An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper

By ADAM SISMAN

Wide-ranging historian, brilliant literary stylist, and academic pugilist, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre of Glanton, also wore red socks, rode to hounds, and was a two-bottle man. Claiming to be “an Anglican not a Christian,” he was an enthusiastic foe of religion — Christianity in general, Roman Catholicism in particular, and, above all, Evelyn Waugh and “that old serpent” Fr. Martin D’Arcy. He was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford and, later, for seven grueling years, Master of Peterhouse at Cambridge. A virtuoso of exuberant vituperation and a connoisseur of mythomanes, fraudsters, and forgers, he was famously duped by the bogus Hitler Diaries in 1983, a humiliation that soured the last two decades of his life. One of Adam Sisman’s many accomplishments in his excellent biography, An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper, is to give an account of this unfortunate affair with such finely ratcheted moral precision that the episode could have been conceived by Trollope.

Hugh Trevor-Roper was born in Northumberland in 1914, the second of three children of a small-town doctor and his wife. They were an intellectually incurious, emotionally buttoned-up couple, and the chilliness they inculcated in Trevor-Roper was amplified by his subsequent experiences in school, where he nonetheless became an outstanding student. He won scholarships to Christ Church, Oxford, and again shone, studying the classics before switching to modern history. Surrounded by high-living toffs and bluebloods, he adopted their way of life, dining on champagne and oysters, drinking far into the night, hunting, fishing, and playing the horses. He went on to postgraduate study, still carousing and habitually falling off his horse, while writing a thesis on Archbishop Laud — for which seventeenth-century prelate he had no more affection than he did for the Puritans who chopped off the Archbishop’s head. (“I have come to the conclusion that Archbishop Laud was an interfering old bugger.”)  

Eventually the war propelled him into a branch of British Intelligence whose task was eavesdropping on German transmissions. By the summer of 1945 he was engaged in listening to secretly recorded conversations of captured German staff officers who had served the Nazi leaders. He was gripped by the bizarreness and bathos of that inner circle, by, in his words, the “scenes of nihilistic bombast uttered among high Wagnerian mountains, against a more immediate background of spinsterish tea-parties, Bavarian rococo woodwork, cuckoo-clocks and cream-buns…. What poor, inflated vulgarians, what weak pretenders they all turn out to have been, how absurd and byzantine that fantastic court at Berlin and Berchtesgaden and in the peripatetic Führerhauptquartier!” He longed to write about the end of the Third Reich, from the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 to the finale in the Führerbunker.

The result was, in time, The Last Days of Hitler, a work made possible by Trevor-Roper’s having been given the job of proving Hitler was dead, thus putting to rest rumors to the contrary. He brought perseverance, a flair for interrogation, and the instincts of a detective to the job and submitted a detailed report that described Hitler’s last days and undoubted demise. No sooner was this accomplished, than word arrived that a copy of the Führer’s will had been found. Once again the Oxonian sleuth was put on the case, this time to authenticate the document. Sisman’s account of both episodes is immensely exciting, with unexpected twists. The upshot was that Trevor-Roper became a top authority on Hitler, setting the stage for a dreadful reverse.

Many imponderables surround that future debacle, but it is not the central mystery of Trevor-Roper’s life. The great question, which Sisman explores throughout the book, is why, for all his brilliance, inventiveness, and industry, did Hugh Trevor-Roper never publish a major historical work? The world waited in vain for his promised magnum opus on the Puritan Revolution, a work brought to near completion but which remained, as Sisman puts it, “in manuscript, like an unfinished edifice open to the sky.” Similarly, he had embarked enthusiastically on an astonishing number of other books — before haring off, again and again, to pursue new interests. Never idle, he lectured and wrote review articles and essays of great authority and inspired heterodoxy on early modern social and economic change; witchcraft; the Warren Commission Report; Kim Philby; the Renaissance doctor, chemist, alchemist, and secret agent Theodore de Mayerne; the Scottish Enlightenment, Scotland’s mythical history, kilts, tartans, and the Ossian poems. Not counting collections of essays and edited works, his only other book — aside from Archbishop Laud and The Last Days of Hitler — was Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse, a wonderful, appreciative study of a distinguished sinologist and, as it emerged, charlatan, fantasist, forger, and pornographer.

But, as Sisman shows, Trevor-Roper’s appetite for fresh subjects was only one possible reason for his failure to come through with the big one. There was the matter of his wife, Lady Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston, the daughter of an earl (Field Marshal Douglas Haig). Her aristocratic breeding and bearing pleased him, but she demanded attention, and her expensive tastes frequently forced him to push aside his scholarly work to take on well-paid journalism.

The most convincing explanation brought forward by Sisman for Trevor-Roper’s inability to finish a substantial piece of work in his field is that he was a perfectionist — one, however, whose perfectionism was conflated with a wish to be invulnerable to the sort of damaging criticism of which he, himself, was a master. Utterly ruthless, his ferocious wit, inspired research, and deft deployment of evidence laid his targets flat. Lawrence Stone called Trevor-Roper’s first written attack on his work “an article of vituperative denunciation which connoisseurs of intellectual terrorism still cherish to this day.” Indeed, a student visiting Trevor-Roper found him clutching a folder labeled “Death of Stone.” At another time, he was spotted pacing an Oxford quad, asking, “Who can I ruin next?” The result was that there were countless scholars slavering to dig their pens into a defining work by Trevor-Roper. Denied that, the Hitler Diaries affair brought joy to their hearts.

Sisman’s extended consideration of that far from straightforward affair is detailed and completely engrossing, and I leave its fateful sequence of events and cast of blackguards, loonies, and meddling copyeditors for you to discover. I will say, however, that it has acquired a certain timeliness, for chief among those involved is Rupert Murdoch: “a megalomaniac twister,” in Trevor-Roper’s words, Being told that Lord Dacre was expressing doubts on the authenticity of the Diaries, Murdoch’s “instruction was brief and explicit. ‘Fuck Dacre,’ he said. ‘Publish.’ ”  

I can still remember my own shock at Trevor-Roper’s terrible blunder and subsequent disgrace. Even though I did not share many of his political and personal views, he was then, and still is, one of the historians I read with visceral pleasure. To be sure, his interests are mine: early modern Europe; the nature of social and economic change; history’s conditional and fortuitous nature (that its course is not determined or inevitable); the manufacture of a fantasy past; charlatans, bamboozlers, and, of course, forgers. But I also revel in his lucid style, mordant wit, and disparaging temper and share his appetite for scholarship as a blood sport. Even when he is wrong I am happy to have been along for the ride.

Yet those readers without such predilections will also find this biography immensely rewarding. Sisman writes with sympathy and humor, effortlessly controlling his material, nimbly laying out the tradition-encrusted territory of Oxford and Cambridge, and making the internecine wars waged in those hallowed halls, common rooms, and across high tables as thrilling as they were to the combatants.

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