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The Voltaire of St Aldates

12 July 2006

5:05 PM

12 July 2006

5:05 PM

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

Weidenfeld, pp.326, 20

Ah Oxford! Welcome to the City of Dreadful Spite, otherwise known as Malice Springs, the permanent Number One on the Bitch List. Not since the vituperative pamphleteers of the English Civil War has there been a community so dedicated to character assassination as the dons of Oxford. Living on the same staircase, dining side by side, night after night, term after term, dries up the milk of human kindness. Here is Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History for 23 years, describing C.S. Lewis, a Fellow of Magdalen College for nearly 30:

Envisage (if you can) a man who combines the face and figure of a hog-reeve or earth-stopper with the mind and thought of a Desert Father of the fifth century, preoccupied with meditations of inelegant theological obscenity: a powerful mind warped by erudite philistinism, blackened by systematic bigotry, and directed by a positive detestation of such profane frivolities as art, literature and (of course) poetry: a purple-faced bachelor and misogynist, living alone in rooms of inconceivable hideousness, secretly consuming vast quantities of his favourite dish — beefsteak-and-kidney-pudding; periodically trembling at the mere apprehension of a feminine footfall; and all the while distilling his morbid and illiberal thoughts into volumes of bestselling prurient religiosity.

But the vitriol flows both ways. Here is the classical scholar Sir Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham for 32 years, writing to Evelyn Waugh in 1947:

Trevor-Roper is a fearful man, short-sighted, with dripping eyes, shows off all the time, sucks up to me, boasts, is far from poor owing to his awful book [The Last Days of Hitler] on every page of which there is a howler.

In Oxford popular success in the outside world is the unforgivable sin. Thus for Trevor-Roper the bestselling A.L. Rowse is ‘typical of modern Oxford historians. There is neither breadth nor depth in him. He is provincial — a good provincial journalist.’ Later in this selection of his letters to the great art historian Bernard Berenson, he describes Rowse as ‘a Cornish peasant with the character of a mediaeval village usurer’.

On and on it goes. Herbert Butterfield was ‘a very undistinguished historian’, while the great refugee classicist Eduard Fraenkel was ‘a German of the most boring kind’. Berenson would no doubt be delighted to hear that the mesmerising Slade lecturer on art, Edgar Wind, was ‘a charlatan of something akin to genius’, and Arnold Toynbee was ‘the Apostle of the Half-Baked’.

Even Trevor-Roper’s friends sometimes wearied of this relentless battering. The publisher Hamish Hamilton wrote to Berenson after a weekend with the Duchess of Buccleuch, ‘Hugh Trevor-Roper was there, and we found ourselves wondering if one so young and gifted ought to spend quite so much time hating people. He has hardly a charitable word for anyone, and seems to relish the discomfiture even of those he is supposed to like.’

Although not much of a one for introspection, Trevor-Roper could identify clearly enough the influences that had put lead in his bludgeon. He found his father, a workaholic physician, aloof and unres- ponsive. His mother, from a Belfast linen family, was cold, humourless and snobbish. ‘Ours was a grim household without warmth, or affection, or encouragement, or interest.’ Until extreme old age, he retained a weirdly boyish skin — the impression of youthful irresponsibility heightened by the chuckles that would break out at the news of some comical mishap to a butt or rival. His Christ Church friend, the economist Roy Harrod, claimed that Trevor-Roper had once undergone extensive cosmetic surgery after a riding accident or car smash (I forget which) but that sometimes, in the light cast obliquely by the candles in Christ Church Hall, it was possible to catch a glimpse of the old face underneath, twisted and wrinkled by years of backbiting.


His gestures were awkward, as though he had only just learnt them, and he appeared stiff and uneasy beside his exuberantly gay brother Pat, a distinguished and convivial eye surgeon, so convivial in fact that one sometimes trembled for the first glaucoma patient of the morning after — not that Hugh was much beside him, for like Berenson he shied away from the claims of family life. When at the age of 40 he married Field Marshal Haig’s daughter Alexandra (‘Xandra’), who was seven years older, he grumbled constantly about how her three children interfered with his timetable. Nor did Alexandra receive much of a welcome from the Berenson ménage at I Tatti. The sage recorded in his diary, ‘Youngish woman with wooden angular profile, Celtic blonde colouring, fairly good figure, no interest or talk to entitle her to frequent us or to be travelling with Hugh.’ His judgment after a later visit by the Trevor-Ropers was barely less chilly: ‘She looked haggard and years older than Hugh, but very well dressed and is not by any means as stupid and dazed as she looks.’

Berenson was 82 when they first met in July 1947; Trevor-Roper only 33. They could not therefore enjoy that instinctive understanding which irradiates the correspondence of people who were young together, like Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin or Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford. What they shared were conservative sympathies in culture and politics, a reverence for the liberalism of Erasmus and Burckhardt, a distaste for organised religion in general and the Roman Catholic Church in particular, and above all a taste for gossip, though one sometimes wonders when Trevor-Roper is retailing a titbit about some Fellow of Merton or Belgravia hostess whether Berenson had a clue who he was talking about. Berenson himself admitted, ‘I have but a tangential relationship to my younger friends; they do not think of me as one of themselves.’

So to some extent these letters are a performance to entertain an old man, comparable to, though much richer and cattier than, Rupert Hart-Davis’s letters to George Lyttelton. They are superbly edited. Richard Davenport-Hines’s introduction is so crisp and perceptive that it sometimes makes the actual letters seem a little plodding. His footnotes, too, are an unobtrusive delight, informing us for example that Berenson’s sister Senda Abbott introduced basketball as a team sport for women and that Randal, 8th and last Earl of Berkeley, was ‘a world expert on osmosis and the only man at that time to be simultaneously a Fellow of the Royal Society and a Master of Foxhounds’. I like the ‘at that time’, as though at other periods there might have been half-a-dozen chaps who had brought off the double.

It is to a footnote, too, that we owe the information that at lunch at I Tatti, Thomas Pakenham, then aged 19 or 20, ‘asked loudly and inconveniently how the money had been made to pay for such grandeur’. The answer to that interesting question is given here. The unstoppable art dealer Joseph Duveen began by paying Berenson a commission of ten per cent on the sale price of paintings for which BB had provided an attribution. These huge pourboires netted more than $80,000 in 1909 alone. Berenson lamented, ‘I have become a society-lounger and money-grubber and God knows what, I do not like it at all and mean to wrench myself away as soon as possible.’ But far from wrenching away he ratcheted up his fee to an almost incredible 25 per cent and remained in cahoots with Joe Duveen until 1937, and then after the war transferred his services to Georges Wildenstein.

Imprisoned in this dubiously acquired splendour (for how could he not bend just a little to Joe’s insistence that this one really was a Titian or a Bellini?), he envied what he saw as Trevor-Roper’s insouciant independence amid the dreaming spires, just as Trevor-Roper longed for the grace and calm of I Tatti’s fountains and cypresses, hating Oxford’s squabbles and intrigues, which so consumed his energies. The dreary company of embittered old men was at odds with the Oxford he liked to believe in, ‘a gay sceptical tolerant enquiring unshockable world’. ‘I made a careful computation the other day which satisfies me that there are in this university only 19 intelligent people, of whom six are hermits or otherwise unsuitable for social life and eight are so social that they can never be found, always being in Paris, London or some such place.’ And their idleness was often on a heroic scale, fully matching the sloth of Oxford professors in the days of his hero Edward Gibbon: ‘We now have in this university seven professors of history, only one of whom has ever written so much as one book on a historical subject, and two of whom have never even committed so much as a single antiquarian review.’

For both men, conversation was the thing. In Berenson’s words, ‘the give and take of talk has been from my earliest years and remains the crowning joy of my life’. He thought Trevor-Roper a good talker, a fine historian, but above all a superb letter-writer. Davenport-Hines calls him ‘the greatest letter-writer of his generation, a letter-writer whose irony, grace and knowledge make him the 20th-century equivalent of Madame de Sévigné or Horace Walpole’. After The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper’s second postwar masterpiece was, we are told, his correspondence.

On the evidence of this volume I don’t quite think so, although his enormous correspondence with friends of his own age might give a different impression. Certainly his judgments of character are often piercing, and his vignettes can be terrific; for example, his description of calling on Jan Masaryk, the Czech foreign minister, a few weeks before the communist coup in Prague after which Masaryk threw himself or was thrown out of the window of his ministry:

He was alleged to be ill, but I think it was an illness of convenience, for he seemed in excellent form when I found him, lying in bed in a vast and luxurious apartment of the Czernin Palace. He was writing private letters in violet ink and reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, and the elaborate canon of the bells of the Capuchin Loreto drifted in through the curtains, and he made elaborate jokes in brisk brogue, and all the time he was leaving the foreign policy of Czechoslovakia to his communist under- secretary.

But the repeated use of ‘lower-middle-class’ as a pejorative epithet, indeed the whole faintly camp apparatus of snobbery, becomes wearisome. And the mock-heroic accounts of those Lilliputian Oxford sagas — the election of the Professor of Poetry, the battle to install Macmillan as Chancellor of the University — do drag on a bit. They are more amusingly told in the cod 17th-century despatches which Trevor-Roper contributed to The Spectator under the byline of ‘Mercurius Oxonensis’. On each page there is some arresting thought or phrase and I turned each page eagerly, but something is missing; not so much the occasional patch of human warmth, though that would be nice, as the unguarded confidence, the stray glimpse into the soul. Even the famous Gibbonian irony sometimes sounds a little forced. In its insidious way, ultimately Oxford got to him. Gibbon, after all, lasted only 14 months at Magdalen — ‘the fourteen months the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life’. Trevor-Roper stayed there nearly half-a-century.

He remains inimitable, I think, not so much as a letter-writer but as the author of short, telling historical essays which transform the way we look at a subject; and inimitable, too, as a frondeur who cannot see a fallacy without setting out to expose it, or a fraudulent claim without stamping on it with both feet. He was the greatest debunker of his age. The Last Days of Hitler remains a masterpiece of contemporary history, never equalled or supplanted, not merely because of its high narrative verve and the acute brilliance of its portraits of the ghastly dramatis personae, but because it established once and for all what actually happened. After it was published, no one could seriously maintain that Hitler was still alive and had been spirited away to Moscow or Buenos Aires.

Trevor-Roper’s relentless pursuit of his victims may sometimes look like sheer malice: for example, in his campaign to convince Fernand Braudel and the other Annales historians (whom he greatly admired) that as a historian Lawrence Stone was a charlatan. But I do think that Stone was, if not a charlatan, at best perniciously mistaken about 16th- and 17th- century social history, and, since he was so fashionable on both sides of the Atlantic, only the most hard-driving campaign had any chance of unseating him.

Again, when Count Bernadotte, the UN mediator in Palestine, was assassinated by the Stern Gang in 1948, he achieved the status of a martyr-hero. It was a thankless task, but one which Trevor-Roper undertook with his usual relish, to prove that it was Himmler’s masseur Felix Kersten and not Bernadotte who had been primarily responsible for rescuing 20,000 prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, and that in fact Bernadotte, as an official of the Red Cross, had been responsible only for arranging the transport and, what’s more, had initially refused to take any Jews, confiding to Himmler that he shared his racial views.

In a small way, I once saw Trevor-Roper in action on one of these skirmishes. He had lighted upon an infinitely obscure organisation called the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding, which had become a communist front, broadcasting reports of Chairman Mao’s bottomless benevolence and allegiance to high liberal principles and kept going by the usual stage army of stooges led by the famous Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham. Hugh assembled a rival stage army of capitalist stooges, including me, and I can still remember his mad gleam of triumph at SACU’s ill-attended AGM as our lot took control. Zero tolerance for the intolerable was his motto. Appeasers beware, from Munich to Mao. He was the Voltaire of St Aldates.

All this — the battling with l’infâme, the canvassing of rural deans to vote this way, or that, the dining with duchesses, and, of course, the incessant correspondence —took up time which soberer spirits said should have been devoted to composing major historical works. Although he published any number of reviews, essays and pasquinades, although he travelled everywhere and met everyone, was he not ultimately vulnerable to the same charge as those other Oxford historians he derided for failing to put something substantial together? Would he not have done better to settle down in real scholarly seclusion rather than fritter his time and his reputation in authenticating forged Hitler Diaries for Rupert Murdoch or, as Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, in his late sixties, trying to quell a bunch of dons who made his old Oxford enemies look positively sweet-natured and ingenuous? Whatever became of his major work on the rule of Robert Cecil? Or of his vast book on the Puritan Revolution (he wrote 600 pages, tore them up, rewrote them and then what)? Or of his life of Cromwell in three volumes?

Well, we miss them all, but I don’t think we miss their effects, because, by and large, the causes for which he battled with such ferocious glee have come out on top, in the Cold War no less than in the English Civil War. In politics as in historiography, the Marxists and the marxisants have been routed. It is easy to forget how their premises and arguments were once taken for granted and how quirky and perverse seemed those who spoke out against them. But then looking quirky and perverse was something Hugh Trevor-Roper never minded.

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