The adventures of Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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.