Glimpses of Edward Gibbon at Sheffield Place (Sheffield Park Garden, East Sussex)

Each day during this last week I’™ve been reading one of Virginia Woolf’™s essays from the collection in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. Each one has provided some fascinating glimpses into the lives of a number of writers including Edward Gibbon (1737 – 1794), about whom I know very little. In fact before I read her two essays “The Historian and ‘˜The Gibbon’™” and “Reflections at Sheffield Place” all I knew was that Gibbon had written The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I didn’™t know about his connection to Sheffield Place and was interested when I realised that this is now Sheffield Park in Sussex. Although the house is privately owned, the National Trust owns Sheffield Park Garden. I visited it several years ago when I had no inkling that Gibbon had also visited it some 300 years earlier. The garden was originally designed by ‘Capability’ Brown for John Holroyd (who later became Lord Sheffield) in about 1775. So, Gibbon who was a great friend of Lord Sheffield would have seen the garden when he stayed with Lord Sheffield, but I doubt that he would have walked round very much of it as, according Maria, Sheffield’™s daughter, Gibbon was “a mortal enemy to any person taking a walk.” To her he was a figure of fun “waddling across the room”, but she admitted that he was ‘œthe most delightful of talkers’ and she was genuinely fond of him.

Woolf in her essay Reflections at Sheffield Park ponders whether Gibbon had paused in front of the ‘œgreat ponds ‘¦ bordered with red, white and purple reflections, for rhododendrons are massed upon the banks and when the wind passes over the real flowers the water flowers shake and break into each other.’ I wish I had known that when I visited. I remember how beautiful Sheffield Park Garden was with its colourful displays of flowers and trees surrounding the lakes; I could have stood there imagining that maybe Gibbon had stood on the same spot and seen a similar display! The lakes, cascades and waterfalls make this one of the most picturesque gardens I’ve visited. I can’t find the photos we took when we were there, so this photo is from Wikipedia, showing one of the lakes. The National Trust website has a few photos showing the Garden at different times of the year.

Woolf’™s description of Gibbon’™s appearance as well as his character caught my imagination and brought him to life. He was fat and ugly, talked incessantly, was sickly and had none of the advantages of birth. She describes his appearance as ‘œridiculous ‘“ prodigiously fat, enormously top-heavy, precariously balanced upon little feet upon which he spun round with astonishing alacrity.’

Gibbon apparently abandoned his purple language and wrote racy colloquial prose to Sheffield and was the only person who could restrain Sheffield’™s extravagance. The contrasting characters of his eccentric Aunt Hester and his Aunt Kitty who brought him up after his mother died show the complexity of his nature. Woolf wrote that Aunt Hester’™s view was that he was ‘œa worldling, wallowing in the vanities of the flesh, scoffing at the holiness of faith.’ Aunty Kitty on the other hand, thought he was a prodigy and was intensely proud of him.

Virginia Woolf’™s essays are brief but give enough facts and a general impression of how Gibbon grew up and became a historian to make me keen to find out more. Gibbon did of course write in a very ornate, ironic and elaborate style, but Woolf considers reading it is like being ‘œmounted on a celestial rocking-horse’, which then becomes a ‘œwinged steed; we are sweeping in wide circles through the air and below us Europe unfolds; the ages pass; a miracle has taken place.’

I still have essays on Coleridge, Shelley, Henry James, George Moore and E M Forster to read in this little book ‘“ such a wide sweep of literature yet to explore.

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