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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2013

Hugh Trevor-Roper

The wartime journals

Richard Davenport-Hines, ed. New York, NY & London, UK: I.B. Tauris, 2011; 320 pp; ISBN: 978-1-84885-990-6, cloth $35 USD.

Review by William Bruneau

When people talk of Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003), they often think of The Last Days of Hitler (1947), his longest-selling book. Or they may remember one of his posthumously published books. His collection of letters to Bernard Berenson, Letters to Oxford (2006), was previously reviewed in these pages.

But Trevor-Roper’s essays and books began as early as 1937 with a biography of Archbishop Laud. Trevor-Roper was then only in his early 20s. After the war, although he dealt mainly with British history in the modern period, he wrote about western Europe, France and Germany (books about Hitler being es­pecially noticeable). The quantity and quality of his output are well known, even if he never quite managed to finish his biggest project, a thorough study of the 17th Century Puritan revolution in England, its antece­dents and consequences.

The long list of Trevor-Roper’s publications is impressive, but tells us little about the energies that propelled the man. Trevor-Roper was clever, as the list suggests; but only in the past 10 years have we learned why he became the capable-but-prickly person he was. With the publication of the Wartime Journals, a large gap is filled.

Trevor-Roper worked between 1940 and 1946 in the Radio Security Service — a section of Military Intelligence — and then in other parts of the British intelligence service. Near the beginning of his army stint, just for intellectual pleasure, he and a colleague broke the cipher code of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. By war’s end, Trevor-Roper was advising highly-placed military and diplomatic figures planning some aspects of the intelligence operation in post-Hitler Germany.

The Wartime Journals were, strictly speaking, illegal. Intelligence officers were not supposed to write about their lives or their work, on pain of court martial. But Trevor-Roper, bored out of his tree (I quote him) by bureaucratic non-work, was keen to keep his intellectual edge, to experiment with literary forms, to try on for size the schemas and tropes of his great intellectual heroes — Edward Gibbon, Thomas Browne, Gustave Flaubert, Charles Montagu Doughty and Logan Pear­sall Smith. These occasional journals, meant to be hidden until the author’s death and possibly forever, were a way to “fight against mental decay.”

The Journals are a collection of variously-sized essays on topics that interested him deeply. There are fine papers on the pleasures of the hunt, as Trevor-Roper was a happy participant in dozens and dozens of fox-hunts all through central and southern England. He considered himself an unhappy citizen of the middle classes, unable to rid himself of his high cultural standards, a thoroughly liberal-minded Tory and thus politically unreliable to the “real” Tories.

There are numerous papers on the pleasures of the bottle and the pint, on the glories of the English (and the German) countryside, on the personalities of characters like Dicksie Marshall, “quite certainly the most notorious poacher,” (p. 173) on his college (for Trevor-Roper was a Christchurch man through and through), but most of all on his great literary and cultural heroes.

The entries on his changing list of style models are perhaps the best things in the book. But here he is (p. 96) on the River Thames: “… a handsome river, rolling majestically past meadows and parks, temples and peacock-haunted groves, broad and smooth … with … blue peppermint and pink rosebay, all the things that make rivers especially delightful to me; and I exclaimed to Gilbert (Ryle) that, had the Greeks posses­sed such a river, they would have peopled it with nymphs …”.

Yet he was as capable of wielding the lash as he was of praising his models and preferred places. For a taste of the lash, here is a description of A.L. Rowse, an Oxford colleague, in 1943 (pp. 153–4): “Did I say that I had once admired Rowse? It seems incredible. More & more, as I recoil from his grasping, ungenerous, peasant personality, his base, transparent methods of currying notice and publicity, his shameless egotism, his gross disregard of tact & civility, he has drifted into the regions of my contempt.”

Now Trevor-Roper was certain Rowse would never read these words. Still, they give some idea of their fearsome author.

Another example of the lash, Trevor-Roper on the Security Intelligence establishment in 1942 (p. 73): “I am sick of them, sick to death of them, that nest of timid and corrupt incompetents, without ideals or standards, concerned only with the security of their own discreditable existence, bum-sucking under the backstairs of bureaucracy.”

Trevor-Roper did not change his spots when he returned in 1946 to Oxford to teach. Now and then he lost his balance and actually published or said publicly what was on his mind. This made his colleagues (but not his students) nervous, unhappy and occasionally angry.

Still, Trevor-Roper’s career was a great one. It reminds us that a university can and must make ample room for people whose attitudes are discomfiting or occasionally outrageous. Collegiality does not imply niceness, however much it depends on civility.

Trevor-Roper’s distrust of theory — whether Marxian, Hegelian, or Freudian — led him down one warpath after another. After Lawrence Stone, it was R. J. Tawney, then A.J.P. Taylor, with whom he disagreed just as sharply, but this time (some people unkindly thought) because Taylor was more successful on television than Trevor-Roper.

The Journals were found after Trevor-Roper’s death, written entirely in his extraordinarily neat hand (examples on the end papers of the volume), and indexed by Trevor-Roper himself. The editor of this book has changed the page numbers, but retained the des­criptive index entries, like the running commentary for “Gibbon, Edward: can’t harm the brain; his footnotes canonical; a type of human felicity.”

The book’s illustrations are fine, as is the introduction. But there are numerous typographical errors (why not simply publish the facsimile of the original manuscript pages, one wonders). The translations from Greek and Latin are all correct, but the Italian, French and German translations are unreliable. At p. 290 we have in German a book in several volumes translated as “several gangs”!

But these are quibbles to be set against the pleasure of reading a terrific book. I shall re-read it many times. It is long since I read a work that caused me again and again to laugh aloud, in pleasure and surprise, as this one did.

William Bruneau is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia.