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February 2013: Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography

htrbiographyReviewed by: Reba N. Soffer, California State University, Northridge

Adam Sisman. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2010. 648 pp. £25 (hardback).

Why are historians of modern Britain fascinated by the lives of historians no longer alive but still very much in recent memory? Some historians compel attention because they have launched new directions that have enriched our inquiries and approaches to historical research, writing and explanation. Then, there is curiosity about the lives and works of those whom we knew or knew about. No matter what the initial motive, biographies can tell us how historian’s lives reflected and, on occasion, influenced their times. Biographies can also reveal the ways in which new fields of concentration become powerful as in the recent shift within British studies from national to imperial issues. In the last decade, Kathleen Burk has perceptively illuminated the life and times of A. J .P. Taylor in Troublemaker: The Life and History of A. J. P. Taylor (2001). Julia Stapleton has written the definitive study of Arthur Bryant, Sir Arthur Bryant and National History in Twentieth-Century Britain (2005); and I have attempted to explain the assumptions and thinking of four British and four American historians who were committed to conservative policy in History, Historians and Conservatism in Britain and America: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan (2010). Michael Bentley has written, idiosyncratically, about Herbert Butterfield – most recently in The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield (2011). Essays on Maurice Cowling continue to appear, including Public and Private Doctrine: Essays in British History Presented to Maurice Cowling (2002), edited by Bentley, and The Philosophy, Politics and Religion of British Democracy: Maurice Cowling and Conservatism (2011), edited by Robert Crowcroft, S. J. D. Green and Richard Whiting.

In 1995, Adam Sisman wrote A. J. P. Taylor: A Biography. But eighteen years earlier, while a junior editor with Oxford University Press, Sisman had met Trevor-Roper, an especially seductive figure because of his flamboyant, outrageous and astonishingly diverse career. Trevor-Roper differed spectacularly from the rest of the profession, who were fortunate if they could catch a few moments of fame as they stumbled out of the archives. Sisman has written an engaging, witty and largely admiring life based almost exclusively on Trevor-Roper’s gift of voluminous correspondence, diaries, memoirs and notebooks, supplemented by the published and unpublished papers of those within Trevor-Roper’s orbit. Sisman is interested in historiography only in terms of Trevor-Roper’s contributions and controversies and he limits the historical context to the events and ideas that affected Trevor-Roper and his immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. There is no bibliography in the 598 page book and, in the forty-two pages of notes, few references to the thought or judgments of scholars in any of the fields or periods through which Trevor-Roper lived. Although the narrative proceeds chronologically, each chapter concentrates upon one of twenty-four themes which Sisman finds central to Trevor-Roper’s life including Researcher, Soldier, Major, Sleuth, Historian, Destroyer, Lover, Husband, Professor, Controversialist and Master. Among those characterizations, Trevor-Roper will probably be best remembered as a controversialist who excelled in the writing of essays and never produced the major work everyone expected from him, although he secured and broke many contracts. Relying essentially upon Trevor-Roper’s interpretation of his own life and its circumstances, Adam Sisman has produced what often appears to be a posthumous autobiography.

Sisman begins with Trevor-Roper’s comfortable, but affection-starved, childhood. He follows him through the miseries of boarding school at Stancliffe Hall; his transfer to Charterhouse, where he triumphed intellectually; his undergraduate experiences at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he took first class Honours in Modern History; his failure to secure a fellowship at All Souls; and his election to a Junior Research Fellowship at Merton. During these years, arrogant, cocksure and well aware of his intellectual distinction, he increasingly pursued a satisfyingly sybaritic existence. Those attributes and pursuits were amplified and extended throughout his life. He owned a horse and hunted with hounds, even during and after the war, until a serious fall and back injury in 1949 compelled him to give it up. Bentleys and Mercedes were his preferred means of transportation. Trevor-Roper was fortunate enough to have come of age at a time when, as Noel Annan was to point out famously for both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the intellectual aristocracy was still small, intermarried and welcoming to the witty and the clever.[1]  Throughout his life, as a result of his wit and cleverness, he accumulated an influential and elite circle of friends including Logan Pearsall Smith, Bernard Berenson, Allen Dulles, before and after he became head of the CIA, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who he tried to save from execution in Pakistan. He also knew four prime ministers – Edward Heath, Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, who conferred a life peerage on him in 1979 as Baron Dacre of Glanton, the village where he had been born. Sisman’s narrative would have been richer if he had discussed the confidence so characteristic of Trevor-Roper’s Oxford generation. Conviction about their superior merits led them to attempt every kind of intellectual activity with every expectation of success. Trevor-Roper, supremely self-assured, entered many controversies outside of his qualifications. As in his questioning of the Warren Commission’s Report on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the results were often unfortunate for his reputation.

In 1939 Trevor-Roper began a pivotal turning point in his life. Too myopic to actually fight, he became a Second Lieutenant in the Territorial Army with the Life Guards, a cavalry unit training on horseback. That assignment and his appointment as an officer speak volubly about Britain’s preparedness for war. From there, he joined the Radio Security Service, responsible for detecting German communications, that was later absorbed by the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6), and led a group of Oxonians including Gilbert Ryle, Charles Stuart and Stuart Hampshire. Sissman’s reliance upon Trevor-Roper to explain and justify his own activities leads to errors which, although often minor, indicate a lack of familiarity with the larger historical circumstances. One such incident involved Arthur Bryant’s evasion of arrest under the Emergency Powers Act of 1939. Trevor-Roper said that he told his MI5 colleagues that Bryant could be ‘turned’ to become an advocate of allied causes. Sisman then concludes that Trevor-Roper’s prediction was correct and Bryant ‘swiftly embarked on a new career as a writer of patriotic histories’. But everything Bryant ever wrote, beginning with his Spirit of Conservatism (1929) and including even the willfully blind Unfinished Victor (1939), were committed, patriotic efforts to save Britain from the horrors of the Great War, war that he had experienced, when only eighteen, in the Royal Flying Corps.[2]

Trevor-Roper’s achievements in intelligence were considerable, as Sisman makes clear. On his own time and against his superior’s orders, he used his mathematical skills to decipher signals from the Abwehr, the German secret service. That led eventually to the breaking of the German Enigma code. After characteristic defiance of the authority of his superiors, accompanied by a demonstration of his own competence, he was given his own section and made a Major. In the winter of 1944, he became head of the research section of a new War Room, part of an allied effort to deal with counter intelligence. There, he wrote a report depicting the inefficiencies of German intelligence and was assigned to interrogate German captives and determine whether Hitler was still alive, as the Soviets alleged. Those inquiries concluded in a feted and sought-after celebrity created by his most famous book, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), his discovery of Hitler’s will, an introduction to Hitler’s Table Talk (1953), and his coverage of the Auschwitz trials. But Trevor-Roper’s reputation as a scholar and as an expert on the Third Reich was demolished in 1983 when he authenticated forged Hitler diaries. That error appeared even more egregious to other historians because of the handsome pay he received from the Murdoch press to find the diaries genuine. Throughout his career, Trevor-Roper was paid extraordinary fees by The Times, The Sunday Times, The Observer, Encounter, The Daily Telegraph, The Telegraph, The New York Review of Books and the BBC.

As a historian, Sisman contends that Trevor-Roper changed the field of the Renaissance to the Reformation by offering novel, revisionist interpretations. Subsequent historians dispute that judgment.[3] His earliest interest in economic theories of history, especially as transmitted by Max Weber and R. H. Tawney, led in 1940, to his first book, a biography of Archbishop Laud, that scandalized most theologians because of its antipathy towards religion, metaphysics and authority. That antipathy became central to his polemical stances as both a historian and a journalist. Trevor-Roper went on to challenge what he understood as the Marxisante, economic determinism of Tawney and the Whig account of his own student, Lawrence Stone. Instead, he proposed a Court versus Country context which argued that the gentry had declined rather than risen. The American libertarian historian, Jack Hexter, called this ‘The Storm over the Gentry’ and it occupied pages of rebuttal and counter rebuttal by the leading scholars in the field including the Marxist Christopher Hill and Conrad Russell.

After the war, academic life was resumed for Trevor-Roper at Christ Church, where he began as a Research Fellow and went on to become Dean of his college and then Vice Chancellor of the University. Among undergrads, he was known as ‘Pleasure-Loper,’ and Sisman reports that Trevor-Roper was a self-confessed social snob who loved the ‘beau monde.’ By 1951, he was ‘taken up by all the great London hostesses,’ as he had been by their American counterparts in 1949 (pp. 153–4, 179). He remained at Oxford, moving to Oriel College when selected as Regius Professor of Modern History in 1957 over A. J. P. Taylor and Lucy Sutherland, who withdrew from the contest because she would not give up the Principalship of Lady Margaret Hall. Trevor-Roper’s selection benefitted from Lewis Namier’s dislike of Taylor, which was conveyed to the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Sisman’s discussion of the competition between Trevor-Roper and A. J. P. Taylor for the Regius Chair is another example of his uncritical reliance upon Trevor-Roper’s testimony. A more nuanced and wider discussion is available in Kathleen Burk’s Troublemaker.[4] That competition continued into duelling articles and a famous television broadcast when Taylor published his controversial The Origins of the Second World War (1961) which challenged contemporary views, including Trevor-Roper’s , that the war had been planned systematically by Hitler, to propose instead that it was accidental. But, as Sisman reveals, their friendship remained and twenty years later, when Taylor reviewed Trevor-Roper’s collected essays, History and Imagination (1981), he wrote: ‘When I read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays, tears of envy stand in my eyes.’[5]

The part of Trevor-Roper’s life that troubles Sisman most concerns his marriage in 1954 to Alexandra Howard-Johnston, known as Xandra, the daughter of Field Marshal Earl Haig. He was forty and she was fifty-one. When Trevor-Roper met her she was unhappily married to Admiral Clarence Dinsmore Howard-Johnston and the mother of three children. Indifferent to her children when they were young, Trevor-Roper developed a close relationship with them when they were adults. Sisman finds her intellectually unsuited to Trevor-Roper and a great drain on his energies and resources. Xandra was the only woman in Trevor-Roper’s life and Sisman does point out that Trevor-Roper was devastated when she became a victim of Alzheimer’s in the 1990s and was eventually taken from his devoted care to be put in a nursing home.

The last years of Trevor-Roper’s academic life were spent as an embattled Master of Peterhouse from 1980 to 1987. Although Maurice Cowling had thought it an inspired idea to bring Trevor-Roper to Peterhouse, mistaking his politics and interests, he and his colleague, Edward Norman, the Dean of the college, came to regret it almost immediately and a state of war continued between many of the fellows and the new Master. When I was in Cambridge during Trevor-Roper’s tenure at Peterhouse, Cowling, whom I had never met, invited me to dinner there. When I arrived, Cowling was waiting at the Porter’s Lodge and announced that, since Trevor-Roper would be present, we were dining in Cowling’s rooms because he ‘could not expose me to the odious company of Peterhouse’. That is an exposure that I would very much have enjoyed.

Was it a testimony to the reality of the merit system in British academic life that someone as detested as Trevor-Roper was able to achieve great recognition and honours even though he had offended so many people by his arrogant attacks and vituperative style, not to mention his many suits for libel? His prizes included a constant role as a prolific journalist; his peerage; the Trevelyan Lectures in Cambridge in 1965; his appointment as a National Director of Times Newspapers Limited; the Regius Professorship; his participation in the popular Brains Trust on television; and the Romanes Lectures in Oxford in 1988. There can be little doubt about his extraordinary talents. Able to read fluently in French, German, ancient Greek and ancient Latin, and able to read proficiently in Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, Trevor-Roper travelled widely among the great, the good and the not so good, read widely in every historical field, and was far more cosmopolitan than most of his Oxford colleagues. As a ‘controversialist,’ Sisman lauds ‘his independence of mind, his boldness and his determination’ but also points out ‘his rashness, poor judgement, obstinacy and, perhaps arrogance – qualities which would prove disastrous’ and make his life a ‘classical tragedy’ (p. 358). Even so, Sisman admires his defence of ‘freedom, reason, the human spirit’ (p. 290) and titles the American edition of the biography An Honourable Englishman. The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper. When Trevor-Roper resigned his Regius Professorship to go to Peterhouse on 22 May 1980, he gave a valedictory lecture which contained, for Sisman, his defining qualities as a historian and as a public intellectual: ‘an assertion of the principle of free will, the choice of alternatives, as opposed to the determinist orthodoxies against which he had been arguing most of his career’ (p. 453). Trevor-Roper was, as this absorbing biography amply demonstrates, the last and perhaps the only swash-buckling historian. As he cut his way through the profession, did he understand that his ideals were undermined, too often, by his conduct?

[1] Noel Annan, ‘The Victorian Intelligentsia,’ in Studies in Social History: A Tribute to G. M. Trevelyan, ed. J. H. Plumb (London, 1955); Noel Annan, Our Age: English Intellectuals Between the World Wars – A Group Portrait (New York, 1990). An alternative title for the latter might have been ‘Our Gang’.

[2] In Stapleton’s important work on Sir Arthur Bryant, ‘National’ is synonymous with ‘patriotic’. See, too, Reba N. Soffer, History, Historians, and Conservatism: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan (Oxford, 2010), chs. 4 and 5, and Reba N. Soffer, ‘Political Ideas and Audiences: The Case of Arthur Bryant and The Illustrated London News 1936–1945’ in Public Life and Public Lives: Politics and Religion in Modern British History, ed. Nancy LoPatin-Lummis (Oxford, 2008).

[3] See, for example, Glen Burgess, ‘On Revisionism: An Analysis of Early Stuart Historiography in the 1970s and 1980s’, The Historical Journal, 33, no. 3 (1990): pp. 609–27.

[4] Kathleen Burk, Troublemaker: The Life and History of A.J.P. Taylor (Yale, 2000), pp. 207–18.

[5] A. J. P. Taylor, ‘Tribute to Trevor-Roper’, London Review of Books, 5 November, 1981.


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