Tea with Medea

Simon Skinner

  • My Dear Hugh: Letters from Richard Cobb to Hugh Trevor-Roper and Others edited by Tim Heald
    Frances Lincoln, 240 pp, £20.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 7112 3240 2

Who now, other than historians of modern France, remembers Richard Cobb? Cobb’s Wikipedia entry – the canonical index of posterity’s interest – measures three lines; by contrast, Hugh Trevor-Roper, his principal addressee in this collection, gets five thousand words. Yet Cobb, who died in 1996, was not only a historian of acknowledged genius. As these letters incidentally but consistently demonstrate, he was also a maverick member of the wider cultural world. He chaired the Booker judges (ensuring that Hôtel du Lac prevailed over Empire of the Sun, and relishing the ensuing howls). He wrote for the broadsheets; he featured in and fed material to Private Eye. Introduced in his youth to Fitzrovia, he knew Dylan Thomas, Louis MacNeice and Julian Maclaren-Ross, and wrote with sufficient extra-historical purchase to make it into Margaret Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature (to his immoderate delight). His memoirs were a Book at Bedtime. He received the Légion d’honneur, was an FBA and a CBE. His birthday was in the Times.

Cobb’s professional distinction was remarkable given his relatively late start. Like so many scholars of his generation he got a second-class degree (in 1938), Firsts seemingly being regarded as a bit Widmerpudlian in Oxford in those days. The war put an end to a spell of research in Paris, and after failing the army medical he used family contacts to vault from a desk job at the Air Ministry to a liaison role with the British-armed Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade. A gifted linguist, he then shifted to liaison with the Poles; he was in Brussels immediately after its liberation and was demobilised in France, spending much of the next decade in the national and local archives and working under the Jacobin historian Georges Lefebvre at the Sorbonne. He took up his first lectureship only in 1955, at Aberystwyth (which thereafter loomed largest in his extensive demonology of provincial Britain), and after a year in Leeds in the early 1960s he moved to Oxford, spending a decade as a tutorial fellow at Balliol and then a decade as professor of modern history before his retirement in 1984.

The stock line on Trevor-Roper is that, for all his brilliance as an essayist, he never delivered himself of a magnum opus. Cobb disgorged a succession of claimants to that title: Les Armées révolutionnaires (1961), based on his doctoral work under Lefebvre, recovered the political gangs who exported the Terror into the interior; Terreur et subsistances (1965) sought to rehabilitate the real (material) rather than assumed (ideological) preoccupations of the sans-culottes in the 1790s; The Police and the People (1970), his first monograph in English, concerned French popular protest in the decades after the Revolution; Reactions to the French Revolution (1972) ranged beyond the metropole to the records of the départements for individual perspectives on the Revolution ‘from ground level’; Paris and Its Provinces (1975) explored the relationship between the citizens of Paris and the people of its surrounding countryside; finally, Death in Paris (1978) was ‘an exercise in miniaturism’ brilliantly and movingly drawn from the records of the juges de paix and commissaires de police on suicides in the 1790s. ‘I am a local historian, not a national one,’ Cobb wrote in the introduction to The Police and the People. While he loved Paris and had served his archival apprenticeship there, what distinguished his work was an unparalleled immersion in local archives, a relish for the material found in village mairies and archives communales (the ‘photo of Pétain stacked in the attic’). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie saluted him as ‘that indefatigable wanderer who has explored every one of our regions’.

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[*] They were reviewed by Julian Barnes in the LRB of 2 May 1985.

[†] Adam Sisman’s biography was reviewed by Neal Ascherson in the LRB of 19 August 2010; Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Wartime Journals are edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (I.B. Tauris, 322 pp., £25, November 2011, 978 1 84885 990 6).