16 May, 2011Issue 16.2HistoryWriters

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A Scourge of Zealots, Cheats, and Bores

Hugh Reid

Hugh Trevor-RoperAdam Sisman
Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2010
598 Pages
ISBN 978-0297852148


Adam Sisman’s new biography has a fascinating story to tell, and tells it very well. Its subject is the man variously described as “the leading historian of his generation”, “a relentless scourge of zealots, cheats, and bores”, and “a robot, without human experience, with no girls, no real friends, no capacity for intimacy and no desire to like or be liked”. Born into the fading gentry of Northumberland in 1914, Hugh Trevor-Roper underwent a rigorous education at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford, spent a dramatic period monitoring German intelligence transmissions, and enjoyed an illustrious academic career as a fellow of Christ Church, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford (appointed in 1957 at the age of 43), and finally master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was also a long-standing correspondent for The Sunday Times, and wrote book reviews for a number of publications (many of these were reprinted in his volume Historical Essays, published in 1957). His standing, both academically and socially, was high indeed (he became the second husband of Earl Haig’s daughter Alexandra in 1954, and was raised to the peerage as Lord Dacre of Glanton in 1979); his fall, brought about by his unfortunate authentication of the forged Hitler Diaries in 1983, was all the greater for it. Yet he weathered this particularly turbulent storm and continued to produce work of outstanding quality, before succumbing to cancer in 2003 at the age of 89.

In many ways his career was unusual. Most professional historians do not attain popular recognition, and those that do often have to wait many years, even decades, for it. Not so Trevor-Roper. The Last Days of Hitler, a journalistic investigation into the fate of the Führer, remains his most famous work. He had been asked to solve this most pressing of mysteries by his former wartime colleague Dick White, then head of counter-intelligence in the British sector of Berlin and later head of MI5 and MI6 in succession. The book appeared in 1947, and was only his second (he never thought very highly of his first, a study of Archbishop Laud published in 1940). It made his name and his fortune. It also established him as an authority on Nazi Germany, a subject he would frequently revisit in print and even on television in a notable debate with his Oxford colleague and sparring partner AJP Taylor. But it has tended to overshadow his more scholarly output. Although first and foremost a historian of the 16th and 17th centuries, Trevor-Roper never confined himself to this period. He wrote on Hitler; he wrote on Homer; he wrote on most subjects in between.

He also wrote brilliantly. A dazzling essayist and letter-writer, he fully appreciated the value of a lucid prose style in putting across his point. His assessments of figures past and present were always memorable and often devastating. Queen Christina of Sweden was “that dreadful woman, the Cartesian princess, the crowned termagant and predatory bluestocking of the north”, CS Lewis “a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favourite dish, beefsteak-and-kidney pudding.” Anthony Eden got off rather lightly in comparison, being merely a “vain, ineffectual Man of Blood”. The index of a Trevor-Roper volume was always essential reading; this specimen, from the index to his Renaissance Essays, was not untypical:

Jesuits: impose orthodoxy on all sciences, 193-4; and arts, 234; adapt humanist history, 138; drain humanism of its content, 229; creep in everywhere, 216; including China, 252; the Pope’s janissaries, 268; have mastered the mechanics of power, 229; constant allies of Spain, 279, 284; the courtliest of religious orders, 289; hated by de Thou, 136; and by the university of Paris, 207; but unstoppable, 229; ‘Hell-born’, 250

Like de Thou, Trevor-Roper had little time for the Jesuits. He had little time for clerics in general. Yet good sense and shrewd historical understanding always trumped his prejudices. Assessing the crusades in one of a series of lectures later published as The Rise of Christian Europe, he might have been expected to line up behind his 18th-century heroes Gibbon and Voltaire in outright condemnation of the movement. This is not what happened. Whatever his personal feelings on the subject, he sought to place the movement in a wider context, as one facet of the high medieval expansion of Europe in which spiritual and economic motivations were intermingled. The account he produced was characteristically perceptive.

Trevor-Roper’s merits and successes were numerous, yet there were failures also, and these Sisman does not neglect. He started many books, but finished few; his magnum opus on the Puritan Revolution never appeared. After his death much material was, and continues to be, salvaged from his manuscripts; much remains. Failure of this kind has dogged many historians, and for many different reasons. Sisman suggests, convincingly, that the problem for Trevor-Roper was not the sheer amount of archival research necessary before such a work could be written, although this was certainly substantial, but his perfectionism. Each essay he wrote went through numerous drafts before publication; to prepare to the same standard a multi-volume work of the kind he envisaged was necessarily a laborious and lengthy endeavour. In so doing he found himself continually overtaken by new research, as well as distracted by the demands of teaching and other college duties (not to mention other historical projects that also came to nothing), and the endeavour ultimately proved abortive. In any case, the essay form suited him better; it is on these that his scholarly reputation rests.

This is the Hugh Trevor-Roper that emerges from the pages of Sisman’s vivid and impressive biography: reticent in person, effervescent in prose, possessed of a brilliant mind but burdened with expectations he never quite fulfilled, he fully deserves the lengthy treatment Sisman gives him. Sisman is careful to evoke in detail the various environments in which his subject lived and worked, and he provides a wonderful gallery of supporting players. There is Trevor-Roper’s early mentor, the effete literary scholar Logan Pearsall Smith, forever pressing him about the most intimate details of his private life; Smith’s brother-in-law Bernard Berenson, the renowned art historian, at whose Florentine villa Trevor-Roper often stayed, and with whom he enjoyed a lengthy correspondence (his letters to Berenson were published in 2006); the philosophers Gilbert Ryle and Freddie Ayer, the former a wartime colleague of Trevor-Roper; the Russian spy Kim Philby, another wartime colleague and later subject of his short book The Philby Affair; Rupert Murdoch, “a megalomaniac twister, surrounded by yes-men and hatchet-men,” as Trevor-Roper once put it; and many others. The book is, furthermore, a remarkable chronicle of Oxbridge academic life over the course of the 20th century. Of particular interest are the machinations of the Peterhouse common room during Trevor-Roper’s tenure as master, when a coterie of reactionary fellows headed by Maurice Cowling sought to undermine the man who, contrary to expectation, was not prepared to stem the forces of modernisation. It is a shame that this phase of his life receives comparatively less coverage than others; indeed, his last 20 years are dealt with in little more than 30 pages. But it would be churlish to criticise this imbalance, for the author’s hand has (understandably) been stayed by defamation law, as he explains in his introduction.

Now if Sisman is less detailed here than one would like, there are also moments when he is more detailed than he perhaps ought to be. While he has explicitly made every effort to avoid such pitfalls, some of the anecdotes, clearly told to him by Trevor-Roper himself, come across as rather fanciful. Several such tales are to be found in relation to his undergraduate days and pre-war jaunts in Europe; most notable of all, and seemingly uncorroborated by diary evidence, is the account of a 1935 trip to Germany, in which Trevor-Roper dodged belligerent Nazi missionaries, won vast sums at a casino in Baden-Baden, and was forced to post his money out of the country to ensure its safety (not to mention his own). For one who could breathe life into seemingly the dullest historical topics, such embellishments were no doubt routine, and Sisman is to be congratulated on the fact that only very occasionally does his narrative fail to ring true. Indeed, he is to be congratulated on a biography that is, for the most part, hard to fault. Other, more detailed treatments of Trevor-Roper’s historical works and philosophy are available, for instance John Robertson’s recent piece in the English Historical Review. But it is no mean feat to wrest a compelling and illuminating narrative out of the mass of correspondence and diary entries that confronts the chronicler of such an eventful life, and this is precisely what Sisman has achieved.

Hugh Reid is reading for a DPhil in History at Lincoln College, Oxford.