The Magazine

History Man

The adventures of Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Hugh Trevor-Roper
The Biography
by Adam Sisman
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 648 pp., £25

History Man

Photo Credit: Keystone / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

As a young man who felt he needed to read everything, I read Hugh Trevor-Roper’s demolition of Arnold Toynbee’s ten-volume Study of History, in a 1957 essay in Encounter titled “Arnold Toynbee’s Millennium,” with a feeling of immense relief and gratitude, knowing that I should never have to slog my way through those turgid books. With a tweezer and a howitzer, Trevor-Roper dissected and blew apart Toynbee’s work, leaving it in greater desolation than Carthage after the Second Punic War. Trevor-Roper called Toynbee “the Messiah” of his own concocted “religion of Mish-Mash.” Of Toynbee, then a much revered figure, he wrote: “In spite of its Hellenic training, his mind is fundamentally anti-rational and illiberal. Everything which suggests the freedom of the human reason, the human spirit, is odious to him.”

If Trevor-Roper had done to you or me what he had done to Arnold Toynbee, we should have been left with two choices only: the witness protection program or the razor over the wrists.

I discovered that Trevor-Roper had earlier savaged the work of a younger historian named Lawrence Stone, who had written on the decline of the feudal aristocracy making way for the English revolution of the 17th century. Later, also in Encounter, he would do similar jobs—shock and awe, no prisoners taken, with a good salting of the earth before departing—on A. J. P. Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War and E. H. Carr’s What Is History? He was the polemicist of the age, Trevor-Roper. But what else was he?

Hugh Trevor-Roper, we learn from Adam Sisman’s excellent biography, may have suffered, as he himself said of Lord Macaulay, from “instantaneous success.” As a boy he shone under the rigors of England’s examination system and waltzed into the better schools: first Charterhouse, then Christ Church, Oxford’s most aristocratic college. He might have been among that once endless chain of brightest young men who came down from Oxford—usually, let it be said, to fail—except that he never came down, but stayed on for what all assumed would be a smoothly successful scholarly career.

At 26, Trevor-Roper published a strongly anticlerical book on Archbishop Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Charles I, that everyone agreed was impressive in its learning and penetration for a man so young. Brilliant was the word most frequently used to describe it, and brilliant the epithet most often attached to Trevor-Roper. He possessed a highly polished English prose style; was socially part of an Oxford elite inner circle that included Gilbert Ryle, A. J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, and Maurice Bowra; and at the relatively early age of 43 he was appointed Regius Professor of History at Oxford.

Yet a slight tinge of disappointment clung to Trevor-Roper’s career. He hadn’t, the feeling was, got the most out of himself. In a splendid essay on Jacob Burkhardt, the great Swiss historian, Trevor-Roper set out the definition of a mastermind historian. He must be professionally competent yet more than competent merely; “He must be a general historian, and something of a philosopher.” He must also show in his work a feeling for general history, and with an understanding that one age stands for itself alone, but every age is also “part of a continuum, is relevant to the past.” His philosophy as a historian “must survive the criticism of later generations and be found illuminating even in a new and radically different age.” By these criteria Trevor-Roper qualifies on all grounds but one: He seems to have neglected to get round to writing an actual history.

If Adam Sisman’s lengthy biography has a purpose, other than fascination with its complex subject per se, it is to explain why this immensely talented man did not write the great book everyone expected from him. Trevor-Roper scarcely wanted for ambition. His hero was Edward Gibbon; more than once he stated his wish to produce a work that could be mentioned in the same breath with The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. His prose, mutatis mutandis, was modeled on Gibbon’s, and one of the pleasures of reading Trevor-Roper is coming upon him fairly regularly striking off Gibbonian sentences, those lengthy, anaconda-like contrivances that slither down the page with a comical ironic bite at the tail.

Hugh Trevor-Roper was born in 1914, in Northumberland, near the border of Scotland, to a physician father who had, as Sisman writes, “contracted out of fatherhood,” and a coldly snobbish mother interested chiefly in the social climb. Sisman’s verdict is that Trevor-Roper’s “childhood had been a form of prison,” not an entirely exceptional English story. Not much love in the home, if it doesn’t break one down as a result of it, can build strong character. In ways not easily calibrated, not much love in the home helped build the British Empire.

Life opened up to young Hugh Trevor-Roper in the classroom. He did (no avoiding the word) brilliantly at Charterhouse, his public school, and at Christ Church he earned Firsts. His only recorded youthful setback was that he did not win a fellowship to All Souls College. He had also acquired a reputation for flippancy. In one of the papers he wrote for the All Souls fellowship, he referred to Rousseau’s Confessions as “a lucid journal of a life so utterly degraded that it has been a bestseller in France ever since.”

If Trevor-Roper’s home life was bleak and devoid of pleasure, he did his best to make up for it during his years as an undergraduate, and later as a tutor, where he lived the life of a Bertie Wooster but with brains added: drinking, gourmandizing, driving fast cars, roistering generally. He failed to enter the skirt chase, and his biographer suggests that the youthful Trevor-Roper was not certain of his sexuality, though there is no talk in Sisman’s pages of homosexual dalliances, always a vivid option at the Oxbridge of that day.

Arrogance, intellectual division, soon became part of his modus operandi. But it was arrogance with a comic twist. After being interviewed by the Merton College electors for a junior research fellowship, he remarked: “I hope I impressed them more than they impressed me.” He entered in a disputatious way into fields not his own; as a young man, he presented a paper before senior classicists at Oxford arguing that Prometheus Unbound was wrongly attributed to Aeschylus. “I am often astonished by the depth and extent of my learning,” he wrote in one of his wartime notebooks. Lest he become overdeveloped intellectually, better (he decided) to “devote more time to beagling, foxhunting, drinking, fishing, shooting, talking; or, if one must read, read Homer, Milton, Gibbon, who cannot harm the brain.”

Two of the young Trevor-Roper’s close friends were Gilbert Ryle and A. J. Ayer, leading figures in analytical philosophy at Oxford. Ryle mocked Trevor-Roper’s fox hunting, at which he on several occasions fell off his mount—once breaking his back—allowing Ryle to claim that Hugh had “a bad case of Tallyhosis.” Ayer said he “admired his intellectual elegance, appreciated his malice, and was delighted to find that he shared my anti-clericalism and irreverence for authority.” Not everywhere was the quality of malice so highly valued as it was in the Oxford of the 1930s.

With the onset of World War II, Trevor-Roper began as a lieutenant in the Territorial Army, but was soon transferred to the Secret Intelligence Service, where he worked, with considerable success, at breaking German radio codes. Ryle and the philosopher Stuart Hampshire were part of his Radio Analysis Bureau, later called the Radio Intelligence Service. Sisman devotes several pages to the bureaucratic infighting within the British intelligence services; Trevor-Roper’s position in these matters was never conciliatory. One of his superiors claimed that his “passion for being different from ordinary mortals amounts to insubordination.” He suffered fools not at all, and one had only to disagree with him to qualify as a fool. What must have made this all the more infuriating is that he seems to have been correct much of the time.

Reading this section of Sisman’s biography, one is reminded how much more intellectuals, making use of their minds, contributed to the British war effort than did their American counterparts. Graham Greene, Malcolm Muggeridge, Isaiah Berlin, Ryle, Hampshire, Ayer, Trevor-Roper, and many other English intellectuals had significant jobs during the war. Let us not forget Kim Philby, who puts in a cameo role here and may, as a spy for the Soviet Union, have done the most significant work of all.

Trevor-Roper had “a good war.” He ended it as a major, and soon after was given the authority of a major-general to interrogate Nazi prisoners for a report on the final days of the Nazi high command. The significance of the report was to put an end to wild speculation about the whereabouts of Hitler, and it established in hard fact that he was dead—of a pistol he shot into his mouth while, beside him, Eva Braun swallowed poisoned pills, their bodies both subsequently burned in the garden of their bunker in Berlin—and not off in South America, waiting to give world domination a second shot. Trevor-Roper is the man who, historically if not literally, buried Adolf Hitler.

This he did with a fineness of detail, a thoroughness of argument, and a Gibbonian majesty, writing contemporary history through the long-sighted but clear lens of the past. Toward the close of his book, apropos of Ribbentrop, Schellenberg, Schwerin von Krosigk, and others, living in their “intellectual fools’ paradise,” Trevor-Roper writes: “We are reminded of the court-parasites of the Roman Empire, of whom Juvenal wrote: the bad jokes of Fortune—village pierrots yesterday, arbiters of life and death today, tomorrow keepers of the public latrines.” He subsequently turned his report on the final days of the German high command into a book, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), which became an international bestseller and established him as an expert on all things Nazi.

With some of the proceeds from The Last Days of Hitler, its author acquired and took to tooling around Oxford in a Bentley. He did all he could to fortify the reputation invested in the undergraduates’ name for him of Pleasure-Loper. When George VI and the queen visited Christ Church on the 400th anniversary of its founding, Trevor-Roper, in a letter to his friend Solly Zuckerman, wrote: “I signalised Their Majesties visit by extreme intoxication. My hand still trembles, my mind is cloudy, and I am crippled by mysterious bruises.”

Teaching undergraduates was not sufficient to hold a man of Trevor-Roper’s ambition. He was in search of that book that might give him lasting fame. But on what subject, precisely? He had, in the meantime, begun to write his attacks on other historians, which gave him his reputation as an intellectual liquidator, a terminator, a historian killer, a reputation in which he exulted. He loved controversy, and with a sharp mind, vast learning, and a prose style that could function as a deadly weapon, he was handsomely equipped for it.

When Trevor-Roper attacked R. H. Tawney’s theory of the progressive bourgeois giving rise to the Puritan revolution in England, one of the editors of the journal to which he sent his attack wrote to his coeditor: “I find it difficult to decide whether T-R is a fundamentally nice person in the grip of a prose style in which it is impossible to be polite or a fundamentally unpleasant person .  .  . using rudeness as a disguise for nastiness.” Trevor-Roper in polemical mode is reminiscent of no one quite so much as Richard Montague, a henchman of Archbishop Laud, who had, as Trevor-Roper writes in his biography of Laud, “controversial dexterity,” and whose “books which he hurled, like apples of discord, into an interested world, were weighted with massive learning and pointed with a stinging wit.” Another figure of the time remarked on Montague’s “tartness of writing; very sharp the nib of his pen, and much gall in his ink, against such as opposed him.”

Well off financially, intellectually settled as an established figure at Oxford, Trevor-Roper’s life was still missing two major components: work on the great book and family. The latter was to be put paid to when, at the age of 39, he began seriously to court a married woman named Alexandra Howard-Johnston, seven years older than he and with three children. (Maurice Bowra remarked that he “had never known adultery to do so much for a man.”) She was the daughter of Field Marshal Haig of World War I fame, and her husband, a belligerent man known to beat her, was a rear-admiral. Sisman is especially good at the complications of the courtship and Trevor-Roper and his wife’s far-from-easy relationship after they had settled into marriage.

Known as “Xandra,” Mrs. Trevor-Roper was, as her first husband had warned him, a “luxury girl,” for which read, in the parlance of our day, “high maintenance.” She was also an aristocracy snob, as was Trevor-Roper. The combination, with three children added, was perhaps more family life than Trevor-Roper had bargained for. Certainly it put pressure on him to earn more money than a don might normally do; this meant doing lots of journalism, much of it for the Times, including much political reporting in foreign quarters. He had no aptitude for fatherhood, let alone the more difficult proposition of stepfatherhood, and living with so emotionally volatile a woman as Xandra did not represent a daily walk in the park. Yet Trevor-Roper was never other than a loyal, and almost always a solicitous, husband, which could not have been all that easy for a man who appears to have been one of nature’s true bachelors.

Trevor-Roper at his most humane is available in his letters to Bernard Berenson, which have been printed as Letters from Oxford (2006). The letters, begun in 1947 and running until Berenson’s death in 1959, are filled with rich gossip (“Now what new indiscretions can I offer you?”), and jolly malice is their reigning tone (“The new prophet of darkness is apparently a man called Oakeshott, who is alleged to advance his appeals to unreason with great brilliance; which however, having met him, I doubt.”).

England had a richer cast of comic characters in those years, and Trevor-Roper makes splendid use of them. Here he is describing the social-climbing publisher George Weidenfeld’s rich (Marks and Spencer heiress) wife leaving him: 

As she surveyed the debris of her husband’s last party, at which she had carried round drinks, with ever-increasing ennui, to ever giddier groups of loquacious peeresses, gossip-writers, fashionable novelists, and professional party-goers, and saw the carnage of empty champagne bottles, crushed lobster-shells and trodden caviar, she decided she could bear it no longer.

He recounts to the old man, B. B., locked in the fastness of his opulent Italian villa I Tatti, Oxford college elections as if they were battles upon the plains of Greece. After a full budget of gossipy news to Berenson’s dear friend Nicky Mariano, he writes: “We shall have to confine our conversation, faute de mieux, to the Good, the True and the Beautiful.”

Trevor-Roper’s self-appointed role was that of cavalier intellectual, with ties (through his wife) to the beau monde, always intellectually dazzling, immensely learned, never wrong. He made enemies quite as easily as he made friends, and seems to have cherished the two equally. One of the most relentless among his enemies was Evelyn Waugh. What set Waugh against Trevor-Roper was the latter’s relentless anticlericalism, especially his anti-Catholicism, the church to which Waugh himself was a convert. A woman once remarked to Waugh that, though he claimed to be a Christian, he was one of the most unpleasant men she had ever met. Did he not, she asked, sense any contradiction here? “None at all, Madame,” Waugh is supposed to have responded. “But just imagine me if I weren’t a Christian.”

Whenever possible larding his prose with zingers to set what he invariably called “the papists’ ” tempers aflame, Trevor-Roper enjoyed (as he once put it) their “agonized and desperate writhings.” He always saved a poisoned dart for Waugh, a convert, and therefore a member of “a tribe that distinguishes itself by doctrinal ferocity, not always accompanied by knowledge.” Waugh made it a point never to call him anything other than “Roper,” and let no chance pass without saying something damning about him and the paucity of his achievements. Trevor-Roper never granted Waugh intellectual respect, but did acknowledge that in face-to-face confrontations he could not win, owing to Waugh’s superior rudeness.

A fairly regular refrain in Sisman has Trevor-Roper returning to his study to begin work on a new book: on Oliver Cromwell, on the English Revolution, on Scotland, on English Catholicism, and so many more. In his review of this biography in the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson counted no fewer than nine such uncompleted books. Some of these were worked on extensively and a few made their appearance as extended essays. “Enchanted cigarettes” Balzac called those books authors dream of but never get around to writing; Trevor-Roper smoked enough of them to acquire the intellectual equivalent of lung cancer.

Was it perfectionism that stopped Trevor-Roper from writing his great book? Or was he guilty of the kind of sloth that goads a man to do 15 other things in place of the one thing he should be doing? He certainly did the 15 other things, what with lecturing at foreign universities, turning out lots of journalism and book reviews, maintaining a costly domestic establishment, bucking up an easily demoralized wife, continuing his wide reading, indulging his never-slackening passion for travel; the great book somehow never got written.

One fine book did, though, and this is Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1976), his study of the English Sinologist, a charlatan and fantasist who was one of the great literary frauds of the modern era. With a novelistic feeling for pace and character, Trevor-Roper tracks down Backhouse (1873-1944), who was a British spy in China during World War I, negotiated fraudulent business deals, and collected Chinese manuscripts, vast quantities of which he donated to the Bodleian Library, hoping thereby to acquire a professorship until it was discovered that many among them he forged.

Hermit of Peking is a book in the tradition of, and of no less quality than, A. J. A. Symons’s classic Quest for Corvo. Both are investigations of human nature at its oddest. Immensely readable as a work of detection of the highest order, Hermit of Peking is also a reminder that Trevor-Roper (as Sisman says) considered himself “a writer first, and an historian second.”

In 1979, quite out of the blue, Trevor-Roper received an invitation to become Master of Peterhouse, the oldest and smallest of Cambridge’s colleges. Earlier in the same year he had been made a peer, Lord Dacre of Glanton, an honor bestowed upon him by Margaret Thatcher. The two events conjoined made actual Evelyn Waugh’s exasperated wish, in one of their exchanges, that Trevor-Roper change his name and move to Cambridge. Apart from the emoluments—a fine master’s house, a famously good college kitchen, and an excellent wine cellar—Trevor-Roper took on the job because it extended his academic life by six years. He should have had to retire as Regius Professor in 1981 at the age of 67, but was allowed to stay on as Master of Peterhouse until 1987.

In the event, it wasn’t a good move. Peterhouse turned out to be a hornet’s nest of intramural controversy. So reactionary were the majority of fellows that the force of their general unpleasantness turned Trevor-Roper, who could never rest content for long in a condition of conformity, into a reformer. The most vicious academic squabbling set in, never to be resolved, and at the end of his term as master, Trevor-Roper allowed that his seven years at Peterhouse were wasted. 

In 1983, in the midst of the Peterhouse years, documents claiming to be Hitler’s private diaries surfaced, discovered by the German weekly Stern. If authentic, this would have been a momentous historical event, promising an extended gaze into the heart and mind of perhaps the most evil man in modern, if not world, history. Times Newspapers thought to buy English rights to the diaries, but they first wanted Trevor-Roper, who was at the time a director of the corporation, to authenticate them. Trevor-Roper’s agent, A. D. Peters, was able to extract a handsome fee for him to do so. And after much last moment hesitation, authenticate them he did—wrongly.

Here was the former Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, the current Master of Peterhouse at Cambridge, zestfully spending much of his life pointing out the errors, the intellectual shortcomings, the slovenliness, if not outright fraudulence, of others who had now himself, at the age of 69, made the howler of howlers, and on the world stage. One has to imagine the family-values politician caught emerging from a male bordello, the menacing class bully wetting his trousers at the blackboard.

The sky darkened with chickens coming home to roost; deafening was noise from the licking of chops. A. L. Rowse, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Bernard Crick, all Trevor-Roper’s old enemies, lined up to hurl their brickbats at him. Private Eye ran a lengthy piece called “My Days of Agony by Lord Lucre of Glenlivet (better known as Sir Hugh Very-Ropey).” Auberon Waugh, standing in for his now-deceased father, suggested that Trevor-Roper change his sex and move to Essex. Columnists weighed in against him. Adam Sisman notes that Trevor-Roper took all this abuse without outward complaint. Nor did he allow his anguish to show, though Sisman recounts a lunch at which Trevor-Roper was late and his older stepson found him “lying in a foetal position on a bed in a spare room, his face turned to the wall.” Sisman concludes that “the damage to his reputation was substantial and long-lasting.” Not a few obituaries at his death led with this great embarrassing international faux pas.

Hubris, got up in the lifelong habiliments of flamboyant arrogance, met its just end—or so some might say. Yet Trevor-Roper rode out this major defeat and continued to write, turning out superior essays right up until his death at 89 in 2003. A recently (posthumously) published collection of essays, History and the Enlightenment (Yale), displays him at the top of his excellent game. The essays demonstrate what should have been evident all along: Hugh Trevor-Roper was a better historiographer, or student of the history and theory of history, than he was a historian. His contemporary, Arnaldo Momigliano, the great historiographer of the ancient world, also failed to write a great book. Perhaps what explains the inability of both men to write that single imperishable historical work is that they understood too well the many pitfalls of writing history.

Sisman ends by writing that Hugh Trevor-Roper’s “work will continue to be read long after his blunder [with the Hitler diaries] has diminished into a mere footnote.” Surely this is correct. Trevor-Roper deserves to be remembered as a devastating polemicist; an elegant prose stylist, one of the most suave of the past century; and an Oxbridge figure of the kind that, much to the loss of contemporary intellectual life, has now departed the planet, off not to a better world but perhaps to a place where the air is thick with the smoke of enchanted cigarettes, and playful malice is greatly appreciated.

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is the author, most recently, of The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff And Other Stories.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers