Introducing Mr. Trevor-Roper

August 24, 2011 Topics: EthicsHistoryPhilosophy

Introducing Mr. Trevor-Roper

Mini Teaser: 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.

by Author(s): Jacob Heilbrunn

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.

Then there is Anthony Powell’s opus A Dance to the Music of Time. It features the historian as a would-be man of political influence. The Oxford don Sillery’s weekly tea parties are where introductions are made and “young peers and heirs to fortune were not, of course, unwelcome.” Sillery is an inveterate schemer whose

understanding of human nature . . . [and] unusual ingenuity of mind were both employed ceaselessly in discovering undergraduate connexions which might be of use to him; so that from what he liked to call “my backwater”—the untidy room, furnished, as he would remark, like a boarding-house parlour—he sometimes found himself able to exercise a respectable modicum of influence in a larger world.

Most recently, Alan Bennett tackled this genre in his popular play The History Boys, which stars the historian as provocateur. Based largely on conservative historian Niall Ferguson, the protagonist is named Irwin. He explains to his young charges, “Truth is no more at issue in an examination than thirst at a wine-tasting or fashion at a striptease.” History is as much a sport as it is a profession for Irwin. The true danger isn’t being wrong; it’s being boring.

Where does Hugh Trevor-Roper—Regius Professor at Oxford, Master of Peterhouse, fellow of the British Academy and national independent director of the Times Newspapers, to name a few of his prizes—fit into this pantheon? To some extent he was a social climber, political intriguer and intellectual bomb thrower. For one thing, he could be a terrible snob. At his inaugural lecture for the Regius Professorship, he kept four rows in front empty for the aristocratic “quality” that he expected to arrive from London. “It was terrible to see aged dons and white-haired ladies rudely pushed away from these empty places,” his friend Isaiah Berlin observed in a letter. “In the end . . . nobody came and the seats were filled by plebeians.” It is also the case that he was constantly embroiled in academic feuds, curried favor with politicians such as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and tooled around in a gray Bentley. Hauteur, ambition and zest for giving offense—these propensities earned him numerous enemies, who dubbed him “Pleasure-sloper.”

But he was also vied for by editors and publishers in England and the United States. The historian Christopher Hill announced in 1957 that “if Professor Trevor-Roper did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Trevor-Roper took care of that himself. He published his first book, at the age of twenty-five, on the seventeenth-century divine William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury in the reign of Charles I. Yet Trevor-Roper’s record included the failure, pointed out to him ad nauseam by his numerous detractors, to produce a magnum opus. Margaret Thatcher, who had bestowed upon him the title Lord Dacre of Glanton in 1979, later went on to harangue him as though he were a delinquent student in the summer of 1982 at a dinner party at 10 Downing Street: “So, Lord Dacre, and when can we expect another book from you?” He responded, “Well, Prime Minister, I have one on the stocks.” The Iron Lady’s response? “On the stocks? On the stocks? A fat lot of good that is! In the shops, that is where we need it!”

He married into the aristocracy (his wife was Lady Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston, ex-wife of Rear Admiral Clarence Dinsmore Howard-Johnston and daughter of the controversial World War I general Douglas Haig). Like Mr. Samgrass, Trevor-Roper was never happier than when mingling with grandees in a country house. His wife’s dream came true when in 1983 she and her husband were invited to dinner with Queen Elizabeth—as a divorced and remarried woman, she had long been shunned by the highest reaches of the nobility. Redemption was at hand. But Trevor-Roper suffered a terrible blow when, at the behest of Rupert Murdoch, who had just acquired the Times, he hastily endorsed the Hitler diaries as authentic. Stern magazine, a popular weekly based in Hamburg, had first touted the diaries; they were quickly revealed to be forgeries, the work of the con man and Hitler admirer Konrad Kujau. A day before the Sunday Times was to run its excerpts, Trevor-Roper had second thoughts. It was too late. The “scoop” was published. Trevor-Roper’s enemies celebrated the seemingly permanent besmirchment of his reputation. In January 2003 Trevor-Roper died at the age of eighty-nine.

ENTER THE Trevor-Roper renaissance. A stream of his essays, books and letters is being posthumously released. Now Adam Sisman offers a major reassessment of Trevor-Roper’s reputation. Sisman, who knew Trevor-Roper personally, has assiduously researched his life. He is a lucid and engaging writer who brings out both Trevor-Roper’s pugnacity and his melancholia. Though Sisman refrains from rendering a verdict, his superb study suggests that Trevor-Roper was the most significant British historian of his generation.

Trevor-Roper was a frail and solitary child who immersed himself in books as much as he could. He grew up in the medieval town of Alnwick, where his father practiced medicine. His parents treated him and his siblings with frigid reserve and had no intellectual or cultural interests. His mother Kathleen was acutely conscious of social distinctions and refused to allow her offspring to mingle with their social inferiors. “The Trevor-Roper brothers,” Sisman reports, “remembered sitting on the garden wall, gazing down at the local children playing in the street.” As a nine-year-old, Trevor-Roper was enrolled at Stancliffe Hall, a preparatory school in Derbyshire that resembled something out of Charles Dickens, which is to say that the children were routinely punished for the most minor infractions.

Still, Trevor-Roper managed to win acclaim among his youthful peers by producing his first “major work,” Bible of Ghosts, which divided apparitions into their respective genera and species—complete with illustrations. A reprieve arrived when his parents decided to transfer him to Belhaven Hill across the border in Scotland, where Trevor-Roper learned Greek and Latin, invaluable training for his later career as a historian. Then, at age thirteen, he began public school. There he shone. Reading Homer was a revelation: “On I read, far past the appointed terminus, till late at night, fascinated; and all my leisure hours for long afterwards were spent in reading Homer, till I knew all the Iliad and Odyssey.” The sentiment, nostalgic and elevated, is rather reminiscent of Edward Gibbon’s recollection in his memoirs that when his father took him to visit a neighbor, he headed straight for the library and “was immersed in the passage of the Goths over the Danube, when the summons of the dinner-bell reluctantly dragged me from my intellectual feast.” Indeed Gibbon became Trevor-Roper’s idol, and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire his stylistic bible. Gibbon united ironic detachment, scrupulous scholarship and a wider philosophical understanding of events, all traits that Trevor-Roper sought to emulate.

In 1932 Trevor-Roper was accepted into Christ Church. He was invited to meet with the dean, who, it was said, quivered with joy at the mention of a duke and tipped his hat to any undergraduate who was a member of the peerage. “Mr. Trevor-Roper,” he said, “I think that you come from Northumberland. I always say that so long as we have the Percys and the Cecils, Christ Church can hold up its head among the colleges of Oxford.” According to Sisman, “Hugh longed to escape from his own identity, which he despised as provincial and gauche.” He drank fine wines and champagnes. He dined on oysters. He threw lavish lunch parties. The bottle and the turf as well as riding to hounds became his new passions. He would disport himself in London, retuning to Oxford on the last train back known as the “Flying Fornicator.”

Yet Trevor-Roper was a standout in his studies. He grew bored with the scholastic emphasis on the classics as obscurantist philological puzzles rather than treating the corpus of the ancient world as literature. He ended up focusing on modern history instead. All his life he inveighed against dry, tedious and provincial British pedants who lacked a broader understanding of European philosophical traditions. Oxford, he said, was a “dreary company of old men, haters of learning & intellectual activity.” Perhaps he was again echoing Gibbon, who wrote in his autobiographythat at Magdalen College the “example of the senior fellows could not inspire the under-graduates with a liberal spirit or studious emulation; and I cannot describe, as I never knew, the discipline of college.”

Trevor-Roper landed a Merton Fellowship at Oxford, noting with characteristic asperity about his examiners, “I hope I impressed them more than they did me.” Trevor-Roper did not spare his friends either. Maurice Bowra was humiliated to receive a postcard from his former student that pointed to an error in his Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation—he had mistaken a dirge for an epithalamium. “It was mortifying to have such a howler pointed out by one of his protégés,” says Sisman, “a man who wasn’t even a classicist—all the more so to have it exposed to casual scrutiny on a postcard. Bowra . . . nursed his resentment for years.”

Yet again and again, the fusillades he directed against his colleagues and peers—whether it was Lawrence Stone, Arnold J. Toynbee or A. J. P. Taylor—were on target. Not even Taylor, who surpassed Trevor-Roper by far in sheer output, could come close to matching his sweeping intellectual range or his penetrating judgments across the centuries, from ancient Greece to Tudor England to Nazi Germany. There is little that Trevor-Roper did not seem to know, and what he didn’t probably was not worth knowing.

FOR ALL his academic proficiency, it was World War II that made him. A visit in 1935 to Freiburg, Germany, where he witnessed local Nazis bellowing in the town square about reuniting the Fatherland, left an indelible impression and would prompt him to condemn Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. In fact, he was one of the few Englishmen in the 1930s to have read Mein Kampf. Trevor-Roper did not dismiss it simply as the rantings of a lunatic. Quite the contrary. All his life he was convinced that Nazi ideology had to be taken seriously; he went on to argue that Hitler couldn’t simply be dismissed as an intellectual nonentity—a stance which later brought him into direct conflict with A. J. P. Taylor, who believed, or professed to believe, that Hitler was little different from any other German statesman and had no coherent plan but, rather, stumbled into World War II. (Taylor, however, toward the end of his life, wrote, “When I read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays, tears of envy stand in my eyes.” The sentiment was a particularly handsome one given that Trevor-Roper, at the age of forty-three, nabbed the Regius Professorship that Taylor—who was deeply wounded by his mentor Lewis Namier’s refusal to endorse him for the post—believed would be his.)

Trevor-Roper was appointed a second lieutenant with the Life Guards in 1939, but it was as a member of the intelligence service that he made a significant contribution. His historical training and knowledge of German allowed him to play a vital role in deciphering the codes of the German Abwehr. But he consistently chafed at the bureaucratic restraints he encountered, particularly the strictures of his hidebound superiors. He regarded counterintelligence head Major Felix Cowgill as a “purblind, disastrous, megalomaniac.” Were his superiors, he speculated, perhaps best described as “a colony of coots in an unventilated backwater of bureaucracy”? The contempt was reciprocated, to the point that his enemies almost succeeded in getting him charged with treason after he visited Ireland, which maintained neutrality during the war.

It was his early classics studies all over again: what Trevor-Roper admired was style and flair, the bold insight, not the tedious accumulation of detail for its own sake. While battling the Colonel Blimps in the bureaucracy, he sought out elder mentors. One such was the American expatriate Logan Pearsall Smith who was living in London and had been friends with Henry James, Walt Whitman, Edmund Gosse and James Whistler. To Trevor-Roper, Smith referred to himself as “your virginal octogenarian boyfriend.” Trevor-Roper, in turn, resisted Smith’s attempts to probe at his emotional inner life, such as it was. He even left Smith’s eightieth birthday party early because he became so annoyed by the relentless questioning. But Smith, who, Sisman writes, “was as much concerned with style as with scholarship,” made a deep impact on Trevor-Roper. And it was during this period that he began to polish the Gibbonian put-down, where clause after clause rolled on to form at once the most elevated and malicious sentiments possible—the Gibbon who had remarked in his Vindication that one of his clerical detractors, Henry Edwards Davis, might settle a point by consulting his library “any afternoon when I am not at home,” and who could famously observe of the younger emperor Gordian that

twenty-two acknowledged concubines, and a library of sixty-two thousand volumes, attested the variety of his inclinations; and from the productions which he left behind him, it appears that the former as well as the latter were designed for use rather than for ostentation.

Trevor-Roper wrought this style to perfection in his best seller The Last Days of Hitler. It was a piece of sleuthing that had been assigned to him by the secret services. Trevor-Roper’s friend Dick White, a brigadier commanding the counterintelligence bureau (later the head of MI5 and MI6), hit upon the idea of the inquiry and encouraged Trevor-Roper to carry it out beginning in September 1945. The idea was to dispel Stalin’s propaganda efforts to suggest that Hitler had escaped and was in hiding (in fact, the Russians had dug up his body in May 1945, and legend has it that Stalin used Hitler’s skull as an ashtray). Trevor-Roper displayed real initiative: it was a onetime opportunity to make history himself. He interviewed numerous Nazi bigwigs and tracked down Hitler’s last will and testament. He formed the fullest picture of Hitler’s final days, demonstrating beyond doubt that the Nazi leader had expired by his own hand in April 1945 and that his and Eva Braun’s corpses were doused with gasoline by his lackeys and set on fire. The skill with which Trevor-Roper fashioned his intelligence report bears comparison with the greatest historians:

In the absolutism, the opulence, and the degeneracy of the middle Roman Empire we can perhaps find the best parallel to the high noonday of the Nazi Reich. There, in the severe pages of Gibbon, we read of characters apparently wielding gigantic authority who, on closer examination, are found to be the pliant creatures of concubines and catamites, of eunuchs and freedmen; and here too we see the élite of the Thousand-Year Reich a set of flatulent clowns swayed by purely random influences.

Trevor-Roper’s most basic insight was that, for all its pretensions to totalitarian control, the Nazi system was, in essence, an inefficient and chaotic court system that consisted of rival paladins each seeking Hitler’s blessing.

It is surely significant, however, that Trevor-Roper had not alighted upon the topic of his own accord. The criticism for the rest of his life would be that he never produced anything that matched it. Perhaps Trevor-Roper stumbled into his work as a historian more than he, or anyone else, really cared to admit. What’s more, the Nazi era turned into a lucrative gig for Trevor-Roper; as Sisman underscores, he was repeatedly called upon over the decades to attest to the reliability and provenance of Nazi documents, a task he was prepared to undertake as long as it was accompanied by an imposing fee. The Last Days alone paid for his Bentley.

IMMUNE TO fashionable trends, Trevor-Roper condemned Marxism but refused to embrace Cold War orthodoxies. Though he lurched from one project to the next in the 1950s, signing book contracts only to repudiate them, his lengthy essays left a trail of victims behind. “I have decided to liquidate Stone,” he announced. Lawrence Stone himself later called it a “guerrilla attack.” Stone had drawn on documents about Elizabethan aristocratic debt that Trevor-Roper had unearthed in the Public Records Office and shown him. In essence, he had beaten Trevor-Roper to the publication punch. But his haste had led to some errors. Moreover, Trevor-Roper bridled at Stone’s thesis in “The Anatomy of the Elizabethan Aristocracy,” which depicted the royals as reckless spendthrifts. Not so, Trevor-Roper rejoined. Aristocratic fortunes were just fine during the Elizabethan era, thank you very much. Stone’s adjurations about the perils of debt, by contrast, formed a “puritanical message, so much in tune with the times and so antipathetical to Hugh’s cavalier instincts,” writes Sisman. Too true. Trevor-Roper was growing impatient with the procrustean Marxist theory of class struggle. His reply in the Economic History Review, “The Elizabethan Aristocracy: An Anatomy Anatomised,” was called “one of the most vitriolic attacks ever made by one historian on another.” He also went on to pillory the venerable economic historian R. H. Tawney, dismissing the notion that there had been a Marxist “bourgeois revolution,” led by a rising capitalist class in the seventeenth century.

These battles might seem antiquarian, but they possessed a contemporary significance during the Cold War. Trevor-Roper was dispensing with the fanciful Marxist myth that economics was the sole motor of history. Instead, he told his friend Bernard Berenson, “I now believe that pure farce covers a far greater field of history, and that Gibbon is a more reliable guide to that subject than Marx.” Indeed, his next rancorous assault—on Arnold J. Toynbee—delivered one more blow to the civilization-over-nation-states school. Trevor-Roper put paid to the bogus sage. Instead of going at him frontally, he mocked Toynbee, accusing him of trying to establish a surrogate religion with himself as the messiah who saw that the West was doomed. Trevor-Roper accused Toynbee of hoping that the Nazis would triumph during World War II to validate his theories about the flaccidity of the West. He viewed Toynbee as fundamentally “antirational and illiberal.” According to Sisman, “everything that Hugh valued—freedom, reason, the human spirit—Toynbee found odious.” Trevor-Roper’s essay resounded around the world. “The generals of the last war have nothing on the dons,” wrote the novelist V. S. Pritchett in the New York Times. Trevor-Roper also decried John le Carré’s benign description of Kim Philby after he defected to the Soviet Union (Trevor-Roper knew Philby well), condemning it as “rich flatulent puff.” Not for Trevor-Roper the faux moral equivalence between Moscow and London that was the dominant banality on the left. Trevor-Roper enjoyed nothing more than to engage in intellectual fisticuffs. He wrote one friend, “There is nothing so exhilarating as a good battle, I find, especially if one wins it!” Sisman acutely notes, “Combat stimulated him, rousing him from lethargy and curing depression.”

Nowhere did he find more combatants than in Cambridge. Evelyn Waugh once declared, “One honourable course is open to Mr. Trevor-Roper. He should change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge.” And so it was. Toward the end of Trevor-Roper’s life, he became Master of Peterhouse. Trevor-Roper likened his move from Oxford to Cambridge to becoming a colonial governor. The fellows, led by the reactionary and brilliant historian Maurice Cowling (his clique was known as the “mafia”), blundered in selecting Trevor-Roper because they believed, among other things, that he would oppose the admission of women into the college. (In fact, Trevor-Roper acceded to their admittance.) The shadow of the historian and former Peterhouse head Herbert Butterfield, who was pro-appeasement and famously attacked the “Whig” interpretation of history, loomed large. One Peterhouse fellow apparently displayed a poster of General Franco in his rooms and wore a black armband on the anniversary of the Spanish dictator’s death. According to Sisman, “distinguished Jewish visitors endured anti-Semitic sneers.” Another fellow was seen, Sisman writes, in a “disreputable London club, dressed as an SS officer.” Trevor-Roper’s detractors also established an undergraduate dining society called “The Authenticators.” Trevor-Roper himself endured seven years of such inanities, confessing that when in the House of Lords he was a Tory and at Peterhouse a Whig. In the end, he outmaneuvered his foes by dislodging a number of college officers. “The Fellows of Peterhouse,” he said, “have been brought to order, if not to life.”

TREVOR-ROPER WANTED to author a history of seventeenth-century England that would rival Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. “I know what to do. To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon—this is my fond ambition,” he wrote in 1943. It never happened. Instead, his adversaries would argue, he experienced his own very personal decline and fall with the faked Hitler diaries. How much was the impulse to match up to Gibbon by being in on the discovery of a work of monumental importance and how much sheer greed?

The wonder of it remains that Trevor-Roper, who had published a marvelous work, The Hermit of Peking, on the British con man Sir Edmund Backhouse, a legendary sinologist who claimed, among other things, that he had enjoyed affairs with Lord Rosebery, Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlaine and Empress Dowager Cixi, was taken in at all. But since he had spent much of his life in the lucrative trade of authenticating Nazi documents, much as Bernard Berenson had become a millionaire by attesting to the provenance of European paintings for American collectors, so the temptation to be involved in the publication of something as momentous as the putative Hitler diaries must have been almost irresistible.

As he surely knew, the great age of works warning of the perils of empire (Gibbon) or hailing it (Lord Macaulay) had probably passed. After the Holocaust, the idea of inevitable progress championed by the Whigs suffered a brutal reversal. And as much as Hugh Trevor-Roper wanted to emblazon his reputation with the mark of a great work, he was not about to enunciate a fresh, bogus grand theory of history or make it the plaything of a conservative political agenda, one that trumpeted Little England against the European continent. Quite the contrary. Trevor-Roper rightly shunned ideology. He was writing at a moment when history could not plausibly claim to hold the key to humanity’s problems, as it had during the Enlightenment when Hume and Gibbon could produce sweeping philosophical works. He recognized, as the Gibbon scholar David Womersley has discerningly put it, that

The moment of history’s intellectual hegemony had passed, perhaps never to return. Truly to emulate Gibbon was now impossible, and those who attempted it, such as Toynbee, succeeded in producing only gassy, shapeless, unhistorical monsters.

Trevor-Roper’s highest aim was to write history as literature rather than to pretend it could be an exact science, commanding a kind of omniscience.

In retrospect, Trevor-Roper was the last exemplar of the humanist historical tradition that ran from Hume to Gibbon, from Macaulay to G. M. Trevelyan. In the end, he was unable to continue it. He assayed the essay, not the great book. The deliquescence of the British Empire meant that the era of the celebrated nationalist historian had reached a terminus. “Honoring [Macaulay],” as his new biographer Robert E. Sullivan observes, “amounted to honoring England.” That was no longer possible. And yet the memory of the empire remains most alluring for those who never experienced its heyday. The generation of historians mocked in The History Boys has tried to resuscitate the grand style. Andrew Roberts invokes Churchill, who also modeled his writing style on Gibbon, in the title of his lengthy work A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900, while Niall Ferguson chronicles what he sees as the rise and fall of the West in his latest book Civilization, complete with lucubrations about the perils that the East has always posed to the West, as though Christendom were once more menaced by the depredations of the Turk (when what the Turks really want is to become members of the European Union). By now these efforts carry a strained and faintly parodic air with them. It is as though an American president were to wear a top hat or David Cameron carry a nosegay. It requires a distinct sense of self-importance for historians even to adopt such swollen titles and subjects as the decline of the West. As the British historian J. C. Stobart already observed in 1911 about Gibbon, “The mere notion of empire continuing to decline and fall for five centuries is ridiculous” and indicates that “this is one of the cases which prove that History is made not so much by heroes or natural forces as by historians.”

Trevor-Roper knew better. It wasn’t simply that his fecund social life stole time away from his research and writing. Rather, he likely knew his own limits. And had he not lived such a glittering lifestyle, moving from one country house to the next and consorting with the “quality,” he probably would never have merited such an absorbing biography. Trevor-Roper may have committed many sins, but never the deadliest one of being tedious.

Pullquote: What Trevor-Roper admired was style and flair, the bold insight, not the tedious accumulation of detail for its own sake.Image: Essay Types: Book Review