Review – Hugh Trevor-Roper: the biography

by Adam Sisman. London: Phoenix, 2011 pbk ed. 598p, ill (b and w), includes index

foxoleski, Going Postal

When I first spotted this book in the library, I wasn’t sure whether or not to pick it up – I already had an armful to take out, and wasn’t looking for another one. Like, I suspect, most people, when I thought of Hugh Trevor-Roper I immediately thought ‘Hitler diaries’ and I also remembered from A levels that he was connected with taking down R.H. Tawney’s ‘rise of the gentry’ theory (the idea that the Stuart squirearchy became so powerful that they were emboldened to challenge and bring down the king). Would there be all that much of interest here? Then I looked at the book’s list of plaudits from people like Alan Bennett, Andrew Roberts. D.J. Taylor, Susan Hill, A.N. Wilson, Max Hastings and Robert Harris and decided to give it a go.

The first surprise was that I had assumed any double-barrelled patrician type growing up in that era (he was born in 1914) would have had a fairly comfortable childhood (the Ropers are descended from William Roper, who married Thomas More’s daughter Meg, and the Trevors from a landed Welsh family). Yet Hugh Trevor-Roper’s childhood was anything but happy. His father, ‘reduced’ to training for a profession and becoming a GP, seemed distant and uninvolved, as did his mother. Hugh never recalled any warmth or physical contact from his parents, and attempts to engage them in conversation by asking them things resulted in comments such as, ‘Curiosity killed the cat’. Born in Alnwick, he was sent away to an inhospitable school in Derbyshire, where educational precociousness was frowned upon, his roommate was incontinent and the cleaners wiped the jerries with the same rag they then used for the tooth-mugs. He became ill – so ill, he was sent home to recuperate. When the truth emerged, and a decision was taken to move him to a different school, he burst into tears: in his mind, schools were prisons and, having – with difficulty – established himself in one, he was now going to have to start all over again.

And so he went off to fiercely-competitive Charterhouse in Surrey, where he fitted in much better, despite thinking there was ‘something dead’ about it (he later decided that the ‘something missing’ was thought – before wondering if it would in fact have been such a good idea to teach small boys to think before they had hold of the facts of a subject). He shone academically, was well-liked and became editor of the school magazine. Wanting to specialise in mathematics, he was told by the headmaster ‘Clever boys read Classics’ – a judgement for which he later expressed gratitude. Going up to Christ Church, the grandest of the Oxford colleges both socially and in size, he threw himself into undergraduate life, becoming an avid party-goer and an enthusiastic rider to hounds, and changing eventually from Classics to Modern History (modern meaning from 1500 onward). He taught himself German and visited Germany to improve his skills.

Another surprise: having graduated, he failed to be elected to All Souls when he applied. The examiners judgement (presciently?) was that ‘Trevor-Roper has a good knowledge, but is apt to spoil his effects by a display of cleverness and his work lacks grip’.

As is well-known, after his war service in intelligence his investigations into the death or otherwise of Hitler (many rumours and supposed eye-witness sightings abounded, from Dublin to South America) led to his best-selling book, ‘The Last Days of Hitler’ – the title of which was changed (some might say luckily) from ‘Hitler’s End’. Trevor Roper became wealthy and internationally famous, perhaps the first example of the ‘academic popular historian as celebrity’, even – at one point – mixing with the Hollywood set. Yet he never really repeated this published success, starting and failing to finish several major works, while others on quirkier topics (like ‘The Hermit of Peking’) grabbed his imagination. He became Regius professor at Oxford, then moved to Cambridge to be master of Peterhouse, which from the book sounds as though it had much in common with Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse, which was purportedly modelled on it.

Prone to crippling sinus infections, chronically short-sighted and innately combative, he once found his Bentley in the vacation blocked in by another car when he needed to get to the airport to go to Iceland. Releasing its handbrake, he pushed the other car out of the way, whereupon it rolled back and hit a stone wall. When he got to Iceland, he discovered its owner: Lord Cherwell. ‘My dear Prof’, he wrote, in a supposed apology, ‘had I known it was yours, I should have called on you and asked you to move it, which would have been much easier: but I’m afraid that (since I associate Overlords with more splendid limousines, I assumed that this car – like others near it – was an improperly-introduced tourist car’. ‘I was sorry that you should have treated even a tourist’s car the way you treated mine’, replied Lord C, ‘but I take it that the Censor [HTR’s position at the time] is above the restraint applying to ordinary people. I am sending the car to be repaired by Hartwell’s and will tell them to send the bill to you. I was surprised to get an envelope marked Reykjavik but I assume the stamp with the volcano on it was chosen to symbolise your temperament’.

The story of how he came to fly out to Germany and mistakenly authenticate the so-called Hitler diaries has been told before, but Sisman brings out TR’s initial caveats, telling the Times that no instant verdict could be given. His first impressions were that, for several reasons, the diaries and their signed-off pages certainly looked the part. Had chemical tests on the diary paper been done? Oh yes, he was told. At this, TR became very excited. In fact, it later turned out samples had been sent off for testing, but no verdict yet returned – a misunderstanding because of translation, perhaps? He wished to consult a German colleague, but was told the confidentiality agreement he had signed (necessary for commercial reasons, it was said) precluded this. Initially confident, he began to express doubts but the Times, it seemed, was determined to publish. His name was ruined. It is perhaps karmic that Trevor-Roper, who so delighted in destroying the academic reputations of others, in the end destroyed his own.

What comes through the book is the sheer humanity of the man. Brilliant, wicked, waspish, prone to winding people up (especially Evelyn Waugh, whom he seemed to take a vindictive delight in baiting), utterly devoted to his wife (they met when she was 46, married to an abusive husband from whom Hugh saved her), the quote I find most poignant is this one (speaking of his procrastination over his great tome on Cromwell):

‘The trouble is, I am too interested in too many things; and I write so slowly, so painfully slowly, that by the time I have written a chapter I have got interested in something else. And then, there are the delights of idleness: of walking in the country, of scratching the noses of horses, or the backs of pigs; of planting and lifting and cutting trees (I love trees) … or the pleasure of convivial social life, of slow, monosyllabic conversation, over beer and cheese and pickled onions in rural inns, or – alternatively – gay, sparkling dinners in glittering palaces, where (like Rowse) I can listen, with guilty pleasure, to the inane but comforting flattery of jewelled duchesses. Then, perhaps the most seductive of all, there is the pleasure of total vacancy … ‘

Something tells me he might have made a good GPer 😉

What a book. It has everything (love, hate, war, humour, treason, feuds, wealth, poverty, spying) and almost everyone (Kim Philby, Benazir Bhutto, Rupert Murdoch, JFK, Harold Macmillan, Natalie Wood, Isiah Berlin, David Steel, Margaret Thatcher, Archbishop Laud, Lord Baden Powell and sundry assorted other members of the great and good – and not so good) in it. Above all, it is Sisman’s treatment of his subject which makes it so gripping. It is a thoroughly enjoyable read for anyone interested in history or historiography, in academia, in British pre and post war politics, or simply in Britain.

© foxoleski 2018