Hugh Trevor-Roper at his Scottish home, Chiefswood: His letters were elegant, witty, acerbic, elegiac and always thought-provoking
I first met Hugh Trevor-Roper on a train. It was towards the end of 1985, and I was returning from London to Cambridge, where I was then a graduate student. I noticed a vaguely familiar face of someone who seemed to me to be very old in the seat opposite me, but couldn't place it. So I thought no more about it and got on with reading my book.
About half-way to Cambridge the old man opposite asked me about the book I was buried in. A conversation started, and we chatted merrily away for the rest of the journey. As we pulled in at our destination, he wondered if I was doing anything for dinner. As it happened, I wasn't. He asked me if I'd care to dine with him: he could fix something simple for us at Peterhouse Master's Lodge. At that point, I realised that the person sitting opposite me was Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, then Master of Peterhouse. The penny should have dropped earlier, because his picture had been all over the papers after he had been identified as the expert who had declared the bogus Hitler Diaries to be genuine.
Surprised and intrigued both by him and his invitation, I agreed. He travelled back by taxi to the Lodge; I went on my bike. He had told me to knock on the Lodge's side door when I arrived. It's a very grand Queen Anne house, and I remember hesitating before knocking, wondering whether having dinner with a total stranger, even one as celebrated as Hugh Trevor-Roper, was a sensible thing to do. As I hesitated, the door opened and the figure standing behind it warmly welcomed me. So I followed him into the Lodge's ample kitchen. He uncorked a bottle of very delicious white wine and proceeded to make a pretty good cheese omelette.
He talked a great deal about Albert Speer as he did so. He knew Speer well, since he interviewed him many times in prison. He said that he had always found Speer an enigma: how had such a cultivated and intelligent man come to serve the Nazis? He said that after many long conversations, he had eventually asked Speer whether, if he could have his life again, he would choose to be like his father, a respectable bourgeois architect in a provincial German town; or whether he would choose to be what he in fact became, the armaments minister of undoubtedly the most evil and destructive man in the history of Europe, if not the world. He said that Speer, who never answered any question in a hurry, had paused for a long time, looked away and frowned. Then suddenly he turned his eyes directly on his interrogator, and said simply: "You have to understand the irresistible fascination of power."
Hugh opened a second bottle of wine, even tastier than the first. He talked about Rupert Murdoch, whom he said he still liked, in spite of the outrageous way Murdoch had treated him over the Hitler Diaries. (Trevor-Roper had had doubts about the Diaries' authenticity almost as soon as he had expressed the view that they were genuine, but by then it was too late. Murdoch responded to his doubts with the now immortal words: "Fuck Dacre. Publish.") He added that he also liked Kim Philby. "I like cards, you see..." At first, I thought he said "cads". But he repeated the word "cards", perhaps noticing my puzzlement.
I asked him about how he ended up at Peterhouse. He told me he had accepted the invitation to become Master of the college because "I'm a conservative, and I thought Peterhouse was a conservative college. However, when I arrived at Peterhouse, I quickly realised that there aren't any conservatives on the fellowship. There are Jacobites and clerical fascists."
His letters were delightful: elegant, witty, playful, sometimes acerbic, sometimes elegiac, but always thought-provoking. They covered a vast range of topics: he wrote about free will, Christianity, the existence of God, the corruptions of college life, the nature of history, the difficulties of keeping intellectually agile, the problems of age. His letters also contained his unguarded views of his Cambridge colleagues. There are passages which the laws of libel probably render unpublishable even today. The targets of his attacks could console themselves with the fact that they have been libelled in an unusually elegant fashion. Unfortunately, the law does not recognise an exceptionally elegant prose style as a defence.
We exchanged letters on and off for about eight years. His letters came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. I was saddened, but reflected that he had better things to do than write to me. I later learned that he had been seriously ill, with symptoms, including blindness, that made writing letters impossible. I last saw him in 2002 at a dinner party given by a mutual friend. He seemed in fine form, and it was a great pleasure to me to find we could pick up where we had left off, almost as if there had been no interruption.
I wrote to him after that. I didn't receive a reply: not long afterwards, I received the news of his death. He remains in my memory as he was in his letters: generous, curious, full of intellectual vitality and not a little mischief. I still miss receiving his thoughts. But I count myself very lucky to have been one of his correspondents.
— Alasdair Palmer
In 1967 the "Spectator" had published, under the pseudonym of Mercurius Oxoniensis, the first of the letters Trevor-Roper wrote in the manner of the 17th-century scholar and author of "Brief Lives", John Aubrey: a "brief life" of the Christ Church eccentric R.H. Dundas. Trevor-Roper disclaimed authorship, speculating that, if not a genuine Aubrey, it might have been written by his Christ Church colleague, the novelist J.I.M. Stewart. The editor of the "Spectator", Nigel Lawson, who had become friendly with Trevor-Roper in his undergraduate days at Christ Church in the 1950s, protected his anonymity. Now Trevor-Roper began to circulate to a few confidants his "transcript" of a document which he claimed to have found in the Bodleian. This purported to be another unpublished Aubrey manuscript, a "brief life" of "Dr A.L.R. of Old-soules' college".
To Wallace Notestein, June 19, 1968
The Savile Club, 69 Brook Street
Our greetings to you both, and I hope that you are both well, and that Student Power has not come to Yale. We have a few rumblings here, but I tell my timid friends about the fate of those transient radicals of the 17th century, like the Levellers and Harrington's rota: as Aubrey wrote, "upon the unexpected turn upon Gen. Monk's coming in, all those airy models vanished".
Talking of Aubrey, whom I know you enjoy, I think I should communicate to you a little discovery that I recently made in Bodley. It is a hitherto unknown, or at least unpublished, "Brief Life" of Aubrey, which has long nestled unobserved among his MSS there. It was evidently designed for a second edition of Wood's Athenae, but must have been overlooked. I have made a transcript of it, which I enclose. Don't return it; I have a copy; but if you think that scholars would welcome its publication, perhaps you would send it to the American Historical Review or some such learned journal.
Keep well. Xandra joins me in sending our love to you both.
Bodl MS. Aubrey (unnumbered)
Dr. A.L.R. of Old-soules' college (Mem: forget not the Dr) is a very egregious person. He was born anno 1903, in Cornwall, of poore but honest parents, as himself would often boast, at least before the late warre, when 'twas seldom that such came to the university. But that being now common, he haz sophisticated his pedigree, and putts it about that re vera he is a bye-blow of a Cornish nobleman; hinting darkly at the Lord St. Levan, at whose castle, St. Michael's Mount (a romancy seat), his mother was once a serving wench. So now, it seems that only one of his parents was poor, and she not honest.
Coming as a poor scholler to Ch: Ch: Oxon, he was at first abashed by the aristocraticall splendour of that place. But the Lord David Cecil, a fellow collegian, taking him by the hand and teaching him the rudiments of gentility, he soon became vastly pleased both with it and with him, at least for a time. For afterwards, his Lordship being advanced to the Companionship of Honour, our Les (who is jealous of publick titles) was mightily miffed and forbore his company; and Ch: Ch: not electing him to a Studentship (but preferring one Myres, the same that was afterwards Bodley's librarian), he has huffed and sulked and took his name off the college books; nor could he be prevailed upon to enter that college, or converse with any in it, for forty years.
In Old-soules' college, of which he was elected fellow, he was at first in deliciis. At that time many great men (as His Grace archbishop Lang, my lord marquis of Lothian, my lord viscount Halifax, my Lord Brand, Sir J. Simon, Mr Geoffrey Dawson et al.) would come thither often to dine and to machinate over their port. Our Les, having now tasted grandeur, must needs barge in among them and tell them their business (which indeed they needed telling, though not by him); and they, though not heeding him, yet being old men and pleased with academicall freedom, would humour him; which he, not having learned their nice language, mistook for docility, and so thought himself an oracle, fit to be a legislator of the nation. Anno 1936 he stood as a parliament-man, for a Cornish borough. He was then a hot Labour Party man and preached root and branch doctrines. But the lower sort not relishing these airy notions from gaffer Rowse's queer boy (as they called him), voted rather for the squire; which our doctor has never forgiven them, writing of them opprobriously ever after as ‘the idiot people', ‘apes' and what not? 'Tis said that during this election the enemy party caused to be printed and dispersed among the electors a rash pamphlet he had writt (but for another auditory) recommending free use of Venus between, if not within, the sexes. This lost him the votes of the godly or Methodist party, which swarm in that county, without gaining the orthodox or prelaticall.
During the great warre of '39 to '45 our doctor did not exert himself but stayed snugly in Old-soules' college, writing and telling all men how rich he was becoming and how familiarly he was used by great persons; which was very taedious and hath emptied many a common-room, then and since.
He is vastly pleased with his own genius, which 'tis dangerous to question, even in jest: experto crede [believe one who speaks from experience]. No flattery too crude or gross for unrefined appetites. 'Tis pity to see such folly in a learned man, for he had formerly a little talent, tho' long since evanished. His Tudor Cornwall admired by antiquaries. His last solid work The England of Elizabeth, 8vo, 1950. Since then a sad decline: slipslop, plagiarisme, etc. His poems...but 'tis best to bury them in silence. Those who have never been admitted to converse with the Muses should not trouble them with their solicitations.
After the warre he thought again of serving his country; but as he had now done with vulgar elections, being inward with duchesses and other great ladies, he fancied himself rather in the upper house, with peers and bishops, than in the commons' chamber with mere knights and burgesses. So he writt several long letters to Major Attlee, then Prime Minister, angling for a viscounty or barony. 'Twas in the publick interest, he said, that their lordships should be penetrated by some procreative spirits who could impregnate 'em with philosophy. The Major found these letters vastly diverting and would carry them in his pocket to dinner-parties, to make his friends merry. But he never took the hint, nor any of his successors neither, so the poor doctor is still without a title of honour, which much distresses him.
But the court is the true fountain of honour and there he still had hopes. 'Tis said he had given private lessons to our present Queen, as princess, in Buckingham Palace (quaere, how procured?), which must have borne hard on the poor child. Certainly, her Majesty the now Queen Mother took him up, as others of his kind (but this inter nos), and her name dropt often from his lips. But when her Majesty that is now came to the throne, she pluckt up her courage and, like her ancestor King James, repudiated her old pedagogue, just as he was glorying immoderately in the new Elizabethan age, and himself its harbinger. Vide her Majesty's nipping rebuke on that subject, which she thought it prudent to utter at a safe distance, in Tasmania, among the Antipodes.
Bruised by this fall, the poor doctor now turned to a rustic life. Having by now made a pretty penny by exhibiting himself in the Ladies' Journals, he bought a delicate fair house by the sea in Cornwall and there set up as a squire. It pleased him to insult thus over the peasantry who would not have him as their burgess. And yet methinks he loves that country too, if only the idiot people were purged out of it: for them he cannot abide. In term-time he stayed still at Old-soules' college, scribbling and courting the Fellows: for he had designs on the Wardenship. He also had designs of another kind on the Junior Fellows, and courted them; but they, so farre as 'tis knowne, resisted him seu venerem seu vota petenti [whether he sought their love or their votes] So he missed the Wardenship too, the Fellows preferring one Sparrow; whereat the doctor once again took huff, printed no more encomia of the college and its cozy home life (see his epistle to the reader in The England of Elizabeth), and thereafter deigned not to speak to any Fellow who, on that occasion, had voted against him.
He has a thin, exile voice, but harsh like a corncrake: no witt nor warmth to soften it; and very shrill when at boasting or abuse (its usual office). But he can purr if stroked and wheedled. In his young days he had a lean hatchet face and a wild black forelock, very ferocious: when he screamed revolution, 'twould make a good subject's backbone curdle. But now that he is plump and pawky and does but cockadoodle about his genius, his ducats and his duchesses, and despise the rest of us as not worthy of him, none minds him.
[Endorsed] To my good friend Mr Antony Wood, of Merton coll., for his Athenae Oxonienses , ed. Altera , these.
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- Western Civilisation In Crisis
- The Man On Whom Everything Was Lost
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