The Man Who Fell to Earth: Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003)

“You can’t believe how frightful Oxford is,” the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote to a friend in January 1946, a week after his return to the university, having served for six years as a British intelligence officer.  With him, thousands of demobilized men had come back eager to resume their studies.  Chastened by what they had just experienced and of course far more mature than the average undergraduate, they had little time for, or access to, the leisurely dinners over fine claret or burgundy, the drunken romps at select clubs, the regular fox hunts and exercise of the hounds “in the sweet air early on Sunday mornings”– in sum,

TR in the 1940s

the life Trevor-Roper had led as a college student and young historian at Christ Church before the war. “Oxford is very full, and the life of dignified ease which one used to associate with my profession seems to have evaporated,” he lamented.  In due time, he published a shrewd, dramatic account of The Last Days of Hitler, based on his intelligence mission to Berlin in the fall of 1945.  This work, the mother of all Downfall books and still in print, became an international bestseller, secured Trevor-Roper’s position as a Nazi-expert in the English-speaking world, and opened the gates for a steady stream of newspaper and magazine commissions, also from the United States, “from which an infinite, endless, golden shower of American dollars flow[ed] ceaselessly into [his] pockets.”  Trevor-Roper bought a Bentley, “which he parked ostentatiously in Tom Quad,” and embarked on a remarkable career as a don at Oxford (he was the Regius professor from 1957 to 1980) and Cambridge (as master of Peterhouse from 1980 to his retirement in 1987), an esteemed though iconoclastic scholar of seventeenth-century England and indeed of early modern Europe as a whole, a world-class traveler among the beau monde, a celebrated conservative talking-head, and, with his penchant for fierce polemics against multiple colleagues, a maker and breaker of many a reputation, including his own.  His name will forever be attached to the notorious Hitler diaries “discovered” by the German Stern magazine in 1983 and offered for serialization to the London Times, which naturally solicited one of its directors, Trevor-Roper, to authenticate the materials.  After a brief examination, he declared the diaries genuine, a declaration met with great fanfare in the world press but soon reversed when the diaries were proven to be crude forgeries, much to the dismay of Trevor-Roper and the glee of all those he had mercilessly skewered in word and deed for almost four decades.  Insightful as ever, Trevor-Roper had in fact predicted his own Untergang.  An entry in his wartime notebooks runs:

I am often astonished by the depth and extent of my learning.  ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper’, I say to myself, when this bewildering revelation breaks upon me, ‘you must be careful, or you will buried, obliterated, beneath the burden of this stupendous erudition’

And in his “Self-Appreciation” of 1941 he had observed that

Pride is my chief fault, and will be my undoing.

The Man

Meanwhile, however, he did lead a life far more interesting than most historians’ (I can safely attest to that fact). It is now splendidly chronicled in Adam Sisman’s Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010), which offers a very entertaining story thanks to the biographer’s sympathetic and thoughtful handling, to be sure, but Trevor-Roper deserves a great deal of credit as well, since he was kind enough to leave us an enormous output of letters, notes, reflections and assorted bons mots that gleam and twinkle in every tale of even the most tedious scholarly feud.  And boy, did he know how to feud!  A master of the deadly invective, Trevor-Roper loved academic brawls.  He sparred with Lawrence Stone and R.H. Tawney over the rise of the gentry and the origins of the English Civil War, with A.J.P. Taylor on the latter’s Origins of the Second World War (1961), with E. H. Carr on historical “objectivity” (or history as teleology, in T-R’s estimate), with Keith Thomas (“That silly young man”) and Alan Macfarlane (“those pernickety little arrows of yours which come whizzing out of your piddling little county of Essex”) over the great witch-craze, with Arnold Toynbee on just about everything the latter ever wrote, with Evelyn Waugh and lots of other Catholics on the Church of Rome, and with half of Anglican England over his own Archbishop Laud (1940).  For seven years he battled very publicly with his common room at Peterhouse College, which had elected him in the hope that, as a known conservative, he would “keep out the women,” only to find that he had little tolerance for insular reactionaries—especially when they were Catholic.  Barely a few months into his term, he managed to review Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, a new book by Maurice Cowling, the leader of the Peterhouse “mafia” (T.-R.’s term), without drawing blood, but privately he called it

A very rum work… The subject is the intellectual history of our time and the great spiritual crisis in which we have found ourselves.  I find, on reading it, that this intellectual history has unfolded itself, and the crisis has been observed, and it is to be resolved, almost entirely within the walls of Peterhouse.

though he conceded that “the outer world is occasionally mentioned en passant.”

This did not bode well for the Master’s reign at Peterhouse.  What ensued reads as a tale of dark intrigue worthy of an over-the-top campus novel, yet only true.  Sisman reports in the Foreword that

The unreformed law of defamation has provided a further restraint.  On legal advice I removed or modified a number of passages from my first draft.  Informed readers may not be surprised to learn that a high proportion of these were taken from the chapters covering my subject’s stint as Master of Peterhouse. (p. xvii)

Considering what is still left in the book, what was left out must be really strong stuff.

Naturally though, one would like to know where all that aggression was coming from.  “Why are you so nasty to people?” asked A.L. Rowse—himself a notorious ogre.  Sisman leaves little doubt about the reasons.  Trevor-Roper recalled that he grew up in a family where no emotion was ever tolerated, no love displayed or even intimated.  His father, a country physician close to the northern aristocracy but neatly closed out from it, had no interest in his children, declaring “he would converse with them once they reached the age of reason, which he put at sixteen.”  His mother never hugged him and refused to let him play with local children, afraid of mixing with the wrong class.  The precocious but shy boy was dispatched to a series of horrible boarding schools and subjected to the ritualized abuse we have come to know so well over the years.   Finally, there was Charterhouse, followed by Christ Church and acceptance into the elite, but at what price!  By the time Trevor-Roper was in his thirties, the publisher Hamish Hamilton and his wife Yvonne noted after dinner with him that “Hugh Trevor-Roper was there, and we found ourselves wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people,” and after another meeting, Hamilton again wrote that Trevor-Roper was “entertaining as always, but the arrogance and vindictiveness make me uneasy.” Maurice Bowra described Trevor-Roper as “a robot, without human experience, with no girls, no real friends, no capacity for intimacy and no desire to like or be liked.”

It thus came as a complete surprise to everyone that, at the age of 39, he fell in love with

Xandra in 1948, five years before she met T.-R. (from Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper)

a woman, Alexandra, the daughter of Field Marshal Douglas, first Earl Haig, of World War One fame/infamy.  The marriage sealed his entry into the ruling class but exacted another cost: high strung, sensitive to being nine years his senior and a stranger to the scholarly world, “Xandra” proved to be a demanding and not entirely stable partner in life.  Their initial courtship, though passionate, did not run smoothly.  In a letter that must rank as unique in the annals of love, Trevor-Roper invoked the following mysterious analogy:

I give my heart to you—rather a complicated object, you may say, like a sea-urchin, prickly outside and untempting within; but you asked for it and must connive at some of its limitations.

She in turn was not quite sure if or how to proceed, in part because she was well aware of his reputation:

I must now confess that, for some time, I had serious doubts whether you could ever love anyone; I even thought, at one moment, that you liked men! (Don’t be furious with me—but you always went on trips abroad with young men & undergraduates & always seemed to be with men.) I know Dawyck [her brother] thinks you are quite neuter.

Momentarily forgetting that the whole point of the correspondence was to woo his beloved, Trevor-Roper struck back:

You think I am ironical when I am serious and serious when I am ironical—or at least pretend to do so; is it just calculated feminine perversity, or is my language really so “ambiguous”?

(As for the undergraduates, all male of course: he finds them good travel companions because “they are energetic, willing to rough it and do chores.”).

All of this is rather touching.  Despite the problems, the couple married in 1954 and stayed together more than forty years, until Xandra’s dead at the age of 90.  In these and a few other episodes, Sisman manages to humanize his subject quite convincingly, although I hesitate to subscribe to Trevor-Roper’s vision of himself as a shy person wrapped in an armor of belligerence.

We follow Trevor-Roper from urban salon to aristocratic country house (Xandra looking blank upon hearing that someone spent time in Birmingham: “Birmingham?  Whose place is that?”), almost causing a diplomatic incident over the Warren Commission while partying with Katherine Hepburn in Hollywood, gossiping with Bernard Berenson at I Tatti, traveling Pakistan at the invitation of president Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (whose daughter, Benazir, attended Oxford thanks to T.-R.’s good services), trying to put a word in edgewise with Margaret Thatcher but failing.  “Do you think our dear P.M. has gone bananas?” Trevor-Roper asked a friend afterwards—but she did make him a life peer, as Baron Dacre of Glanton, in 1979.

The Historian

This is a great story, expertly told and I enjoyed it tremendously.  Do we learn much new about Trevor-Roper as a historian?  Yes and no.  Sisman characterizes the topics of the various feuds quite well—no small feat in itself, because Trevor-Roper’s interests ranged very, very widely—but professional historians would probably have liked even more discussion and context, and here and there a small error has inevitably crept in (Marc Bloch was not a pupil of Henri Pirenne, for instance).  It has often been said that Trevor-Roper “failed” as a historian because he never wrote that one, “big book”.  Sisman adds new evidence for this view, documenting more than just one large project that stalled despite an advanced stage, sometimes right before completion.  The most famous example is his book on the Puritan Revolution, his original specialty and destined to be his magnum opus.  He completed a version of it in 1961, but problems of organization and doubts about the underlying theme prevented him from publishing, and the momentum was lost afterwards, in yet another Hitler endeavor, more visits to mansions, and more journalism.  Of that great work, only incomplete versions have survived, which may be why Sisman does not provide a sustained analysis of it.

When reviewing his output, and given what Sisman writes about his early influences, I wonder if Trevor-Roper did not suffer, perhaps subconsciously, from the fear that history was indeed just one damn thing after another.  There really wasn’t much of a point to it, after all.  Having rejected all religious or metaphysical considerations as a young adult, skeptical of theoretical frameworks and by temperament entirely individualist, he appears to have embraced an estheticising but also absurdist philosophy of life, perhaps indebted to that of his one-time mentor, the critic Logan Pearsall Smith (Bernard Berenson’s brother-in-law); although Sisman does not quite say so, I suspect these views affected his understanding of history as well.  Upon Smith’s death in 1946, Trevor-Roper thanked him in his personal notebook for having

Showed me that life is short, & three parts routine, and most of it comedy, and can only be saved from triviality and given significance by some ideal to which all else … must be sacrificed… and that style is an ideal worthy of that sacrifice.  (…) For in his life and conversation … he illustrated this philosophy to me so vividly that if it has not become mine, at least mine can never be altogether emancipated from his influence.

The essay, witty, filled with brilliant insights and elegantly crafted, and with elegantly crafted barbs at major dogmas or historical constructs, was the right medium to develop that stylistic ideal.  It generated in him just the kind of intellectual satisfaction history could provide.  When embarking on a big book, a grand edifice with a firm structure and clear lines of argument based on source evidence, doubts eventually overwhelmed him, and when the need for patient exposition of evidence dulled his style, boredom took over.   As he put it in a letter of 1968: “[B]y the time I have written a chapter I have got interested in something else.”  This restlessness manifested itself also in his fascination with lone eccentrics operating as it where outside the normal confines of society, to whom he devoted two books: The Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse (1976), about the mysterious British sinologist who had died in Beijing in 1944 leaving a pornographic memoir that presented just one aspect of a multifaceted, most likely disturbed personality, and Europe’s Physician: The Various Lives of Sir Theodore de Mayerne, unfinished but published after Trevor-Roper’s death, in 2006, about a physician, alchemist, and secret diplomat active at the royal courts of France and England in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

One last word, or words, about the tragic/comic episode of the Hitler diaries.

Cover of Stern's special issue on the "discovery of the Hitler diaries," 25 April 1983

Sisman reveals that when he first heard of them, Trevor-Roper was skeptical.  He had been confronted with forgeries from the Nazi period before (notably Eva Braun’s “memoirs”), and nobody had ever mentioned Hitler keeping such a record.  On the other hand, it was well known that two weeks before the end of the war, a plane carrying some of Hitler’s personal papers had crashed.  These documents had now been found, representatives of Stern told Trevor-Roper, who was impressed by the large size of the cache—about fifty notebooks, many other volumes of documents, an album with Hitler’s drawings and other objects—too much, he thought, to be the work of a forger, and quite possibly part of the missing cargo.  He was given only a few hours to inspect the diaries in a Zurich bank.  Sisman maintains that Trevor-Roper found it “difficult to read the cramped handwriting, particularly as it was written in an obsolescent Gothic script, but he recognised it as Hitler’s. (…)  Those entries he could decipher seemed banal—which seemed to argue their authenticity.”  After receiving assurances that Stern’s experts had tested the paper and authenticated Hitler’s handwriting, he saw no reason for doubt, giving the green light for the Times’ publication of the diaries.

This account is puzzling.  The “obsolescent Gothic script” is of course the old German Kurrentschrift, familiar to all who have worked with handwriting in Germany before 1950.  The notion that Trevor-Roper, after his years as an intelligence officer working on German Abwehr communications, his research on Hitler’s last days in 1945, his decades-long experience authenticating and editing papers from the Nazi-era. could be surprised and challenged by the script, is difficult to believe.  Besides, seventeenth-century archival documents—Trevor-Roper’s original specialty—are far harder to decipher than the German Schrift.  It seems strange, too, that he did not himself conduct a formal analysis of the handwriting: he “recognised it as Hitler’s” but did not make a systematic comparison with authentic materials.  It is second nature for a historian to scrutinize individual hands very carefully, and it is such an elementary first step that the absence of a formal exam is very unorthodox.

It seems to me there are two ways to explain the lapsus, and both may have worked together.  Sisman notes that in the 1990s, Trevor-Roper’s failing eyesight made it impossible for him to drive and eventually also to read.  Could it be that the problem had started earlier but he didn’t wish to admit it in 1983?  The second explanation is less innocent.  For the real villain in the story is the Times’ owner, Rupert Murdoch, who had acquired the paper two years earlier and made some startling changes there.  Trevor-Roper seems to have been reluctant to admit just how much pressure Murdoch exerted on him to deliver a positive verdict in unseemly haste—and thus violate historical procedure.

Murdoch’s response when Trevor-Roper started to waver a few days later, on the eve of publication, is already legendary:

MacArthur [deputy editor of the Sunday Times] was speaking to [Murdoch] on the telephone.  He explained their dilemma.  Given that Lord Dacre [T-R] was now expressing doubts, should they halt the press and recast the paper?

Murdoch’s instruction was brief and explicit: ‘Fuck Dacre,” he said.  ‘Publish.”

Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010).  ISBN 978-0-297-85214-8.  Hardcover, xviii+598 pp., £ 25 (U.K.; not yet published in the U.S.).

Update: See also here for Trevor-Roper’s malicious use of book indices.

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