Sunday 15 January 2023

Today would be Hugh Trevor-Roper’s 109th birthday

This is his description of Ireland.
'Through all our history she clings to us, a poor, half-witted, gypsy relative, defying our improvement, spoiling our appearances, exposing our pretences, an irredeemable, 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'.

I also like

'There is properly no history of Africa. There is only the history of Europeans in Africa.' 

That's not quite true of Ethiopia, but Ethiopians are Semites, colonists who came from Arabia in the second millennium before Christ.

John Banville in the New York Review of Books:

'…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....'

Neal Ascherson in the London Review of Books:

'...The historian John Habakkuk said ‘I find it difficult to decide whether T-R is a fundamentally nice person in the grip of a prose style in which it is impossible to be polite, or a fundamentally unpleasant person … using rudeness as a disguise for nastiness.’ Habakkuk’s first guess is very sharp.

'...Trevor-Roper’s own politics remained Whiggish, unpredictable. Students, noting his snobbish style and grand contacts, supposed him a Tory. But in the strict sense, he never was. Over Suez in 1956, he called Anthony Eden a ‘vain, ineffectual Man of Blood’, and reviled ‘the world of lower-middle-class conservatives who have no intelligence but a deep belief in violence as a sign of self-importance’. He attended the first Congress for Cultural Freedom in Berlin, but was repelled by its fanatical anti-Communist rhetoric, which reminded him of Nazi rallies. He was never a Cold Warrior and, although he seems to have kept MI5 informed of colleagues he suspected of Communist sympathies, retained a deep respect for the Party member Eric Hobsbawm as a historian and helped him to get a US visa.'

When made a life peer by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 he took the title Lord Dacre of Glanton. Someone said Lord Trevor-Roper would have sounded like an enobled trade unionist.

The Last Days of Hitler was the cause of a quarrel with Evelyn Waugh, which ended with the latter saying 

‘One honourable course is open to Mr Trevor-Roper. He should change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge.’

This is what he did just as I went up to Cambridge, when he became Master of Peterhouse.

How I'd have enjoyed that strange college and sitting at the feet metaphorically of Maurice Cowling and Edward Norman.

I read his Last Days of Hitler when I was a boy, simply because AJP Taylor praised him as a great writer. I was disappointed, but in those days Lord Macaulay was my idol and Trevor-Roper's prose style was much too simple. 

I still prefer the Shavian Taylor's prose, but I should give Trevor-Roper another chance.



  1. Eric Hobsbawn was not a reliable historian. As a boy I assumed that at least the tables of statistics in his books could be trusted (if not the prose), but they could not be trusted, Faced with a choice between historical truth and Marxism - he would always pick the latter. Aa for Hugh Trever-Roper - I disagree with him about Anthony Eden (indeed his description of Eden as a "man of blood" is absurd) and his lack of understanding of the Congress of Cultural Freedom (the opposite of a National Socialist rally) is baffling. However, he is unfairly remembered for the "Hitler Dairies" hoax - Trever-Roper was assured that the dairies had already been authenticated, he was sinned against rather than a fraudster.

    1. I am pleased to hear bad things about Hobsbawm. You are saying he did the things David Irving was accused by Evans of doing?

    2. Hobsbawm in one of his books talked about the 'Eastern European revolutions' after 1945.

    3. Oh yes - Hobsbawn also played fast and loose with the facts, but do not hold your breath waiting for the Guardian to attack him.

    4. Instead he was made a Companion of Honour. So it goes.

  2. There is history of various parts of Africa - the trouble is that a lot of it is unwritten and HTR, like so many historians of his time, regarded written sources (rather than physical remains) as the only form of history. As for Eden being a "man of blood" - the man of blood was the Dictator Nasser who had done vast harm to Egypt and the Middle East generally, and had broken his agreement with Britain by attacking the Suez Canal. Prime Minister Eden should have Declared War on the day that Nasser attacked - not engaged in the complicated nonsense with France and Israel.

  3. The obsession with written sources, and disregarding all other (scientific) forms of evidence was to cost HTR his reputation - he was told the "Hitler Dairies" were real, so he treated them as real. Just as E.H. Carr, treated the leather bound official records of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as real - because they were official records. It never occurred to Carr that these impressive looking books were works of fiction.