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the Complete Review
the complete review - autobiography

Memoirs of my own Life

Edward Gibbon

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Title: Memoirs of my own Life
Author: Edward Gibbon
Genre: Autobiography
Written: (1794)
Length: 237 pages
Availability: Memoirs of my Life - US
Memoirs of my Life - UK
Memoirs of my Life - Canada
  • A number of editions of the work exist. The version at Amazon.com is the Penguin edition, edited by Betty Radice.
  • There are six drafts of the original work, most covering different periods of Gibbon's life. These have been collected in various editions, notably Lord Sheffield's. The Radice edition (and other modern versions) restore the often significant cuts made by Lord Sheffield.

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Our Assessment:

B+ : short but fascinating memoir, a good read

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Edward Gibbon is best known for his enormous book on the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. For a man who wrote so much on this one subject he showed admirable restraint in his memoirs, a volume that almost disappears beside the large tomes that make up the History. Gibbon himself never put together the autobiographical pieces he wrote upon finishing his life's work. These were first collected in a decorously edited volume by Lord Sheffield, Gibbon's literary executor. Unfortunately, Lord Sheffield showed far too much restraint in his editing, i.e. he excised practically anything that anyone might find offensive -- yet another example (and there are so, so many) of why editors are a useless sort of breed who should be allowed to do little more than correct spelling mistakes and grammar and why authors must take the utmost care in choosing their literary executors.
       Lord Sheffield's cutting diminishment of the text was only discovered long after the fact (he covered his tracks well). Only in 1894, when Gibbon's papers were made public, was the magnitude of the editorial interference revealed. Since that time the work has been refashioned by a number of editors, and almost all contemporary editions include all the good parts. Even Lord Sheffield's version was a great success; the complete versions are even better.
       Gibbon's memoirs make for a fascinating, quick, and entertaining read. Writing in an easy style Gibbon recounts his unusual life. He begins with a description of his family background, then his early life and schooling. An avid reader but not spectacular student, often ill, he nevertheless entered Magdalen College, Oxford "before I had accomplished the fifteenth year of my age.", in 1752. His time there was not a great success. There was little guidance there, or interest in the pursuit of knowledge:

After the departure of Dr. Waldgerave I was transferred with the rest of his livestock to a senior fellow, whose literary and moral character did not command the respect of the college. (...) I was never summoned to attend even the ceremony of a lecture.
       Seduced into a profligate life Gibbon enjoyed himself and went into debt. However, only his conversion to the Catholic faith finally assured his fall from grace.
       Removed from Oxford, Gibbon's father sent him Lausanne, putting him in the hands of a Calvinist, Daniel Pavilliard. Cut off from his familiar world Gibbon learnt French, read widely, and applied himself to his studies, finally coming into his own. He met Voltaire, and, after nearly five years absence, returned to England a changed man.
       The path to his great work was not immediately clear. A stint in the militia preceded the undertaking, and only then could he finally settle on the ambitious history. Growing older, without much to show for it yet, he voices regrets about much of life seeming to have passed him by, especially compared to his contemporaries who had embraced remunerative careers in law and business. But, in the end he more than made up for his slower pace and roundabout path.
       Gibbon does not go into too great detail about any single aspect of his life, and does not dwell on the actual writing of the History, well aware that the more interesting material is the other background information that he provides. Achieving success and fame he does remind the reader of the accomplishment, including a letter of praise from David Hume as proof. Similarly, he copies out an entry from Meuselius' Bibliotheca Historica describing his character, which begins: "Beyond question Gibbon must be admitted into the number of the chief historians of our age." Still, there are also useful comments regarding the reception of the work, and the translations of it.
       There are certain omissions -- notably any physical description of the diminutive (and eventually corpulent) author. As an autobiographical work, however, it is in many ways exemplary, and it is fairly honest. Certainly recommended.

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Edward Gibbon: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British historian Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) is best known as the author of the monumental History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

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