An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper by Adam Sisman
Random House, 643 pp. $40
With his shock of unruly white hair, thick glasses, and tweedy attire, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper looked every inch the English don. But he was far from a cloistered academic.
A globe-trotting journalist, influential scholar, and sparkling essayist, he was a central figure in many of the debates that roiled the trans-Atlantic intellectual world during the Cold War. Indeed, Trevor-Roper achieved a fame rare for a professor. Changing planes in Singapore in the early 1970s, Trevor-Roper’s secretary found out just how far his renown had spread. Asked by an official what she did, she replied that she worked for an Oxford historian.
“That must be dull,’’ the official said.
“Not at all,’’ she countered.
“Oh,’’ he sarcastically gibed, “I suppose you’re going to say that you work for Hugh Trevor-Roper.’’ When she answered yes, his eyes lit up: “The greatest mind in Europe!’’ he exclaimed.
A decade later, fame turned to shame when The Times of London enlisted him to sign off on diaries alleged to be Adolf Hitler’s. He did; they were not. It was one of the greatest fiascos in the history of journalism. The episode besmirched an otherwise glorious career, one that Adam Sisman does great justice to in this wonderful biography. “An Honourable Englishman’’ is a rich entertainment. A feast of highbrow tittle-tattle, ferocious battles over history, and delicious ironies, Sisman’s book is a model of its kind. Moving effortlessly from the common rooms of Oxbridge to tony country houses to lecture halls, Sisman gives us a frank and measured account of a proud, acerbic, and brilliant man.
The son of a country doctor and a descendant of minor gentry, Trevor-Roper grew up in a house ludicrously devoid of emotion. If this goes some way toward explaining his emotional reticence, he was intellectually the opposite. In 1932, he won a place at Christ Church, Oxford, then (and now), one of the university’s grandest colleges. Never a dreary academic, the young Trevor-Roper took to worldly pursuits - fishing, horseback riding, and hunting were favorites - and fortified himself with gallons of claret and beer. His epicurean habits - he would later earn the nickname “Pleasure-Loper’’ - little dented his academic performance, even if some deplored his aristocratic pretensions. He would really never escape the charge, but kept his critics at bay with a merciless wit.
The war disrupted Trevor-Roper’s academic career, but transported him right into the heart of the British establishment. As a Secret Intelligence Service officer, Trevor-Roper made his mark with his analyses of German intelligence. His duties led to a history-making assignment - to investigate the circumstances of Hitler’s final week in his Berlin bunker - which then led to “The Last Days of Hitler’’ in 1947, an instant classic that made Trevor-Roper’s name.
Not long after, Trevor-Roper told a correspondent, “I am really rather anxious to detach myself from my accidental connection with Nazi history, and to revert to my proper work!’’ This was England and Europe of the 16th and 17th centuries. He did pioneering research on the origins of the English Civil War and the “General Crisis’’ of the 17th century. Sisman’s account of Trevor-Roper’s historical views is superb. Was the Civil War, as Marxists contended, a bourgeois revolution, and thus a decisive event in the sequence of capitalist development? A skeptical liberal, Trevor-Roper rejected grim historical determinism. Revolutions are not required outcomes, even if they often seem otherwise - “It is not necessary to burn down the house to have a roast pig,’’ he mused. Yet he was all for scholarly innovation, as long as it was backed up by solid research. He looked to other disciplines - anthropology, sociology, economics - to complement the historian’s task. His work showed such insights, but he also stressed the role of folly and accident in history.
One knock on Trevor-Roper was that he never wrote a big book. “In some ways he resembled the scholars of the Renaissance and the early modern period,’’ Sisman observes, “who loved learning for its own sake, not for the use that might be made of it … Writing, too, was its own reward. Publication was inessential to him.’’ Not exactly. Trevor-Roper fussed over his prose—his beautifully calibrated essays unfurl with sly humor and forensic cunning—but he also reviewed hundreds of books for The Sunday Times, his longtime journalistic home, for whom he covered the Eichmann trial and investigated Kennedy’s death.
Sisman covers all of Trevor-Roper’s pursuits, including his marriage to the daughter of Earl Haig, British commander in chief during World War I, and his friendships with Isaiah Berlin and other high-profile intellectuals, with zest. If the rush of names, places, and people sometimes swamp his narrative, there are splendid anecdotes on nearly every page. For connoisseurs of mid-20th century Oxford life there is much delight here. A gem: Trevor-Roper once sold a horse to a wealthy student; the deal was transacted during a tutorial. If academic backbiting is your thing, “An Honourable Englishman’’ is a must. Trevor-Roper’s reputation for intellectual vituperation was well earned. During a legendary showdown with historian Lawrence Stone, a pupil found Trevor-Roper with a folder in his lap labeled “Death of Stone.’’ “Why are you so nasty to people?’’ another rival wondered.
But Trevor-Roper showed many kindnesses, even to his ideological opponents. He helped Eric Hobsbawm, a Communist Party member, get a US visa in the McCarthy era; and he commended the work of Marxist historian Christopher Hill to Oxford University Press. Sisman has not written a hagiography; he is generous, even compassionate, but unstinting as he tallies Trevor-Roper’s flaws. Sisman concludes “[i]t seems certain that his work will continue to be read long after his blunder has diminished into a mere footnote.’’ One hopes he is right.
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