Misfortune Made the Man

The worst episode in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s career made him a better man

Paul Johnson

  Hugh Trevor-Roper was a case of redemption by misfortune. Brilliantly gifted, for most of his life he devoted himself to careerism, social climbing and the exercise of virtuoso malevolence. As such, he flourished mightily. Then fortune turned sour. But from his sufferings a new man emerged, more sensitive, softer, gentler, and his end — aged, lonely, blind but with his formidable intelligence still intact — was strangely edifying. This moral tale can be traced in his letters, of which this is a superb selection. 
Trevor-Roper belonged to the last generation in England which took letter-writing seriously. He was a self-conscious stylist and composing letters was for him an arduous duty and delight. These include a number of set pieces: a wonderful description of Iceland, another on the floods of 1947, two brilliant evocations of Greece, a third of Jerusalem, and a startling glimpse of the student riots of 1968 at the LSE. But there are also letters to a wide variety of correspondents, famous and obscure, about a great variety of subjects. The book makes a hugely entertaining volume, and since Trevor-Roper published little, a propensity he shared with his enemy at Magdalen, K.B. McFarlane, it should be treated as a salient part of his oeuvre. 
Trevor-Roper began his career with an explosion of success. By good fortune, he was given by the authorities the job of writing up Hitler’s end. He did this with such skill and verve that The Last Days of Hitler became an international bestseller. It enabled him to buy a Rolls Royce, take up fox-hunting and become the smartest don in Oxford. He also, in due course, married the daughter of an earl, admittedly an ennobled general, Douglas Haig, who sent so many gallant volunteers to their deaths. It is a relief, as we learn from a letter to Alan Clark, author of that denunciation of the brass-hats, The Donkeys, that Trevor-Roper was a covert anti-Haig man.  What exactly were his relations with Xandra, as she was known, is not clear, though they wrote each other many letters. “I give my heart to you,” he enthused. But one of their hostesses told me they insisted on having separate bedrooms and, if possible, bathrooms too. In time, Xandra became a sardonic critic of Trevor-Roper’s inability to produce the masterpiece which he boasted he was about to finish. “I am now writing a huge book in three volumes,” he crowed. But no such work appeared. Xandra commented: “Our attic is crowded with Chapter Ones. Never a Chapter Two.”
Despite this, Trevor-Roper continued to prosper. In 1957, Harold Macmillan, a prime minister he had cultivated, made him Regius Professor of History, a prize which rightly should have gone to A.J.P. Taylor. In time a life peerage was added by his Tory friends, for which he impudently chose the ancient title of Dacre. He gave up hunting and contrived to sell his horse during a tutorial (the new owner was a Baring). He had a genuine dislike for the low-born, the source of his otherwise inexplicable detestation of A.L. Rowse. “Poor old Rowse,” he wrote. “I fear he has never really transcended his social origins. That tongue which shoots out with such chameleon agility towards a ducal posterior, never uncoils, in our little republic of letters, except to discharge the hoardings of a parish scold.” He dismissed Mrs Thatcher’s invaluable colleague, Norman Tebbit, one of the nicest men in England, who had risen from the ranks, as “a thug”. He delighted in ingenious pieces of research, such as his discovery that his colleague “The Prof”, Professor Lindemann, was the son of a man who owned the Dresden waterworks. For social purposes Trevor-Roper was an Anglican but regarded Christianity as inferior to Judaism or even Islam. He had a particular detestation of Catholics, especially converts. The genial Frank Longford, who would go the length of England to help a poor ex-criminal in distress, he dismissed as “an ass”, and he treasured a letter from Lord Birkenhead denouncing Evelyn Waugh in unmeasured terms, though would not refer to it publicly for fear of “incurring the insane malice of his son”, Auberon Waugh.
Sometimes sheer ignorance led Trevor-Roper into error. He dismissed the highly civilised and learned Dame Edna Everage, as “a male clown who appears in drag for the diversion of the vulgar”. He was also very careful not to disclose his evident misgivings about such prominent and powerful Oxford dons as Maurice Bowra and Lord Blake. His relationship with Noel Annan, the big cheese in Cambridge, was, on my reading of his letters, distinctly edgy. In short, Trevor-Roper always played it safe. 
Then the fates struck. Trevor-Roper’s first mistake was to accept the blandishments of the Peterhouse dons, under the leadership of Maurice Cowling, who persuaded him to become Master of the college. This was based on an extraordinary misapprehension by Cowling that Trevor-Roper was a right-winger who would further his desire to turn the college into a bastion of reaction. In fact Trevor-Roper was a subversive, and used his new position to make endless trouble in what he considered an inferior university and a benighted college. The dons of Peterhouse, he considered, were “a grim Druid Church” or a “Women’s Institute at Ely”. “Dons in general, I fear,” he wrote, “are boors.” What happened at Peterhouse certainly proved this proposition. Immense unhappiness, over many years, was generated by this acrimonious conflict, which achieved absolutely nothing but the breeding of malice. The senior common room at Peterhouse was the perfect setting for Trevor-Roper’s worst gifts. But he himself was also permanently damaged by the row, which took up all his intellectual and social energies for many years. He could have written his “huge book in three volumes” easily in the time he devoted to this futile vendetta.
Then, to the delight of his enemies in Cambridge — and Oxford too — came the Hitler diaries disaster. Under pressure from Rupert Murdoch, Trevor-Roper agreed to authenticate the diary, though he withdrew his approval after a few days. I was amazed that Trevor-Roper fell into this obvious media trap. Hitler was the last man in Germany to have kept diaries. I imagine that when he was a young soldier, just promoted corporal in the First World War, a senior NCO had said to him: “Look here, young fellow, let me give you some advice: never put anything in writing. It will only get you into trouble.” If so, Hitler remembered the advice all his life. No senior figure, on either side and in either world war, ever issued fewer written orders. They are almost non-existent. The idea of Hitler keeping a diary, that endless hostage to fortune, is almost inconceivable to anyone who studied his mentality and record. Clearly, Trevor-Roper knew much less about Hitler than his reputation suggested. But then The Last Days had been written many years before. Trevor-Roper was also wrong-footed by his close financial connections with Murdoch and his papers. A.J.P. Taylor, though much closer to Beaverbrook, would never have allowed his judgment to be so distorted on a historical matter.
At the time, though I had never liked Trevor-Roper, I felt so sorry for him that I wrote him a letter begging him not to let the scandal pull him down, and to turn his mind to fresh matters. He replied that he was learning who his true friends were. His self-examination at this time was, I think, the beginning of his redemption. Of course he never quite recovered his reputation. He will always be known as the professor who authenticated the Hitler diaries. But in a profound sense, he improved morally after this catastrophe. And his regeneration enabled him to face other personal calamities, especially the death of his wife, which left him, to his surprise, dreadfully lonely and forlorn, and his debilitating blindness. When we met, as we occasionally did, I always found him friendly and amiable, which I never had done before. The malice seemed to have gone, completely. Rowse’s exasperated query, quoted in this book, “Why are you so nasty to people?” no longer applied. Trevor-Roper had become nice to people. It was a pleasure to meet him and have a chat. Thus fortune, or the fates, or divine providence, or whatever God watches over us, moves in mysterious ways, and History marches on.

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