Ignore the lackluster title, “The Professor and the Parson.” It’s the only part of Adam Sisman’s sprightly new book that is anything less than a reader’s delight. Best known as a biographer, most recently of John le Carre, Sisman here tracks the career of a narcissistic fantasist, bigamist and con man who during his mid-to-late 20th-century heyday styled himself, variously, as Professor, Dr., Father, Reverend or Monsignor Robert Parkin Peters.

A charlatan who apparently couldn’t distinguish reality from imposture, this illegitimate Anglican parson — he was defrocked in 1955 — falsely claimed degrees from Britain’s most prestigious universities, as well as expert knowledge of Renaissance ecclesiastical history. To provide bona fides for his many self-declared academic accomplishments, Peters regularly swiped letterhead paper from the offices of distinguished scholars and then used it to compose phony recommendations for himself. Even more boldly, he presented papers at international conferences, though the more astute suspected that he plagiarized most of whatever he said.

He was certainly nimble-witted and hard to trap. A student pointed out the close similarity between the wording of one of Peters’s talks and a work by the theologian E.L. Mascall. Peters impishly turned the accusation on its head: “It was vewy naughty of Ewic to use my lectures in his book without acknowledgment.” Once he tried to wangle a legitimate PhD from the University of Manchester. All was going swimmingly until the examiners were “surprised to find the candidate unfamiliar with much of the content of his own thesis.” Denied the degree, Peters appealed the decision all the way up to the queen.

The professor of Sisman’s title is none other than Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Though a severe and exacting scholar, Trevor-Roper was attracted to clever rascals, especially those whose antics played upon the endless credulity of the human mind and the gullibility of bureaucratic institutions. Cheeky scoundrels like Peters or Sir Edmund Backhouse — subject of Trevor-Roper’s own scintillating exposé, “Hermit of Peking” — brought color to the world and contributed to what Samuel Johnson called the gaiety of nations.

As Trevor-Roper soon discovered while compiling a substantial folder devoted to the deceptions of the pseudo-clergyman, Peters could bob up anywhere. Peters operated on a global scale. He regularly managed to land positions at churches and educational institutions around the world. In the United States alone he taught at the College of Wooster, was almost appointed to a tenured position at the University of Texas and, before his past caught up with him, was very nearly hired by both Catholic University and American University.

Fleeing the law in Europe, the resourceful parson resurfaced as “Principal of the Anglican Divinity School in Ceylon.” After failing to establish the “College of St. Francis” in British Columbia, Peters kindly offered to validate some old documents for a university library in Vancouver. They later turned up for sale in an antiquarian book shop in Seattle.

In his behavior toward others, Peters usually put on superior airs and treated those around him with undisguised condescension. What he seems to have craved, above all, were prestige and obsequious admiration. He particularly loved rituals, officiating at church services and academic ceremonies in gorgeous regalia, determined to be the center of attention or, better still, of rapt adulation. Over the years, he propositioned many young women (including Trevor-Roper’s stepdaughter!), married seven or eight times, usually without benefit of divorce, and even served a term in prison for bigamy. During the first 18 months after his release in 1953, he unrepentantly “wooed and won no fewer than four women,” eventually marrying one of them. In 1955 he was “betrothed to yet another young woman when he was arrested again,” this time for passing bad checks and stealing a car.

Though he might be charming if scams were going well, Peters could also be vicious when cornered. As Sisman writes:

“Whenever Peters felt in danger of being unmasked, he would counter-attack, seeking to discredit his accuser or accusers with slander and innuendo, and threatening legal action. He would never retract, or apologise; he appeared to have no shame, and therefore no conscience. An egotist, he was indifferent to the thoughts and feelings of those whom his actions might have damaged; other people, it seemed, existed solely to serve his purposes.”

Let me confess that this paragraph, and many similar observations, raised an interesting question in my mind: Was Sisman writing about Peters in such a way as to call to mind a more recent, and far more famous, contemporary liar and narcissistic fantasist? Sisman notes that Peters “showed disdain for those whom he judged inferior ” and “responded to challenges with bullying and threats of litigation.” Not only was Peters lecherous in his behavior, he was known for making “abusive comments about women” and “frequent misogynistic slurs.” When accusations against him were true, Peters always “hoped to cow his accusers into acceptance of his version of his past.”

Trying to understand Peters’s motivation, Sisman lists the attributes indicative of “narcissistic personality disorder.” These include “exaggerating your achievements and talents,” “requiring constant admiration,” “having a sense of entitlement,” “expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations,” “taking advantage of others to get what you want” and, overall, “behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.” These days, Peters certainly isn’t the only one exhibiting all these contemptible, autocratic traits.

Robert Peters died at age 87 in 2005. Perhaps disingenuously, Sisman stresses that “The Professor and the Parson” has no purpose beyond entertainment. It isn’t, he insists, a cautionary tale, a warning of imminent danger. Might that statement actually be a bit of protective flimflam? Read this excellent account of a sanctimonious, egotistical crook and hypocrite, then you tell me.

Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.


A Story of Desire, Deceit, and Defrocking

By Adam Sisman

Counterpoint. 231 pp. $26.95