Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography Adam Sisman

Weindenfeld and Nicholson, pp.598, 25

Why are scholars so prone to melancholy? According to the expert, Robert Burton of Christ Church, it is because ‘they live a sedentary, solitary life…

Why are scholars so prone to melancholy? According to the expert, Robert Burton of Christ Church, it is because ‘they live a sedentary, solitary life… free from bodily exercise and those ordinary disports that other men use.’ Not this one. The most remarkable characteristic of the young and maturing Trevor-Roper was his frenzied pursuit of foxes and hares on horse and foot, and his capacity for long marches through Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and the Borders in search of spiritual refreshment or a rendez-vous with a horse. Riding to hounds several days a week, or once a week in wartime, occupied many daylight hours. Driving like a demon and drinking insane quantities of claret and brandy by night, in raucous company, excluded gloom. The wonder is that none of this blunted his wits or his industry, or cost him his life and health in tumbles from Rubberneck, his favourtie mount. A weaker man would have drowned in his own port, but this was a regime of 18th century dissipation, which supported a 20th century work-ethic.

He was not the only academic who lived like that during the inter-war period. Even Joad, the professor of the Brains Trust, rode to hounds; but the increasingly Dryasdust habits of the historians, or ‘professionalism’ as they liked to think, made the combination of physical and mental recklessness rarer and rarer, even at Oxford. There are probably not more than four foxhunters among the thousands and thousands crammed into the colleges and faculties nowadays. Even sixty years ago, the contrast between Trevor-Roper’s way of life and that of most colleagues earned him suspicion, mistrust and depreciation, whatever contribution he made to the study of history; all the more so, when he mocked the narrow specialism, insularity and apparent torpor of the dons not included in the ‘Party of Light’. To be dismissed as both unfit for society and intellectually null was the fate of many middle-rank dons whom he encountered; to be maligned as a light-weight careerist his reward. Many years later, when Mrs Thatcher made him a baron, the old epithets were dusted and brought back into play: social climber, snob, poseur, journalist, along with the rhetorical question put by Dr Rowse of All Souls

… Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall. And what, pray, has Trevor-Roper to show for it at a comparable age?

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One merit of this thorough biography is that it answers the question and refutes the insinuation. The Regius Professor made his many contributions to the serious study and invigoration of history by unorthodox means: the essay, the review, the piece in the weekly journal, the pamphlet, rather than the learned article (his were few but potent) and the big book, that great work about the convulsion of England between 1640 and 1660 which never appeared, and which he was famous for not writing, and yet continually wrote. When he did publish a book which answered the rather urgent question of ‘is Hitler alive or dead?’, its runaway success with the general public disqualifies it as a work of scholarship; but by various other means he made five other historical problems (at least) to catch fire and even crackle among educated readers all over the world.

First was the question of those Tudor gentry whom everyone assumed to be rising, when Trevor-Roper found evidence that many were not. Then the causes and nature of King Charles’ Civil War: country v. court, or bourgeoisie v. aristocracy? Then, why was Western Europe the origin and incubator of all forms of material and scientific progress since the Middle Ages? How far was the Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century a consequence of the Act of Union with England? And fifth: was the persecution of witches a medieval or an early modern innovation?

He had answers, and in each case he disturbed vested ideological interests: Marxist, Nationalist, Determinist, Religious and Sociological. He struck at them with cheerful contempt, but usually without permanent breaches of friendly relations: Dr Rowse always excepted. His failure to finish that big book, and several other smaller ones, was a personal disappointment and a weapon in the hands of his critics, but no real loss to history. The subject had grown beyond one man’s reach. Hugh was a perfectionist; a perfected magnum opus would have used time he spent in bringing a wider range of topics to life.

He could have spent less energy fighting what now seem to have been paper tigers: the Roman Catholics, the medievalists, the dilettantes, the ‘colourless successful mediocritites’, the Oriel College Leftists, and more in meeting publishers’ dedlines; but he was combative by nature, and he shared Bowra’s opinion that pitiless conflict with the unenlightened is the duty of the thinker. ‘The point is not to score, but to win’ was his maxim, and his wartime experience as an intelligence officer caught up in bitter inter-departmental feuds taught him to pick the right allies after the war, and so win some useful victories in university politics. The election of his publisher, the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, as chancellor of the university, against the wishes of most dons, was the most notable, and Sisman does justice to the tactical skill which pulled off the coup. If there is an oversight in the book, it concerns the attempt to reform the Oxford history syllabus by including the study of historians; no great omission perhaps but Hugh fought long and hard to bring this about. He was a humane Regius Professor, if a stern examiner. He bequeathed to graduate students a simple set of rules on how to write a thesis which is still valuable.

Few historians have found their marriages to be of interest to the public, but the home life of this one and Lady Alexandra was closely watched and frequently discussed. She was a beauty, a fashion-plate, and an unsparing critic of her husband’s, and all academic, shortcomings, so that at times they enacted that imaginary conflict between the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie which he did much to obliterate, or at least downplay, in the history-books.

Sisman touches their relationship with sympathy and humour, as a love affair between two social anachronists which reinforced their stance against an increasingly strange world. It maddened the historian to be scolded for neglecting ‘his real work’, his wife and her friends, when the need to pay bills was the spur that drove him to undertake what she considered unnecessary commissions; but she stimulated his emotions, surpressed in childhood, and eventually she turned into a devoted nurse, and a truly benign widower.

By then, he had suffered the humiliation of the Hilter Diaries affair. He appeared to accept these forgeries as genuine as the result of badgering and bullying by journalists, publishers and criminals, and retracted his opinion only to be caricatured as a dupe or stooge of the Murdoch and other presses. The tale is told in Sisman’s 23rd chapter; painful to read, but not as painful as the account of his seven years at Peterhouse, the Cambridge college which chose him as Master in 1979, and which was recommended to him by a former fellow for its ‘pleasant ambience’.

What is narrated in this book corresponds closely to the Master’s own account, and yet it it difficult for an Oxonian to believe that any set of educated men, even at Cambridge, could behave with the studied boorishness and rancour of the dominant clique within Peterhouse in that period. Gibbon slandered the fellows of Magdalen as drunken drones in the 1750s, and it was 1800 before Hurdis exposed most of his accusations as unfounded or wildly exaggerated. It would be a pity if the vindication of Peterhouse were equally posterior. Meanwhile, the Dacre version will hold the field; and the Sisman version of Dacre will,
or should, endure. It is a fascinating biography, which deserves parity of esteem with Leslie Mitchell’s Maurice Bowra, about another sacred monster who made Oxford life more interesting than it seems to be now.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Academia, Biography, Britain, History, Non-fiction, Oxford, Post-war