Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biograph, By Adam Sisman

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The good faeries made Hugh Trevor-Roper, later Lord Dacre of Glanton, a brilliant historian, a gifted classicist, an elegant stylist, an engaging raconteur, and an effective servant of his country in war. The bad faeries made him, by his own admission, proud, impudent, voluble, ostentatious, and quick both to give and take offence. Born the son of a country doctor in the shadow of Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Trevor-Roper was garlanded with honours and offices throughout his remarkable career: Regius Professor of History at Oxford, Fellow of the British Academy, National Director of Times Newspapers, peer of the realm, Head of House at Cambridge. Adam Sisman's fascinating authorised biography, based on the subject's voluminous correspondence, takes us behind this impressive façade to illuminate the man and his work.

It is well known that Trevor-Roper served in British intelligence during the war, but what Sisman shows is that his contribution included not only the cracking of codes, and the interrogation of captured officers, but also a campaign to persuade his superiors to distribute the information gained more widely and effectively. Even more important, the confrontation with Nazism had a profound intellectual influence on him. "Now I must lay aside my Horace," he wrote in 1938 just before the Munich agreement, "and take up Clausewitz, Machiavelli and Mein Kampf."

Classics' loss, however, was Modern History's gain. Just after the end of the war, Trevor-Roper was assigned the task of investigating what had happened in its final stages. This was a matter of considerable sensitivity, as the Russians were putting it about that the Western allies had helped the Führer to escape. A few years later, Trevor-Roper published his findings as The Last Days of Hitler, a classic which turned him into a public figure, and which remains the first port of call for anybody wishing to understand the end of the Third Reich.

Trevor-Roper's skill lay in "studying problems, not periods". He was a key player in some of the central historiographical debates of his time, especially the "great storm over the gentry" in the 17th century: whether the civil war was caused by a rising or, as Trevor-Roper believed, a falling class of landowners. Here Sisman gives us an insight into Trevor-Roper's relations with his antagonist, Lawrence Stone, who had "scooped" some of his research. At first accepting the younger man's coup with good grace, he subsequently masterminded a devastating riposte discussed not only in scholarly journals of the 1950s but in the print media generally. One fascinating aspect of Sisman's biography is the reminder of just how much scholarly work was reviewed in the serious press at the time.

Over the next three decades, Trevor-Roper produced a stream of highly stimulating articles and pamphlets. "Why", he asked, "did the economic and social and intellectual life of the Roman Catholic countries sink or stagnate, while that of the Protestant countries bounded forward" after the Reformation? How could civilised people believe in witches? Trevor-Roper kept up his interest in Hitler, most spectacularly in his televised duel with AJP Taylor over the origins of the Second World War. Trevor-Roper was generally believed to have lost that contest on points, but subsequent research has endorsed his view that Hitler had a consistent ideology that needed to be taken seriously, and was not simply reacting to events, as Taylor argued.

What Trevor-Roper failed to do, and neither his friends nor his enemies allowed him to forget, was to publish a large-scale work on the origins of the English Civil War. Sisman is a little too indulgent here: "Life is short, and each of us is entitled to live it how we choose." Perhaps, but Trevor-Roper was Regius Professor for some 30 years, a crown he had actively sought, not a diadem thrust upon him, as Sisman's own account of the process shows. He should have written more, and he knew that better than anyone.

It was not that Trevor-Roper was lazy: his papers contain a number of impressive manuscripts. One, a biography of the 17th-century Huguenot physician Theodor de Mayerne, has already appeared posthumously. More may follow.

The reason for the relatively slender published record must lie elsewhere. Part of the explanation, Sisman demonstrates, lies in the demands made on him by his temperamental wife, Xandra. His biography is worth reading for insight into that relationship alone, which despite all rumours was a genuine love match. Xandra's financial expectations – she had a keen interest in fashion and interior design – drove him to take on ever more journalistic commissions to pay the bills. This reduced the time available for serious research and writing.

The principal reason for Trevor-Roper's scholarly constipation, however, was his pursuit of academic politics and personal vendettas. He took the cultivation of hatred to a high art: constantly brooding on slights, plotting revenge on his enemies and engaging in protracted correspondence. "I have decided to liquidate Stone," he once wrote, only half in jest. All this cost time, which could not be devoted to research. Moreover, though Trevor-Roper enjoyed dishing it out, he was highly sensitive to criticism. This made him a perfectionist, reluctant to publish before he had covered himself against all possible attacks.

Trevor-Roper relished a fight, and mostly got his way in Oxford, where he orchestrated the election of Harold Macmillan as Chancellor. He met his match in 1979, however, when he moved to Cambridge as Master of Peterhouse. Here, now as Lord Dacre of Glanton, he clashed with Maurice Cowling, who presided over the "Peterhouse Right" with irony, geniality and malice. Sisman's account of these battles contains a few small slips, and he does not seem to have spoken to Trevor-Roper's principal surviving enemies, but he captures the rather overwrought atmosphere well. On one occasion, we are told, the Master was pursued by a Fellow across College, seeking sanctuary in the Lodge while his antagonist pawed the ground outside like an angry bull. I should stress that I was not a direct witness to these events, having joined the Fellowship in 1993, by which time things had calmed down (a bit).

If the situation in Peterhouse was sometimes desperate but never serious, Trevor-Roper's reputation was badly damaged by the infamous affair of the "Hitler diaries", which he pronounced genuine. The broad outlines of this excruciating story are already well-known from Robert Harris's classic account Selling Hitler, but Sisman adds a few interesting details about the way in which Trevor-Roper was hustled by the Sunday Times into making statements against his better judgment.

Master, scholar, soldier, and spy: Hugh Trevor-Roper packed a lot into his life. It is hard to fault Sisman's judgment that he showed "independence of mind... boldness and... determination, but also... rashness, poor judgement, obstinacy and, perhaps, arrogance". It was an epic struggle, but this engrossing biography shows that the good faeries won in the end.

Brendan Simms is Professor of the History of European International Relations at Cambridge University, and a Fellow of Peterhouse