The Wartime Journals
by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
I.B. Tauris, 322 pp., $35.00
Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language. He was also a man of prodigious learning, a classical scholar, and a remarkable historian. As a writer he took for models Francis Bacon, Donne, Hobbes, Sir Thomas Browne, Gibbon, and, perhaps surprisingly, Flaubert, and perhaps more surprisingly, George Moore. Stylistically, his nearest though laggardly competitor among his contemporaries would have been Evelyn Waugh, who loathed him personally—they both greatly admired Gibbon and sought to emulate his sonorous periods. Among historiographers, few could compete with him for elegance, insight, and liveliness. A.J.P. Taylor, his friendly rival, once remarked that when he read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays, tears of envy stood in his eyes.
The Trevor-Ropers were a cadet branch of a once grand and powerful family. Hugh’s ancestor William Roper had married the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas More. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a nephew of William Roper’s was granted the manor house of Teynham in Kent, and later purchased—for £10,000, a vast sum in those days—the title of Baron Teynham. Hugh was directly descended from the Teynhams, and, as his biographer Adam Sisman notes, “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.” Margaret Thatcher offered him a life peerage in 1979,1 and he took the title Lord Dacre of Glanton: Dacre after another branch of the family, and Glanton after his birthplace in Northumberland.
Trevor-Roper’s childhood was comfortable but unhappy—“I can recollect,” he wrote later, “no real pleasure before the age of 16.” His father was a doctor, kindly disposed yet remote, while his mother, according to Sisman, “was rigidly conformist, lacking in humour, and cramped by what seemed to Hugh in retrospect a stifling class-consciousness and accompanying sense of decorum.” No doubt the memory of the chilly circumstances of his childhood was one of the factors that determined the adult Trevor-Roper to enjoy life to the fullest. He loved scholarship but was also an enthusiast for the hunt, and, certainly in his letters and journals, presented himself as a mighty drinker and a devotee of pleasure in all its forms—“gaiety” was one of his favorite words. He was, or aspired to be, both Falstaff and Prince Hal, with a dash of Hamlet thrown in for bad measure—all his life he suffered from devastating bouts of depression.2 As Richard Davenport-Hines, editor of The Wartime Journals, shrewdly puts it, Trevor-Roper “was a gregarious introvert, a man of tight emotional reticence, who edited and controlled the public version of his self as strictly as he cut and buffed his prose.”
At the age of nine Trevor-Roper was sent to boarding school, where he was miserable, but after a prolonged illness he was transferred to another…
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Print Subscription — $79.95
Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.
Online Subscription — $69.00
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
One-Week Access — $4.99
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.
Born the son of a country doctor in Northumberland, during a solitary childhood he acquired the love of literature and the feeling for language that would inform everything he wrote and said. He was educated at Charterhouse and Christ Church, Oxford. Christ Church, with its social confidence and worldly connections, drew him out. He began his undergraduate career not as a historian, the subject to which he changed after Moderations, but as a classicist. From 1937 to 1939 he was a research fellow of Merton College, Oxford, where he wrote his first book, Archbishop Laud (1940).
Then came the war, the decisive event in the shaping of a historian who was always alert to parallels between past and present and to the historical dimension of present events. He served in the Radio Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service, working on the penetration and deception of the German secret service. Later he drew on that experience in The Philby Affair (1968).
More immediately, the war and its aftermath produced the classic that made his name, The Last Days Of Hitler (1947); a claustrophobic, Tacitean portrait of dissolving tyranny which is also a work of investigative genius. At the end of the war he had been commissioned by the intelligence services to discover what had happened to Hitler, whom Stalin was claiming was still alive. Trevor-Roper travelled through Germany, tracking down and interrogating survivors of Hitler's court and reconstructing not only the circumstances of the Fuhrer's death but the power structure of his regime.
In 1946 he returned to Christ Church, now as a student (or fellow). He quickly became a leading force in the college, where he was Censor from 1947 to 1952. Meanwhile his historical research had reverted to 17th-century England. An instinctive and sometimes merciless controversialist, he was soon engaged in the "storm over the gentry", in which he took on RH Tawney and Lawrence Stone over the economic causes of the English civil war. This was one of the most fertile historical debates of modern times, its interpretative influence long outlasting the original points of dispute.
But Trevor-Roper's interests could not be confined to a single period or country. His reviews and essays in the press, ranging widely in subject matter, both past and present, reached an audience well beyond the academic community. In 1957 he published a combative collection of short pieces for the general reader, Historical Essays. In the same year, at the age of 43, he was appointed to the Regius professorship of modern history at Oxford, a position he held, in conjunction with a fellowship at Oriel, until 1980. His inaugural lecture, a protest against the over-specialisation of his medievalist predecessors and a call for the engagement of historical studies with large issues of importance to the intellectual laity, established the guiding principles of his tenure of the chair.
Throughout his career he resisted, against the current of the time, the tendency of the academic community and of the historical profession towards introversion. Yet his objection was only to narrowness of vision, never to scholarship. The aspect of his tenure that he most enjoyed was his part in the scholarly training of Oxford's expanding postgraduate population. He was the most devoted and inspiring of teachers.
His tenure was colourful from the outset. He was quickly involved in a celebrated dispute with AJP Taylor, who had been a rival for the chair, over Taylor's The Origins Of The Second World War.
Then, in 1959, he challenged academic introversion on another front, taking on the powerful and, to his mind, stuffy heads of Oxford colleges, who had united behind Oliver Franks's candidacy for the chancellorship of the university. Trevor-Roper, always an unconventional Tory, drummed up the MA vote to carry another unconventional Tory, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, to victory.
While Trevor-Roper occupied the public eye, his critics, sometimes even his friends, were urging him to write a long and weighty book. In reality his learning, though never paraded, indeed at times almost secretive, was formidable and exact. He has left behind an extraordinary range of scholarly writing, not all of it completed or published.
But the world, he felt, was not short of fat books on single subjects. His favoured form was the essay, sometimes the long essay - where insight must be concentrated, proportion maintained and the evidence of learning kept mostly beneath the surface. The genre allowed him to move across time and space and to draw on the breadth of his reading and reflection. He liked to notice resemblances here, or contrasts there, between societies or events or circumstances. Comparison was his essential intellectual instrument, as it was of the "philosophic historians" of the 18th century, Gibbon at their head, whom he admired. Everything that interested him seemed to remind him of something else.
In 1967 he brought together perhaps the most remarkable of his collections of essays, Religion, The Reformation And Social Change. Employing an almost dizzying range of material, the book centred on the revolutions that shook Europe in the middle of the 17th century and related them to the mental ferment that preceded and accompanied them. The essays reflected the influence of French historians, particularly Fernand Braudel and Marc Bataillon, who had deepened his interest in early-modern Europe. They also marked the movement of his thinking away from economics to ideas. They were the boldest exposition of lifelong persuasions: of his equation of historical progress with pluralism; of his impatience with closed intellectual systems (both past and present); and of his rejection of historical determinism.
He would return to the 16th and 17th centuries in 1976 in his study of European painting and politics, Princes And Artists. But by now his historical interests had become more evenly spread. He had already published a broad thematic study of the Middle Ages, The Rise Of Christian Europe (1965). His interest in modern Germany persisted, producing The Goebbels Diaries (1978), and a number of essays on nazism. He also wrote a series of essays on the historical writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, above all Gibbon, Macaulay, Carlyle and Burckhardt.
As the subject matter of his studies broadened, so Trevor-Roper, wearying of badly written articles in bloated specialist journals, strayed ever further from the beaten academic track. In A Hidden Life (1976, also published as The Hermit Of Peking), he discovered a wild orchid of a subject in the impostures and fantasies of the sinologist and political operator Sir Edmund Backhouse, who flourished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The wild farce and improbable triumphs of Backhouse's deceptions, in China and England alike, cheered Trevor-Roper amid the growing bureaucratic and conformist solemnities of academic life. His delight in la comédie humaine, which made him as enjoyable a letter writer as the 20th century can have produced, was accompanied by a strong satirical impulse and a no less strong sense of mischief. He was reputedly the author of The Letters Of Mercurius (1970), comical vignettes of the Oxford of the time of student revolt, modelled in part on John Aubrey, which ran in The Spectator.
In 1980, aged 66, he moved to Cambridge as Master of Peterhouse, where his conflict with what he saw as an enclosed and reactionary oligarchy among the fellows became another cause célèbre and another rich source of anecdote. He fell into controversy again in 1985, when he made much the gravest of those errors of over-confidence to which he was occasionally prone. As a director of Times Newspapers he examined the fake Hitler diaries and was taken in by them. His gift for detective work, which had produced such remarkable results in his books on Hitler and Backhouse, now deserted him. Perhaps that humiliation contributed to the mellowing, and to the growing tendency to self-deprecation, that grew conspicuous in his later years. His prose yielded something of its exuberance and assertiveness, though none of its elegance or suppleness or wit.
When he retired from Peterhouse in 1987 he had embarked on a series of collections of essays which had appeared in scattered places, and which in a number of cases he now substantially rewrote. Renaissance Essays appeared in 1985, Catholics, Anglicans And Puritans in 1987, From Counter-Reformation To Glorious Revolution in 1992. The volumes he planned on later periods were not completed.
Amid all his public controversies, Trevor-Roper remained an essentially private, even a shy man. In retirement he lived at Didcot, a town convenient for both Oxford and London. In his 80s, his mind as alert as ever, he bore a gradual and for a time almost complete loss of sight, and the advance of cancer, with stoical fortitude and good humour, sustaining, amid heaps of increasingly unmanageable paper, a scholarly correspondence around the globe. His wife Alexandra died in 1997. They had been devotedly married for 43 years. He is survived by three stepchildren.
· Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton, historian, born January 15 1914; died January 26 2003