In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

The Calvinist InternationalColin Kidd
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Vol. 30 No. 10 · 22 May 2008

The Calvinist International

Colin Kidd

The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History 
by Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Yale, 267 pp., £18.99, May 2008, 978 0 300 13686 9
Show More
Europe’s Physician: The Various Life of Sir Theodore de Mayerne 
by Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Yale, 438 pp., £25, October 2006, 0 300 11263 7
Show More
Show More

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.’

Indeed, the young Trevor-Roper had recognised more than a germ of truth in Marxism’s materialist interpretation of history; only the most troglodyte of conservatives could be blind to such a basic insight. The anticlericalism of his first book, Archbishop Laud (1940), was underpinned by an economic approach to church history. During his wartime service in Intelligence, when he welcomed the fact that the prejudices of his superiors did not preclude using the outstanding talents of that known Communist Kim Philby, and then as a maverick participant in the Congress for Cultural Freedom at the height of the Cold War, Trevor-Roper decried ‘lunatic’ anti-Communism. In time he distanced himself – though never totally – from the marxisant outlook of his earlier years. In the field of historical interpretation, Marxist perspectives remained useful on the grand scale, but they missed the part played by contingency and sudden unexpected turning points – by comedy even – in the unravelling of events: ‘I used to think that historical events always had deep economic causes: I now believe that pure farce covers a greater field of history, and that Gibbon is a more reliable guide to that subject than Marx.’

But what primarily repelled Trevor-Roper about Marxism was its quasi-religious dimension, in particular its apocalyptic prophesying. His study of the Jesuits, he felt, ought to have forewarned him about the closet fanatical subversion of Philby and his Communist coreligionists. For he never missed a chance to slight what he perceived as antisocial religiosity. Even The Last Days of Hitler (1947), a bestselling investigation of court life in the bunker, which he carried out as an extension of his wartime duties, created a furore in unexpected quarters because of its suggestive comments about Goebbels’s training at the hands of the Jesuits. Little surprise then, that when Trevor-Roper was Harold Macmillan’s eventual choice as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford in 1957, Evelyn Waugh should complain that the appointment ‘showed malice to the Church’.

For someone who disdained the study of theology as such, and indeed doubted not only Christ’s divinity but even whether Jesus had any existence at all as a historical person, Trevor-Roper made a massive contribution to the study of early modern religious history. In particular, he nailed the myth, associated in the first instance with Max Weber but later generally accepted by early modern historians, that Calvinist Puritans were of a more progressive cast of mind than their ecclesiastical opponents. Rather, Trevor-Roper detected the glimmerings of the Enlightenment in an Arminian tradition of open-minded, quietist high churchmanship, which he traced back, ultimately, to Erasmus. His study of the Huguenot doctor Sir Theodore de Mayerne (1573-1655), put together after his death by one of his most brilliant pupils, Blair Worden, is itself a powerful corrective to the balder version of his own argument. As he recognised, before its decline into localised scholastic sterility – not least in the Scotland of the Covenanters – the early 17th-century Calvinist International had been a vital and pluralistic phenomenon, and far from singlemindedly Calvinist.

Trevor-Roper’s real task in his purported biography of Mayerne is the recovery – through the lens of one particular case-study – of a ‘lost moment’ in intellectual history, the diaspora of independent-minded and creative so-called Calvinists from some of the most advanced parts of Europe in the wake of the Counter-Reformation: from Italy in the 1550s, from France after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacres of 1572, from Flanders after the fall of Antwerp in 1585. Calvinism, it transpires, was a flag of convenience for this undoctrinaire and cosmopolitan elite, many of whose members displayed scant interest in predestinarian ideas or in theocratic blueprints for a godly society. Indeed, as Trevor-Roper points out, many of them were ‘intellectual reformers, “liberals”, even “libertines”, in the tradition of Erasmus, who were driven to protect themselves by assuming a “Calvinist” armour’. The Calvinist label tells us little or nothing about the ‘hidden life’ of these émigrés. Mayerne himself, it turns out, had a wide range of intellectual preoccupations, from public health to the chemistry that underpinned the visual arts, but his Calvinism, such as it was, was inherited and discreet.

Mayerne’s family origins were Piedmontese and French, though he was born in the Protestant oasis of Geneva in the aftermath of the anti-Huguenot pogroms of 1572. He was educated at universities in Germany and France, and his first and second wives were both Dutch. His long career as a court doctor was spent in France and then in England, though he also acquired a castle and estate in Bernese territory, to which he longed – in vain – to retire. Telling the story of Mayerne’s cosmopolitan life would be beyond most historians. Trevor-Roper used archives in six countries, deciphered sources in eight classical and modern languages, and ranged across a number of historical sub-disciplines with virtuosity and assurance: political and diplomatic history, art history, ecclesiastical history, and the histories of science and medicine.

As Worden reminds us, Trevor-Roper was drawn to the history of medicine in part by family ties. His father had been a country doctor in Northumberland, and his brother Patrick was an eminent ophthalmologist, who, like Mayerne, extended his medical interests, quite naturally, into the study of art. However, Worden also makes clear that Trevor-Roper’s work on life in Hitler’s bunker had revealed to the young historian the unsung but highly significant part played by doctors in court societies; and this remained one of his career-long hobby-horses.

Trevor-Roper shows how the histories of medicine and religion were interwoven in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Traditional Galenist physicians were offended by the new iatrochemistry propagated by the Paracelsians, and the intellectual warfare that ensued intersected with confessional divisions. Mayerne’s spell at the court of Henri IV – the one-time Protestant for whom Paris had been worth a mass – threw up confessional and professional challenges, with the hysterical Galenists of Paris proving more of a nuisance to the Huguenot Mayerne than the Catholic dévots of the court. Mayerne left France in 1611, fearing that Henri IV’s assassination would lead to a Romeward drift in court and society. Following in the footsteps of that other intellectual giant of the Protestant diaspora, the philological scholar Isaac Casaubon, Mayerne sought, and received, sanctuary at the court of the British philosopher-king James VI and I, where erudition was prized over orthodoxy – or indeed decorum.

England was to be Mayerne’s de facto home for the rest of his life. The wars of religion had injected a crucial element of paranoia into court life. Kings and leading courtiers not only feared assassination at the hands of their confessional enemies, but could not relax even at their own table. Could a prince ever be sure that his veal pie had not been poisoned? The role of court doctors assumed ever greater salience, but at the risk of their reputation, career and possibly life if things should go wrong. Fortunately, Mayerne was able to flourish at the court of King James, despite the mysterious death of James’s heir, the bluff and patriotically Protestant Prince Henry, and the scandalous poisoning of Sir Thomas Overbury, a victim of the factional ambitions of the pro-Hispanic Howard faction. Tasty comestibles, stomach cramps, medical interventions and geopolitical strategy were, it transpires, all crucial parts of the same story.

Indeed, while it was one of Trevor-Roper’s claims to distinction as an intellectual historian that he had the novelist’s capacity to bring alive the character of his protagonists as well as their ideas, his focus here on medical history allows him to use Mayerne’s record of his consultations and prescriptions to touch on his characters’ pressing concerns with their bowels and bladders. The visit to England of the prominent Bernese diplomat Hans Rudolf von Erlach involved Mayerne in high diplomacy under the cover of medical consultation. One of Mayerne’s specialisms was the treatment of urological complaints, particularly the urinary obstruction known as a caruncula, which he had treated in the case of the young bishop of Luçon, the future Cardinal Richelieu. Erlach too suffered from a caruncula – in his case it had arisen from ‘a particularly energetic copulation’. Through Mayerne’s offices, Erlach was able to persuade James I to use his diplomatic service towards achieving a treaty of mutual defence between Berne, Geneva and Savoy in 1617.

Dark clouds were now gathering across Europe. The adroit diplomacy of the ecumenical and pacific James I could not prevent the descent into the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War. Moreover, James’s death in 1625, and the succession of the pale and unconvincingly Protestant Charles I would eventually lead to civil wars in Britain and Ireland. It was time for Mayerne to be on his travels again. But Charles I, perhaps aware of Mayerne’s nuisance value abroad, would not give him permission to leave for his Swiss estate. Mayerne stayed on in London, but for the last decade and a half of his life it was a city under the control first of Puritans and Parliamentarians, and then of the Cromwellian junta. The moment of the tolerantly cosmopolitan Calvinist International had passed.

Nowhere was the history of Calvinism more vivid than in Trevor-Roper’s own Scottish backyard. Brought up in Northumbria, he later spent vacations from his Oxford professorship in the Scottish Borders at his house, Chiefswood, near Melrose. What better vantage point from which to research the curious mutations of ‘Scotch’ Calvinism, not least how the descent into a dark and brutal theocracy in the mid-17th century was followed by the sudden emergence of a post-Calvinist Scottish Enlightenment in the 18th? Trevor-Roper detected a fellow-traveller of the Calvinist International in the 16th-century polymath George Buchanan, an Erasmian humanist who went on to adopt the cladding of Scots Calvinism at its most dour, but without, it appeared, possessing any of the inner belief. Buchanan – in later life the bloodthirsty but effective tutor of the young James VI – was clearly a far less congenial subject than Mayerne. Nonetheless, the most recent of Trevor-Roper’s posthumous publications, The Invention of Scotland, shows how the learned and cosmopolitan Buchanan imported Huguenot political theory into late 16th-century Scottish historiography, allowing him to construct a political myth of an ancient Scottish constitution in which the Gaelic monarchy was accountable to the political nation.

The Invention of Scotland, originally delivered in 1980 as the Walter Turner Candler Lectures in Atlanta, and admirably refurbished in book form by Jeremy Cater, describes the vicissitudes of the myths Scots have told about themselves from the late medieval period to the present. The book is in three parts. The first relates the emergence in the 14th century of a pseudo-history of forty fabulous kings dating back to 330 BC. This provided the historical foundation for Buchanan’s political myth of an ancient Scottish constitution, which retained credibility in Scotland – if not elsewhere in these islands – until it was demolished by the Scots Jacobite priest Father Thomas Innes in 1729. It was succeeded, according to Trevor-Roper, by a literary myth. In the early 1760s, James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of two ancient epic poems, Fingal and Temora, which he attributed to Ossian, a blind Celtic bard of the third century AD, who was soon noisily proclaimed the Scottish Homer. The works of Ossian caused a literary sensation across Europe, but soon sceptical voices were raised not only in England and Ireland, but even among Ossian’s former champions in Scotland. The part played by the philosopher David Hume eerily anticipates Trevor-Roper’s own encounter with a plausible forgery. Hume, who had strongly supported Macpherson at first, much to his later embarrassment, soon came to reject the claim that Fingal was an ancient poem, even ‘though fifty bare-arsed Highlanders’ should testify to its authenticity. With the literary myth now in tatters, Scots found solace in the sartorial myth of kilts and tartanry, whose surprising and far from ancient origins Trevor-Roper delights in exposing. The setts, or patterns, identified with particular clans had a pedigree which was certainly murky, but not at all ancient. Cluny Macpherson, it turns out, had not only been bought ‘off the peg’ in 1822, but the pattern had earlier been associated with the lowliest of family names: ‘previously having been sold in quantity to a Mr Kidd, the same tartan had been labelled “Kidd”.’ Elements of this story – particularly the sections on Buchanan and on tartanry – Trevor-Roper had told before, though in discrete portions, and it is welcome to see the history of Scottish self-mythologising brought together in a coherent whole. Although he had published an essay in the Spectator in 1985 on the subject, the Ossianic section of the current book is almost wholly new, and is an explosive contribution to that field of literary and historical study.

Trevor-Roper, it seems, had come to the conclusion that James Macpherson was merely the frontman in the Ossian affair. It was inexplicable that the unscholarly Macpherson, who was ‘helpless’ in the face of old Gaelic manuscripts, could have produced a translation of the extant historic materials, such as the 16th-century Book of the Dean of Lismore, out of which the supposed epic of Ossian might have been derived. Moreover, how could this ‘pushing philistine’ produce the sublimity and sensibility of Fingal, even as a hoax? For everybody who met him – Scots included, who might have been inclined to bias in his favour – agreed that, far from being a ‘man of feeling’, James Macpherson was something of a brute. Trevor-Roper suspected that behind the poetry of Ossian – as scholars once conjectured about Homer – lay a small committee; and its presiding genius was not the ‘raw Highland booby’ James Macpherson, but his learned cousin Lachlan Macpherson, the laird of Strathmashie. Another crucial intervention came from the Knoydart schoolmaster Ewan Macpherson, whose familiarity with the old Gaelic script had contributed to the success of James Macpherson’s tour of the west Highlands in 1760 in quest of manuscripts. In a stunning piece of detective work, Trevor-Roper shows how Macpherson, who knew contemporary Gaelic, probably translated the poems of Ossian from an ‘intermediate Gaelic text’, compiled largely by Strathmashie from the historic materials which James Macpherson, with some assistance, had trawled but could not himself read. And why, indeed, did Macpherson change direction in mid-career, turning aside from Ossian – a sure-fire money-spinner – to other literary and political projects? Was it because the death of Strathmashie in 1767 saw the passing of Ossian’s principal ghostwriter? In the last months of 1760, when the two cousins had worked together ‘in an exciting collusive work of imaginative reconstruction’, it was surely the accomplished Strathmashie who had taken the lead. Is there a whiff of Trevor-Roper’s own prejudices in the overly sharp contrast between the erudite laird and the ‘crude provincial, secretly aware of his own inner emptiness’? Perhaps so, but his daring scholarship will remind specialists in Scottish history – who have proved especially hostile in the past to his excursions into their territory – of several unexplained aspects of the Ossian affair.

Throughout his career Trevor-Roper prized historical versatility and the pursuit of interesting questions, wherever they might lead, above the maintenance of rigid academic boundaries. In this respect, he found Scottish historians were no worse than Oxford’s medievalists, who appeared thirled to a narrow strip cultivation that yielded very predictable harvests. On the other hand, as he knew all too well, scholarly trespassing carries serious risks. It is sad that the general public now remembers one of the finest early modern historians for an overhasty judgment made under pressure – and soon recanted – on the subject of the Nazis, one of many subsidiary interests. Nevertheless, even his fiercest critics would concede that this recent spate of posthumously published work – with at least one more collection of essays to come and several more projects known to exist in draft form in varying stages of completion – has at last put paid to the charge that Trevor-Roper was a young man in a hurry.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 30 No. 11 · 5 June 2008

Colin Kidd mentions Hugh Trevor-Roper’s appointment to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford in 1957 (LRB, 22 May). His rival A.J.P. Taylor was thought not to have got the job because he had cultivated radio and television contacts and indulged in ‘mass-market column writing’ at the expense of his academic work. The more likely explanation is that the appointment of Trevor-Roper was made by the then prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who had been an enthusiast for the disastrous Suez adventure in 1956, of which Taylor was a wise and eloquent critic.

Salah el Serafy
Arlington, Virginia

Vol. 30 No. 12 · 19 June 2008

Salah el Serafy is wrong to suggest that A.J.P. Taylor was cheated of the Regius chair in modern history at Oxford because – unlike his rival Hugh Trevor-Roper – he had been ‘ a wise and eloquent critic’ of the Israeli and British invasion of Egypt (Letters, 5 June). Adam Sisman, in his biography A.J.P. Taylor (1994), and Trevor-Roper in Letters from Oxford (2006), which I edited, show that many influences achieved this result: the disavowal of Taylor by his mentor Sir Lewis Namier, who advised Downing Street on the appointment, was chief of these – the fall-out from Suez was nugatory. Trevor-Roper was loud in his denunciations, in both Oxford and London, of the Eden government and despised its constituency supporters as fascistic. He thought that an Israeli attack on Egypt had been inevitable, that the overthrow of Nasser was desirable and that Russian designs in the Arab states were a menace; but he made no secret of his contempt for the ineptitude, weak nerves and bad faith of the Eden government, and was proud of Edward Boyle, his former pupil, for resigning from the government in protest at the Suez policy.

Richard Davenport-Hines
London W14

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.