The latest volume of Hugh Trevor-Roper's collected essays exemplifies this movement. He first rose to prominence 50 years ago with a biography of Archbishop Laud which shocked, annoyed and delighted its readers. And now the core of this new volume is a series of essays that examines, from different vantage points, the ideas and influences that shaped Laud. It is impossible to convey in brief the fascinating nexus of politics, diplomacy, science, medicine, aesthetics and religion that animated a general movement, among the more enlightened spirits of the first half of the 17th century, towards a more civilized and tolerant world. The range of the author's reference is counterpointed by his wit and the economy of expression.
What gives the peculiar exhilaration to his work is its intellectual zest and infectious high spirits. If he has a fault, it may be that the rapidity of his own understanding sometimes overtakes the pedestrian quality of those of whom he writes. He is at his best with clever men, teasing out the implications of a proposition or tracing the unexpected genealogy of an idea. But all these analyses are carried out with a down-to- earth lucidity that makes the dullest of us feel more intelligent. He has, as Clarendon wrote of Seldon, 'the best faculty of making things easy, and presenting them to the understanding, of any man that hath been known'.
The most delicious feature of his style is his inspired application of the racy to the severely formal, reminiscent of effects achieved by P G Wodehouse and John Betjeman. Is there something Oxonian in this quality? One thinks of A E Housman rebuking F A Simpson in a generally laudatory review of Louis Napoleon and the Recovery of France for lapsing into the idiom of the day, or of G M Trevelyan's outrage at Lytton Strachey's flippant reference to E A Freeman's end: 'the professor had gone pop in Spain.' What would they have said to the use of 'supremo' or 'hatchetman', slipped with a refreshing effect into their particular contexts? An irrepressible sense that history is and ought to be fun keeps breaking through serious and learned argumentation. Who else but Hugh Trevor-Roper would have thought of livening up that deadly mediocrity Archbishop Abbot by invoking the pert riposte of Mandy Rice-Davies in the witness box? It is a characteristic triumph.Reuse content