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To Edward Chaney, May 5-11, 1988

House of Lords

Dear Edward

Many thanks for M. Strachan on Sir T. Roe: I see that I have some solid reading ahead of me; and for your letter, with all that delicious flattery glistening through the transparent pretence of censorship. Do I identify with Burckhardt? I never ask myself such questions. But I don't identify with Macaulay, whom I admire for his robust political sense but find ultimately unattractive: he is so insensitive, so complacent in his upstart, patrician whiggism: how his rhetoric glows when he thinks of Chatsworth, Woburn or Bowood! Do you know that passage about the Highlands of Scotland in the 17th century — their primitive, anarchic social system, so different from today when a gentleman can travel speedily and comfortably in a first-class railway carriage from his London club to his Highland grouse-moor? There is something insufferable (to me) about his identification with that imaginary gentleman, whom all Creation, it seems, aided by whig midwives, has been groaning and travailing to produce. Macaulay seems to me, for all his brilliance, to date far more than (say) Gibbon. Reading Gibbon, one feels that one is listening to a contemporary; with Macaulay, one is listening to a very successful, self-satisfied Victorian.

Burckhardt does refer to Gibbon, whose work of course he knew, but distantly: they were very different and I suspect that B wished to show his independence. Gibbon was a straightforward deist, Burckhardt a deeply religious spirit who had discarded Christianity. Gibbon set out to answer a great philosophical question — why do Empires rise and fall? — by the method of Montesquieu. Burckhardt sought to analyse a great cultural crisis-one world-culture replacing another-in the spirit of Goethe. I think their difference is shown most clearly in their treatment of the early Christian ascetics. Gibbon despised them for contracting out, for their lack of virtù in the crisis of civilisation. Burckhardt respected them for disengaging themselves from a corrupted world and beginning again. I don't think Burckhardt ever expressed his opinion of Gibbon's work; but I think it can be deduced.

If I am Burckhardt and you are Nietzsche, I would warn you that Burckhardt was a somewhat timorous elderly gentleman who was rather frightened of the formidable young Nietzsche (though he learned a lot from him). 

You should have gone to Magdalen: an invitation to it is a very rare experience. [Chaney had been invited to dine there by the historian John Stoye.] I dined there only twice in 50 years. The first time was before the war, when I was a candidate for the fellowship to which they (rightly) elected A J P Taylor: not a very relaxed occasion. The second time was on the occasion of some Gibbon anniversary, when "the monks of Magdalen" [as Gibbon called the fellows] tried to reclaim him. I regard that college as the Oxford Tibet: an inaccessible group of lamaseries, closed to the outer world. Oriel is rather a dull place, but quite hospitable: they don't deliberately insult guests. 

You ask if you can pass on the Ten Commandments [a set of rules for prose writing which T-R composed for graduate students]. Of course! It has suddenly occurred to me that I am probably the only surviving member of the Society for Pure English. This was a society which was founded in 1913 by Robert Bridges and expired, with the birth of the (then) much trumpeted "age of the Common Man", in 1946. It published numerous tracts with such titles as, "on Hyphens and Shall and Will", "The Split Infinitive", "The Fate of French É in English", "The Plural of Nouns ending in-th", etc., on all which subjects I am now prepared to hold forth to a firmly captive audience in any saloon-bar. So I am naturally very glad to have found a missionary who will spread my much simplified evangel...

11 May 1988

I began this letter six days ago, but never then finished it: there was a division bell, and then, seeing the Earl Russell (who sits on the Liberal benches) rising to speak (yet again) in the Committee on the Reform of Education Bill, I decided that it was time to leave for Paddington. Then, next day, I went to Cambridge, for a Feast at Peterhouse; after which I collapsed with gastric 'flu, from which I am just emerging to resume the pen.

I find that, in the House of Lords, we have some jolly moments. On Tuesday last there was a very agreeable episode. The Bishop of London [Graham Leonard] — one of the few sensible bishops (I think of Gibbon's description of Adhemar bishop of Puy: "a respectable prelate, alike qualified for this world and the next") — was moving an amendment requiring religious teaching in schools, when up stood the Lord Sefton. This is not the 7th Earl of Sefton, High Constable of Lancaster Castle: he, alas, is now dead, to the impoverishment of White's, Bucks' and the Jockey Club, and a new peerage of that title-Sefton of Garston-has been created for the former Labour leader of Liverpool City Council. This new Lord Sefton is a roaring atheist, and he now made a long speech, denouncing all religion and quoting Tom Paine's Age of Reason. Undeterred by various traditional signs of dissent, he then turned on the Bishop and demanded peremptorily whether the Rt. Revd. Prelate believed in the Virgin Birth (cries of "Oh!"). But the Bishop, at this critical juncture, did not lose his sang froid: he replied that this question was hardly appropriate to the Committee stage of the Bill (thus implying that it would, of course, be perfectly in order at Report Stage or at Third Reading). Further prosecution of the interesting subject was then promptly stopped by the Baroness Seear, who launched what the ex-Lord Chancellor called "the ultimum decretum": i.e. she moved "that the noble Lord be no longer heard"-an extreme device, very seldom used, and then only, in my experience, against Lord Hatch of Lusby,  the Bore of Bores, who also has the misfortune to be equally unpopular on all sides of the Chamber. The motion was immediately carried without a division (unprecedented even in the case of Lord Hatch); and so the House returned to the quiet drone of Christian conformity. Do you have jolly episodes like this in the Lincoln College Governing Body meetings? 

I did not enjoy the Peterhouse Feast. I do not really enjoy these institutional beanos anyway, and at Cambridge they are rather gross. But at Peterhouse I have to show the flag, for a time at least. I do it to show appreciation of my supporters, who made me an Honorary Fellow, and also, I must admit, to hear, with my inner ear, that delicious music, the gnashing of the teeth of those who tried to block the election. My (limited) pleasure was not enhanced when I met, on arriving for preprandial champagne, an unexpected guest, the Earl Russell. It seems that I cannot avoid him.

yours ever



1. Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shall not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth. 

2. Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commended by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon; for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shall keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflexions given to us for this purpose.

3. Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, "clarté prime, longueur secondaire." To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself; for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.

4. Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.

5. Thou shalt preserve the unities of time and place, as commended by the High Priest Nicolas Boileau, placing thyself, in imagination, in one time and one place, and distinguishing all others to which thou mayest refer by a proper use of tenses and other forms of speech devised for this purpose; for unless we exploit the distinction between past and pluperfect tenses, and between imperfect and future conditional, we cannot attain perfect limpidity of style and argument. 

6. Thou shalt not despise the subjunctive mood, a useful, subtle and graceful mood, blessed by Erasmus and venerated by George Moore, though cursed and anathematized by the Holy Inquisition, Pravda, and the late Lord Beaverbrook. 

7. Thou shalt always proceed in an orderly fashion, according to the rules of right reason: as, from the general to the particular when a generality is to be illustrated, but from the particular to the general when a generality is to be proved.

8. Thou shalt see what thou writest; and therefore thou shalt not mix thy metaphors. For a mixed metaphor is proof that the image therein contained has not been seen with the inner eye, and therefore such a metaphor is not a true metaphor, created by the active eye of imagination, but stale jargon idly drawn up from the stagnant sump of commonplace.

9. Thou shalt also hear what thy writest, with thine inner ear, so that no outer ear may be offended by jarring syllables or unmelodious rhythm; remembering herein with piety, though not striving to imitate, the rotundities of Sir Thomas Browne and the clausulae of Cicero. 

10. Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame ye in thine old age. 

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