The English Essays of Edward Gibbon
Apart from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon published only three distinct works: his Essai sur l’Etude de la Littérature, written in Lausanne, in 1758-1759, at the age of twenty-one, and published in London in 1761; his Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Aeneid (1770); and his Vindication of the fifteenth and sixteenth chapters of The Decline and Fall (1779). In retrospect, he was not particularly proud of any of these works, all of which were essentially controversial. He refused opportunities to reprint the first of them; he regretted the irreverent tone and “cowardly” anonymity of the second; and he expressed the hope that the third, having achieved its purpose, would be forgotten. The only work, apart from The Decline and Fall, by which he wished to be remembered, was his Memoirs, which he left incomplete at his death in 1793.
When Gibbon died, his closest friend, Lord Sheffield, whom he had named as his executor, took charge both of his body and of his papers. As executor, Sheffield was both possessive and efficient. He buried Gibbon’s body in his private mausoleum in his own parish church, under a florid epitaph by the famous Whig scholar Dr. Samuel Parr. Walled up and unadvertised, the tomb is now invisible and almost unknown. The fate of the papers was somewhat similar. Sheffield went through them with care, and having published what he thought fit, as the Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon (1796), buried the originals in his private archives. Confident that he alone knew Gibbon as he really was, he was determined that no profane scholar should reveal what he himself had thought fit to expurgate, supply, or adjust. In his will, he adjured his heir not to allow access to the papers, and in fact, in a whole century, only Dean Milman caught a privileged glimpse of them.
It was not till 1894 that the papers, having been bought from the last Lord Sheffield by Lord Rosebery, and by him presented to the British Museum, could be freely seen. The extent of Sheffield’s editorial work could then be appreciated, and a mass of new material became available to Gibbon’s editors and biographers. The biographers have used it; but the editors have so far confined themselves to the personal records of Gibbon’s life: the Memoirs, the journals, the letters. For the minor works of literature and scholarship we still rely on the printed texts published by Gibbon or Lord Sheffield.
Now we have a new edition based on modern textual scholarship. Miss Craddock entitles her work The English Essays of Edward Gibbon; but the title is somewhat misleading, and it is well to be clear precisely what is contained in this handsome volume. Of thirty-three items, it would be difficult to describe as many as eight as “essays.” These include the Critical Observations and the Vindication, already printed in Gibbon’s lifetime, and several pieces which he left in manuscript and which …