Introducing Mr. Trevor-Roper

For the great historian Hugh Trevor-Roper—whose poison pen spared no ego and whose toxic overconfidence relegated him to a perpetual almost-ran—refusing to become the false prophet of a grand new theory of history was his greatest triumph.

Issue: Sept-Oct 2011

Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010), 648 pp., £25.00.

[amazon 0753828618 full]THE OVERWEENING historian is a recurrent figure in British literature over the past century. Brilliantly talented and flamboyant, he—it is invariably a “he”—seeks, more often than not, adulation and celebrity as much as scholarly acclaim. In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, for example, there is the historian as social climber. Mr. Samgrass of All Souls is an obsessive chronicler of the aristocracy. Eager to ingratiate himself with the cold and austere Lady Marchmain, Samgrass tries to rein in her son Sebastian, a wastrel who flits from one Oxford drinking club to the next, clutching his little teddy bear Aloysius. After Sebastian and his chums are arrested and jailed during one of their boozy, late-night escapades, Samgrass gets him off the hook by testifying not only that he possesses a faultless character but also that an exceptional scholarly career is endangered. A holiday trip to the Levant with Sebastian follows. His tutor loses sight of him in Athens, but “Sammy,” as Sebastian loves to deride him, continues his travels to Egypt on Lady Marchmain’s dime, only to be caught out once he returns after Christmas and visits the Brideshead manse where “guilt hung about him like stale cigar smoke.” Yet Samgrass contrives to remain indispensable to Lady Marchmain, basking in her and the castle’s reflected glory.

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