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Dryads and Hamadryads

Review: Hugh Trevor-Roper, ‘The Wartime Journals’

Hugh Trevor-Roper / AP
• July 26, 2015 5:00 am

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While serving in the Secret Intelligence Service during the Second World War, Hugh Trevor-Roper decided, illegally and under the threat of a court martial, to keep a diary. Inspired by Samuel Butler’s Note-Books he polished his entries continuously, arranged them in not quite chronological order, and prepared an index for them. They remained a secret during his lifetime, unknown to everyone, even his wife, Alexandra.

Like the Note-Books, this is not a journal or a diary in the conventional sense so much as it is a commonplace book. The Wartime Journals are full of impressions of friends and colleagues, of professional gossip, of dialogue fragments; but they are also brimming with reminiscences of childhood, one-off critical wheezes, historical reflections, amateur philosophy, bibliographical and philological concerns, and pen sketches of the English countryside.

It is difficult to think of a book more thoroughly imbued with its author’s personality. The young Trevor-Roper was an attractive but complicated figure: sad, wistful, pagan, conservative, romantic, scholarly, atheistic; snobbish but not spiteful; egotistical—albeit knowingly so. His mind was fast and eager. He was fond of making lists. "Things that fascinate me" appears in one of the first entries:

the luminosity of decay, pullulation; myths of great natural processes or cataclysms—the Creation, the Deluge, Adonis; the innocent freshness and wonder of the first day; the intrusion of daylight into dark places, σμερδαλέ’ εὐρώεντα, τά τε στυγέουσι θεοί περ*; mermaids, nymphs, angels, and animate spirits of nature (not monsters or ghosts); the bottom of the sea; the Moon; cold empty wastes; twilit caverns; Jacob’s Ladder; great rivers—Nile, Oxus, Ganges, Limpopo; intellectual life in the upper air; larks singing at heaven’s gate (not nightingales); beauty squeezed out from tortured souls; bright flowers rooted in corruption; the earth seen from afar as a planet; the music of the spheres; distillations from the moon or stars; bright butterflies that feed on rotten meat; trees; the smell of low tide.

As this extract reminds us, Trevor-Roper was perhaps the last great practitioner of what used to be called fine writing—what Kingsley Amis (who hated this sort of thing) dismissed as "plenty of rumble and wow from imagery, syntax, and diction." Fine writing was the hobby horse of Trevor-Roper’s mentor, Logan Pearsall Smith. Smith, the manic depressive expatriate American who had known the James brothers and Santayana and edited the works of Donne and Jeremy Taylor, encouraged Trevor-Roper to saturate his mind with questions of style, "the true elixir of life" after which he had spent his life questing. (Not long before he died he wrote to Trevor-Roper saying that he had hit upon the mystic ingredient at last: adverbs.)

It is wonderful to see Trevor-Roper fussing about such questions here, continuously updating the roster of his Dream Team—always Donne, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, Gibbon, De Quincey, and Milton; sometimes Flaubert and St. Augustine and George Moore; Stendhal early on—and whimsically indulging his passion for extended metaphor, which he would put to such memorable use later in his books and essays, unconstricted by the demands that narrative and formal argument impose.

In religion Trevor-Roper considered himself "Anglican, not Christian." He supported the Established Church and considered "drinking fragrant morning-tea in bed, reading learned and elegant and worldly biographies about learned and elegant and worldly bishops" one of the great pleasures of life. But he did not believe. I cannot decide what to make of the story of how, as a child, he lost his faith after instructing the Almighty to transfigure an ordinary postage stamp he had torn to pieces and placed under his pillow into a rare South African one. He begins his account with a sneer ("if God had condescended to disconcert the regularity of the solar system for Joshua, he would surely collaborate with me in filling a serious lacuna in my stamp-album") before giving way to something very melancholy:

I was disappointed, of course, at what I found there; but I accepted, without flinching, the intellectual consequences of my experiment, and that morning God was silently dropped from my universe, to which he has never returned for more than brief and temporary visits.

Elsewhere he assigns a different (and much later) date and setting to the same event, telling us "how," strolling in the meadow at Christ Church, Oxford in 1936, "I saw the whole metaphysical world rise and vanish out of sight in the upper air, where it rightly belongs; and I have neither seen it, nor felt its absence, since." Which of these is true? Neither, I think, or both. Together they remind us that the loss of faith is often as mysterious and ineffable as its appearance is sudden and precious.

For a book published under the title of "Wartime Journals," there is remarkably little about war here. In part this is because Trevor-Roper wrote to break up the tedium of what was by all accounts taxing and, so it seemed to him, fruitless work. It is clear that he had a low opinion of most of his colleagues in SIS, which he dismisses as a "nest of timid and corrupt incompetents … a cluster of bats in an unswept barn." Nevertheless, he took his work very seriously. One of the most interesting entries is a transcript of a conversation between two captured German generals, proud professionals from an earlier era who abhorred Nazism. Trevor-Roper enjoyed listening to them and hoped that they would be spared the company of their Fürher-worshipping colleagues. (He was later to draw my favorite anecdote in The Last Days of Hitler—the description of Hermann Göring dressed as an Oriental potentate—from the well of their bitter memories.)

What else do we learn about the author of The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries? It is safe to say that in his twenties he was exclusively homosexual. (He even teases Macaulay for his sheepish attitude towards the continental exploits of William III.) Though he was later to marry happily, he was capable of appalling misogyny: "In general, women repel me. … Without features, without grace, soft, shapeless lumps, like brown-paper parcels, or the wingless females of the less interesting moths, they repel me without fascinating." (This contempt did not extend to "aged dowagers with aquiline faces, who sit erect and stately in their high chairs giving orders to servants, and disapproving of the low standards of the age in life, taste, and manners.")

This is a book meant to be read intermittently and enthusiastically. Opened to its index or to a random page, it takes on the character of an unreliable and not very exhaustive encyclopedia with entries about Trevor-Roper’s horse ("wild, irresponsible … though it has frequently nearly killed me, and probably will kill me, all things are forgiven it"), Malcolm Muggeridge ("having no interest in the truth, he is obstinately wrong in most of his opinions"), Freud ("that crackpot old genius"). Two of my favorite bits are about Handel:

The characters evoked by the music of Handel are like those in Botticelli’s Primavera. They move in orderly pageant, with buxom tread, and each is obviously the better for half a bottle of champagne. They are like the horses of Erichthonius in Homer, which galloped on the tops of the cornstalks and did not break them, and trod upon the spray of the sea.

and magical creatures:

If satyrs were one day to pop up and pipe to me among the Cheviot Hills; if a troop of nymphs were suddenly to rise with seductive gestures from a trout-pool in the Breamish; if dryads and hamadryads were to eye me furtively as I hunted the tangled thickets of Hell Copse or Waterperry Wood: I would not feel in the least surprised—I already half assume their presence there.

For all its merits, this is, if not quite juvenilia, still a young man’s book. The opinions expressed about Proust ("a great haystack of introverted snobbery"), fiction ("dead as the blank-verse drama"), and Americans ("callow, touchy, boastful, flatulent invaders") are ridiculous. It is just about possible to imagine one of the—to me—indistinguishable paperback-hawking New Atheists or the Reddit users who purchase their books nodding along with Trevor-Roper when he compares Newman to Goebbels; everyone else will groan.

These are quibbles, however. The first edition of The Wartime Journals has hardly left my coffee table in two years. Now it will go back on the shelf, its place taken for who knows how long by this equally attractive but far more affordable paperback.

I.B. Tauris, who have been posthumously expanding the Trevor-Roper catalogue for nearly half a decade now, deserve much credit.

* "Pluto’s drear abodes, / Abhorr'd by men, and dreadful even to gods" in Pope’s loose but beautiful translation.

Published under: Book reviews