One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper Edited by Richard Davenport-Hines and Adam Sisman, Oxford, £25
Writing to his biographer, Adam Sisman, in 1991, Hugh Trevor-Roper asked, “But who of us would wish to be judged by our private letters, in which one is licensed to be frivolous and irresponsible?” The question is a valid one, and it leads to another question: “why publish and read private letters?” In the case of these hundred private letters, published to mark the centenary of Trevor-Roper, the answer to the second question is easy: they are published and read for the sheer joy they provide. Very few people, and certainly no historian, of the 20th century wrote with the effortless grace and the enviable precision of Trevor-Roper. He was the master of style just as in his historical work he made himself the master of the long essay.
As to the question that Trevor-Roper himself raised, there is no danger that he will be judged by his private letters since posterity has already passed its verdict on him. No historian of Trevor-Roper’s generation — Christopher Hill, A.J.P. Taylor, Lawrence Stone and Jack Plumb, to name the four most famous — enjoys the kind of afterlife that he does. Books that he did not publish in his lifetime are appearing now and are being read and praised by historians. I do not think even those who do not always agree with his analysis will deny that he was one of the great historians of the 20th century. What is remarkable about this enduring reputation is that during his life, Trevor-Roper’s standing as a historian took a severe beating over the authentication of the Hitler diaries. That incident, and the scandal it caused, did not affect the respect he enjoys as a historian of 16th-17th century England and Europe and of the last days of Hitler. In two letters in this collection, Trevor-Roper returned to the incident but did not attempt to deny his responsibility, even though he knew he alone was not responsible for the mistake. But he did not point to others. If private letters are indeed used to judge him then he was a gentleman of the old school even in his private moments.
The image of Trevor-Roper is that of a patrician socialite, who preferred the company of the great and the good of England. These letters reveal that deep down he was a lonely man and not too comfortable at the dinner parties he was often forced to attend. He enjoyed his solitude and used it to read and to write. He was a prolific writer — of books he never quite finished, of essays, of reviews and of letters. His life conveys the impression that he wrote all the time — in his study in college, in his house in Oxford close to Christ Church, and in his ancestral home at Chiefswood, up north in the Scottish border. To a graduate student he wrote in 1966 from Chiefswood: “I am enjoying being alone, with no more exacting conversation than that of the gardener... I live on ham, tongue, pork pie, spring onions and strawberries&cream, & cheese, white wine and brandy... & I am working like mad on witches. If you feel in need of a change & can live on such fare, come & visit me. I should not entertain you: you would work on your witches next door.” There is in this invitation a cry for company but also the need for solitude.
His loneliness was evident in his eagerness to receive letters and in writing them. He wrote to one correspondent in 1968, “Do write again: I love your letters, and I long to hear of you, and from you.” He could be diffident about his letter-writing. In a letter to Jack Plumb in 1970 he confessed, “I am a hopeless writer of letters — or at least, a hopeless organizer of the paper which falls like a gentle but continuous blizzard of snow on my various desks. Some of them congeal into solid, lasting ice; others somehow get pushed off into great drifts at the table-side; others simply melt away and no trace is left of them. Yours has suddenly emerged from beneath a drift, and fills me with shame for my long silence.”
In his letters, as indeed in all his writings, Trevor-Roper wore his erudition very lightly. The occasional classical allusion, at times a Latin quote and memorable lines from Tacitus and Gibbon remind us of his vast reading and capacious memory. There is one letter to J.C. Masterman, written in late 1956, that is Trevor-Roper’s opening salvo in the great Oxford battle for the Regius Chair in History. In this letter he pleaded for “a summary break with the present Oxford tradition, a tradition which has now continued itself, vi inertiae, for thirty years.” He argued that because of the inertia of this tradition, Oxford “has become a backwater left ever further behind by the intellectual tide.” He set out in this letter a brief agenda for change in the approach to history and its teaching in Oxford. He argued that Steven Runciman, from Cambridge and a historian of the Crusades, was the best candidate for the Regius Chair. This was the closest Trevor-Roper ever came to writing any kind of manifesto. Did he imply by the very act of writing such a letter that he wasn’t entirely disinterested in getting the professorship, which he eventually did get? This letter has passing comments on historians and one is worth noting: he describes Lewis Namier as England’s “greatest living historian”.
A typical Trevor-Roper gem is his setting out his Ten Commandments of good writing in a letter penned in 1988. Lovers of English prose should know these as they know the Biblical ones. Space prevents a full quotation but the tenth commandment conveys the flavour: “Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age.”
There was not a sentence that Trevor-Roper wrote, the Hitler diaries notwithstanding, that can bring him shame as he sits next to Gibbon in the historians’ paradise.