Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography

This is an excellent biography, if of a faintly old-fashioned sort. Although he eventually became a life peer as Lord Dacre of Glanton, the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was never really a public figure, the high point of his fame, or notoriety, occurring during the Hitler Diaries controversy in 1983, of which he became the most prominent casualty. Yet through carefully developed contacts - he ran Harold Mac­millan's campaign to become chancellor of Oxford University in 1960, the then prime minister having laid the groundwork for that success by earlier nominating him to be Regius Professor of Modern History in 1957 - he contrived for many years to be a peripheral figure hovering at the side of the political stage. To
undergraduates at Christ Church in my day, he was certainly the most glamorous member of the college's governing body, his grey Bentley parked on the corner of Tom quad, or even sometimes Peckwater, serving as a reminder that the way of the academic need not necessarily be steep or hard.

From the moment of the publication of his world bestseller, The Last Days of Hitler, in 1947, Trevor-Roper found himself blessed with more than his fair share of this world's goods. And that became true socially as well as financially when, in 1954, at the age of 40, he married the 47-year-old daughter of Earl Haig, Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston. It does not appear to have been a particularly happy or fulfilled marriage - in Sisman's words, Xandra (as she was always called) "expected more" from the relationship than she ever got - but at least it lasted until her death at the age of 90 in 1997, her husband following her to the grave six years later at the age of 89.

In his latter years of widowerhood, Trevor-Roper became a somewhat sombre and solitary figure whom I would occasionally see and talk to at the bar of the Garrick Club in London. By then, his eyesight going and his hearing failing, he had lost all the capacity to intimidate that he had possessed at Oxford. He had also been through a good many storms - not just the row over the forged Hitler Diaries, which he recklessly authenticated on a flying visit to Zurich, but the five-year period he spent as a beleaguered master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, besieged by his own senior common room.

This was an appointment he rashly took up on the grounds that it would give him a six-year extension of his working life. As Regius Professor, he would have had to retire at 67, whereas at Peterhouse he could go on until he was at least 73. But it was to prove another unhappy chapter in his career, the mere two dozen fellows of Peterhouse having elected him in the belief that he was, like them, a High Tory, only to discover when it was already too late that he was much more like an unreconstructed Whig.

Yet the real failure of Trevor-Roper's career lay not in any of the positions he held, but rather in his inability to produce the great book that was expected of him. As a young research don at Merton, he published in 1940 a perfectly respectable, if anti-clerical, life of Charles I's occupant of the see of Canterbury, William Laud. But in academic terms, that was really it. Although he published 16 books in all - and there were four posthumous volumes of letters, essays and that kind of thing - Trevor-Roper, unlike Macaulay, Trevelyan or even A J P Taylor, left no lasting imprint as a historian. Rather, he was a superbly gifted journalist and reviewer, seldom altogether fastidious over what he would turn his hand to, from the Kennedy assassination to the Eichmann trial.

It so happens that I had some small experience of that. In the autumn of 1963, I was working for John Freeman, then editor of the New Statesman. To my astonishment, I received an indirect approach from the Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, inquiring whether the paper might be interested in letting him review a much-trailed paperback by Randolph Churchill entitled The Fight for the Tory Leadership (covering the events of the previous October when Alec Douglas-Home had emerged as Harold Macmillan's hand-picked choice to be his successor when he stood down as prime minister). I was, to put it mildly, a bit taken aback: I was not, after all, the paper's literary editor, merely its 29-year-old political columnist who just happened to have been at Christ Church in Trevor-Roper's day. But, having consulted Freeman, who, I am sure, also referred the matter to Karl Miller, the then literary editor, I was authorised to send a message back that such a review would, indeed, be acceptable.

Yet when it came in (very professionally in good time), there was, I'm afraid, consternation all round. For it turned out to be a "rave", not just of the book, but of Macmillan's highly questionable role in the whole story. His conduct ("scrupulous and honourable") was even expressly compared to that of the British press ("which has emerged with uniform discredit"). The Regius Professor ended by placing a laurel wreath on Randolph Churchill's brow ("He has set out to state the facts"). We resolved that there was nothing for it but to bite the bullet and publish the review, only to discover that the half had not been told us. For the Spectator that same day carried the then editor and former Tory party chairman Iain Macleod's excoriating review of the same book in which not only the author, but Macmillan himself, were torn limb from limb.

It was hardly the NS's finest hour; but then nor was it the Regius Professor's. It was bad enough at Oxford to be known as the creation of Macmillan, but now he looked like his creature as well. From that time on, though I got to know him only in old age, I always regarded Trevor-Roper with a measure of reserve; there seemed to me to be no alternative to the view that, as a scholar, he was liable to fall short of the highest objective standards, not perhaps guilty of any mortal sin, but consistently susceptible to the more venal ones.

Beautifully written and admiringly presented though it is, there is nothing in Sisman's narrative to cause me to want to alter that view. The subject of this biography may have had all the potential to be an academic idol, but at the base of the statue there were always feet of social-climbing clay. Which must be why, when I think of him even today, the vision that most often comes to mind is of him standing in Peckwater quad, blowing a hunting horn and urging on the young bloods of Christ Church to bay for ever more broken glass.

Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography
Adam Sisman
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 648pp, £25

Anthony Howard was editor of the New Statesman from 1972-78

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain