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History Man

The adventures of Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Dec 13, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 13 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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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.

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