The Calvinist International

Colin Kidd

  • The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History by Hugh Trevor-Roper
    Yale, 267 pp, £18.99, May 2008, ISBN 978 0 300 13686 9
  • Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne by Hugh Trevor-Roper
    Yale, 438 pp, £25.00, October 2006, ISBN 0 300 11263 7

Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in January 2003 shortly after his 89th birthday, had several of the qualities cherished in Britain’s so-called ‘national treasures’. His schoolboyish playfulness and relish of mischief never deserted him, nor did an unerring compass in matters of style, which assured an elegant, and seemingly effortless, command of language and bearing. Above all, the British public tends to salute resilience in adversity; and for a scholar could there be any greater trauma than the terrible humbling and hounding of the proud, stoical Trevor-Roper in the aftermath of the Hitler Diaries fiasco? Yet Trevor-Roper never quite attained the status of national treasure notwithstanding an appearance on Desert Island Discs. Too much blood had been spilled; he was too divisive a figure, and too firmly – and perhaps unfairly – bracketed with the political right. In his later years, to be sure, Trevor-Roper was a much mellower figure than the controversialist who once seemed to delight in giving offence when correcting the historical errors of – variously but far from exhaustively – Arnold Toynbee, A.J.P. Taylor, Maurice Cowling, Lawrence Stone and the Cerberus of Scottish historiography, William Ferguson. But if the softer, gentler Trevor-Roper outlived many – though by no means all – of his foremost adversaries, their pupils and heirs had not forgotten the scars borne by the previous generation. In his battle with Trevor-Roper over matters of recusant history, the ‘convert-novelist’ Evelyn Waugh had offered some barbed advice to the young Oxford historian, whom Waugh presumed to have disgraced: the only ‘honourable course’ open to him was to ‘change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge’. Decades later Auberon Waugh would exploit the Hitler Diaries affair to continue his father’s vendetta; on this occasion, the indisputably disgraced historian was advised to change his sex and go to Essex.

By then, Trevor-Roper had indeed changed his name and gone to Cambridge. Ennobled at the instigation of Mrs Thatcher for his defence of the Anglo-Scottish Union during the devolution campaign of the late 1970s, Trevor-Roper had taken the title of Lord Dacre of Glanton, and had left the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford for the mastership of Peterhouse, the oldest and most conservative college in Cambridge. His years at Peterhouse (from 1980 to 1987) were far from happy. An ultra-reactionary caucus attempted to frustrate the master’s attempts – however cautiously liberal – to reform the college. Nevertheless, by the time he retired Trevor-Roper was able to boast that he had brought the fellows of Peterhouse ‘to order, if not to life’. As it happened, the doings of 17th-century Peterhouse featured in the splendid collection of essays he published in the year of his retirement, Catholics, Anglicans and Puritans. The index entry for ‘Cambridge Colleges, Peterhouse’ betrayed uncanny parallels, some believed, with Trevor-Roper’s perception of its members in the 1980s: ‘high-table conversation not very agreeable … four revolting fellows of; main source of perverts’. Just as admirers of his hero Gibbon often head straight for the footnotes, so the first port of call for connoisseurs of Trevor-Roper is the index.

At Peterhouse, as throughout his career, it was Trevor-Roper’s patrician anticlericalism which distinguished his more progressive – because freethinking – brand of conservatism from what he perceived as the type of right-wingery that might lapse all too easily into a fascistic authoritarianism. Trevor-Roper’s very individual and historically informed reading of politics is one of the running themes of his letters from the 1950s to the art critic Bernard Berenson, which have been edited with unobtrusive wit and erudition by Richard Davenport-Hines.[*] During the Suez crisis of 1956 Trevor-Roper concluded that ‘there is in England, as in other countries, a fascist world: the world of lower-middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance,’ and who, moreover, ‘hate foreigners, especially if they come from “inferior” races’. The sociological precision of the snobbish anathema is unique neither to Trevor-Roper nor to the patrician soft right; but it is characteristic of his social and political outlook. Fanaticism of all sorts, religious as well as political, on the right as well as the left, was as likely as not to come, so he perceived, from places like Battersea and Biggleswade. Yet his snobberies, though real and enduring, were spectacularly inconsistent, and did nothing to limit his capacity for friendship or the generosity of his academic patronage, which was often unconventional and free of social or even ideological constraints. Similarly, although Trevor-Roper moved easily in establishment circles, he despised the tribal pieties of Tory mediocrities: ‘I find myself disapproved of by the right (to which I belong) for not respecting the taboos which, through timidity and lack of logic, they cravenly worship, and supported by the left (which I repudiate) for opposing not the right but the humbug of the right.’

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[*] Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (Phoenix, 368 pp., £14.99, July 2007, 978 0 7538 2205 0).