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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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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.

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