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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:

  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.” 

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