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Too Much for Trevor-Roper

In response to:

The Audacious Historian from the December 22, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to G.W. Bowersock for his full and flattering review of my biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, An Honourable Englishman [NYR, December 22, 2011]. For the record, however, he is wrong to say that I did not have access to the two sources he mentioned, the letters from Richard Cobb and Jeremy Catto’s memorial address; on the contrary, I had access to both.

Professor Bowersock is kind enough to say that “one of the few weak spots in Sisman’s excellent biography is the curiously slight interest he shows in the Backhouse book,” i.e., Trevor-Roper’s fascinating biography, Hermit of Peking. My account of this book occupies six printed pages, a little less than the space that I devote to Trevor-Roper’s masterpiece, The Last Days of Hitler, but much more than that I give to the only other full-length book he published in his lifetime, Archbishop Laud.

One of the principal problems I encountered in writing this biography was deciding what to leave out. “The trouble is, I am too interested in too many things,” Trevor-Roper wrote to an American friend. One consequence of being interested in so many things was that his work was more disparate than that of most scholars. The problem was compounded by the fact that he led an exceptionally full and varied life. I could easily have written a book twice as long as the 540 pages of my final text, but I wanted to hold the attention of the nonspecialist reader, which meant that I tried to write no more than necessary on any particular subject. I was aware that some people might want more; what I wanted to avoid was many people wanting less.

Adam Sisman
Bath, England

G.W. Bowersock replies:

I’m glad to learn that Adam Sisman had access to the Cobb letters and the Catto address, but if he did I am surprised that he found nothing worth citing from them.

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