Frank William Boreham 1871-1959

Frank William Boreham 1871-1959
A photo F W Boreham took of himself in 1911

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Boreham and His Literary Models Part 5: Gibbon

This posting is part of a series on F W Boreham and the authors who influenced his literary style. This article is the first instalment on the historian, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794):[1]

Reference has already been made to “the wild excitement” F W Boreham experienced when he first read Edward Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire in “the most hectic month that I had ever known”.[2] His excitement was intensified because this book marked, what Boreham called, his “initial venture into serious reading” and the commencement of his self-education programme.[3]

Perhaps Boreham was heartened by the knowledge that Gibbon was himself “largely self-educated” and one who, through his own study, “had to make good the deficiencies of his own schooling”.[4] Boreham’s resolve to begin a disciplined reading programme may have been bolstered by knowing Gibbon’s assertion that “the first step towards freedom is a liberating education”.[5] Writing in 1940 about the value of books, Boreham testified to “the enlargement and enrichment that must come to the mind of the man who reads Gibbon’s Decline and fall of the Roman Empire”.[6] The excitement came not only “at the splendour of the discoveries that he was daily making” but in the sharing of these discoveries as they stimulated his preaching and influenced the writing of his first editorial.[7]

What made Boreham feel that he had “burst upon a new planet” was that Gibbon had introduced him to the delights of history.[8] Gibbon was not primarily motivated by the need to instruct or be polemical for he was primarily “a lover of history” who tried to convey that same love to his readers.[9] If Charles Dickens encouraged Boreham to write of the little, everyday things of life, it was Edward Gibbon who enabled Boreham to see the grand panorama of history and who inspired him with the audacity to tackle the great themes of the ages.

Gibbon’s “prodigious talent for assimilating data” and expressing it succinctly was a gift that Boreham came to possess.[10] The ability to synthesize the life of a person or tell the story of a movement was essential if he was writing editorials of 1,000 to 1,500 words. Boreham avoided getting swamped in great themes or drowning his readers by learning from Gibbon the ability to pursue evidence, to marshal the facts and to argue these around a central conviction.

Highlighting this important quality in historical writing, modern day scholar, David Bebbington stated, “The historians whose names are remembered are those who argue a striking case with marked ability. Gibbon is once more a good example .… As a general rule, the more cogent the argument, the greater the historian”.[11] However, Boreham’s editorials often suffered from the dangers that imperilled Gibbon’s work—the sweeping generalisations, “the want of analytical profundity”[12] and the tendency “to lose sight of the complexity of events”.[13]

From Gibbon, Boreham received two related convictions that formed a major theme in his own writing. The first was the danger facing nations that were indifferent toward antiquity.[14] The second was the peril of nations that failed to venerate their heroes.[15]

Geoff Pound

Image: Edward Gibbon

[1] Gibbon was born in England and, while he served as a member of parliament, is best remembered for his historical writings. Further biographical details may be found in the Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature, 391-392.
[2] Boreham, Ships of pearl, 172.
[3] Boreham, Ships of pearl, 172.
[4] E S de Beer, ‘A reading of Gibbon’, Landfall 19 (1965): 363.
[5] Harold L Bond, The literary art of Edward Gibbon (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), 29.
[6] Boreham, Mercury, 31 August 1940.
[7] F W Boreham, The ivory spires (London: The Epworth Press, 1934), 30.
[8] Boreham, The ivory spires, 30.
[9] J W Burrow, Gibbon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 25.
[10] W B Carnochan, Gibbon’s solitude: The inward world of the historian (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1987), 32.
[11] David W Bebbington, Patterns in history: A Christian perspective on historical thought (Leicester: Apollos, 1979), 13
[12] R Porter, Edward Gibbon: Making history (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), 3.
[13] de Beer, ‘A reading of Gibbon’, 366.
[14] Boreham, Mercury, 10 October 1925.
[15] Boreham, Mercury, 28 January 1950.