Biography Captures Historian’s Illusive Brilliance
Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography
Adam Sisman. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2010; 648 pp; ISBN: 978-0-29785-214-8, cloth £25.
By William Bruneau
Hugh Trevor-Roper was the writer of Letters from Oxford (Richard Davenport-Hines, ed., 2006). Those letters were written to Bernard Berenson, the art critic whose Tuscan mansion was second home to everybody from Logan Pearsall Smith to Bertrand Russell to Trevor-Roper. That book showed how T-R’s life was tied to a galaxy of “influential persons,” and made surprising disclosures about university politics (not just in Oxford). If the letters were little more than academic gossip, it was of the highest order — and also fabulously well written. The book sold well but left people wondering about T-R himself.
Now Adam Sisman’s biography helps complete the picture, suggesting why T-R was taken seriously by people from Harold MacMillan to Rupert Murdoch. Even as he pursued his academic cursus as student (which means “fellow” in the strange lingo of the place) of Christ Church, Oxford (1946–1957), then regius professor of modern history at Oxford (1957–1980), and finally master of Peterhouse, Cambridge (1980–1987), T-R combined a rare sense of intellectual fun with the business of a world in and out of war, recession and change.
Still, Trevor-Roper was hardly a household name in the 20th, still less in the 21st century. Although publication of Letters helped his subject’s cause, Sisman had the double burden of explaining a complicated man and persuading us that T-R warrants 600 pages of print.
Sisman starts with T-R’s privileged childhood, but a childhood in a class-ridden society. The son of a successful North-England physician, he was mostly under the thumb of a rigid mother. Sisman thinks this background, combined with circumstantial factors, accounts for T-R’s ambition to be great, but also his dithering.
The received view is that T-R had in him a “big book” about the Puritans, but never quite produced it. Instead, according to his numerous critics, he dithered. This sounds like amateur psychologizing, but Sisman makes it sound at least possibly true.
Trevor-Roper (1914–2003) was sent to preparatory boarding schools, one in nearby Scotland, and thence to Charterhouse (1927–1932). He went to Oxford an able classicist, but transferred to modern history, taking first class honours in 1936. By the time he graduated he was good in German, French, Italian and a half-dozen other useful tongues.
T-R became a research fellow at Merton College, thinking he might take a DPhil. He instead turned his research into his first full-length book, Archbishop Laud (1940). His hard-drinking, sporting ways did not interfere with writing.
The tale of his research fellowship (what North Americans would think of as a form of graduate studies) reminds me of James (now Jan) Morris’s book on Oxford (1965), especially her chapter on Oxford eccentrics. She mentions Canon Claude Jenkins, fellow of Christ Church, about whom one may also consult the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Jenkins was famous for lecturing “continuously three mornings a week, often to an audience of one, an ancient alarm clock reminding him to change the subject, perhaps from the Paston letters to the puritans or from Greek epigraphy to the Oxford Movement. He was very discursive: his lectures on Augustine, the date of whose birth he was still discussing at the end of term, contrived to include a list of books on the law of tort.” (ODNB, s.v. Jenkins, Claude)
Well, Jenkins was made supervisor of Trevor-Roper’s graduate thesis — and Jenkins was, of course, hopelessly unsuited. (p. 53) And anyway, T-R, like most non-scientist British scholars of the day, thought a DPhil was infra dignitatem, and soon renounced his candidacy. Although the choice sounds reasonable, I wondered why he never seriously questioned — then or later — curricular, supervisory, or governance arrangements at Oxford. Sisman does not help us much on this point.
Trevor-Roper spent the war in military intelligence. He played a part in policy making, helping to persuade the powers-that-be that they should divide the “hardware” side (code-breaking, for instance) from the “software” of reading between the lines of reports from German resistance movements. (pp. 93–99) Throughout, he retained connections in Oxford and London with A.J. Ayer, Isaiah Berlin, Dawyck Haig, Stuart Hampshire, and his intellectual rivals, Christopher Hill
(whose Marxism T-R could not abide) and Lawrence Stone (with whom T-R had an almost lifelong historical fencing-match, as Stone believed social structure mattered, whereas T-R thought facts mattered). T-R was to history as Pissarro was to art.
Sent to Germany in 1945 to clarify the conditions under which the Nazis ended the war, T-R proved his worth, giving useful advice to government, but making it quite clear he would never be a civil servant. His writing had by this time taken a“literary” turn, and Sisman rightly says this might explain T-R’s diffidence vis-à-vis “big books” and research projects.
Sisman says about Trevor-Roper: “Clarity was not enough; bare prose was like an undecorated house … Hugh aspired to a sophisticated style, adorned with metaphor and irony.” (p. 101) At this he proved a master-craftsman. In 1947 he published The Last Days of Hitler, a book that made him famous and rich — he drove a Bentley after 1948. (p. 189)
Still, from 1946, Trevor-Roper was an ordinary Oxford tutor, then a lecturer. At pp. 148–153, Sisman describes T-R’s teaching methods, and afterward illustrates the sometimes unexpected effects of those methods on students. Biographies of historians pay too little attention to the quotidian, to the teaching and research practices that fill most of their waking hours. Sisman does not make this mistake.
Sisman frankly lays out the material circumstances, right down to the money to be got from teaching versus publication versus broadcasting, the consequences of T-R’s marriage in 1953, and the advantages and disadvantages of travelling frequently, as T-R did for fun and profit. In his earlier book about A.J.P. Taylor, Sisman had already done this sort of thing and done it well. This new book does not disappoint.
Ironically, one of T-R’s best history students, Lawrence Stone, became a trans-Atlantic rival. By his mid-20s Stone had published at least two articles on British history. Using clues provided by T-R, he assembled economic data about the long-running “economic crisis” of the Elizabethan aristocracy, arguing that as a class, they had gone nearly broke. In 1948, Stone published a 53-page essay making his case.
Trevor-Roper found many mistakes in Stone’s work, and was unhappy Stone had come so close to his own primary research, using his archival discoveries, all without consultation: “I kept finding such gigantic statistical errors … that I decided I must clear him out of the way … I found deliberate falsification on shocking scale, and I have decided to blow this pirate ship out of he water in order to make the seas f 16th century historical scholarship safe for legitimate commerce.” (qu. in Sisman, 191)
Trevor-Roper’s “Reply to Stone” has been described as a “magnificent if terrifying work of destruction” and as “one of the most vitriolic attacks ever made by one historian on another.” (qu. in Sisman, 193) Stone later became a renowned historian in his own right at Princeton, but claimed that T-R’s attack was “an article of vituperative denunciation which connoisseurs of intellectual terrorism still cherish to this day.” The style of these fusillades is typical of the men, and hint at the sheer fun of reading their books.
Come to think of it, it is not the least of Sisman’s achievements that he makes us want to go straight out to the library and start in with Archbishop Laud. If T-R could say what he did of Stone, what might he have said about the good archbishop?
By 1950, T-R had a history of associating with political views from left to right, refusing any label. In politics as in religion, he was fervently sceptical. As one might expect of a humane sceptic, T-R wrote that he wanted Oxford to be “irreverent, genial, unpompous,” just as he hoped religion, politics and society might be. Apparently his views were appreciated in high places, as Harold MacMillan saw to his 1957 appointment as regius professor. But he also made enemies.
His 1980 invitation to be master of Peterhouse at Cambridge University came to him because a high-tory faction there hoped T-R would march the college back to the 1920s. His relations with the outside world and with students at Cambridge went well enough, but not his life in the fellowship of dons.
His difficulties had partly to do with the fact that not only had he come from Oxford, but also because he was unexpectedly progressive in his social views. He hired female dons and admitted female students. (p. 474) Too many colleagues couldn’t stand him. They had hoped he would stop the tides of change. He would not.
One might expect that life for a fair-minded administrator in a quasi-mediaeval system of governance would necessarily be difficult. Why then didn’t T-R press for change in Cambridge (and before that, Oxford) governance? Here Sisman is less than successful.
On politics, it deserves note that T-R was made a peer almost immediately after Margaret Thatcher took office. He sat as a Conservative in the House of Lords: “A tory in the Chamber, now that I am back in Cambridge, faced with the squalid toryism of Peterhouse, I naturally become very whiggish again.” (p. 521–2) We end with no clear idea why T-R said “yes” to Cambridge in the first place.
There are at least three more explanations one would have liked to hear from Sisman.
First, what did T-R think of Thatcher and Conservative educational policy? One important outcome of Thatcherism has been the appearance, especially in the 1990s, of research assessment exercises and performance indicators in the UK. It would be interesting to know how T-R might have liked university teachers and students compensated and rewarded. About these matters we hear next to nothing.
Second, if T-R rejected religion and religiously-tinted ethics, what were the well-springs of his moral outlook? Sisman claims that “Hugh linked his rejection of theology with the beginning of his interest in the economic basis of history, which would form the philosophical under-pinning for his historical writing over the next two decades.” (p. 51)
Sisman’s identification of religion with theology is flawed. But putting that aside, it is frustrating to read Sisman’s allusive “argument.” It is not especially satisfying to read that T-R’s fondness for economics made him irreligious. Think what religiously minded economists would say. Remember that T-R was interested most of all in the Puritans. Was it all just “academic?”
Finally, and perhaps most of all, one would like to know how T-R came to be so fabulously well informed about history and literature. His competency stretched from the Ancient Greeks to the civilized and uncivilized worlds of the 1990s. How does one person come to write so believably and so well about times and places as diverse as central Germany in 1940 and Puritan England in 1645? Is it nature or nurture?
In this ably-written book, Adam Sisman puts the reader in a position to answer some, but not all of these questions. The book asks its readers to stay alert and active. Hugh Trevor-Roper would have approved.
William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.