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Hugh Trevor-Roper at Peace and War

Hugh Trevor-Roper / AP
• January 4, 2015 5:00 am

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Hugh Trevor-Roper’s name has become synonymous with a vanished world of 18th-century architecture and monographs full of untranslated Greek, of mandatory chapel attendance and cheap foreign holidays, of priceless port consumed immoderately at candlelit high-table dinners, of black-robed dons intriguing relentlessly, their cloven tongues guarding jealously not the wisdom of the ages but the name of the little shit who carved up old Namier’s book anonymously in last week’s TLS.

Readers who open either of these books in search of period ambience and vintage Oxbridge cattiness will not be disappointed: there is plenty of grousing about A.L. Rowse ("the would-be Lenin of England"), A.J.P. Taylor ("although he regarded history as a matter of accidents, he somehow, inconsequently, assumed that such accidents ought not to happen to his career"), Evelyn Waugh ("utterly cold-blooded… I wonder if he had any friends"), and many others. But they might be surprised.

Trevor-Roper was a quiet, bookish child who enjoyed learning the names of trees and birds and taking solitary walks amid the harsh northern beauty of the Anglo-Scottish borderlands. Myopic and in constant ill health, he made few friends at school, but impressed his teachers with his aptitude for classics. At Christ Church, Oxford, he discovered an appetite for good talk and good wine. He also took up hunting, much to the later chagrin of Logan Pearsall Smith, the expatriate American aphorist to whom the first letter in this collection is addressed.

Dating from this period is the established public image of Trevor-Roper as a kind of latter-day Whig grandee: a claret-sniffing, stag-stalking, anticlerical, gossipy gentleman of letters. This image has persisted—not least because he himself spent many years doing his best to cultivate it—but it is in many ways a false one. The impression one gets from Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman’s new selection of his letters is of a man who was reserved, thoughtful, more than a touch melancholy, and very kind. The impression, above all, is one of sanity.

One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper might easily have been a collection of correspondence with Britain’s movers and shakers. But there are no letters here to Harold Macmillan or Mrs. Thatcher (the only Member of Parliament to whom Trevor-Roper writes in these pages is his former tutee Alan Clark, who is best known for his hilariously indiscreet diaries), and there is only one to Isaiah Berlin. More than half are addressed either to his wife, Xandra, or his stepson, James. Xandra, the daughter of Field Marshall Haig, was a woman of high spirits and exquisite taste but not much of an intellectual. Early in their courtship we see Trevor-Roper assuring her that he is not put off by her misspellings or her indifference to the norms of punctuation. To James, a shy young man in whom he sees something of his younger self, he gives practical and academic counsel ("Don’t take any advice from Juvenal! I really think he was an odious man") and jokes about, among other things, manufacturing proof that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays ("I like to think of a devout American D.Phil. student discovering this and sending it in triumph to the Times Lit. Supplement"). With James he is also often amusingly, if somewhat obliquely, self-deprecating:

One lady in a blue dress came up to me: ‘Are you Hugh Trevor-Roper?’ she asked. Yes, I replied, my heart sinking as I awaited the unctuous litany of insufficiently sophisticated praise for the less valued of my works. Then she said, ‘I once bought half a horse from you’.

The letters are written from every imaginable locale. We find Trevor-Roper covering the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The Sunday Times, delivering guest lectures in Colorado, complaining about what a bore it is sitting in the House of Lords after he became Baron Dacre of Glanton in 1979, and even fly fishing in Iceland—which reminds me that, in a book full of witty put-downs, one of the best is directed at Scandinavians:

What can one say for countries whose great cultural figures are, respectively, Ibsen, Strindberg, and Kierkegaard? The Finns, I think, are the maddest of the lot. I have not read their great epic, the Kalevala. I doubt if it is very sparking or jolly.

In his last decade or so, he seems to mellow out, spending his final years taking care of Xandra, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, and fussing at all hours over the hedgehogs in his garden. He still finds time, however, to denounce Tony Blair’s appearance at the funeral of Princess Diana ("a nauseating exhibition of unctuous cant") and express pessimism about the prospects for the writing of Soviet history ("Do you think that anything can be believed that comes out of…the well-lubricated lips of old KGB hacks?").

A constant theme in these letters is his attempt to assuage friends, colleagues, and even relatives who beg him to concentrate on his long-envisioned trilogy about the English Civil War, a work that as a young man he hoped would be spoken of "in the same breath as Gibbon." These books were never finished, an abnegation that has given rise to one of the silliest clichés in reviewing, namely, that Trevor-Roper was "merely" a great writer of essays.

Alas, most of his work in this form has long been available only to those willing to sift through back numbers of Encounter and The New Statesman. I.B. Tauris, the venerable British academic publisher, has begun collecting his essays, most of which were dashed off for money when he ought to have had his head buried in 17th-century archives. The Secret World brings together in one enjoyable volume the best of his writing on British intelligence, in which he served during the Second World War. (He once used his security clearance to retrieve a pack of hounds after they chased a fox past the security checkpoint at Bletchley Park.)

Readers of Adam Sisman’s biography will remember that it was Dick White, eventually the legendary head of MI5 and then MI6, who persuaded Trevor-Roper over a bottle of hock that would be a damned fine thing to do to prove once and for all that Hitler was dead. The published version of his report became The Last Days of Hitler, a bestseller from whose proceeds he purchased his first Bentley.

Years later, in 1968, White—himself the subject of a touching and funny memoir that appears here—gave him another commission: a short biographical study of their former colleague Kim Philby, the urbane Soviet traitor who, after his defection, was fawned over by some writers, among them Graham Greene, who had a rare talent for empathizing with sociopaths.

Philby’s life and career have since been treated by numerous biographers, including two recent ones, but none, I think, has managed to be as insightful or interesting as Trevor-Roper in his 60-odd-page sketch, which was first published in Encounter and appears here alongside many other first-rate pieces, such as his expert demolition of William Stevenson’s absurd biography of William Stephenson (no relation), the man said to have inspired Fleming’s James Bond.

Both of these volumes are fine things to have on the shelf, but One Hundred Letters is the real treat. It is one of the most amusing collections of letters I have ever read, easily the best to have appeared in Britain since Evelyn Waugh’s—and perhaps the last great one from the 20th century. Davenport-Hines and Sisman have done a model job editing it. Yet Trevor-Roper was uneasy about the inevitable publication of his correspondence. "Who of us," he wrote to Sisman in 1991, "would wish to be judged by our private letters, in which one is licensed to be frivolous and irresponsible?"

He need not have been.

Matthew Walther, formerly the assistant editor of The American Spectator, has written for The Spectator of London, First Things, and many other publications. His Twitter handle is @matthewwalther.

Published under: Book reviews