The Guardian has reached No. 83 in its selection of the 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time. The selection by Robert McCrum is going backwards in time so it is nearing its final stretch. This week’s column is devoted to Edward Gibbon’s 1776-88 multivolume work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. According to McCrum, Gibbon was an amateur who mastered his historical subject but his command of English prose style is also worth noting:
Next to his learning, there’s his style, whose later devotees include both Winston Churchill, (No 43 in this series), and Evelyn Waugh. “It has always been my practice,” wrote Gibbon, “to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory; but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work.” Decline and Fall is a cathedral of words and opinions: sonorous, awe-inspiring and shadowy, with odd and unexpected corners of wit and irony, concealed in well-judged footnotes. For example, in chapter VII on Gordian, he writes:
“Twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of 62,000 volumes attested the variety of his inclinations, and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than ostentation.”
His footnote provides a witty coda: “By each of his concubines, the younger Gordian left three or four children. His literary productions were by no means contemptible.”
Waugh’s first novel which borrowed its title as well as some of its style from Gibbon is not mentioned.