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An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper

An Honourable Englishman: The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper

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by Adam Sisman

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He was one of the most gifted scholars of his generation—a brilliant writer, high-society star, and cultural force who moved easily between aristocratic houses and the humble haunts of literary bohemia. He developed a lucid prose style that he used to scathing effect, earning notoriety for his sharp attacks on other historians. Now this superb biography of Hugh


He was one of the most gifted scholars of his generation—a brilliant writer, high-society star, and cultural force who moved easily between aristocratic houses and the humble haunts of literary bohemia. He developed a lucid prose style that he used to scathing effect, earning notoriety for his sharp attacks on other historians. Now this superb biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, universally acclaimed overseas, makes its anticipated American debut.

With incisive knowledge of the man and access to never-before-published letters, Adam Sisman paints a fascinating portrait of this charismatic, contentious, contradictory character. Sisman examines Trevor-Roper’s middle-class upbringing in a house so empty of affection that it caused, as he put it, his “almost physical difficulty in expressing emotion.” He traces Trevor-Roper’s career from his early academic triumphs to his later failure to produce the big book expected of him.

Sisman also provides riveting new details of the high drama of Trevor-Roper’s World War II intelligence work—in which he boldly blew the whistle on bureaucratic infighting that imperiled British code-breaking—and the exclusive investigation of Hitler’s death that inspired his bestselling postwar triumph, The Last Days of Hitler. As never before, Trevor-Roper’s personal life is explored, including his passionate affair with an older, married woman. Finally, An Honourable Englishman reveals the truth behind his public substantiation of the false Hitler diaries in 1983, a misstep (encouraged by his impatient employer Rupert Murdoch) that forever tainted his reputation.

Profoundly bright and brutally acerbic, Hugh Trevor-Roper was a literary lion like no other, and in An Honourable Englishman he receives the absorbing biography he deserves.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Dwight Garner
Adam Sisman's new biography of Trevor-Roper…is a rescue mission of sorts. It's an excellent book: crisp and merciless yet funny and full of sympathy. It will not persuade you to admire Trevor-Roper, exactly. But you will warm to his bumptious company…Mr. Sisman has an ideal biographical style: inquisitive and open, serious yet not severe. I'd read him on anyone.
—The New York Times
Michael Dirda
It's easy to recommend this superb biography of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) as one of the best books of the year…[Sisman] writes with a comparable liveliness and authority about one of the most gifted, beguiling and controversial scholars of the 20th century. An Honourable Englishman is a long book, but every page offers high-order literary entertainment.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
This superb biography romps through the life of one of 20th-century Britain’s most notorious, controversial, and influential historian-journalists. A brilliant if unlikable man, more essayist than book writer, Trevor-Roper seemed to go everywhere, know everyone, and eventually anger, often to the point of detestation, much of the UK’s academic and public world. Intellectually pugnacious, he enjoyed attacking fellow historians and excoriated Hannah Arendt’s coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. He also fetched up everywhere—during WWII in M16, where he helped decipher the Nazi code; at Oxford and Cambridge; and in newspaper boardrooms, in all of which he caused dustups. An influential historian of 17th-century Britain, Trevor-Roper was also known for his unsurpassed study of Hitler’s last days and notorious for “authenticating” Hitler’s diaries, which turned out to be forgeries. Using never-before-exploited resources, NBCC award-winner Sisman, the much-praised biographer of Trevor-Roper’s fellow historian and competitor, A.J.P. Taylor, savors, as he makes us savor, a parade of juicy stories about his subject’s life and career and those he knew. Walk-on parts by such characters as Princess Margaret, Rupert Murdoch, Margaret Thatcher, and Albert Speer enliven the tale. Especially for those who delight in knowledge and gossip about Britain’s academic culture, public figures, and status-conscious society, this work, though bloated, will be compulsive reading. 24 pages of photos. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
“It’s an excellent book: crisp and merciless yet funny and full of sympathy. . . . Mr. Sisman has an ideal biographical style: inquisitive and open, serious yet not severe. I’d read him on anyone.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“It’s easy to recommend this superb biography of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003) as one of the best books of the year. . . . Every page offers high-order literary entertainment. . . . Detailed, funny and beautifully paced, An Honourable Englishman is one of the fullest and most intelligent biographies of a modern scholar ever written. Its readers are in for a treat.”—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
A marvelous evocation of man, place and time.”—Norman Stone, The Wall Street Journal
Excellent.”—G.W. Bowersock, The New York Review of Books

An excellent biography, thorough and measured.”—Anthony Grafton, New Republic
Superb . . . lucid and engaging.”—Jacob Heilbrunn, National Interest
First-rate . . . Sisman’s narrative of this disaster proceeds in tick-tock style and with all of the suspense of a detective novel. The tale is hard to read without cringing, but impossible to put down. The book as a whole is masterful.”—Jeffrey Collins, The New Criterion
Empathetic, illuminating.”—Kirkus Reviews

“This superb biography romps through the life of one of 20th-century Britain’s most notorious, controversial, and influential historian-journalists. . . . Using never-before-exploited resources, NBCC award-winner Sisman, the much-praised biographer of Trevor-Roper’s fellow historian and competitor, A.J.P. Taylor, savors, as he makes us savor, a parade of juicy stories about his subject’s life and career.”—Publishers Weekly

“By miles the best biography I have read this year.”—Max Hastings

A perfect biography.”—Robert Harris, The Sunday Times (London)
“How lucky for [Hugh] Trevor-Roper, and for us, that the ideal biographer was here. It is impossible to praise Sisman’s book too highly.”—A. N. Wilson, The Observer
“This is a fine and serious biography which, on page after page, has made me laugh out loud.”—Noel Malcolm, The Sunday Telegraph
I was completely beguiled by Adam Sisman’s An Honourable Englishman.”—D. J. Taylor, New Statesman
A veritable treasure trove for connoisseurs of academic intrigue, duplicity, arrogance and hubris.”—Tom Devine, The Glasgow Herald
“Superb . . . surpassed anything I read this year.”—James McGuire, Irish Times

Library Journal
Sisman (The Friendship: Wordsworth & Coleridge) does a superb job of laying out the many strengths of historian and scholar Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003) without ignoring his equally plentiful warts. The result is a lively biography of a complicated man who lived a surprisingly exciting life. Best known for his crushing dismissal of the Marxist-tinged theories of Lawrence Stone and R.H. Tawney on the causes of the English Civil Wars, Trevor-Roper never produced the one "great" book that would have made him immortal, but he was the unparalleled master of the historical essay. In 1983, he made a misstep that would have crushed a lesser scholar when, too quickly, he verified the authenticity of forged diaries purporting to be Hitler's. Within the week, he retracted the verification. Sisman doesn't ignore the impatience and arrogance that led Trevor-Roper to this humiliation; instead, he notes that the historian never denied his error but rather kept writing, producing insightful work into his old age. VERDICT This is the first biography of this appealing writer, and it's very good. [See Prepub Alert, 6/6/11.]—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Exhaustive biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914–2003), one of England's foremost and controversial 20th-century historians, critics and essayists. NBCC Award winner Sisman (The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge, 2006, etc.) draws from archival correspondence and meticulous research, displaying a talent for balancing his subject's flaws and strengths. By his own admission, Trevor-Roper was inclined toward "pride" as well as "imprudence, ostentation, volubility, and the need for company," all of which manifested in various situations. Sisman successfully avoids turning the book into an account of a prickly, scholarly egoist who succumbed to hubris, a popular misconception. Trevor-Roper—who gained acclaim for investigating Hitler's death and who was later panned for mistakenly stating that the Hitler diaries found in the early '80s were authentic—emerges as a multilayered figure whose life should not be framed solely by these two widely publicized events. Though readers familiar with World War II intrigue and British radio intelligence will especially appreciate the chapters spanning the period, Sisman suggests that Trevor-Roper should also be remembered for his literary contributions and for the dignity he maintained despite heavy criticism. Leisurely in its pacing and studded with anecdotes that include major figures such as Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger, Malcolm Muggeridge and Katharine Hepburn, the book considers how one man touched some of the most exclusive social circles while standing apart from them, and how he shaped public discourse with a formidable pen. Empathetic, illuminating and occasionally witty, if challenging in its depth and range of detail.

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chapter one


In later life, Hugh Trevor-­Roper was sometimes referred to as “Roper.” The tale—­perhaps apocryphal—­is told of a grandee who persistently addressed him as such. “Trevor-­Roper,” Hugh eventually protested. “But my dear fellow, I don’t know you that well,” came the reply.1

The sting in this story comes from Hugh’s assumed mortification at such a snub. It was a common charge against him that he was a snob, preferring the company of his social superiors, and aspiring to be accepted as one of them. The English upper classes have made a practice of adopting hyphenated surnames, so that both can be retained when a member of one notable family marries another. Calling Hugh “Roper” could therefore be interpreted as a put-­down. It perhaps adds piquancy to the story that the forename “Trevor” has plebeian connotations.

In fact Hugh was proud of his Roper origins, which could be traced back to the beginning of the fifteenth century. There is a great “Roper Roll” (a form of family tree) at Nostell Priory in Yorkshire. The Roper family had established their descent from the brother of Archbishop Chichele, founder in 1438 of All Souls College, Oxford; as “Founder’s Kin,” they were entitled to claim college fellowships. This hereditary right was abolished by Act of Parliament in the nineteenth century.

In the reign of Henry VIII a William Roper had married the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas More; and after his father-­in-­law’s fall and execution had written his biography. The Roper family became guardians of More’s memory, remaining faithful to the Church of Rome for generations, beyond the time when it was prudent to be so. Hugh, who gained a reputation as a scourge of twentieth-­century Catholics, was amused by this family tradition. In St. Dunstan’s Church near Canterbury there is a Roper Chapel, where (according to him) two priests are obliged to sing regular masses on behalf of the family in perpetuity.

In 1608 William Roper’s nephew John was granted the manor of Teynham in Kent, and eight years later he was created Baron Teynham, after paying the then extraordinary sum of £10,000 for the title.2 Hugh was descended from the Teynhams, via a younger brother of the 9th and 10th Lords Teynham; conscious of this connection from an early age, he was always aware that, were a dozen or so intervening cousins to perish à la Kind Hearts and Coronets, he would inherit a peerage.

The Ropers clung to their faith throughout most of the seventeenth century, but after the Revolution of 1688 they decided that the struggle was no longer worth continuing and conformed to the established Church. About a hundred years later Hugh’s great-­grandfather, Cadwallader Blayney Roper, inherited the estate of Plas Teg in North Wales from his aunt, one of the Trevors, a Welsh family of similar antiquity, and took the surname Trevor-­Roper to acknowledge both sides of his inheritance. His aunt had earlier married one of the grand Dacres who owned vast tracts of the North of En-gland. The Trevor-­Ropers maintained the connection by continuing to use the Dacre name through subsequent generations, long after contact between the families had come to an end.

The principal house on the Plas Teg estate was a magnificent stone mansion, perhaps the finest Jacobean country house in Wales.3 It had been built around 1610 by Sir John Trevor, to a design attributed (without any solid evidence) to Inigo Jones. Charles Dickens stayed at Plas Teg during one of his lecture tours and described his host, Hugh’s great-­uncle—­another Charles—­as a jolly country gentleman: one of a long line. Among Charles Trevor-­Roper’s younger brothers was Hugh’s grandfather Richard, who inhabited one of the lesser houses on the Plas Teg estate. Grandfather Richard and his wife had thirteen children, the youngest of whom, Hugh’s father Bertie, was born in 1885. One of Bertie’s earliest memories was of his father being laid on the kitchen table, which had been placed beside the bath, for his tuberculous leg to be sawn off. Hugh’s grandfather did not survive this operation. Eleven years later, his grandmother married again, to her late husband’s cousin Hugh; Bertie’s eldest son would be named after this stepfather. The Trevor-­Ropers had a habit of marrying within the family; Richard’s elder brother George, for example, married another cousin, one of his sister-­in-­law’s sisters.

The senior line of the family was almost severed in 1917, when Charles’s grandson, a soldier, was killed at Passchendaele—­but a son was born during the war, inheriting the estate which would otherwise have passed to a cousin under the terms of the entail. This fatherless son, Richard Dacre Trevor-­Roper, was a wild boy, expelled from Wellington College for running an underground inter-­school gambling syndicate.4 Subsequently he raced cars and was rumored to have climbed the outside of a skyscraper. In the Second World War, after being cashiered from the Army, he joined RAF Bomber Command, becoming famous as one of Guy Gibson’s Dambusters, a rear gunner known to his colleagues as “Trev.” Hugh would often remark that his cousin Richard Trevor-­Roper, who was awarded the DFC and the DFM, had been much more distinguished than he would ever be. But “Trev” too was killed in action, over Nuremberg in 1944; once again, the male line of the Trevor-­Ropers had apparently been cut. After the war the estate was sold at auction—­bought by the auctioneer, who cut down the trees and built new houses in the grounds, allowing the mansion to fall into ruin once he had stripped out its salable contents. In the late 1950s he applied to have it demolished, but this application was refused after a campaign of protest. Hugh inspected Plas Teg, then standing empty and dilapidated, and toyed with the idea of buying it, but his wife vetoed the proposal. His brother bought the house instead and, with grant aid, restored it; and though almost two de­cades later he was compelled to sell Plas Teg, the house had been preserved from destruction. Meanwhile the surrounding estate, which once had extended to more than a thousand acres, had shrunk to a mere garden.

There was a postscript to this dual tragedy of father and son. Years later it emerged that, on his final posting, to an air base near Skegness, “Trev” had married a local woman. Unknown to him, he had fathered a child: a boy named Charles, who would grow up in difficult circumstances, with only one parent, bereft of the privileges which he might have enjoyed had his father survived. Hugh delighted in this story and befriended Charles, by then running a hotel in Torquay, whom he acknowledged as head of the Trevor-­Roper family.

Hugh’s father Bertie chose medicine as a profession. After taking a degree at Manchester University, and qualifying as both a physician and surgeon, he applied for a position as a medical officer in India, but was rejected as a “bad life” because of his asthma—­though in fact he would live to be ninety-­two. His asthma may also help to explain why he did not serve in the Great War, which began while he was still in his twenties. As a doctor he was unlikely to have been conscripted, and in any case married men were among the last to be called up. In 1910 he had married Kathleen Davison, daughter of a Belfast businessman who had retired to Cheshire. That same year he bought a practice in Glanton, in the Cheviot Hills of rural north Northumberland. Why he and his wife should have wanted to make their lives in that part of the country is unclear. There was no obvious family connection with the area, though the Dacres had once owned a large estate near Morpeth. Northumberland is a Border county, a wedge of English territory projecting into Scotland. From Alnwick northward it is especially isolated: there England narrows to a funnel not more than twenty-­five miles wide, hemmed in by mountains on one side and the sea on the other. Glanton itself was (and remains) a modest village of plain stone houses, most of two stories, less than ten miles as the crow flies from the Scottish Border, across the looming Cheviot Hills.

In 1912 Kathleen gave birth to her first child, a daughter whom they named Sheila; two years later, on January 15, 1914, Hugh was born, at Glanton; and in 1916 a third child followed, called Patrick and known as Pat ever after. Pat’s second name was Dacre; Hugh’s was Redwald, originally a seventh-­century king of East Anglia and apparently a Davison family name. Hugh came to dislike the name Redwald (perhaps because it was embarrassing to a shy schoolboy), and preferred it not to be mentioned. He felt himself to be the least popular of the three children, and Pat, by nature outgoing and amiable, to be the favorite. By the time Pat was born the Trevor-­Ropers had moved a few miles east, to the historic county town of Alnwick, where Bertie had bought another practice. Though he retained the original practice in Glanton, and shuttled between the two, working single-­handedly without a partner, Alnwick was henceforth the family home. As a boy Hugh often accompanied his father on the short journey to Glanton, and sat in the waiting room while his father saw the patients. In the early days of his practice, Bertie did his rounds on horseback: afterward on a motorcycle, and eventually by car. Much later, when he had learned to drive, Hugh sometimes chauffeured his father on his rounds.

Hugh did not need to look far for evidence of Alnwick’s dramatic history. It is a medieval town, with cobbled streets, narrow alleys and handsome stone buildings. Fortified gates and fragments of surviving wall provide clues to a violent past. In 1424 the Scots sacked Alnwick and set it alight. A stone memorial outside the walls marks the site where a Scottish king was killed during a siege. Dominating the town is a Norman castle, one of the largest in England, stronghold of the Percy family for the past seven centuries. The Percys became the most powerful barons in the North, at war with the Scots for generations. The most famous of them, known as Hotspur, was brave to the point of recklessness; it was this Hotspur whose qualities Shakespeare contrasted with those of the young Prince Hal. In the eighteenth century the Percys acquired the defunct title of Dukes of Northumberland; they adapted the castle for a more peaceful age, and enclosed their now picturesque estate with a wall, more suited to keep out trespassers than armed raiders.

The Trevor-­Ropers lived in that part of the main street of Alnwick known as Bondgate Without, because it was outside one of the old town gates (the part inside is known as Bondgate Within). Their house was a substantial stone building (now a small hotel), large enough to be used as a surgery as well as a home. All four local doctors were clustered along a stretch of Bondgate Without known locally as “the Doctors’ Mile,” and each worked in turn at the local infirmary, a short distance further out of town. Bertie Trevor-­Roper also served as a Medical Officer of Health, both within Alnwick itself and the surrounding countryside. It seems that he was successful in his profession, sought out by wealthy and titled patients, including the Percys, though the fact that he was treating them was kept confidential. After the Duke, Bertie Trevor-­Roper was the next person in the district to own a car, a black Ford. Poorer patients often turned up at the kitchen door, hoping to be treated free of charge. The Trevor-­Ropers kept a housemaid who lived in a small room at the top of the house, and who doubled as a receptionist for the surgery, answering the doorbell. To kitchen-­door patients she offered a doorstep diagnosis, sending them away if she judged the problem to be a minor one, with the comment that “the doctor is too busy to see you.”

In an obituary written by a colleague, Bertie Trevor-­Roper would be described as a good surgeon and a kind physician, always affable and generous and never censorious or self-­pitying, with an enviable dry wit.5 To his sons, however, Bertie exuded the air of a man thwarted by life. Elegantly turned out in trilby and country suit, he was to them a distant, reticent figure, who seldom spoke to his children. He took no part in the conversation at meal-­times. Even when they rode with him in the car on his rounds he discouraged chat. (One reason may have been that he was having affairs; the children noticed that they had to wait a long time outside when he was attending to certain attractive female patients.) He maintained that he would converse with them once they reached the age of reason, which he put at sixteen, but by then it would be too late: they had nothing to talk about. As was usual at the time, the children addressed him respectfully as “Father,” just as they addressed Kathleen as “Mother.” Because of his remoteness Bertie seemed to his three young children intimidating, even frightening, though he was never harsh or cruel. On the contrary, his photographs suggest a gentle, rueful character. Later his grandsons would find him relaxed and fun. Hugh eventually decided that his father had contracted out of parenthood. Bertie can have had little experience of his own father, who had died while he was still an infant. On the other hand, the fact that he named his eldest son after his stepfather suggests that he and the older Hugh were at least on amicable terms.

Neither of his parents seemed to Hugh to have any intellectual or cultural interests, certainly none that they shared with their children. The only books that Hugh could remember his father reading were on horse-­racing. Aside from his profession, the turf was Bertie’s chief interest in life. He took the family to race-­meetings across the North of England and southern Scotland, including the point-­to-­points of the various hunts. In due course Hugh became interested in racing himself, though it never absorbed him as it did his father. Bertie was a gambling man; as well as betting on horses, he and Kathleen spent evenings at the roulette tables in the casino at Monte Carlo, on winter excursions to the South of France, from which the children were excluded. At weekends the family sometimes drove into Newcastle for lunch at Tilley’s smart tea-­rooms in Blackett Street. Hugh discovered an antiquarian bookstall in the market, which yielded many treasures. Family holidays were taken in the late summer at a cottage near Howick on the Northumbrian coast, a few miles north­east of Alnwick. Bertie stayed behind to work, joining them at weekends.

According to Hugh, there was never any sign of intimacy between his parents. His mother Kathleen was rigidly conformist, lacking in humor, and cramped by what seemed to Hugh in retrospect a stifling class-­consciousness and accompanying sense of decorum. She never hugged her children, and refused to allow them to mix with those she considered to be their social inferiors, not even their neighbors. They were forbidden to invite home the daughter of the lawyer who lived opposite, for example, even though she took lessons with Sheila. The Trevor-­Roper brothers remembered sitting on the garden wall, gazing down at the local children playing in the street. Their society was confined to the offspring of their parents’ friends, almost exclusively in the Glanton area. The “Alnwick people” were shunned. Though the genteel seaside resort of Alnmouth, only a few miles downstream from Alnwick, was frequented by the families of well-­to-­do businessmen not unlike Kathleen’s own father, they never went there: to mix socially with such types was “inappropriate.”

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Adam Sisman’s first book was a biography of Trevor-Roper’s rival A. J. P. Taylor. He has also written Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson (winner of the National Books Critics Circle award for biography) and The Friendship: Wordsworth and Coleridge.

From the Hardcover edition.

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