The Audacious Historian

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NI Syndication
Hugh Trevor-Roper, when he was serving as a national director of the London Times

Adam Sisman’s biography of the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who entered the House of Lords as Dacre of Glanton, was widely noticed when it appeared in England last year. It has now been published in North America with a new title, although the book itself is essentially the same. It takes its place among recent biographies of other British historians, notably Herbert Butterfield and Raymond Carr.1 Butterfield had made his reputation with a study of the Whig interpretation of history, and Carr with searching accounts of modern Spain. But neither of them had the magnetism and brilliance of Trevor-Roper, whose death a little less than a decade ago brought to an end a career that touched far more than the professorial milieu to which he belonged. He was a scholar who played with fire, venturing into fields in which he had never worked before, issuing thunderous opinions on his peers, and ultimately suffering incurable burns from the lightning he had himself brought down. He was a Faustian figure of modern historiography.

A formidable scholar by temperament and training, he allowed himself to be diverted twice into fields that lay wholly outside his expertise, and in both cases it was the novelty of the enterprise together with the prospect of public recognition that attracted him. The end of Adolf Hitler and a sensational forgery by the expatriate Edmund Backhouse in China proved irresistible. Yet his books on these unrelated subjects are even today a more enduring achievement than his early work on a seventeenth-century archbishop of Canterbury. But the beau monde, into which the fame arising from his studies of Hitler and Backhouse had provided access, eventually brought him into the inner circle of Rupert Murdoch, for whom he served as a national director of Times Newspapers Ltd. It was this affiliation that led to his tragic undoing when he authenticated the bogus Hitler diaries for Murdoch’s Sunday Times. A Mephistophelean laughter is almost audible in Murdoch’s infamous response to Trevor-Roper’s last-minute realization of his fateful mistake: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.”

Trevor-Roper was raised in rural Northumberland, bright but starved of affection in the loveless union of a local physician with a wife who encouraged his gambling habit. He went on to Charterhouse, a charitable and educational foundation in London that dated back to 1611. It offered rigorous schooling for many of Britain’s future elites. There he acquired a profound knowledge of ancient Greek and Latin, which enabled him to compete successfully for admission to Christ Church in Oxford. Trevor-Roper’s beginnings as an outstanding classical scholar placed him immediately among the privileged undergraduates, and the prizes he soon won confirmed his talents. His mastery of the classics never deserted him and probably served as a kind of anchor in the turbulent times that lay before him, but he chose, halfway through his undergraduate years, to switch to modern history …

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Letters

Too Much for Trevor-Roper January 12, 2012

  1. 1

    See Michael Bentley, The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield: History, Science, and God (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and María Jesús González Hernández, Raymond Carr: La curiosidad del zorro: Una biografía (Barcelona: Galaxia Gutenberg, 2010).