Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the greatest prose stylists in the English language. He was also a man of prodigious learning, a classical scholar, and a remarkable historian. As a writer he took for models Francis Bacon, Donne, Hobbes, Sir Thomas Browne, Gibbon, and, perhaps surprisingly, Flaubert, and perhaps more surprisingly, George Moore. Stylistically, his nearest though laggardly competitor among his contemporaries would have been Evelyn Waugh, who loathed him personally—they both greatly admired Gibbon and sought to emulate his sonorous periods. Among historiographers, few could compete with him for elegance, insight, and liveliness. A.J.P. Taylor, his friendly rival, once remarked that when he read one of Trevor-Roper’s essays, tears of envy stood in his eyes.
The Trevor-Ropers were a cadet branch of a once grand and powerful family. Hugh’s ancestor William Roper had married the eldest daughter of Sir Thomas More. At the beginning of the seventeenth century a nephew of William Roper’s was granted the manor house of Teynham in Kent, and later purchased—for £10,000, a vast sum in those days—the title of Baron Teynham. Hugh was directly descended from the Teynhams, and, as his biographer Adam Sisman notes, “he was always aware that, were a dozen or so intervening cousins to perish à la Kind Hearts and Coronets, he would inherit a peerage.” Margaret Thatcher offered him a life peerage in 1979,1 and he took the title Lord Dacre of Glanton: Dacre after another branch of the family, and Glanton after his birthplace in Northumberland.
Trevor-Roper’s childhood was comfortable but unhappy—“I can recollect,” he wrote later, “no real pleasure before the age of 16.” His father was a doctor, kindly disposed yet remote, while his mother, according to Sisman, “was rigidly conformist, lacking in humour, and cramped by what seemed to Hugh in retrospect a stifling class-consciousness and accompanying sense of decorum.” No doubt the memory of the chilly circumstances of his childhood was one of the factors that determined the adult Trevor-Roper to enjoy life to the fullest. He loved scholarship but was also an enthusiast for the hunt, and, certainly in his letters and journals, presented himself as a mighty drinker and a devotee of pleasure in all its forms—“gaiety” was one of his favorite words. He was, or aspired to be, both Falstaff and Prince Hal, with a dash of Hamlet thrown in for bad measure—all his life he suffered from devastating bouts of depression.2 As Richard Davenport-Hines, editor of The Wartime Journals, shrewdly puts it, Trevor-Roper “was a gregarious introvert, a man of tight emotional reticence, who edited and controlled the public version of his self as strictly as he cut and buffed his prose.”
At the age of nine Trevor-Roper was sent to boarding school, where he was miserable, but after a prolonged illness he was transferred to another school, Belhaven Hill, across the Scottish border from…
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