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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superlative, 9 Sep 2011
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This review is from: Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography (Paperback)
A fascinating biography of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper (1914 to 2003). As a young man was a remarkable mixture of a sharp, critical and versatile intellect, a witty and stylish writer, a waspish commentator on contemporaries, a heavy drinker of wine, with occasional oafish behaviour, and physically immensely energetic: he would go for long walks through countrysides to whose beauties he was always intensely sensitive; he rode to hounds with many a spill, one of which would eventually break his back in 1948 and put an end to that pursuit. (Sisman does not explain is how he could afford his expensive life-style before the war). Amidst all this he produced his first book, a life of Archbishop Laud (published in 1940).

When the war broke out, his poor eye-sight disqualified him from active service. Instead, like many of his Oxford contemporaries, he worked in intelligence. In this field Britain was superior to Germany, though both countries suffered from personal and institutional rivalries and lack of communication within the intelligence organizations. T-R was very frustrated by them, and was thoroughly insubordinate.

After the war T-R was asked to investigate what actually happened to Hitler at the end. At the time many stories circulated that Hitler had escaped and was still alive. T-R not only tracked down witnesses to what had happened, but was able to authenticate Hitler's Will. With the publication of "The Last Days of Hitler" in 1947, he shot to international fame (and to prosperity). He would henceforth be a regular contributor to quality newspapers and periodicals and indeed frequently travel abroad for the Sunday Times.

Back at Christ Church, Oxford, T-R soon became the intimidating Senior History tutor. By now he had the entrée to many an aristocratic country house; the pupils with whom he felt most affinity (provided they were bright) came from these same families.

With one of his former pupils and indeed protegés, Lawrence Stone, he fell out badly: in 1948 Stone had hastened to publish an important article and initially well received on a subject he knew T-R was working on; T-R collected material, in a file marked "Death to Stone" for an article that did indeed demolish Stone, but with a personal vindictiveness that put off even those who agreed with him. T-R then widened his attack, in only slightly less personal tones, to include the venerable R.H.Tawney, turning upside-down the latter's quasi-Marxist theory (shared by Stone and, originally, by T-R himself) that the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century saw the Rise of the Gentry. If anything, that period saw, he thought, their decline, against which it put up a rearguard resistance, but it would be more correct to divide the gentry into those who held offices at Court and those Country squires who did not. That controversy raged for half a decade, and transformed the ideas about the causes of the English Civil War.

Stone would magnanimously congratulate T-R when in 1957 he was appointed Regius Professor of History, and in 1959 they would amicably contribute, more or less on the same side, to a symposium that together on "the General Crisis" of the 17th century which "shaped the approach of a whole generation of historians to 17th century Europe".

By then T-R was married. There is a detailed and psychologically interesting account of the love affaire between the emotionally repressed T-R and the effusive and, apart from her love of music, unintellectual Lady Alexandra Howard-Johnston, sister of T-R's friend the second Earl Haig and wife of a bullying Admiral. They married in 1954 after she was divorced.

In his reviews, T-R relished demolishing books he did not like with savage wit, and enjoyed the offence he deliberately gave to religious believers (especially Catholics) and to the "Scotch". Arnold Toynbee, T-R's friend and rival A.J.P.Taylor, E.H.Carr were all victims of powerfully worded attacks - entirely justified in essence, I think, if not in tone.

The great book on the English Revolution which T-R intended to write, and which he certainly had in him, always eluded him. He was too easily side-tracked into writing learned articles and reviews, giving lectures on a variety of subjects both at home and abroad, travelling abroad for the Sunday Times, doing a television series (on `The Rise of Christian Europe'). The only book of his written as such, apart from the Laud biography and "The Last Days of Hitler" and volumes of collected essays, was a life in 1976 of the strange fantasist Sir Edmund Backhouse (1873 to 1944), over which he took two years. And he started on several other books which he never finished.

In 1980 T-R, then aged 66, was invited, to his surprise, to become Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge. He accepted, though knowing little about the College - that, for instance, it was dominated by a clique of ultra-conservative and, according to this book, thoroughly unpleasant Fellows who had engineered the invitation in the belief that T-R was one of them and would follow their wishes. They had mistaken their man, but it made T-R's seven years at Peterhouse an unhappy experience.

In the meantime there had been the greater tragedy in 1983 when he authenticated as genuine the forged Hitler diaries. This is told in gripping detail: how T-R, under pressure from The Times to come to a decision quickly, had just one afternoon to skim some of the material; how he had first conveyed to The Times that he thought the diaries were genuine (7 April), had doubts almost immediately but conveyed these only on 21 April, the day before the Sunday Times would publish; how the proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, swept them aside (not the only occasion in this book in which Murdoch is shown in a light which has become publicly notorious since publication); how T-R confessed his doubts publicly on 22 April at the launch press conference in Germany given by Der Stern (which had also been duped) - but the damage to his reputation was long-lasting. This book will restore it.
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