same time, absurd to waste indignation (as, for instance, Schlosser has done) upon his abandonment of an early engagement to a lady of great beauty and charm, Suzanne Curchod, who afterwards became the wife of the celebrated Necker. The real cause of the rupture was the veto of his father, upon whom he was wholly dependent, and whose decision neither of the lovers could ignore.