Men of Letters: 100 Years of Hugh Trevor-Roper

by Minoo Dinshaw

The Oxford Examination Schools see a lot of action beside their official purpose. Here Christopher Ricks has displayed his agility and Geoffrey Hill his ferocity, during their respective reigns as Professor of Poetry. More recently the admirers of Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003), Lord Dacre of Glanton and onetime Regius Professor of History, gathered here on a chilly January morning a few days before the centenary of his birth. Trevor-Roper’s literary executor, Blair Worden, welcomed the company – enough to fill the South School’s broad expanse – and said he believed ‘Hugh would be pleased, and indeed surprised.’ He also congratulated us on our range of ages. This range was technically rather than visibly wide; the glossy manes of a few young Prize Fellows of All Souls peeked out from the silver sea.

The idea that Hugh Trevor-Roper has come back, that he is now retro-chic, is a seductive one for his many but disparate readers. Few grandees of the historical art have been so fiercely present in their day; none suffered so dramatic a reverse at that day’s end. One of the most promising young experts on 17th-century Anglicanism before the Second World War, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation was transformed in scale by both his good luck and his undeniable skill in the war’s aftermath. During the war, Trevor-Roper was an insubordinate but effective counter-intelligence agent; afterwards he was selected by his superiors to prove the Allied version of Hitler’s suicide to the satisfaction of a fascinated world. With the publication in 1947 of The Last Days of Hitler, he became the most famous and Janus-faced historian in the country. He embraced both public prominence and academic influence; he never shirked, and rarely lost, a battle in either field. But when he mistakenly authenticated Hitler’s diaries in 1983, his reputation was destroyed and he became a laughing-stock. As Professor Very-Ropey, he was one of Private Eye’s favourite targets for decades. Even at his old college, Christ Church, undergraduates were introduced to him by rote as ‘the once eminent but now discredited Lord Dacre’. Trevor-Roper’s trajectory echoes the oldest of morality tales. Yet nemesis did not silence him — and after his death he is, if anything, less silent than ever before.

The first paper of the Centenary Conference belonged to Sir John Elliott, a successor of Trevor-Roper in the Regius Chair. Elliott was a serious proposition, rake-thin, stern of voice and countenance. He spoke on one of the most viciously edged exchanges of all Trevor-Roper’s turbulent record, the ‘Gentry Controversy’ – a bitter argument among 17th-century experts of the 1950s, over the state of the class which rose to challenge the Crown in the civil wars. Elliott had, it transpired, edited one of Trevor-Roper’s broadsides in this conflict; he treated neither essay nor author with false reverence. The slipperiness to which Trevor-Roper could resort was, in this speaker’s view, redeemed at least in part by style. Even so, he expressed the fear that Trevor-Roper’s essays on the gentry do not ‘stand the test of time’. It was a strange caveat for a centenary conference, but it was not to be the only one of its kind.

Next came Blair Worden, the originator of the whole assembly. He wore a wise, cautious expression as he approached an uncomfortable but inevitable subject: Trevor-Roper’s failure to produce a ‘big book’. It has become a well-circulated joke among Dacromanes — wheeled out later on in the conference by Colin Kidd — that Hugh Trevor-Roper’s works have got bigger, and more frequent, since Professor Worden began to write them. When he died in 2003, Trevor-Roper left nine works unfinished; since then, Worden has acted as midwife to three of them. He reminded us of Trevor-Roper’s ‘dizzying’ level of activity — journalistic, historical, political, literary — and described his old friend’s industry in subtle terms: Trevor-Roper ‘did not work hastily’, but neither did he expend ‘cerebral perspiration’. Worden did not evade the frank and disillusioning truth: in the extant, incomplete sections of Trevor-Roper’s great projected work on the Puritan Revolution, he is ‘not at his most incisive’. Elliott and Sir Michael Howard (another of Trevor-Roper’s successors to the Regius Chair, and also present at the conference) had both been privy to the book’s draft, and had expressed reservations to Trevor-Roper after reading it. To Elliott the chapters were ‘overwritten’, to Howard of such a shapeless, or shapeshifting, nature that they ‘made me feel increasingly Whiggish’. ‘The master of literary control,’ Worden mourned, ‘had at last lost it.’ For what was surely the most concentrated retinue of Trevor-Roper fanciers to be found in the world, the conference was surprisingly sobering so far in its conclusions about its subject.

All the same, the conference had been organised partly with a view to celebrating the abundant testimony to Trevor-Roper’s powers to be found in One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper. This newly released collection is edited by Adam Sisman (Trevor-Roper’s biographer), and Richard Davenport-Hines (previously the compiler and exegete of his letters to Bernard Berenson and various others, and his Wartime Journals). These two scholarly writers from outside the academy have fought in the vanguard of the campaign to reintroduce Trevor-Roper to a profession that was previously in danger of forgetting or airbrushing him from its ranks. Their sensitive, detailed handling of his life and correspondence must also greatly have increased Trevor-Roper’s general readership in the present day. Before reading Sisman’s compelling, coherent and comprehensive life, I was only familiar with Trevor-Roper as a faint shadow at the back of passé donnish anecdotes.

The new selection contains, among its other treasures, Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments’ on good prose. Originally scribbled on the back of his step-son’s thesis, Trevor-Roper’s Decalogue is reproduced in a 1988 letter to the art historian Edward Chaney. Its drift overlaps with George Orwell’s rules of good writing, although in practice Trevor-Roper’s style is quite different: more comical, less definite, less declarative; more, in the 17th-century sense of the word, metaphysical. Though Trevor-Roper might consider himself a materialist in religious matters, when it came to writing he could never resist a grand, ethereal conceit. But his extravagance was kept decorous by its intellectual clarity and consistency. The Commandments themselves, written in cod-Authorised Version English, are nothing if not consistent in their defence of a purer, truer language. ‘Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it… Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated… Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood…’ Trevor-Roper’s real similarity to Orwell was one of morality rather than style. He believed at his core that truth and dignity of language were necessary in order to uphold civilised conduct; that words and actions tended to decay together. ‘Slipshod language, opaque meaningless metaphors,’ he wrote to the anthropological historian Alan Macfarlane in 1967, ‘not only excuse the mind from the rigours of thought, they protect the conscience from the sense of responsibility.’

The paper which most nearly approached the Decalogue’s standards was Sir Noel Malcolm’s, on ecumenism and the Church of England between 1560 and 1640. That respectable theme turned out to have its origin in a characteristic piece of mischief. Lecturing in Belfast, Trevor-Roper had settled on this same topic both as intrinsically interesting and as a means of goading the more rigid sectarians among his hosts. Malcolm’s demeanour and voice are modest, somehow more avian than mammalian, and the glinting acuity of his content completed the effect of a well-trained eagle owl charming an audience by unwonted daylight. He remembered the vanity of historian Geoffrey Elton, who flattered Trevor-Roper over claret and denigrated him over cereal. As he moved from personal reminiscence to historical method, he made virtues of what had in previous papers appeared as Trevor-Roper’s flaws. Trevor-Roper was at his least convincing, his most susceptible to generalisation, in his central threads, his grand theses; so was it not in a sense a blessing that his powers were concentrated in the essay form, but distractible beyond it? The big book existed in essence, Malcolm consoled us, even if it seemed scattered over dozens of lesser works. He also bore witness to the quality of Trevor-Roper’s character, which attracts as much scrutiny and scepticism as his achievements, sometimes on similar grounds. ‘He was thoughtful and generous spirited, interested in other people, above all, tremendously entertaining.’

With a good paper come good questions, and one of the more fundamental divisions emerged in the wake of all this ecumenical reconciliation: whether Trevor-Roper had been, at heart, a Whig or a Tory. Though a little more inclined, left to himself, to embrace the term Whig with pride, Trevor-Roper might be called with more accuracy either chivalrous, or perverse. His only constant foe was smug consensus. Among his near-Francoist enemies at Peterhouse, the Cambridge college of which for seven unhappy years he was head, he of course displayed his most whiggish sympathies. But he had little time for the deep, almost religious self-satisfaction of Whig teleology. In a 1988 letter to Chaney he expresses a qualified distaste for Macaulay:

Do you know that passage about the Highlands of Scotland in the 17th century – their primitive, anarchic social system, so different from today when a gentleman can travel speedily and comfortably in a first-class railway carriage from his London club to his Highland grouse moor? There is something insufferable (to me) about [Macaulay’s] identification with that imaginary gentleman…

Even his Scotophobia, as this passage reveals, could be restrained into historical empathy by his powers of reason and imagination. Trevor-Roper was a scourge of the clergy, mocking Catholicism, as ‘sinister unintelligible babble’, adhering to a wholly social Anglicanism, and in 1985 deriding without mercy an unfortunate bishop who had attempted to rule on the literal truth and the metaphorical significance of the Resurrection. But he remained unwilling to wed himself to any opposite cause that would merely replace, rather than mock, the old tyranny and monopoly of religion. As he wrote to Alasdair Palmer, a young friend met in old age on the Cambridge train –

I will not join you as a ‘solid atheist’…Who are we, …sitting in academic insulation, with security of tenure and three meals a day, to despise the consolatory fantasies of suffering humanity, especially when those fantasies have produced heroic poetry, towering cathedrals, real saints, great conquests and memorable crimes, while we can only pick holes in each others’ theses. No, I find ‘solid atheism’ too mean and cold a system with which to challenge the wonderful organisation of the world.

After a few lunch-time sandwiches which would not, I thought, have come up to our subject’s culinary standards (Alasdair Palmer recalls Trevor-Roper whipping up a ‘passable cheese omelette’ with surprising address), the papers began to deal with Hitler and Nazism, the topic that brought Trevor-Roper first lasting fame and then even more indelible notoriety. By the time he authenticated the fraudulent Hitler diaries, Trevor-Roper was a familiar journalistic figure to an enormous lay public. In the eyes of this public, his mistake – in large part thrust upon him by Rupert Murdoch – transformed him from a chilly, brilliant authority to a broken idol, at once a joke and a lesson in hubris. The link-passage in the new anthology that describes his attempt to stand for the Chancellorship of Oxford only four years after his great error is a poignant study in self-delusion.

It was, at least, encouraging to hear from Professor Richard Overy, of the University of Exeter, that Trevor-Roper himself had managed to retain a sense of humour about the disaster. ‘Aren’t there some Goering diaries?’ he quipped to an alarmed Overy, who had briefly thought him in earnest. Gina Thomas offered what was the most Trevor-Roperian paper in terms of impishness and sheer oddness: a discussion of Himmler’s ‘mystic masseur’, Felix Kersten, on whose behalf Trevor-Roper faced down half the academic world and the Swedish royal family, while privately finding him a personally repulsive fantasist. Trevor-Roper established that Kersten had used his position to save thousands of Jewish lives – and that the Swedish prince Count Bernadotte had stolen most of the credit, partly to cover up his own antisemitic influence on Sweden’s policy of neutrality. This was yet another example of Trevor-Roper’s quixotic preference for defending the unlikeliest of causes (the new letters remind us that he long encouraged a conspiratorial reading of the assassination of John F. Kennedy). Eberhard Jäckel, Professor Emeritus at the University of Stuttgart, provided one of the most wistful moments of the conference. His paper, which possessed all the taut structure of a tragedy, recalled how he was almost, but not quite, in a position to save Trevor-Roper from himself, when he dined with him not long before Trevor-Roper’s involvement. Professor Jäckel had intended to warn Trevor-Roper about the fakes, but the subject never quite arose.

The performance which I, and I suspect much of the audience, awaited with most excitement was that of John Banville. A welcome and humane non-specialist voice, Banville was nonetheless, as another master of English prose, treated as someone closer to Trevor-Roper than anyone else present. Presumably he had qualified himself for this role by his unqualified praise for the Wartime Journals in the New York Review of Books, where he called Trevor-Roper ‘one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language’. It was strange, if in its own way spell-binding, to hear the novelist’s beautiful brogue reading out Trevor-Roper’s pellucid sentences, or venturing boldly into anecdotes most listeners could have recited back and, if necessary, backwards. I thought of a candid remark Banville made to the Guardian a couple of years ago: ‘Irish charm, as we all know, is entirely fake.’

Fake or not, Banville’s sprite-like air was a fitting prelude to a more infernal summoning. In the first comment of the concluding panel’s session, Noel Malcolm, after apologising to anyone who thought he might be ‘invoking a bad fairy’, brought up Maurice Cowling. The intake of breath throughout the South School was only the latest piece of evidence about the unusual anthropology of this audience: loyal, emotionally engaged and steeped in donnish gossip — while venerating a man who confesses, as Trevor-Roper does in one of his letters, that he ‘just does not like dons very much.’ Perhaps only in such a circle could Maurice Cowling have this universal and ritual significance. Cowling is to Dacromanes what Trevor-Roper is to laymen: a pantomime hybrid of don, dame and villain. Matthew Walther has recently written a piece of Cowling appreciation for the American Conservative that elucidates what can otherwise be a rather dense and incestuous picture. Cowling arranged Trevor-Roper’s election to the headship of Peterhouse, but on finding that they shared almost no political, personal or intellectual sympathies, he led an insurrection both frontal and guerrilla against the new Master. The whole affair weirdly post-dated, but outdid, Tom Sharpe’s satirical farce on modernisation in Cambridge, Porterhouse Blue.

Malcolm’s memory of a Cowling aside to him constituted, in any case, a remarkably fitting tribute from this selectively infamous demi-devil:

It’s extraordinary that Hugh Trevor-Roper is such a great historian when there are so many things he doesn’t want history to be based on… economics, philosophy, sociology, religion, psychology… what he wants history to be is literature.

More courteously, perhaps, than convincingly, Malcolm seconded Cowling – ‘with this single proviso, that Hugh didn’t actually want to make it up.’ Brian Young – who is, as Christ Church’s most recognisable History tutor, in a sense more entirely Trevor-Roper’s successor even than the Regius Professors – added a memory of his own that was more unexpected, and yet rang true, especially in the light of the newly released letters to his step-son, James Howard-Johnston. When Dr Young was in the early stages of his career at Christ Church, he showed Trevor-Roper an article he was about to publish on Gibbon. Trevor-Roper, though approving in the main, pointed out that Young had omitted Gibbon’s most important virtue — ‘his total hatred of cruelty.’

One Hundred Letters From Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, is published by Oxford University Press.