I have before me a most remarkable book which was one of a bunch I got for a dollar. It’s a little green book with gilt on the spine. It was published in 1877, according to the title page, which is stamped “Southbridge Public Library – Discarded.”
It doesn’t say when it was acquired, and there is no record of a single withdrawal. It’s the Autobiography of Edward Gibbon, and not many people are very curious about Edward Gibbon — but I was, at least to the tune of a quarter.
To tell the honest truth I still haven’t read the Autobiography, only parts of it. The great thing about this book is the introduction by William Dean Howells, a buddy of Mark Twain. In fact Howells and Twain (Samuel Clemens) wrote a book together called The Gilded Age, a book I’m always hunting for. I had a copy, but I gave it to an official of the Republican Party because she had perfect ankles. Probably still does. Whoops, forgot. Not about me.
Anyway keep your eye out for The Gilded Age. It’s rare. And this introduction to the Autobiography by Howells is really hilarious. Turns out Gibbon’s story is a very interesting one, if you’re interested.
As a young sickly aristocrat in the early 1700s, Gibbon converted to Catholicism, and his father had no choice but to send him to Switzerland, where he stayed with a Calvinist pastor. Gibbon fell in love with the daughter of the pastor in a nearby parish, Susan Curchod, and apparently she with him, but his father disapproved and so, Gibbon says,
“After a painful struggle I yielded to my fate; I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son. My wound was insensibly healed by time, absence, and the habits of a new life.”
From this Howells concludes that Gibbon “was certainly not of the heroic sort.” In truth Gibbon was an aristocratic snob. The irony is that after her father died and she had to support her mother in dire poverty by teaching, Susan Curchod married Jacques Necker, then a bank clerk in Geneva.
Necker became incredibly wealthy, wealthy enough to loan lots of money to the King of France. That’s wealthy. Then he became Director of Finance under Louis XVI, and later a darling of the revolutionaries. In fact when the king removed Necker, they say, it led to the storming of the Bastille. Long story, Google Necker if you’re interested.
The point of the story is that Madame Necker strikes up a friendship with her old boyfriend, and since she has become rich, he’s thrilled to hang out with her. Howells wryly observes, “Mr. Necker, fatigued with the cares of office, used to go to bed and leave his wife tête á tête with the undangerous lover of her youth.”
“He has become humble,” Madame Necker wrote to a friend, “a zealous admirer of opulence… My feminine vanity has never had a completer, a juster triumph.”
Howells writes, “One smiles at such a close for love’s young dream, and yet in its time the passion was no doubt a sweet and tender idyl.”
Incidentally, Madame and Monsieur Necker were the parents of another famous personage, Anne Louis Germaine Necker, known as Madame de Stael. She was very close, if you know what I mean, to Charles de Talleyrand-Perigord, known just as Talleyrand (like Madonna or Sting), and eventually married the writer and politician Benjamin Constant.
She was also pals with Diderot, Goethe, Schiller and Jean-Jacque Rousseau, among many others including — get this — John Quincy Adams, whom she met and dallied with a good deal in St. Petersburg. But that’s another story altogether.