A Prince of the Essay

The Wartime Journals

by Hugh Trevor-Roper, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
I.B. Tauris, 322 pp., $35.00
Estate of Lord Dacre of Glanton
Hugh Trevor-Roper, circa 1940

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 Northumberland. Belhaven was a small and relatively liberal establishment, and there Trevor-Roper discovered the joys of learning. He studied Latin, Greek, and French and achieved a high degree of proficiency; later he would acquire a good working knowledge of all the major European languages and fluency in a number of them, especially German.

He next attended Charterhouse, one of the great English public schools, where his gift for scholarship became apparent. His classics teacher remarked on the boy’s “unusual breadth of reading,”3 but warned of his “fatal facility” and consequent overconfidence. It was a judgment the soundness and prescience of which Trevor-Roper as an adult ruefully acknowledged. As he wrote in his journal in 1941: “There are three things on which I can get drunk: wine, the sound of my own voice, and flattery; and the greatest of these is flattery.”

He went up to Oxford in 1932, where he at first devoted himself to the classics but later switched to history and eventually achieved a first-class degree, despite tutors whom he considered less than inspiring. He led a typical Oxford life of the kind made familiar to us by a number of twentieth-century English writers, particularly Evelyn Waugh in his lusciously overwrought postwar novel Brideshead Revisited. In a bittersweet reverie in 1945 Trevor-Roper recalled his Oxford days and his “youthful illusion of the place”:

gay company, happy conversations, intellectual interests; walking hounds through the scented fields of Garsington and Cuddesdon early on summer mornings; days of study in the cool & spacious upper reading room of Bodley, or my own high and luminous room in Merton; evenings spent sociably over Stilton cheese and claret in the Christ Church buttery.

There was throughout his life a Woosterish side to Trevor-Roper of which he was well aware and which it amused him to cultivate. He liked to boast of his devotion to the pleasures of “food and wine and conversation, and hunting and shooting and fishing,” in which pursuits his associates were friends with names such as Biffy Holland-Hibbert and Euston Bishop. The latter, who might have been the very model for the character of the hapless Apthorpe in Men at Arms, the first volume of Waugh’s great trilogy of war novels, fought in the British Expeditionary Force during the war, until a German plane dropped a bomb down the funnel of the ship on which he was serving: “Euston lost his hunting horn in the shipwreck. This was his principal complaint….”

Behind Trevor-Roper’s pose as a clubbable good fellow, however, there flourished the soul of an artist, for whom style was “the true elixir of life,” and who found in the world of the ancient Greeks a “perpetual intermingling of the human and the divine which makes poetry possible….” He was intensely self-aware, and subjected himself and his beliefs to constant scrutiny and reappraisal. In The Wartime Journals he mentions more than once that moment in the summer of 1936 when he “walked one afternoon round the Christ Church Meadow” and “decided to do away with the metaphysical world, and, with it, the loose generalities and plausible labels that had counted for knowledge with me and got me my degree.” From then on he was to be a freethinker, not only in the religious but also in the scholarly sense. For he was nothing if not his own man.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Trevor-Roper was a research fellow at Merton College, Oxford, where the bursar Ernest Gill recruited him as an officer in the newly established Radio Security Service (RSS), a section of Military Intelligence. Gill was one of those eccentric enthusiasts in whom the British war effort abounded, especially in its early days. He and Trevor-Roper took a flat, at their own expense, and working there together they broke the cipher code of the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Later, the RSS would become one of the chief suppliers of intelligence to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park. By then the RSS had come under the direction of the Secret Intelligence Service, most of the directors of which Trevor-Roper despised, describing them as “a colony of coots in an unventilated backwater of bureaucracy,” and likening one of them to “those baboons on Monkey Hill, exhibiting to all in turn their great iridescent blue bottoms.”

It was in these circumstances—“to assuage the austerity of his war work and to keep his literary intellect in trim,” as Davenport-Hines has it—that Trevor-Roper began to keep a journal. Such a thing was strictly forbidden to intelligence officers, and if these notebooks had been discovered Trevor-Roper might well have been court-martialed. In fact, the journals remained unknown to his family and friends until after his death. They were not a diary, listing a record of daily events and moods, Davenport-Hines writes, “but a stylised effort written in emulation of the published notebooks of Samuel Butler, author of the satire Erewhon.” Butler was one of Trevor-Roper’s earliest literary exemplars; much more important was his meeting in 1940 with Logan Pearsall Smith, an event that Trevor-Roper described as revolutionary.

Smith’s family were Philadelphia Quakers, but he had settled permanently in London, where he conducted a famously exclusive and high-toned salon in his apartment at 11 St Leonard’s Terrace, Chelsea. His sister Alys, who lived with him, was the first wife of Bertrand Russell, while his other sister, Mary, would marry the art historian Bernard Berenson.4 According to Davenport-Hines, Smith, a bachelor who “combined an agreeable inherited income with a disagreeable taste for manipulating people,” was a “capricious, timid, self-indulgent man who pretended to be rueful about his missed chances, but had a great conceit of himself.” He was the author of two little books of ruminations, aperçus,5 and witticisms, Trivia and More Trivia, which were masterpieces of style, the influence of which is everywhere evident in Trevor-Roper’s Wartime Journals.

Trevor-Roper had come to Smith’s attention after the latter had read the young historian’s first book, a life of William Laud, Charles I’s archbishop of Canterbury, who was executed during the Civil War. Smith liked to have clever young people, mostly men, about him—his protégés included the critics Cyril Connolly and Raymond Mortimer, the diarist James Lees-Milne, and the novelist Rose Macaulay—and in Archbishop Laud, despite its muted tones, he had spotted a stylist after his own heart. “I liked you before I saw you,” Smith wrote to Trevor-Roper a year after they met. Trevor-Roper, who was in his late twenties, also recognized a fellow spirit. Davenport-Hines writes:

Smith and his friends knew the corrupting force of slipshod or dishonest words: knew, too, the redemptive humanising power of scrupulous vocabulary. “The great art of writing is the art of making people real to themselves with words,” he insisted.

When Smith died in 1946, Trevor-Roper paid him a heartfelt tribute, saying that from his friend he had learned everything: “My whole philosophy seems, now that I consider it retrospectively, to have come from him, and what I would have been without him I cannot envisage, cannot imagine.”

Another eminence in Trevor-Roper’s life at this time was the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, whom he had known at Oxford and who came to work with him as a code-breaker in 1942, greatly relieving the tedium and frustrations of life in the secret service. Ryle was a linguistic philosopher of the school of Wittgenstein whose “combination of dialectic tension and conversational magnanimity,” Davenport-Hines writes, “—his brisk impatience tempered by occasional vast forbearance—especially attracted Trevor-Roper.” On the acknowledgments page of Archbishop Laud Trevor-Roper gave warm thanks to his friend, who read the proofs of the book and “who, like Eve in Paradise, ranged through the whole wilderness, weeding out the solecisms, trimming the luxuriant phrases, and unmixing the metaphors.”6

Influences of numerous kinds and degrees are detectable throughout these journals. For all his cleverness, erudition, and toughness—“I like fighting; I love victory; and I don’t repudiate the exquisite pleasure of revenge”—Trevor-Roper here is very much a young man in the process of making a self. There is much introspection, though much of it is wonderfully funny. He is, he declares, “instinctively a British whig,” yet in many instances he sounds very like a robust, beef-eating Tory of the oldest school, extolling the glories of the hunt and the “prolonged and congenial drinking-bout in a steaming tavern.”7 There are a number of self-portraits here, from thumbnail sketches to three- or four-page “self-appreciations,” yet the most striking and, one surmises, the most accurate summation of his own character comes in a loving tribute to Rubberneck, the “wild, irresponsible” racehorse he had purchased in 1938 with the £40 advance Macmillan had paid him for Archbishop Laud:

It is a snob. It revels in its speed and virtuosity. It loves showing off, and hurls itself, out of sheer joie de vivre, at the most impossible obstacles; and it doesn’t care a twopenny damn when it takes a tremendous fall in consequence. It despises all dull and easy ways. It exhibits a malicious delight in the discomfiture of its rivals. And it never gives up.

Trevor-Roper was most likely aware that he was describing here not only the horse but himself. He was a wildly audacious rider, considering a day’s hunting incomplete without a couple of good falls, until the day came in 1948 when after a tumble Rubberneck rolled over him and broke his back. An image of Trevor-Roper at once comic, endearing, and moving springs out to us from a remark by Lord Beaumont of Whitley, one of his fellow huntsmen, quoted by Davenport-Hines: “There was no more pathetic, yet heroic, sight than Hugh Trevor-Roper, on his knees in a ditch, scrambling around trying to find his spectacles.”

Like the horse, Trevor-Roper was a snob, as he freely admitted. “I believe in an élite (but not a static élite),” he wrote, “for whom there must always be hewers of wood and drawers of water.” All the same, he had no illusions about the aristocracy. Insisting that “living and manners are an art” and that “on the whole the upper classes have the best opportunities of perfecting it,” he went on:

Not that they do,—at least nowadays in their decay. When I live among them, and observe the lack of education and values amongst most of them, their dreary pleasures, and the sickening triviality of their lives, I despise them.

His attitude toward religion was entirely dictated by his social sense. He was, he said, an Anglican, not a Christian, and approved of the Church of England because it supported civil liberty and had “a certain constitutional relation to common sense.” However, he regarded the fundamental doctrines of Christianity and the other religions as “trash,” although he noted that no degree of scientific debunking over the centuries had banished religion or the need for it, and so its worth must rest “on other than intellectual foundations.” There follows one of the most splendid sustained metaphors in the book:

In fact, the ease with which, when all the apparent props have been demolished beneath it, the Temple remains suspended in mid-air, while its priests run up alternative supports, of more modern material, suggests that these props, so far from being essential elements of the building, are mere external décor, added by the directors to appease the high-brows; like the architecture of suburban cinemas.

Where Catholicism was concerned, he gave no quarter, seeing that faith and communism as two sides of the same coin, both equally repressive, delusionary, and trashy. It may seem surprising, therefore, that he loved Ireland—“truly my spiritual home”—though a particular version of the place: mist at morn on hunting fields, jorums of drink, sequestered country houses “whose peeling walls and overgrown gardens yet preserve a pattern of antique stateliness and hospitality” and in which clung on the faded relicts of a finer age. The real Ireland of his day, an agrarian backwater run by priests, petty shopkeepers, and small farmers—who, “triply isolated by geography, neutrality and the censorship…live as remote as the dwellers in Tristan da Cunha or the Falkland Islands”—he referred to as “that floating monkey-house” yet lavished upon it some of his finest rhetorical flourishes:

Through all our history she clings to us, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative, defying our improvement, spoiling our appearances, exposing our pretences, an irreclaimable, irrepressible slut, dirty when we are most clean, superstitious when we are most rational, protesting when we are most complacent, and when we are most prosaic, inspired.

He appreciated too the worth of Irish writers such as Yeats and Joyce, who “saved our language, when it was worn thin and colourless by the use of centuries.”

For all that, however, he was an Englishman to the bone, and a Northumbrian in particular—some of the loveliest passages in the journals are devoted to his native county, which bears the most evocative name of all the shires. Yet he is no Little Englander, and has only “burning contempt” for heart-of-oak popular historians such as Arthur Bryant “and all the others whose intellectual standards were not prized for themselves but as a means to shabby success.” He was a historian whose interests ranged over the world, and he was as much at ease writing about the Emperor Maximilian I or the doges of Venice as he was in his studies of the England Civil War. He had a strong commitment to the European ideal, and many present-day English politicians of the Euroskeptic strain would benefit from a reading of Trevor-Roper’s masterly study of Erasmus and Christian humanism in the volume Renaissance Essays.

In his later career, when he was Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, and then master of Peterhouse College at Cambridge—the move from his beloved Oxford surprised friends and colleagues, and perhaps himself, too—he was frequently criticized for not publishing the great, synthesizing book of which all judged him capable and which, in the Journals, he had confidently mapped out. It was to be called A History of the English Ruling Classes, beginning with “the silent, patient, nibbling rat-faced country landlords and lawyers of early Tudor days” and ending with the faded aristocracy of the modern age, or merely with “a bare recital of their great houses, now put to public uses, or pulled down, or peeling tenantless, those mausoleums, those cenotaphs, of a vanished race.”

What a glory it would have been, that book, and what a sore loss its absence is. It may be, however, that Trevor-Roper’s greatness lay in his powers as an essayist, for certainly it was in the essay form that he achieved a breadth of vision and an acuity of insight that the drudgery of a full-length work might have dissipated. Blair Worden notes that when Trevor-Roper was asked late in life why he had not published more long books, he recalled the remark by Jacob Burckhardt—on whom he wrote a magnificent essay—about the dreary tomes churned out by his contemporaries: “They forget the shortness of life.”

Some of the most fascinating pages in The Wartime Journals are transcriptions of bugged conversations between captured German officers at the end of the war, which illuminate with a ghastly glow the realities of life under the Nazi regime. Listening to these tapes in 1945, Trevor-Roper observes:

Now that the German war is over, and the surviving grandees of Nazi Germany are captured and talking, what poor, inflated vulgarians, what weak pretenders they all turn out to have been, how absurd and byzantine that fantastic court at Berlin and Berchtesgarden [sic] and in the peripatetic Führerhauptquartier!

By the end of the war Trevor-Roper was acknowledged, within specialized circles, at any rate, as an expert on the Götterdämmerung that flickered over the collapse of the Third Reich. In 1946 he records how, having been back at Oxford only ten days after the end of his wartimes duties, he received a phone call: “a document had been found which seemed to be Hitler’s will; was it genuine?” Thus began an adventure that would result in Trevor-Roper’s most successful book, The Last Days of Hitler, which is still in print and still selling.

No doubt the success of the book was one of the factors that led him in 1983 to pronounce genuine a set of papers in the possession of Stern magazine in Germany that were purported to be Hitler’s diaries, and that Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times was eager to publish. Trevor-Roper was assured that the paper of the documents had been tested and dated to the correct period, and was shown reports from three experts who had authenticated the handwriting. “That, it seemed to me, is as good as one can get,” he remarked. Soon, however, he began to have serious doubts, which were famously brushed aside by Murdoch with characteristic brutality: “Fuck Dacre. Publish.”

This sorry episode, in which Trevor-Roper was largely an innocent dupe, was a source of gleeful schadenfreude to the many enemies he had made in his long career as academic and writer, and threw a shadow over his final years. It is a bitter and painful irony that he should have allowed himself, however unwittingly, to enter upon a Faustian pact with one of the latter-day robber barons, whose counterparts in the Tudor and Renaissance world he so much deplored and yet ruefully admired.

Nothing, however, can tarnish the literary legacy that he left us, of which The Wartime Journals is an early and delightful part. It is a marvelous book, packed with philosophical speculation, historical sketches, ravishingly beautiful nature writing, jokes, squibs, insults, and affirmations. The editing is impeccable and, in its way, suitably eccentric and amusing—Davenport-Hines’s footnotes8 are in many instances as devastating as Trevor-Roper’s, and his decision to include Trevor-Roper’s own highly idiosyncratic index in only slightly modified form will be gratefully appreciated by connoisseurs of this much underrated and underdeveloped literary appendage.9 Trevor-Roper’s heroes, such as Erasmus, Gibbon, and Burckhardt, would consider most of the rest of us today to be untutored barbarians, but in Trevor-Roper they would have recognized one of their own, and welcomed him into their hallowed halls.

  1. 1

    At first Trevor-Roper thought of refusing the honor, but his wife, the redoubtable Xandra, daughter of the World War I commander Field Marshal Douglas Haig, would have none of it. “Think of the people it will infuriate!” she exclaimed; the argument was a clincher. 

  2. 2

    From the Journals : “Sometimes I have abandoned even hope, and fallen into the deepest depression and despair, from which only a conscious intellectual effort, and a determination never to submit to depression or despair, have raised me temporarily up.” 

  3. 3

    April 1942: “Since the war began, I have re-read a great deal of literature, including all Homer, Pindar, Thucydides, Lucretius, Horace, and much of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Tennyson….” N.B. : re -read. 

  4. 4

    Trevor-Roper and Berenson shared a lifelong friendship, mostly through letters. See the marvelous Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2006). 

  5. 5

    An example is in order: “ A FANCY : More than once, too, I have pleased myself with the notion that somewhere there is good Company which will like this little Book—these Thoughts (if I may call them so) dipped up from that phantasmagoria or phosphorescence which, by some unexplained process of combustion, flickers over the large lump of soft gray matter in the bowl of my skull.” See Smith, Trivia (London: Constable, 1918), p. 41. 

  6. 6

    The Wartime Journals contain many splendid instances of Ryle’s dry but lightning-quick wit. For instance, hearing Trevor-Roper boast of a clever piece of social machination, Ryle said: “Many a bull, emerging from a blood-stained china-shop, has congratulated itself on its Machiavellian diplomacy.” 

  7. 7

    Trevor-Roper’s literary executor, the historian Blair Worden, in a magnificent memorial tribute published in the Proceedings of the British Academy, writes that “he was a Whig if it is Whiggish to deny that historical investigation can or should be value-free, or to reject the supposition that scholarship, to be objective, must be separated from the concerns of citizenship. He was a Tory insofar as he recognised the power of traditional institutions, if they are kept up to the mark, to channel constructive human characteristics and restrain destructive ones.” 

  8. 8

    For example, on page 214, note 10: “Malcolm Muggeridge (1903–1990), pre-war correspondent of the Manchester Guardian in Soviet Russia, wartime SIS agent in Laurenço Marques, post-war broadcaster and editor of Punch, Catholic convert after his meetings with Mother Theresa, was in old age an ostentatiously repentant debauchee.” 

  9. 9

    A couple of sample entries must suffice: “Americans: invade Europe, 128–9; spoil Mexico, 175; take their Christmas holidays, 277”; “fungus, giant, members of SIS likened to, 114.”