Peppery Public Intellectual

Book cover
An Honourable Englishmanby Adam SismanRandom House. 672p $40

Come again? Not that he was dishonorable, mind you, but if one had to summarize the career of Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) with a single word, adjectives like “witty,” “waspish” or “contrarian” would sooner come to mind than “honourable.” But then Trevor-Roper was also both vigorously old school (a fox-hunting, classically educated elitist) and unremittingly sarcastic (in a typical aside he described two Nazi officials as “a perfect pair, the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of pretentious German silliness”); so one has to take the title with some ironic salt.

Adam Sisman, who has written a solid biography of Trevor-Roper’s colleague and occasional combatant A. J. P. Taylor, as well as studies of Boswell’s Life of Dr. Johnson and the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, rather nervily asks readers to follow him through 600-plus densely detailed pages chronicling the uneventful, bookish career of an Oxford don with a very fine prose style. It’s a near thing, but Sisman makes the trip worthwhile.


In straightforward, efficient fashion, he marches steadily through the stages of Trevor-Roper’s CV with chapters labeled “Boy” (born in Northumberland, near the Scottish border), “Carthusian” (a student at the Charterhouse “public” school), “Undergraduate” (at Christ Church, Oxford), “Researcher” (at Merton College), Cadet” (a 25-year-old second lieutenant in the Territorial Army just before World War II), “Soldier” (in the Radio Security Service, charged with intercepting and decoding enemy messages), “Major” (in the Secret Intelligence Service), “Sleuth” (he interviewed high-ranking German P.O.W.’s and uncovered a crucial copy of Hitler’s personal testament). And this is just a partial listing. Others include “Student” (back at Christ Church and publishing his earliest and biggest hit, The Last Days of Hitler [1947]), “Destroyer” (sulfurous critic of Arnold Toynbee and other historians) and “Lover” (of Lady Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston, daughter of the “butcher of the Somme,” Field Marshal Douglas Haig, whom he married in 1954).

Trevor-Roper was a mixed bag. As a child, he claimed, “I never saw, in my own house, any evidence of any emotion whatsoever; and it was somehow conveyed to me that any show of it was not only improper but ridiculous.” In person, especially as a younger man, he struck many people as cold, reserved and imperious; in print he could be a world-class insulter (he adored Edward Gibbon). But he was also a bon vivant and a prodigious oenophile. He was often regarded as an intellectual failure because he never got around to writing the “major” history he was thought to have in him. But he did write more than 20 books (four of them published after his death), some of them, like The Hermit of Peking, about the pseudo-Sinologist Sir Edmund Backhouse, or Religion, the Reformation, and Social Change, extremely good. (It turned out that the long essay, not the book, was his natural medium.)

A number of scholars scorned him for his extensive and handsomely paid journalism; but his work for The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, the BBC and so on was polished and memorable. No doubt, Lord Dacre, as he was finally known, was a snob, with a strong preference for duchesses over fusty Ph.D.’s, but he frankly admitted it. He was pilloried for being taken in by the Hitler Diaries hoax, but he did so only after two editors at Der Stern had falsely assured him that both the paper and the ink had been tested and found authentic—and anyway, was that lapse such an earth-shaking event? Trevor-Roper disliked children, but he developed a deep, fatherly affection for his stepson James.

He was, all in all, a remarkable man. Bernard Berenson, who could be a shrewd judge of character, noted in his diary that Trevor-Roper “seems to have known everybody, or at least everybody who has counted, in the last 30 years” [this was in 1956] “a fascinating letter-writer, indeed an epistolary artist, brilliant reviewer of all sorts of books, very serious historian and formidable polemicist.”

So much for the good news. The bad news is that Trevor-Roper spent a large part of his long life fighting academic battles, which, as his acquaintance Henry Kissinger famously remarked, are so bitter because the stakes are so small. He was forever engaging in verbal fisticuffs with, for instance, Evelyn Waugh, because of his compulsive need to bait Christians, Catholics and Jesuits for their every failing, past or present. His years of steering through storms of senior common room gossip, his machinations to become Regius Professor at Oxford or his jousting with the dinosauric old guard at Peterhouse, the next-to-last Cambridge college to admit women (1983), are amusing at times; but outbursts of pettiness (even if his enemies sinned more that way than he did) make for a dull story.

The one thing we do not know after our protracted stroll with Professor Trevor-Roper is what exactly to make of his wife, Xandra, and their marriage. Seven years older than her husband and painfully aware of the fact, she was an intense, nervous aristocrat who sounds at times like a flibbertigibbet and fashionista, and elsewhere like a clever, sharp-tongued and intuitive, if undereducated art lover and social climber. Her several pregnancies with her husband all ended in miscarriages; but we can only guess at whatever depths of pain or joy the two may have experienced together. The record, as provided by Sisman, is opaque on that score.

Still, for the relatively few people to whom he opened up, Trevor-Roper himself appears to have been a charming, entertaining, dazzling companion, even if he never fully recovered from his love-starved childhood. Pity.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
6 years 4 months ago

Rare is the plesure that one has in reading a review as excellent as that of Peter Heinegg's of An Honourable Englishman. The strikingly fine prose, the balance in judgment, the controlled wit, the perception of Heinegg's greater knowledge of history and literature, makes one wonder what he is doing in Schenectady, New York. Hats off to America for bagging him for its readers.


Nicholas Clifford
6 years 4 months ago
Yes indeed, a splendid review and fun to read. Just one point, though. Heinegg's characterization of Sir Edmund Backhouse as a pseudo-Sinologist is a bit unfair. He was a genuine Sinologist, and if he really forged all those Beijing court documents which he palmed off on the Bodleian, he must have had the greatest command of classical Chinese enjoyed by any westerner since Matteo Ricci. But if he was a genuine Sinologist, he was also a genuine forger and con man. And a genuine liar who made the unlikely claim, among other things, to have had affairs both with the poet Paul Verlaine and with the fearsome Old Buddha, as the Dowager Empress Cixi was called (though probably not to her face).


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