Sharp Mind, Sharp Tongue

Éamon Ó Cléirigh

Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, by Adam Sisman, Phoenix, 624 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0753828618

Hugh Trevor-Roper had an enviable professional career. As a young historian, whose research on the England of Archbishop Laud had been interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War, he found himself working with the Secret Intelligence Service, in areas involving penetration and deception of German intelligence. As a result, when the war came to an end, he was exceptionally well placed, both in terms of connections and skills, to investigate the mystery surrounding Hitler’s fate.

It was urgent that this should be clarified. Although the government quarter in Berlin, including Hitler’s bunker, had fallen in April 1945 to Soviet troops, the Stalin regime, which certainly knew the truth but preferred mystification, professed to believe that the dictator was still alive. In a short but intensive period of investigation Trevor-Roper located and interviewed a number of those who had been present with Hitler at the end, tracked down a copy of Hitler’s political testament (a predictably barren document), reconstructed the sequence of events during the final weeks, and managed to capture the hysterical edge, a peculiar combination of banality and desperation, of life inside the bunker. He also established beyond any doubt that Hitler had taken his own life. The work that resulted, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), was a masterpiece of forensic history whose insights – for example that Hitler presided over a court rather than a government – are still compelling.

In the postwar period Trevor-Roper established himself as a leading authority on seventeenth century England, his method being to use disagreements with fellow historians as a means of clarifying fundamental issues. He emerged in disputes with opponents such as RH Tawney and Lawrence Stone, regarding the economic causes of the English Civil War, as a dangerously well informed and at times merciless controversialist. He also had other registers, most notably on display in his essay on Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, where he employed a combination of empiricism and knockabout comedy to puncture what he saw as vatic nonsense dressed up as history. (The piece was never republished, perhaps because it was so rude.)

For Trevor-Roper the “storm over the gentry”, as his exchanges with Tawney and Stone came to be known, widened out into a broader enquiry into the transformations to which seventeenth century Europe was subject. Although unusual among English historians of his generation in his interest in the work of the French Annales school, with its emphasis on the deep material and sociological factors which constituted the background to the historical scene and which constrained its actors, the focus of his interests turned increasingly from economics to ideas. Trevor-Roper, who had nothing but scorn for metaphysics – particularly in its Christian inflection – was fascinated by ideas in their historical context, by their ability to influence choices and actions and to generate change. His theme, as he put it in a letter of 1958, was “events and the intellectual impact of events, their cumulative pressure on the human mind”.

Trevor-Roper was far from neutral in his feelings regarding the historical process. He was no friend of royal absolutism, and rejoiced in the changes whereby the religious perspectives of early modern times gave way more secular modes of understanding. As a young man he wrote: “More and more, as I read history, I believe in the Whig historians. There is no getting away from the fact: they are right.” A lifetime later he repeated what was essentially the same claim, asserting in The New York Review of Books: “In political philosophy I am a Whig: I believe with Montesquieu and Hume, in the equal validity of different social forms, and, with Burke and de Tocqueville, in the organic strength and corrective balance of a complex society nourished by living traditions.” Although claiming to be a pluralist, there can be little doubt that he regarded English history, with the Glorious Revolution at its heart, and the institutions and distribution of power to which that history gave rise, as a particularly felicitous embodiment of his ideal. Towards the partner nation, which linked its fortunes with England in the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707, his feelings were mixed. While deeply admiring the Scottish enlightenment, he was scornful of Scottish attachment to local particularities and delighted in exasperating the sensibilities of his Scottish readers.

Trevor-Roper viewed Ireland largely in terms of its impact on the balance of power in England and seems to have regarded the seventeenth century New English presence on the island as a colonial enterprise imposed upon the “native papists”. Although his Irish references are few, they are of a sort which are likely to set Irish teeth on edge. In a characteristic moment, in an essay on James Ussher, he spoke of the Archbishop’s need to assert Protestant ideas aggressively in the face of “the Catholic gentry, who still dominated society and sat in parliament, and the sinister unintelligible babble of the priest-led Celtic peasantry”. Such phrasing was not an accident or an occasional infelicity but clearly deliberate. This approach, if excessively high-spirited, was capable of discerning unexpected connections. When he visited Prague for the first time, it reminded him “more of Dublin than of Rome, the great palaces and buildings of a foreign aristocracy gradually crowded out by the shoddy hutches of a peasantry come of town”.

Trevor-Roper was a man of limited sympathies. These did not extend to such figures as “an Apulian peasant” grovelling “abjectly before a bottle of tinseled pig-bones in a tawdry southern church”. Although it is difficult to imagine any member of the Annales group writing of the mental world of the Mediterranean peasantry in comparable terms, Trevor-Roper would no doubt have replied that the contents of that world were not only false but of little intrinsic interest. While such prejudices might seem to be disabling in a historian, in fact his Whiggery, allied to an intense curiosity and wide-ranging erudition, acted as a source of energy and generator of insights. His perspectives were predominantly elite, his masters being the great high-cultural historians from Gibbon to Burckhardt, with whose works he maintained a constant intellectual dialogue. His great theme, which he approached again and again from varying perspectives, might be described as the line of thought which led from Erasmus and Grotius, across the bloodstained seventeenth century, to Hume, Montesquieu and the philosophes. Trevor-Roper differed from such Victorian celebrators of the triumph of rationalism as Lecky and Bury in his sense of the complexity of that line, of the subterranean routes it took, and the arcane symbolism – drawing upon such unfamiliar sources as Hermetic magic and Renaissance alchemy – in which it sometimes expressed itself. He also differed from them in his sense that what mattered were ideas in their social and historical context, how they were used by absolutist princes and Counter-Reformation popes, by Anglican divines and Calvinist preachers, and how they interacted with other forces to influence men’s actions.

Trevor-Roper mapped this seventeenth century world in a series of deeply impressive essays on such topics as “Religion, the Reformation and Social Change”, “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century”, “The Great Tew Circle” and “The Religious Origins of the Enlightenment”. As his biographer Adam Sisman notes, in approaching this theatre of conflicting commitments and interests, Trevor-Roper’s approach was “remorselessly secular”, with the underlying assumption being that “differences of doctrine are merely masks for political differences”. While this was so, we should perhaps not ask from the essays what their author could not give. They are, in their own terms, dazzling performances, which still retain their ability to excite because of their subtlety, range and the convincing ease with which connections are made. By redrawing a particular landscape they raise new issues, change emphases and alter the way one thinks about the seventeenth century. The conventional expectation of Trevor-Roper’s generation was, however, that a historian was something more than an essayist and should produce at least one major work, which would be a definitive contribution to scholarship. Destiny seemed to point him towards the English puritan revolution, whose history he appeared uniquely well-qualified to write. This was begun, endlessly promised to his publisher with delivery endlessly postponed, and in the end, although a substantial portion was written, the work was never completed.

Trevor-Roper’s fundamental problem was one of form. He deeply admired Gerald Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth, the work of a strong-minded independent scholar, which had been produced outside the university system and which provided one of the earliest and most authoritative accounts of the origins of the Spanish civil war. (In a letter of 1954 he commented that he knew nothing of the author, adding: “I suppose, from his name, he is Irish – though his mind isn’t.”) He particularly admired Brenan’s ability to combine a narrative of the sequence of events which led to the outbreak of the war, with a deep structural analysis of disequilibriums in Spanish society, which he traced back to the seventeenth century. Trevor-Roper aspired to bring a similar breadth to his history of the English puritan revolution, but found the linking of narrative and structural analysis difficult to manage. As he explained in a letter of 1958 to Bernard Berenson, while conventional history was adequate for the routine business of politics or war, it failed in revolutionary periods “because it cannot penetrate to the depths of a society which are then stirred up, or the heart of those intractable problems round which human muddles are woven like some great untidy cocoon”. The analytic method had its own limitations for, while only it could reveal the social depths, “such an essentially static method cannot explain the movement which, by agitating the surface, stirs up those depths and brings out the horrible monsters that lurk there.” Trevor-Roper found the problem of reconciling these approaches intractable and, while certain that Marxist claims to have done so were groundless, did not succeed in resolving the problem himself. As a result, his history of the puritan revolution remained unfinished.

These difficulties left it open to his colleagues to note his comparatively modest output and to regret, with a certain smugness, that such great promise remained unfulfilled. That assessment has changed in the years since his death as an impressive series of works, which he had completed but never published, has appeared. The most surprising, and probably the most important, of these has been Europe’s Physician; The Various Lives of Theodore de Mayerne, a work which viewed the cultural and political life of early seventeenth century Europe via the biography of its most famous doctor. There was also The Invention of Scotland, in which Trevor-Roper sought to discommode Scottish nationalists by dismantling the myths by whose means, as he believed, they deceived themselves regarding the character of their country. Letters from Oxford was perhaps the most accessible of these posthumous publications. This was a collection of letters written by Trevor-Roper over an eleven-year period to the art historian Bernard Berenson. These provided a fascinating perspective on postwar English, and in some degree European, intellectual history, viewed through a well-informed and intelligent, if at times somewhat complacent, pair of eyes. As an unsympathetic obituary later noted, he was “more ironical about others than about himself”.

The personal qualities commented on at the time of his death had been remarked on early. In 1953 the publisher Hamish Hamilton commented uneasily after a weekend spent in Trevor-Roper’s company, “we found ourselves wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people”. The lack of human sympathy which marked his personal relations was also evident at an intellectual level. In reviewing an early collection of Trevor-Roper’s essays, Harold Nicolson found much to admire but deplored the “absence of even average human compassion”. Part of the fascination of Adam Sisman’s biography is that it provides us with some pointers to the origins of his subject’s coldness and willingness to offend. Hugh Trevor-Roper was the son of a Northumberland country doctor. The family setting in which he grew up was an emotionally bleak place, with a cold, disapproving mother and a disengaged father who had contracted out of parenthood. In Sisman’s account it was “a grim household without warmth, affection, encouragement, spontaneity or natural feeling of any kind”. The predictable result of such an upbringing was that Hugh became an abstracted child, lost in his own thoughts and unheeding of those around him.

In spite of his distance from others, Trevor-Roper was at times capable of displaying considerable charm. This quality was deployed in two significant friendships, both with wealthy, intellectually distinguished older men. Although differing in their settings, both relationships displayed similar patterns. The first was with the expatriate American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith, then famous as a stylist and for producing aphorisms such as “Some people say life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” The second was with the art historian Bernard Berenson. While both of these relationships were socially consequential, in that they admitted the younger man to interesting and in many ways desirable circles – in Berenson’s case as a regular visitor to his beautiful villa outside Florence – at their heart was a shared passion for knowledge. The earlier friendship, with Pearsall Smith, was of particular importance in shaping Trevor-Roper’s intellectual style.

Although he had a series of relationships with younger men, Pearsall Smith was particularly drawn to Trevor- Roper and at one stage intended making him his heir. In an intriguing vignette Sisman reports how Trevor-Roper left the older man’s eightieth birthday party early, when he grew irritated at his host’s unending homosexual teasing. Although skilled at keeping the prurient and coquettish Pearsall Smith at a safe distance, he evidently valued him immensely as a mentor. Pearsall Smith’s philosophy, he later wrote with considerable admiration, was “that humanity is ridiculous, but that there is a pleasure in observing its antics even amid our own gesticulations, and that it is redeemed from utter meaningless by its ideals, though many of these are very odd; and that style is an ideal too …” It seems likely that Trevor-Roper, an inexperienced and self-absorbed young man of intense yet frozen emotions, found in Pearsall Smith a usable model for the intellectual life. What was involved was an aspiration to an amused, undeceived, and well-informed contemplation of the human comedy, to pleasure in what the world presented, without commitment and in full knowledge of its limitations. Judgments will differ, but it seems to me that there was something unearned about the alacrity with which Trevor-Roper embraced the Pearsall Smith model, that it was a strategy for holding life at a distance rather than understanding it, and could be seen as a stance towards experience rather than a response to it. As his biography and letters reveal, at its worst this could tumble over into a form of Bloomsbury knowingness.

Trevor-Roper’s life was marked by those honours and rewards which England loads upon its intellectual grandees. He was successively Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and Master of Peterhouse College Cambridge, while in 1979 he received a life peerage as Lord Dacre of Glanton. Trevor-Roper was undoubtedly an establishment man, who felt there was an immense propriety about the rituals and procedures of English life. The photographs of him in his Oxford setting and as “Independent National Director” of Times Newspapers, which illustrate Adam Sisman’s biography, exude a sense of ease with the roles he has been asked to play. Although he evidently enjoyed this institutional grandeur, it could be argued that in the end the price it exacted was excessive.

The best remembered of Trevor-Roper’s misfortunes was when, as a figure of standing within Rupert Murdoch’s empire, he allowed himself to authenticate the forged “Hitler Diaries” on the basis of a hurried and insufficient examination. This was a disaster waiting to happen. He had already got into the habit, common among right-wing intellectuals exasperated by the feeble-mindedness and predictability of the left, of producing fluent and convincing journalism on topics such as Greece, China and Cuba ‑ about which he knew comparatively little. In the decades since he researched The Last Days of Hitler he had lost touch with German studies and there must be a suspicion that the skills he once had in this area had become somewhat rusty. Even more catastrophically, in attempting to assess the “diaries” he was working to a journalist’s rather than a historian’s timetable and was dealing with a man for whom rules of evidence were a matter of indifference, if not contempt. When late in the day Trevor-Roper realised that he could no longer stand over the authenticity of the “diaries” and must reverse his opinion, Murdoch famously responded “Fuck Dacre. Publish”, showing in this as in other matters his ability to turn everything he touched into dross. It is strange that Trevor-Roper found his reputation at the mercy of this man, as he had already taken the measure of his destructive nihilism. Murdoch, he believed, was animated by a hatred of England as it was. He wished “moronise and americanise the population” and “to destroy our institutions, to rot them with a daily corrosive acid”. It has been plausibly suggested that the reason for his remaining on an independent director of the Times organisation following Murdoch’s assumption of ownership was out of loyalty to The Times as a major national institution. This proved to be a misjudgement.

In common with his Times directorship, Trevor-Roper’s mastership of Peterhouse, the position with which his academic career ended, proved to be a barren experience. Although unsatisfying, it was not without its ironies. In one view, prior to Peterhouse, Trevor-Roper had passed a lifetime in Voltairean clowning, attempting to bait Catholic contemporaries whose views of the world were as patriotic and rational as his own, and to recast individuals such as Father Martin D’Arcy, a scholarly and pious if somewhat worldly figure, who was one of the most prominent Catholics in Oxford, as if he were one of the Jesuit advisers of King James II. In Peterhouse this shadow-play ended, as he found himself, a Whig among Tories, in a college whose tone was robustly conservative (critics would have called it reactionary). In this setting he had to deal with colleagues such as the historians Maurice Cowling and Edward Norman, who were devout and intellectually committed Anglicans. Trevor-Roper was unimpressed by the Peterhouse tradition of history which they represented, describing one of its most illustrious figures, Herbert Butterfield, as “a very undistinguished historian”. His Peterhouse experience was a predictably miserable one, characterised by pettiness and ill feeling on the part of his colleagues and unending administrative wrangles. In a final irony, shortly after he had accepted the mastership, Trevor-Roper was offered a senior position at the European University in Florence. If he had been in a position to accept, it is hard to believe that the final chapter of his career would not have been more creative than its melancholy finale in Cambridge. Adam Sisman’s biography provides a wide-ranging, acute and convincing account of an extremely interesting man. It allows us to get some sense of how his limitations sat side by side with his superb gifts and how the deployment of both were part of a single process.

Categories