Adam Sisman’s ‘An Honourable Englishman,’ reviewed by Michael Dirda
By Michael Dirda,
It’s easy to recommend this superb biography of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) as one of the best books of the year. First of all, it’s by Adam Sisman, author of the enthralling and award-winning “Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson.” There, Sisman revealed how a priapic, feckless and often drunk Scotsman created the single greatest biography of all time. Here, he now writes with a comparable liveliness and authority about one of the most gifted, beguiling and controversial scholars of the 20th century. “An Honourable Englishman” is a long book, but every page offers high-order literary entertainment.
Second, it is also a welcome addition to that delicious subgenre that portrays the antics, quarrels and love affairs of the English upperclasses and literati as a kind of real-life soap opera. If you enjoy works by or about Evelyn Waugh and the Mitford sisters, or histories of the gentlemen spies and code-breakers of Bletchley Park, or accounts of the internecine battles of eminent Oxford and Cambridge scholars, or glimpses of modern-day Fleet Street in action, then this is the holiday gift for you. Trevor-Roper was a key player in all these overlapping worlds.
Third, one of the chapters of “An Honourable Englishman” — entitled “Expert” — provides a mesmerizing, almost hour-by-hour reconstruction of the entire sorry business of the Hitler diaries. Those under 40 may not recall that in 1983, the German newspaper Stern and the English newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch ran splashy front-page stories announcing the discovery of the Fuhrer’s private notebooks, some 60 volumes altogether. Under time pressure to validate this find, Trevor-Roper proclaimed the archives genuine but came to recognize, when it was too late to stop the presses, that he had been hoodwinked by forgeries. As a stand-alone piece of journalism, these pages rank with some of the best reporting of our time.
The Hitler-diaries fiasco occurred toward the end of Trevor-Roper’s career, when he had already established himself as an authority on Nazi Germany, largely because of “The Last Days of Hitler.” That 1947 bestseller led the young Oxford don, who had spent the war years analyzing German radio transmissions, into journalism and broadcasting. As Sisman shows, this siren call of media celebrity — the quick gratification afforded by book reviewing, the allure of well-paid assignments in the pleasant places of Europe, the handsome fees for lectures abroad or appearances on television, as well as the never-ending expenses of a high-maintenance and aristocratic wife — distracted Trevor-Roper from the magisterial works he longed to write about 16th- and 17th-century England. He died with half-a-dozen books unfinished, his initial promise unfulfilled.
Or was it? He was, after all, appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, beating out his longtime rival A.J.P. Taylor (the subject of Sisman’s first biography). He was even raised to the peerage as Lord Dacre of Glanton. His students included such distinguished historians (and occasional rivals) as Lawrence Stone and Michael Howard. Still, there was no masterwork on the English Puritans or Oliver Cromwell, only, in 1976, another bestseller, the delicious “Hermit of Peking: The Hidden Life of Sir Edmund Backhouse,” which related the fantastic career of a forger and conman in turn-of-the-century China. It remains the best book of its kind since A.J.A. Symons’s “The Quest for Corvo.”
In fact, as Sisman suggests and many believe, Trevor-Roper was at heart an essayist, a master of the short form, and journalism helped him focus his wide learning. As a boy, he’d grown up in a middle-class household in which the parents never displayed affection. Though he was the finest classicist in his year at Oxford (before he switched to history), he drank relentlessly as an undergraduate, drove his car at reckless speeds and frequently fell from his horse when riding to hounds (a favorite pastime), as if he were trying desperately to find some physical release for his frozen emotional self. As a don, he was widely regarded as inhuman, coldly ironic, frightening. For a long time he was even thought to be asexual. When, at 39, he did fall into a love affair with an older, married womon (who eventually became his wife), she complained that he never whispered any endearments or even murmured that he loved her.
By inclination, Trevor-Roper seems to have been a mandarin litterateur. His true mentor wasn’t his tutor J.C. Masterman, but rather the wealthy American bookman Logan Pearsall Smith, known for his brittle aphorisms collected as “Trivia.” Smith took up Trevor-Roper (as he did, at other times, the writer Cyril Connolly and the art critic John Russell) and urged his young disciple to live a life devoted to reading and scholarship and the composition of beautiful sentences. Following Smith’s death, Trevor-Roper transferred his devotion to his mentor’s famous brother-in-law, the equally refined art connoisseur Bernard Berenson.
Little wonder that Trevor-Roper grew into such an exacting prose stylist, valuing clarity of thought and expression above all else. But as a scholar he was, instinctively, a controversialist, an upsetter of received opinion and long-held truisms. Most famously, in “The Elizabethan Aristocracy: An Anatomy Anatomised,” he argued against the seemingly incontrovertible view that the aristocracy was on the decline and the gentry on the rise in early modern England; it was, he maintained, with compelling evidence, quite the other way ’round. More generally, he could never resist an opportunity to take a dig at organized religion, especially Catholicism. The novelist Evelyn Waugh, as a defender of the faith, frequently excoriated the Oxford historian, once declaring that only “one honorable course is open to Mr. Trevor-Roper. He should change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge.” Alas, Waugh wasn’t alive to appreciate the irony when his old enemy became Lord Dacre and assumed the mastership of Cambridge’s Peterhouse College.
For most ordinary readers, Trevor-Roper is known for his thrilling introductions to editions of Tacitus, Gibbon and Macaulay. For those of a more scholarly bent, his various collections of lectures, academic papers and reviews — including “Men and Events,” “Renaissance Essays,” “Catholics, Anglicans, and Puritans: Seventeenth Century Essays,” “From Counter-Reformation to Glorious Revolution” and “History and the Enlightenment” — are seemingly inexhaustible repositories of dry wit and carefully marshaled erudition. Just to read Trevor-Roper on Robert Burton and “The Anatomy of Melancholy” or on the historian Clarendon or on “The General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century” or on the philosopher David Hume is to feel that one is, in a small way, a citizen in the Republic of Letters.
Detailed, funny and beautifully paced, “An Honourable Englishman” is one of the fullest and most intelligent biographies of a modern scholar ever written. Its readers are in for a treat.
An Honourable Englishman The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper By Adam Sisman Random House. 643 pp. $40.