The famous Oxford historian was brilliant but bedeviled by the emotional deprivation of his childhood.
This is a solid and sensible biography, but it is not a scintillating one. I have the impression that Adam Sisman is a little wary of his subject; he indicates respect for Trevor-Roper, but not affection. Yet without personal warmth to some degree, it is hard to catch the reader’s imagination. However, there is much in the life of the famous Oxford historian to make one ponder both the man and his milieu.
Born in 1914, Trevor-Roper’s upbringing shows the cruelty and rigour of his class: his parents were undemonstrative and uninvolved in their children’s lives; from the nursery Hugh, their older son, went to prep school and from there he won a scholarship to Charterhouse; thence the inevitable scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. Emotionally awkward and intellectually precocious, the then all-male world of a major Oxford college, with its intrigues, sumptuous living and intellectual eminence, became his natural habitat.
The philosopher Freddie Ayer, a friend, provides a deft portrait: he admired Trevor-Roper’s breadth of culture and his stylistic elegance; he also appreciated his malice, his anti-clericalism and his maverick attitude towards authority. In 1941 Hugh himself wrote an astute self-appraisal in his diary: “Pride is my chief fault and will be my undoing”; also “imprudence, ostentation, volubility and the need for company.” I would only query the last; a bachelor don until aged 39, he could be solitary as well as gregarious. In 1943 he records that he read 119 books.
Trevor-Roper’s favourite author was Gibbon, whom he read constantly. Secretly he cherished the ambition to become “another Gibbon”. Yet though his literary output was considerable (and further books, left aside, have appeared posthumously) he never wrote a definitive work, an important book on a subject or era that he had made his own. The Puritan Revolution was meant to be the great theme and throughout his life his friends urged him to write on it. Towards the end he confessed in a letter that “The trouble is, I am too interested in too many things; and I write so slowly...and then, there are the delights of idleness.”
This was true – and exacerbated by marriage to the daughter of Earl Haig in 1954. Hugh was already drawn to the aristocratic life and dining with duchesses; he was exhilarated by foreign travel and his friendships with exotic elderly male mentors, first Logan Pearsall-Smith and then Bernard Berenson. His wife Xandra, described by her brother as a “luxury girl”, required a high standard of living. Though an odd couple, they were devoted to each other despite frequent tantrums on her part and some exasperation on his; he once wrote to her, “Consider the facts. You expect me to earn more money than I am paid at Oxford. To do this I must write for the Sunday Times...”
When not producing beautifully written essays on a rich range of subjects, with a fondness for spies, oddballs and conspiracies, he engaged in journalism – of a very high standard but not what was usually expected of a Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, a post Hugh obtained through much back-room politicking, aged 43. The Last Days of Hitler, a tour de force published in his early 30s, made him internationally famous, but in a sense it also proved his nemesis. Throughout his academic career thereafter, he was often asked authenticate dubious Nazi material. Almost all – Hitler’s Table Talk was the exception – he found fraudulent. The work brought in lucrative fees, but ended with the tragic-comic spectacle of his authentication of supposed “Hitler Diaries” only for it to be swiftly proved that they were a forgery. He courageously took sole responsibility for this massive error of judgement, while the Sunday Times team that had forced the pace stayed largely silent.
A revealing comment on Trevor-Roper’s personality comes from his publisher, Hamish Hamilton, in 1950; he wondered “if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people. He has hardly a charitable word for anyone.” Sisman says he mellowed in later life; yet malicious gossip and intrigue was a constant feature. The key might be his admission to his future wife (wrung from him under protest) that “when I was a child I never saw, in my own home, any evidence of any emotion whatever...this has been a great personal difficulty for me...”
Perhaps this also accounts for Trevor-Roper’s hostility towards religion, especially Catholicism. Faith demands vulnerability, something he could not allow himself to show. His Oxford mentor, Maurice Bowra, thought Rome was “a haven for those who feel a natural aversion to thought”; Hugh went one better: the fundamental pillars of Christian doctrine were “intellectually trash”; original sin and the divinity of Christ were “mumbo-jumbo.” Temperamentally as well as intellectually, he was an Enlightenment figure; as early as 1937, while walking in Christ Church Meadows, “I suddenly realised that metaphysics are metaphysical...and at once, like a balloon that has no moorings, I saw the whole metaphysical world rise and vanish out of sight...”
There is a lively section towards the end of the book, describing the unholy machinations of the Fellows of Peterhouse, Cambridge, where Trevor-Roper had quixotically – but unhappily as it turned out - accepted the Mastership. He described them as “the mafia”; others, who only saw this caucus, led by Maurice Cowling, emerge after dark to conduct its plots against their Master, as “the vampires.” By this stage, his wife soon to show signs of Alzheimer’s and his own eyesight and health beginning to deteriorate, the reader feels pity for so brilliant a figure now marked by pathos. When his wife had to go into a Home, to the astonishment of his step-children (she had been married before) Hugh burst into tears.
Goethe once wrote, “Grey my dear friends, is all that theory is, but green the tree of life.” In his learning Trevor-Roper displayed many dazzling theories; somehow he stumbled past the tree of life.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.
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