One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper
Edited by Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman.
Oxford University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 488 pages, $40.

Seemingly out of fashion in the internet age, letters have been an important literary genre since the days of St. Paul and Pliny the Younger. They provide an opportunity to inform, exhort, and amuse that typically reveals more than their author had intended. Written expression can overcome personal reserve or shyness that otherwise imposes distance. An ephemeral form sometimes preserves the moment or a point of view, especially when done with grace and verve that bring words alive from the page.

Hugh Trevor-Roper, Baron Dacre of Glanton (1914–2003), fancied himself as much a literary figure as an historian, an impression underlined by the hundred letters covering sixty years of his life that Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman have published on the centenary of their author’s birth. The selection taps a fraction of a correspondence amounting to millions of words that encompassed scholars, politicians, and personal intimates. Writing letters gave Trevor-Roper great pleasure while offering a welcome distraction from work. Carefully ordered thoughts with precise expression and measured language hide the haste in which he sometimes wrote. Letters express his feelings more readily than in conversation while showing how a leading historian thought about his craft. They provide a companion to Sisman’s 2010 biography that informs and amuses in equal measure.

A solitary child raised by distant parents in Northumbria, Trevor-Roper boarded at Charterhouse after grim experiences of preparatory school. He won a succession of scholarships at Christ Church, Oxford where he won a first in classics before transferring to modern history. Classics formed his mental world and heightened attention to the nuances of language with a treasure of quotations that appear through his adult correspondence. Edward Gibbon became a model who displayed what he described in a letter as “a subtlety, a sensitivity, occasionally a melancholy” totally absent from Voltaire and other contemporaries. Indeed, Trevor-Roper later said he “would rather be thought to write like Gibbon than any other writer of English.” Never a grind, Trevor-Roper ran with a fast undergraduate set that drank hard and pursued country sports. Sociability mattered along with scholarly diligence and concentration.

Wartime service in military intelligence drew on Trevor-Roper’s intellect and knowledge of German. The experience brought out his impatience with complacent mediocrity along with a tendency to provoke self-important authority. It also launched his career as an historian by setting him on an investigation into Hitler’s death that he later published in 1947 as The Last Days of Hitler. As Trevor-Roper later told Blair Worden, the inquiry provided a unique opportunity as a dramatic episode of contemporary history with the complete truth in the grasp of an author who could interview witnesses and review the limited documentation. He set out to write a classic and the book made his name. Its royalties paid for a Rolls Royce car and fed a taste for the high life sparked by early friendships with London socialites.

The wealthy essayist and critic Logan Pearsall Smith made Trevor-Roper a protégé, leading the younger man to new discoveries in literature during the dreariest period of World War II. Besides reviving the younger man’s desire to write elegant prose, Smith introduced him to a haute monde far from either boyhood Northumbria or Oxford’s dreaming spires. The art historian Bernard Berenson, Smith’s brother-in-law, broadened Trevor-Roper’s horizons by deepening his engagement with the history of European ideas and training a pictorial imagination seen in the historian’s use of imagery. Cosmopolitan tastes fueled an inveterate love of travel his letters often captured. Marriage to the daughter of Earl Haig after an affair ending in her divorce brought three step-children and more than a foothold in society.

Trevor-Roper’s career reflected deep tensions even as he climbed the greasy pole of British academic life. He spent a lifetime in Oxbridge while being at odds with the priorities of its denizens. The cloistered world of petty quarrels and small victories seemed drab when contrasted with the brighter life to which he had grown accustomed. Historians took a narrower professional view of their discipline than Trevor-Roper, who thought scholarship “confined to one rut” becomes antiquarianism with its lack of wider context and the possibility of comparison. Disdain for solemn and pompous experts irked colleagues, especially when coupled with sardonic wit and exacting standards for evidence. Aesthetic conservatism battled resentment of doctrinal authorities in any form. He revealingly observed to Frances Yates in late 1969 that orthodoxy “may be intellectually stimulating when it is in dissolution.” Otherwise, by implication, it stultifies. Such views rarely win favor among those academics who define themselves by allegiance to one prevailing orthodoxy or another.

Despite his appointment as Regius professor of modern history at Oxford, Trevor-Roper did not produce major books in his primary field of early modern history. Most of his scholarship appeared as historical essays. Larger projects remained unfinished. Many books only came into print after his death under the supervision of his literary executor, prompting the arch witticism that Trevor-Roper’s work became so far more prolific after Worden took over it. Trevor-Roper’s wife Xandra remarked archly during his life that their attic was crowded with chapter ones but never a chapter two. Hammering a manuscript into a version he could accept as final proved difficult. Letters served as a form of procrastination that allowed him to postpone larger projects. It became an embarrassing sore point, especially since he wrote so much ephemeral journalism that kept his name before the wider public.

Journalism allowed Trevor-Roper’s mind to range while drawing a considerable income. The rewards sometimes came at a price that went beyond distraction from scholarship and making colleagues jealous. A commission to authenticate the purported diaries of Adolf Hitler for the Times pushed him into a quick decision that he regretted on second thought but could reserve for further consideration once the newspaper’s proprietor decided to publish. The mistake gave critics ammunition they cheerfully used to puncture Trevor-Roper’s vanity. It became the kind of mistake no obituary could forebear mentioning.

Other judgments proved more lasting. He insisted clear language had a moral imperative as obscurity hid deceit and careless thinking. By making the monstrous seem routine, bureaucratic jargon had palliated the great crimes of the twentieth century. Their generation, he told Sir Nicholas Henderson in the volume’s final letter, would never escape from the 1930s. Obscurity also gave weight to pretentious nonsense under the guise of social science and culture theory. Trevor-Roper mocked futurology, an American craze of the 1970s, as dressing random guesses up into science by adding jargon to impress gullible foundations. Eggheads drew his derision. He also dismissed Michel Foucault with other trendy gurus as examples of the turn to irrationalism among French intellectuals who had once been so rational and clear before 1870. Irrationalism aroused his distrust. But despite a skeptical take on Christianity, Trevor-Roper rejected outright atheism as an insolent presumption. Not much comfort to the believer, perhaps, but a sign that the historian saw beyond his own prejudices and credited sensitivities he could not share.

If procrastination and vanity marked a tragic flaw that damaged Trevor-Roper’s reputation, his letters reveal perceptiveness with a compensating humanity. He took time with friends, step-children, and young scholars he encouraged. Embarrassment over the Hitler diaries hoax introduced a subdued note. The private man displayed more self-awareness than his public reputation allowed. Devotion to his ailing wife, who ceased to recognize him after a series of strokes, surprised his step-children. After her death, he remained interested—and interesting—in his correspondence right through his own final days.

Although just a taste of a correspondence over a lifetime, the letters published here bring alive their author. Instead of relics from a past world, they read as part of an ongoing conversation with their recipients. Reflection on politics, literature, and the intellectual challenges of history intersperse Trevor-Roper’s efforts to delight and amuse. The collection provides a fitting monument and perhaps an incentive to pick up his more serious work to read.  

William Anthony Hay is an historian at Mississippi State University and a fellow of Britain’s Royal Historical Society. Author of The Whig Revival, 1808–1830 (Palgrave, 2005), he is completing a biography of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, Britain’s prime minister from 1812 to 1827.