ThHugh Trevor-Roper (1914-2003) is best remembered, if at all, for a humiliating blunder. He was the Oxford and Cambridge scholar who, in 1983, was called upon to authenticate diaries, discovered by the German magazine Stern, said to be Hitler’s. Trevor-Roper didn’t merely pronounce the Hitler diaries genuine. He also declared them “the most important historical discovery of the decade.” He maintained that they were, in an odd comparison, “a scoop of Watergate proportions.” The diaries turned out to be crude forgeries, and hisreputation was shattered.
Trevor-Roper, who was also known as Lord Dacre after being made a peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1979, had a rich and varied life. Yet his existence was boiled down thus in his Times of London obituary headline: “Hitler Diaries Hoax Victim Lord Dacre dies at 89.” Even six feet under, that had to sting.
Adam Sisman’s new biography of Trevor-Roper, “An Honourable Englishman,” is a rescue mission of sorts. It’s an excellent book: crisp and merciless yet funny and full of sympathy. It will not persuade you to admire Trevor-Roper, exactly. But you will warm to his bumptious company.
Among the towering intellectuals of his era, Trevor-Roper was perhaps the least dull — a sort of P. G. Wodehouse character with an avenging, steel-trap mind. He was a wit, a snob, a relisher of feuds, a mover in high society, an epicurean and an unlikely outdoorsman. In a 1946 debate he spoke against a motion that declared, “Hunting is the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable.” His opponent, worn down, accused him of “Tallyhosis.”
Mr. Sisman is a British biographer whose “Boswell’s Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Dr. Johnson” won a National Book Critics Circle award in 2001. Mr. Sisman has an ideal biographical style: inquisitive and open, serious yet not severe. I’d read him on anyone.
It’s possible to taste this book’s lemony qualities just by sampling its chapter titles. These include: “Lover,” “Destroyer,” “Spy,” “Traveler,” “Stoic,” “Essayist,” “Lord” and “Controversialist.” Would that more historians could apply these titles to themselves.
The chapters begin with “Boy.” Trevor-Roper was the product of faded gentry. His father, a doctor, was a dour man. Mr. Sisman describes the historian’s boyhood house as “without warmth, affection, encouragement, spontaneity or natural feeling of any kind.”
Once in prep school and then at Oxford, his brilliance was evident: intellectually, he was a kind of Harry Potter among Muggles, and he knew it. As one journalist later put it, Trevor-Roper was “alive to his own importance.” He did intelligence work during World War II and broke an important German radio cipher. He published his first book, a tart biography of the 17th-century archbishop William Laud, in 1940.
Trevor-Roper found fame outside of academia when his intelligence work led him to write “The Last Days of Hitler” (1947), a classic that remains in print. The book changed his life. Though his area of academic expertise was England in the 16th and 17th centuries, he would forever be sought out as a Nazi expert. British newspapers constantly wanted book reviews, political essays and travel pieces from him. For these he was handsomely paid.
Trevor-Roper was easily distracted by such things and by the writing of introductions to others’ books. It’s among the tragedies of his life that he never wrote the big book people expected.
In one of his wonderful letters Trevor-Roper gently defended himself. “The trouble is, I am too interested in too many things,” he wrote. “And then, there are the delights of idleness: of walking in the country, of scratching the noses of horses, or the backs of pigs; of planting and lifting and cutting trees (I love trees) ... or the pleasures of convivial, social life: of slow monosyllabic conversation, over beer and cheese and pickled onions.”
He was vaguely horrified at the idea that “I ought to sit, night and day, in the Bodleian Library or the Public Record Office,” he wrote, “wearing an eye-shade over my nose, and munching a periodic dry bun, in order, by my copying of earlier copyists, to earn my place in some future ‘Dunciad.’ ”
Trevor-Roper was far from lazy. Yet I am not sure a better defense of cultivated laziness has been composed in English.
The joys of following his life, in Mr. Sisman’s biography, are many. Some involve high-spirited debauchery. This book is filled with sentences like these, from Trevor-Roper’s time at Oxford: “During the fish course, a trout, thrown from a distance, disintegrated in midair, and struck Hugh a glancing blow. After the savory course, the tables were overturned.” Another night a companion accidentally shot him in the thigh with an air pistol.
His feuds were many and slashing. Among his antagonists was Evelyn Waugh, who objected to Trevor-Roper’s put-downs of Roman Catholicism. Trevor-Roper’s sign-off to one of these feuds, in print, was: “May I recommend to Mr. Waugh a period of silent reading?” His takedown of a book by an Oxford colleague, Lawrence Stone, was described as one that “connoisseurs of intellectual terrorism still cherish to this day.” Another Oxford colleague, Maurice Bowra, once characterized him as “a robot, without human experience, with no girls, no real friends, no capacity for intimacy and no desire to like or be liked.” Trevor-Roper’s marriage to a woman 11 years his senior, Alexandra Henrietta Louisa Howard-Johnston, known as Xandra, did not entirely dispel rumors that he was gay.
Trevor-Roper was pulled into the Hitler diaries fiasco by The Sunday Times of London, of which he was not just a contributor but a paid director. The paper hoped to serialize the diaries. He was pressed to make a quick assessment of authenticity by the paper’s editors, who themselves were pressured by the newspaper’s publisher, Rupert Murdoch.
After being given false assurances that the paper the diaries had been written upon had been tested and dated, he vouched for them. He later wished he had done so provisionally. When his last-minute doubts were related to Mr. Murdoch, the publisher reportedly said, translated into language that can be printed here: Forget Dacre. Publish.
Trevor-Roper mostly bore the shame of this misadventure with stoicism and grace. But his stepson later reported that, when he turned up to a lunch with Trevor-Roper at a mutual friend’s country house, he found the great man “lying in the fetal position on a bed in a spare room, his face turned to the wall.”
AN HONOURABLE ENGLISHMAN
The Life of Hugh Trevor-Roper
By Adam Sisman
Illustrated. 643 pages. Random House. $40.