Connoisseur of Fraud

Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography by Adam Sisman

Books History Literature
A volatile relationship: Hugh Trevor-Roper with his wife Xandra, in Oxford, 1957

In a really good biography, an unemphasised detail can shed light far and wide into the life of its subject. Sisman’s almost incidental note that the young Hugh Trevor-Roper had a particular enthusiasm for Samuel Butler’s The Fair Haven (1873) is just such a rich detail, which suggests how the disposition of the young man expressed itself in the adult life. 

If people read Butler today, they tend to confine their attention to Erewhon (1872), his comparatively playful and witty satire of Victorian values. Few go on to read the later, more pitiless and challenging work, The Way of All Flesh (1903). And hardly anyone now reads The Fair Haven, long out of print. It purports to be a work by the recently-deceased John Pickard Owen, in which Christian orthodoxy is vindicated against the powerful arguments that had been accumulating against it during the 19th century. Butler was compiling an anthology of the most disreputable arguments to which the defenders of orthodoxy had recourse in the hope of neutralising these unwelcome and devastating insights. Nevertheless, on its first publication, some reviewers failed to notice the irony, instead praising the book for its piety and the comfort it extended to the believer. It was only with the second edition, which Butler published under his own name and furnished with a preface explaining the joke, that the book’s true nature was widely recognised. 

Trevor-Roper’s sense of affinity with The Fair Haven and its author (“I’m Samuel Butler!” Sisman records him exclaiming to himself) heralds important themes in the historian’s life. In the first place, it directs us towards his anti-clericalism, and beyond that to his aversion to all kinds of religious belief. A student at Christ Church for many years, Trevor-Roper would occasionally attend services in the cathedral. Then, in the presence of his colleagues, he would loudly attack the sermon as “nonsense laced with malice”. He was particularly scathing about Roman Catholicism’s influence on the mind:

How well one knows the face of certain converts to Catholicism — that smooth, exhausted look, burnt out and yet at rest, as of a motorist who, after many mishaps and mounting insurance-premiums, has at last decided to drive himself no more, and having found a chauffeur with excellent references, resigns himself to safer travel in a cushioned backseat.

Even at the end of his life he took pleasure in drawing attention to some of the more startling absurdities that had encrusted that creed. A late letter to me asks whether I was aware that, according to legend, the Holy House of Loretto had made what he called “a stopping flight” from the Holy Land to Italy. To catalogue these follies offered opportunities for both consoling amusement and the reassuring exercise of his own politique secularism.

But it was not just the irreligion of The Fair Haven that left a mark on Trevor-Roper. He must also have relished the indirection of its mode. Irony was to become one of the sharpest weapons in his stylistic arsenal. As a mature historian, he kept its edge in good repair by means of frequent re-readings of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. By contrast, Butler’s irony is a simpler, more purely destructive thing. It never ripens, as did Gibbon’s, into a way of thinking about and understanding human behaviour. Moreover, The Fair Haven is a hoax and Trevor-Roper would throughout his life be drawn, as both practitioner and appreciative observer, to that instrumental point where irony stiffens into disguise. The series of papers he wrote for the Spectator on the student unrest of the late 1960s under the pseudonym of “Mercurius Oxoniensis” and the creation of the fictitious historian “Miss Agnes Trollope” show how attracted he was to such sottises, even when, as is the case with some of the Agnes Trollope letters, the level of the humour is fairly schoolboyish. 

More serious altogether was the interest he took in the psycho-pathology of charlatanry. This seems to have begun when the bigamist and bogus clergyman Robert Peters crossed Trevor-Roper’s path in 1958 and then moved on, leaving behind him “a trail of forged documents, deserted wives and unpaid bills”. His interest piqued, Trevor-Roper became “a connoisseur of fraud”:

Peters’s antics provided a source of repeated entertainment, exposing the gullibility of academic and religious institutions across the world.

That connoisseurship was strengthened and deepened in 1973 by Trevor-Roper’s involvement with the life and memoirs of the exotic sinologist, fraud and fantasist, Sir Edmund Backhouse, eventually written up and published in 1976 as A Hidden Life: The Enigma of Sir Edmund Backhouse. Backhouse, who between 1913 and 1921 had given the Bodleian a sumptuous collection of (apparently genuine) Chinese books and manuscripts, had died in 1944. Trevor-Roper had been offered his papers by an intermediary in circumstances of clandestine drama, the “drop” being made at Basle airport. On inspection, these papers turned out to be a deeply obscene and explicit narrative of bisexual indulgence conducted at the pinnacle of Manchu society. One of Backhouse’s conquests had, allegedly, been the Empress Dowager herself. But the more Trevor-Roper inquired into the life and activities of Backhouse, the more his doubts were raised. Backhouse, it became increasingly clear, had been “a forger, a fraud, a charlatan of epic proportions, who had bamboozled distinguished scholars and librarians, cynical journalists, hard-headed Scottish and American businessmen, senior diplomats, generals and politicians”. But Trevor-Roper concluded that Backhouse had himself been taken in by his fictions: 

Backhouse’s behaviour could not be explained simply in terms of mercenary motives. Rather, he was a fantasist, for whom the line between reality and lies had become blurred.

The Sobieski-Stuarts who claimed to be the descendants of the Young Pretender Charles Edward Stuart, but who had been born John and Charles Allen in no more regal a place than Egham, Surrey, were other examples of the type who had engaged Trevor-Roper’s interest when he was researching the Scotch fondness for embracing groundless myths about their past. 

But the final instance of Trevor-Roper’s involvement with fraud and charlatanry came with the Hitler diaries, in which he was fated to assume, not his accustomed roles of perpetrator or detective, but rather that of victim. Sisman offers a balanced and detailed account of this notorious episode, which gives sympathetic consideration to the circumstances which led to the terrible blunder of authentication (including what looks like deliberate deception by the representatives of Stern magazine), but which stops well short of exoneration. The most terrible vignette of the book is Trevor-Roper’s stepson discovering the historian, a week after the scandal had broken, “lying in the foetal position on a bed in a spare room, his face turned to the wall”.

That Trevor-Roper did not succumb for long to despair is, in its way, a tribute to the habits of emotional repression and concealment in which he had been schooled by his parents. It is interesting to imagine what he must have felt when as an adolescent he read this passage from The Fair Haven:

Should the father be kind, considerate, full of the warmest love, fond of showing it, and reserved only about his displeasure, the child, having learned to look upon God as his Heavenly Father through the Lord’s Prayer and our Church Services, will feel towards God as he does towards his own father; this conception will stick to a man for years and years after he has attained manhood — probably it will never leave him. For all children love their fathers and mothers, if these last will only let them; it is not a little unkindness that will kill so hardy a plant as the love of a child for its parents.

There is no doubt on which side of that line Trevor-Roper’s own childhood fell. Although he admired the stoicism with which his father faced the adversities of old age, his relationship with his parents seems to have been severe and formal and conducted in “a grim household, without warmth, affection, encouragement, spontaneity or natural feeling of any kind” — conditions which, bizarrely, he would replicate in his own household:

He refused to participate in family board games, and when a television arrived he sent it back. At mealtimes they [Trevor-Roper’s stepchildren] were required to sit silently, so as not to interrupt the adult conversation. They were discouraged from having other children to stay. Those few that did come reported that the atmosphere was tense and oppressive.

Trevor-Roper’s marriage to Xandra, Earl Haig’s daughter, would turn out to be durable and loving, but it also had its improbable aspects. She was highly-strung, impossibly demanding, imperious, thoroughly impractical and a woman whose emotional neediness seems to have been all but unfathomable. He, on the other hand (as he explained to her during one of their not infrequent quarrels), had been taught an extreme emotional reticence by parents whom he had never heard exchange “a word of affection”. “I give my heart to you,” he assured Xandra towards the beginning of their affair when she was still married to her first husband:

If you would take it without too many questions…then, by not raising too many difficulties, or knocking our heads against the brick walls, or rushing against the thorns, and by not insisting on detailed declarations which you must see that I have difficulty in expressing, we might have some happiness together without fruitlessly and endlessly discussing the terms of it…

The message, if understood, was not acted on, and their relationship was for long volatile. On one occasion, Trevor-Roper summoned his stepchildren to his study and announced: “I nearly left last night.” Their response is not recorded.

It was the war that gave Trevor-Roper an exhilarating release from the constraints of his upbringing. At the outbreak of hostilities he had been called up into a department of MI8, the Radio Security Service. He intercepted enemy signals and enjoyed some success as a code-breaker. Later, he was transferred to the Security Service, most of whose officers he quickly came to despise as “boneheads”. But it was thanks to this transfer that the wonderful opportunity fell into his lap of making a systematic study of the evidence surrounding the last days and ultimate fate of Hitler. The result was The Last Days of Hitler, an extraordinary popular success and a technical triumph that laid the foundations for his lucrative career as a public intellectual. But in retrospect, as Trevor-Roper himself hinted in a fragment of autobiography, the deep pleasure of those months after the end of hostilities had been in the accidental delights of the chase, not the formulation of the solution:

It was a fascinating piece of historical research — a fig for Archbishop Laud [the subject of Trevor-Roper’s first book]; he never led me, or could have led me, on those delightful journeys, motoring through the deciduous golden groves of Schleswig-Holstein, and coming, on an evening when the sun had just set but the light had not yet gone, and the wild duck were out for their last flight over the darkening waters, to the great Danish castle of Ploen, gazing like a sentinel over those white autumnal lakes.

The life to which Trevor-Roper returned, first as a history tutor at Christ Church and then Regius Professor of History with a fellowship at Oriel, seems comfortable and privileged. In the years to come, the success of The Last Days of Hitler ensured that “an infinite, endless, golden shower of American dollars flows ceaselessly into my pockets”. But, in comparison with the past, the post-war years have a confined and shrunken quality. Xandra’s expensive tastes meant that, notwithstanding his considerable earnings, money was often tight, and journalism became a treadmill. It also used up the energy and time that he wished to devote to a big book on the English Civil War. During the war, he had confided to a notebook his wish to “write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon, — this is my fond ambition”. Fond ambition it remained. Finally, there was the melancholy coda of his period as Master of Peterhouse, where he was obliged to conduct a war of attrition with certain elements in the fellowship.

However, with the final decade or so of Trevor-Roper’s life, which Sisman barely touches, the picture lightens. Old age did not spare him its customary ills of disease and bereavement; but nor did it deny him gaiety and lightness of heart. His academic battles were long since fought, and surely both the victories and the defeats now meant less to him. His essays from this late period are among his best — rich, relaxed and influential, without recourse to the strong cordial of an adversarial stance. There was more than a touch of Shakespeare’s Antony about Trevor-Roper in his final years.

Sisman’s notable achievement in this fine biography is to have drawn out the significant shape of this extraordinary 20th-century life.