Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography 
by Adam Sisman.
Weidenfeld, 598 pp., £25, July 2010, 978 0 297 85214 8
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Seven years after his death, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation is still a cauldron of discord. He would have enjoyed that. Steaming in the mix are the resentments of those he expertly wounded, the awe of colleagues at the breadth and depth of his learning, dismay at his serial failures to complete a full-length work of history, delight in the Gibbonian wit and elegance of his writing and – still a major ingredient – Schadenfreude over his awful humiliation in the matter of the Hitler diaries.

In his lifetime, nobody was sure how to take him. Those who supposed they had his measure soon found that they were wrong. The fogeyish camorra who ran Peterhouse in the 1980s chose him as master because they assumed he was a semi-Fascist ultra like themselves. But, as the Cambridge historian Michael Postan put it, ‘They are such fools: they thought they were electing a Tory and never realised that they were electing a Whig.’ Mrs Thatcher imagined that the scholar who had written The Last Days of Hitler would share her hostility to a reunified Germany. But at the infamous Chequers meeting on Germany in 1990, Trevor-Roper faced her down and tore her arguments to pieces.

The historian John Habakkuk was an editor of Economic History Review in 1952 when Trevor-Roper’s onslaught against R.H. Tawney landed on his desk. He mused: ‘I find it difficult to decide whether T-R is a fundamentally nice person in the grip of a prose style in which it is impossible to be polite, or a fundamentally unpleasant person … using rudeness as a disguise for nastiness.’ Habakkuk’s first guess is very sharp. Reading Adam Sisman’s steady, carefully fair and gracefully written biography, I kept coming back to it. Sisman declares at the start that he knew and liked Trevor-Roper and that in writing this Life ‘I may have been influenced by feelings of loyalty, affection and gratitude.’ He leans towards the ‘fundamentally nice’ view. But the niceness was not apparent to many people, who had to judge Trevor-Roper by what and how he wrote.

The prose style he adopted – or which adopted him – owed something to his idol Gibbon but more to Carlyle (whose ideas he despised). Especially in reviews of other historians’ work, he could be pitilessly sarcastic, annihilating in his mockery. In his demolition of Arnold Toynbee, for example, Trevor-Roper accused the saintly old windbag of regarding himself as a Messiah complete with ‘the youthful Temptations; the missionary Journeys; the Miracles; the Revelations; the Agony’. Reviewing a biography of Sir William Stephenson, a figure in British wartime intelligence, he declined even to list its inaccuracies: ‘To make such a charge against this biographer would be unfair. It would be like urging a jellyfish to grit its teeth and dig in its heels.’ In his 1951 campaign to ‘liquidate Stone’ (the young historian Lawrence Stone), he composed what was later described as ‘one of the most vitriolic attacks ever made by one historian on another’. Victims constantly used the word ‘malicious’ about his choice of language, and Trevor-Roper himself often talked gleefully about his own ‘malice’. Yet the glitter of his style could tempt him into absurdity, as when he asserted that 18th-century Scots – smarting from the loss of independence – turned ‘to discover and appreciate their native literature. Unfortunately, when they looked for it, they could not find it. There was none.’

But it was not just a prose style that gripped Hugh Trevor-Roper and came to dictate his posture in the world. It was a whole style of living and behaving. In the 1950s, there still existed in Britain a few fairylands of ancient privilege and exclusiveness, almost immune to social change, innocently convinced of their own superiority. One of these was the remnant of the old territorial aristocracy, the upper class which had been inconvenienced by austerity and the postwar lack of servants but which still held on to its country seats and its influence. Another was the world of the two ‘historic’ English universities – the ‘top’ colleges of Oxford in particular.

Trevor-Roper was captured by the second, and married into the first. Enemies invariably called him ‘arrogant’. But it seems that he was never quite confident that he belonged in either world; he took on their manner with an exaggerated relish that suggests insecurity. In this, he was unlike the much tougher A.J.P. Taylor, who came to Oxford from middle-class Lancashire and was able to view the place with affectionate detachment. Taylor got on sturdily with his work. Trevor-Roper let himself be drawn into energy-sapping college intrigues, academic beauty contests and professional vendettas. Other scholars took part in all that, but still managed to finish their books. For all his brilliance, and his bursts of intensive research, Trevor-Roper allowed his diligent affectation of an Old Oxford style to dilute his sense of purpose. Reading this biography, I began to wonder whether this man with such driving intellectual curiosity, with such a genius for asking the question that no other historian had noticed, wouldn’t have done better in a different sort of university. Edinburgh would have been right for him if he hadn’t had such a blistering phobia about the ‘Scotch’. Manchester, Liverpool or University College London would have let him concentrate. Perhaps he should never have gone to Oxford. Perhaps it maimed him.

But that leads on to a separate question. It’s been the general view that Trevor-Roper somehow did not ‘fulfil his promise’: he never completed the great work about early modern England that everyone expected from him. He left behind a long trail of aborted books, writings that are now being tidied up, edited and steadily published (see for instance Colin Kidd’s review of two such posthumous volumes in the LRB of 22 May 2008). Sisman’s biography gives evidence that he felt this as a failure himself. Even Mrs Thatcher scolded him for weak book productivity. ‘On the stocks? On the stocks? A fat lot of good that is! In the shops, that is where we need it!’

And yet who is to say that success as a historian is to be measured by hardcovers in Blackwell’s? Trevor-Roper’s natural distance was the long essay in a historical journal, the lead book review, the lecture series polished up for publication, the heavyweight foreign-page reporting in the Observer or the Sunday Times. On that scale, he produced his best and most influential work, launching challenges and controversies that permanently altered interpretations of the English and European past. In his abandoned books, he would put all his energies into a few brilliant chapters and then lose interest. The only full-length book of history he published in his lifetime was his first: Archbishop Laud (1940). The others were almost all journal supplements or compilations of one kind or another. The book for which he was best known, The Last Days of Hitler (1947), was reportage and detective work rather than conventional history.

He emerged from an ancient gentry family which had come down in the world. His father was a small-town doctor in Northumbria; his mother was soured by anxieties about class and status. The young Hugh was put through the conventional sequence of grim prep schools – chilblains, ignorance and the cane – and then Charterhouse, where, as he recalled, the ‘missing element was thought’. But he was an excellent examinee; he read furiously, began to think for himself, and on long walks in the holidays grew to know the Borders and their rough history. Sisman is not the first commentator to suggest that his antipathy to Scotland began in local patriotism. He soaked up a romantic English version of Border mythology, in which the noble English were victims and the raiding Scots barbarous invaders.

In 1932 , he won a classics scholarship to Christ Church. Sisman calls it ‘the grandest of the Oxford colleges … Socially, it had long been a cut above the rest.’ The ambience when Trevor-Roper arrived resembled that of Regency Eton: young bloods pursuing their habits of drinking, gambling and fighting, while treating the dons rather like elderly servants who could be trusted not to make them open a book. In the midst of all this lurked the minority of brainy scholarship boys, clad in long gowns but usually lacking grandeur in their social origins. At first intimidated, Trevor-Roper soon took to the Christ Church style. He drank, betted, smashed glass and threw food about with the best of them. Well, not quite the best: he was not posh enough for the Bullingdon. The Gridiron Club was the place where he caroused, on wild nights which could end in ritual debaggings and dunkings in fountains. All this sits oddly with the later image of an austere, disciplinarian regius professor. But Trevor-Roper was always a highly physical creature. He was a phenomenal walker in the Borders or the Peloponnese, and would appear in college after ‘a short stroll’ of 38 miles in the Cotswolds. Above all, he developed a lifelong passion for hunting. Horses rolled on him; he lost his spectacles in ditches. But an alluring meet could take precedence over a lecture, or even duties in wartime intelligence.

Though he attended chapel services with a surplice over his hunting gear, Trevor-Roper soon lost what faith he had ever had. Recoiling from an encounter with Father D’Arcy, the Jesuit soul-fisher of prewar Oxford, he became not so much an atheist as a militant anti-clerical, as hard on Roman Catholics as on Calvinist fundamentalists. He tried freemasonry, but soon dropped his masonic kit over a bridge. He was for a time seriously interested in Marxism and, although he soon rejected its ‘prophetic’ claims, he retained for the rest of his career an awareness of social and economic change as determinants in history which marked him off from conventional ‘Tory historians’.

His first visit to Germany in 1935 left him with an impression of the Nazis as vulgar and coarse. But he seems to have been indifferent to politics until the Munich crisis in 1938. Disgusted with British appeasement and with socialist ‘weakness’ over the prospect of war, he read Mein Kampf and took it seriously as a coherent programme. This was a view he stuck to; he would never accept later interpretations – by A.J.P. Taylor in particular – which reduced Hitler to a mere opportunist who made up his actions as he went along.

During the war, Trevor-Roper worked in intelligence, at first in the Radio Security Service. This outfit initially fell under MI8 but was later transferred to the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) and its huge Ultra decrypting operation at Bletchley. Sisman fills two long chapters with the intricate, sometimes hair-raising and often very funny tale of Trevor-Roper’s adventures in the secret war. He was brilliant at his job, but his insistence on the importance of interpreting Nazi signals traffic, rather than just warehousing facts, often enraged his superiors. Other accounts have described some of the exotic figures who commanded Britain’s secret world, but Trevor-Roper’s private notes on them are startling. Felix Cowgill, in charge of counter-intelligence, was a ‘purblind, disastrous megalomaniac’. He rather fancied Colonel Gambier-Parry, who went hunting ‘in a risqué chocolate uniform’, but despised his sidekick Ted Maltby as a ‘farting exhibitionist’ resembling ‘those baboons on Monkey Hill, exhibiting to all in turn their great iridescent blue bottoms’. Not surprisingly, such men came to hate him. One of them even tried to frame him as a traitor who was passing the Ultra secret to Nazi agents in Ireland – a charge that could have landed him in front of a firing-squad. In spite of them, Trevor-Roper enjoyed himself. He went twice to enjoy the unrationed plenty of neutral Ireland, where the police regarded him as a ‘British spy’ and raided his hotel room. And he continued to hunt most weeks with the Whaddon or the Bicester. Once, the Whaddon hounds chased a fox past the sentries and into Bletchley Park itself, and Trevor-Roper, the only hunter with a security pass, had to round them up.

He achieved some big ‘scoops of interpretation’. These included the first news of the deepening political feud between Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr and Heinrich Himmler’s SS. When his superiors tried to suppress his ideas, he often went over their heads to contacts in Churchill’s inner circle, like Frederick Lindemann. This made him even less popular. But he emerged from the intelligence war with some important and lasting friendships including those with Gilbert Ryle, Stuart Hampshire, Guy Liddell and Dick White, who after the war became the head of MI5 and then MI6 – an invaluable contact. And Trevor-Roper enjoyed the company of Kim Philby, whom he found the most intelligent and sophisticated of his colleagues.

After the war, he interrogated Nazi prisoners in the British zone of Germany. Dick White was now ensconced in a confiscated schloss with a first-class chef, and ‘over the third bottle of hock’ the two men hit on a seductive idea. Trevor-Roper should use his historian’s skills and prove to the world, once and for all, that Hitler really was dead. In Berlin, he explored the derelict bunker and then set off in a jeep across Germany to find witnesses. He enjoyed these ‘delightful journeys, motoring through the deciduous golden groves of Schleswig-Holstein’ along empty roads. But this was September 1945! Trevor-Roper’s lofty indifference to a shattered country whose cities lay in ruins, whose people were approaching starvation, and where millions of homeless refugees and ‘displaced persons’ were wandering in search of food and shelter, is hard to understand or forgive.

His work was a success, however. His report in November established the Führer’s death beyond doubt and won him a lasting reputation as a ‘Hitler expert’. He assembled his research into a bestselling book, The Last Days of Hitler, which earned him enough money for ‘a Sardanapalian beano’ in Oxford. But the praise was not quite unanimous. Catholics were upset by his contempt for the behaviour of the Church under Hitler, and especially by his drawing attention to Goebbels’s Jesuit education. Here began his long-running vendetta with Evelyn Waugh. And the book abounded in withering generalisations about ‘the German national character’, views popular at the time but now embarrassing to read.

Back in Oxford, he found that he was resented by some older dons. The bitchiest of all the sniping came from Maurice Bowra, who wrote to Waugh that ‘Trevor-Roper is a fearful man, short-sighted, with dripping eyes, shows off all the time, sucks up to me, boasts, is far from poor owing to his awful book, on every page of which there is a howler.’ Understandably, Trevor-Roper enjoyed escaping to wider worlds: the Observer hired him to report on politics in Western Europe (driving a Bentley with his friend Robert Blake) and then in Czechoslovakia (a Lagonda with the young Alan Clark). In Tuscany, on the first of these jaunts, he met Bernard Berenson, art collector and maestro of highly paid authentication. Berenson became an intimate friend, and their correspondence over the years – witty and very frank – is one of Sisman’s richest sources. But, unexpectedly, Sisman himself comes downstage to pitch an authorial mud pie: ‘It was possible to see Berenson as an old fraud, a man who had squandered his talents in the pursuit of money, and whose personality had shrivelled in the process of trying to defend the indefensible.’ Maybe, but it wasn’t possible for Trevor-Roper to see him like that.

In 1957, he finally became Regius Professor of Modern History, after a much publicised contest with Taylor. (Sisman corrects the myth that they were deadly enemies. The two men had vivid disagreements – not least over Hitler and his intentions, as described by Taylor in The Origins of the Second World War – but respected each other’s gifts and stayed on remarkably affectionate terms.) Before and after his appointment, Trevor-Roper plunged into a succession of historical controversies. Some of these were mere ‘liquidations’ of an opponent, without much resonance for the understanding of history. But others showed Trevor-Roper at his most convincing and powerful as he challenged received interpretations of the past.

He tried to refute the thesis that England’s 17th-century crisis derived from the ‘rise of the gentry’ and the social-economic decay of the aristocracy. The reverse was true, he argued: the gentry at the end of the 16th century were in decline. He suggested that the ‘Marxisant’ class analysis of the period was too crude; the real conflict was between what he called Court and Country, and by the 1640s the English Court had become the most arrogant and intolerably expensive power structure in Europe. In sometimes brutal polemics, he attacked the whole Religion and the Rise of Capitalism orthodoxy established by R.H. Tawney and Max Weber. The question for him was not why capitalism emerged in Protestant countries but why it did not emerge in Catholic Europe after the Counter-Reformation. Widening his focus, he denounced another received version: that the intellectual pedigree of the Enlightenment led back to Calvin’s Reformation in Geneva. The European Enlightenment did have religious roots, he admitted, but they lay among heretics, dissenters and independent thinkers of all faiths, not in an Elect obsessed with sin and predestination. This led him to ask another question: how could the Scottish Enlightenment have happened in a country he insisted on describing as absurdly primitive? It was a question that older Scottish historians, darkly suspicious of the Enlightenment as an ‘English import’, had avoided. Remarkably, Trevor-Roper did not take this view, but suggested – on rather daringly slim evidence – that the thinkers who made Hume, Ferguson and Adam Smith possible were Scottish but ‘heretics’ to the Presbyterian mainstream: liberal Catholic exiles, Jacobites and Episcopalian intellectuals from Scotland’s north-east.

This, and his irrepressible sneering at all things Caledonian, annoyed the Scots. It was meant to. Trevor-Roper’s Scotophobia, evident even in the letters he wrote as a boy from a Scottish prep school, was not entirely rational. The Invention of Scotland, a posthumous selection of some of his essays on the country, is fun to read but spoiled by ignorance of the background, unfamiliarity with recent Scottish research and malicious interpretation. The fact is that he was out of his depth, as he often was when he stepped beyond about 1760. Trevor-Roper, like most English historians of his time, had a tin ear for nationalism (‘atavistic, tribal’) and no insight into romantic cultural politics. His elaborate essay on the Ossian fraud does not even mention that similar fragments of ancient verse were cooked up into ‘epics’ in a dozen European countries over the next hundred years.

Trevor-Roper’s own politics remained Whiggish, unpredictable. Students, noting his snobbish style and grand contacts, supposed him a Tory. But in the strict sense, he never was. Over Suez in 1956, he called Anthony Eden a ‘vain, ineffectual Man of Blood’, and reviled ‘the world of lower-middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance’. He attended the first Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin, but was repelled by its fanatical anti-Communist rhetoric, which reminded him of Nazi rallies. He was never a Cold Warrior and, although he seems to have kept MI5 informed of colleagues he suspected of Communist sympathies, retained a deep respect for the Party member Eric Hobsbawm as a historian and helped him to get a US visa. Neither was he such a Little Englander as he seemed. Visiting Paris, he was enthralled by the work of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School, and complained that they were ‘totally excluded from Oxford which remains, in historical matters, a retrograde provincial backwater’.

The books continued not to appear. In Sisman’s biography I counted at least nine unfinished works, including the ‘huge book, in three volumes’ on the Puritan Revolution, which he may have meant to be his defining achievement. Sisman writes: ‘What makes Hugh’s case especially tantalising is the number of books he brought to the brink of completion and then abandoned.’ Trevor-Roper confessed in a letter: ‘I am interested in too many things, and I write so slowly, so painfully slowly, that by the time I have written a chapter I have got interested in something else.’ This doesn’t feel like the whole story. Trevor-Roper was as busy and efficient as anybody else, but ultimately he worked for his own pleasure. He loved the process of research for its own sake, and then avoided the drudgery of writing it up by turning to some other delicious, irresistible train of discoveries. And it could be that the ‘brilliant examinee syndrome’, the private terror of public failure, had something to do with it as well. No book, no devastating book review.

He married Lady Alexandra Haig, daughter of the field-marshal. Tall and commanding, a real-life ‘Mrs Exeter’, she was miserably married to an admiral when she and Trevor-Roper fell in love. Their letters survive, and are very touching. It was a strange match – a sardonic bachelor don and an effusive but conventional aristocrat. They could madden each other, but the passionate bond between them was tough enough to stand her extravagance, his reluctance to show emotion and the sniggers of camp Oxford. Xandra was perilously unselfconscious. When two guests said that they had spent the previous night in Birmingham, she responded: ‘Birmingham? Whose place is that?’

By the mid-1950s, Trevor-Roper was regarded as the English-speaking world’s leading expert on Nazi documents. Hitler’s Table Talk was published with a long Trevor-Roper introduction (‘The Mind of Adolf Hitler’), soon followed by another introduction to The Bormann Letters. Newspaper editors hungry for ‘Nazi revelations’ jostled to sign him up, and journalism took an increasing share of his time. In the Third Reich trade, he began to meet a number of shady, greedy figures – among them the Nazi-nostalgic François Genoud, Himmler’s masseur Felix Kersten and the young David Irving – to whom he initially gave more trust than they deserved. As Colin Kidd has suggested, Trevor-Roper had a curious weakness for con men. He found them fascinating. But he overestimated his own ability to see through them, and underestimated the damage they could do.

Here Sisman had to confront a classic biographer’s problem: an acute case of hindsight. Knowing the end – Trevor-Roper’s authentication of the fake Hitler diaries – many previous episodes can seem to converge towards that awful Hamburg press conference on 25 April 1983. Sisman is clearly reluctant to play this crude hubris-nemesis game. None the less, he hasn’t quite resisted the temptation, and it’s impossible to blame him. The omens are easy to pick out. Trevor-Roper, although he had seen plenty of forgeries (some of Kersten’s Nazi ‘archives’, for instance), grew dangerously confident that he could identify a fake. And he could be perversely uncritical when on a research trail that excited him. In 1964, he ploughed through the 20,000 pages of the Warren Report’s evidence, and concluded that this ‘vast and slovenly’ report had got it wrong: Kennedy had probably been the victim of a conspiracy. He refused to retreat even when his Sunday Times article to that effect (‘Kennedy Murder Inquiry Is Suspect’) was torn apart by critics. Sisman comments: ‘The episode demonstrated both the positive and the negative sides of Hugh as a controversialist: his independence of mind, his boldness and his determination, but also his rashness, poor judgment, obstinacy and, perhaps, arrogance.’

Arrogance and poor judgment were to show up in his relations with Rupert Murdoch and his gang. Trevor-Roper (now Lord Dacre of Glanton) had been a director of the Times for seven years when Murdoch took over Times Newspapers in 1981. He had no illusions about Murdoch: ‘He aims to moronise and Americanise the population … wants to destroy our institutions, to rot them with a daily corrosive acid.’ Yet he did almost nothing as Murdoch tore up his agreements with the directors, threatened to sack 600 staff members and imposed his own standards of journalism. Instead, he stayed on the board for another six years. Perhaps he felt that, as an ‘independent’ director, he was a superior being who should not descend to the squabbles of tycoons and journalists. If so, it’s hard to forgive – much harder than his behaviour over the diaries. That failure, which blighted the rest of his life, was caused less by hubris than by two sorts of ignorance. The first was that, without realising it, he had lost touch with modern Germany. Unlike David Irving, he knew little about recent research into Nazi documentation or about the new market in convincing forgeries. At a different level, he did not grasp how hysterical and dishonest West German media bosses and journalists could be. He relied on his experience of Germans from the postwar ‘Occupation Time’, 30 years before, which was now irrelevant.

His second ignorance was about journalism. Again, he thought he knew about newspapers and the media because he knew ‘presentable’ editors who printed his articles. He had no idea of the frantic haste, secrecy and pressure of a big exclusive, in which there is no room for second thoughts. His first glance at the diaries suggested to him that they could be real, but a first glance was all he got. His instinct was not to authenticate them until he had taken more time to reflect, to examine, to wait for the ink and paper tests to be confirmed. But that was not on offer. As Sisman writes, ‘his mistake was to have allowed himself to be hustled’ into stating that the diaries were genuine. When he did change his mind, the Sunday Times presses were already rolling. Murdoch said: ‘Fuck Dacre. Publish.’ Within a week, Hugh Trevor-Roper became the butt of the world’s reading public.

He made many wrong calls in his life. But that one deserves sympathy. A sort of innocence, rather than his famous arrogance, brought the catastrophe about. Most of the journalists and academics who jeered at him must also have privately muttered: ‘There, but for the grace of God … ’ And in fact, though his public credibility was wrecked, his professional reputation did not suffer much. His friends stood by him, and Sisman considers that ‘the essays he wrote after the debacle of the Hitler diaries, while he was in his seventies, are among his very best work. By the time of his death in 2003, the publication of these essays had done much to restore his standing as an early modern historian.’

Meanwhile, he was suffering a different kind of torment. In 1979, Trevor-Roper was astonished and pleased to be offered the mastership of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He did not realise that the invitation was a labyrinthine ploy, devised by Maurice Cowling, to give the college a head so reactionary that he would be the willing prisoner of its extreme-right ruling clique. But like many princes of darkness, Cowling was so devious that he tripped over his own bootlaces: Lord Dacre, far from being a romantic Tory ultra, turned out to be an anti-clerical Whig with a preference for free speech over superstition. He did not find it normal that fellows should wear mourning on the anniversary of General Franco’s death, attend parties in SS uniform or insult black and Jewish guests at high table. For the next seven years, Trevor-Roper battled to suppress the insurgency of the Cowling clique (‘a strong mind trapped in its own glutinous frustrations’), and to bring the college back to a condition in which students might actually want to go there. Neither side won this struggle, which soon became a campaign to drive Trevor-Roper out of the college by grotesque rudeness and insubordination. He hung on for his seven-year term and achieved some reforms, but left fearing that Peterhouse would ‘revert to its old condition of mouldering anarchy permeated by destructive intrigue’. When he and Xandra celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, he invited five duchesses to the party but not a single Peterhouse fellow. He affected to regard Cambridge as a ‘torpid, introverted village’ among ‘dreary fens’.

In 1987, he and Xandra retired to a spacious old house in Didcot. He published several more volumes of essays, all generously praised by critics, but failing eyesight prevented him from completing his memoirs. Xandra began to drift away into Alzheimer’s, and Trevor-Roper cared for her ‘tenderly, without resentment, though the drudgery left him little time for intellectual activity’. As Sisman puts it, ‘in old age Hugh mellowed. He became more approachable, more tolerant and more open. The kindness had always been there, but hidden behind a sometimes forbidding mask.’ He survived Xandra’s death in 1997 by six lonely years.

Few historians have attracted so much abuse in their lifetimes. Bowra called Trevor-Roper ‘a robot, without human experience … no desire to like or be liked’. Isaiah Berlin said that ‘he doesn’t have any human perceptions; he’s all glass and rubber.’ It can’t be denied that his behaviour invited that sort of venom, and sometimes deliberately. But Sisman manages to show how inaccurate these psychograms were, and his research constantly reveals that the odd creature inside the spiky shell was all too vulnerable. Ved Mehta, interviewing Trevor-Roper for the New Yorker, was reminded of ‘a literary critic who has no love for writers’. But Mehta also recognised that this supercilious professor was part of a larger, very English intellectual fashion: ‘going for the largest game, creating an intellectual sensation, striking a posture, sometimes at the expense of truth … generally enjoying the fun of going against the grain’. That was a smarter insight than the robot cliché. Fun – the delight of raising hell by turning dogma on its head or asking the unpardonable question – was what Trevor-Roper was about. At his memorial meeting in Christ Church, his friend Blair Worden said: ‘His avowed aim, and his certain achievement, was to make history live.’ And that, for all his faults and failures, he did.

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Vol. 32 No. 18 · 23 September 2010

Neal Ascherson claims that in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s time as master of Peterhouse, the fellows of the college were not only right-wing but anti-semitic (LRB, 19 August). This was simply not the case in my time as a fellow, which overlapped Lord Dacre’s reign as master, when at least four fellows were Jewish and were treated with the respect that their academic distinction made appropriate; nor do I recollect discourtesy to any guest of whatever pigmentation or religion (though women were sometimes treated as intruders). The Peterhouse fellowship at that time included more geneticists of distinction than historians and could not therefore be described as reactionary all through or unconcerned with useful research.

John Davis

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