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August 30, 2006

Hugh Trevor-Roper's harsh judgements are a refreshing contrast to today's prevailing atmosphere of public sentimentality, argues David Womersley: Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson - (Ed.) Richard Davenport-Hines

Posted by David Womersley

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson
edited by Richard Davenport-Hines
Pp. xlii+326. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006
Hardback, 20

Hugh Trevor-Roper was a central figure in the life of Oxford, and a notable presence in the life of the nation, during the second half of the twentieth century. Initially a Tutor in Modern History and Student of Christ Church, in 1957 he was appointed to the Regius Chair of Modern History at Oxford, a position he held until 1980 when he became Master of Peterhouse. But Trevor-Roper's scooping of high academic honours occupied only a small part of his time.

He was a prolific reviewer, who knew well how to capitalise on the success of The Last Days of Hitler (1947), the book he wrote in consequence of wartime orders to discredit the Russian story that Hitler was still alive somewhere in the West. Alongside this, he was unflaggingly social (a characteristic which endured right to the end of his life). His allegiance was always (as he put it in his hilarious account of the election of Harold Macmillan as Chancellor of Oxford) with "the party of the laity and the gaiety" (p. 307). It was as a result of this allegiance, as well as of his interest in Gibbon, that I came to know him during his last decade.

Shortly after the war, Trevor-Roper was introduced to Bernard Berenson by Alys Russell. The two men took to one another, and until Berenson's death in October 1959 Trevor-Roper (at first alone, subsequently accompanied by his wife, Xandra) paid regular visits to Berenson's Florentine home, I Tatti. It is clear that the two men held each other in high regard. Long after Berenson's death Trevor-Roper rebuked Richard Shannon for a light remark at Berenson's expense, insisting that BB (as he called him) was "a very great man" (p. xxxix).

For his part, Berenson recorded his opinion of Trevor-Roper in his diary for 29 October 1956 (p. 205):

a fascinating letter-writer, indeed an epistolary artist, brilliant reviewer of all sort [sic] of books, very serious historian and formidable polemicist.
They corresponded, and the letters Trevor-Roper wrote to Berenson have been collected in this volume. After Berenson's death, he wondered in a letter to Berenson's companion, Nicky Mariano, about their proper fate (p. 273):
I think if they came back to me I would destroy them: but I should not like to think of them getting into the wrong hands! . . . . I shudder to think of some of the things I sometimes say!
That authorial shudder promises great entertainment for the reader.

The correspondence begins in a slightly stilted manner, with Trevor-Roper writing from his parents' house in Alnwick to thank "Mr Berenson" for his hospitality and sending him some books and articles. But Trevor-Roper soon discovers his true register as a letter-writer, and the topics on which he writes - Oxford elections, Suez, his travels, personalities such as George Weidenfeld, C. S. Lewis, or Isaiah Berlin, events in his private life such as the difficulties he and his wife encountered in extracting her from her first marriage, English high society and the social life (so-called) of the Scottish borders - all provide him with material to be fictionalised and ironised in a prose style which it is tempting and obvious to trace back to an historian such as Gibbon, but which in its comic exuberance and extravagant plotting is often more reminiscent of Wodehouse.

Chance brought the two men together - but what held them there? Berenson was as much a collector of acquaintance as of art, so his motives are more easily deduced. But what did Trevor-Roper, the son of a Northumberland doctor, find fascinating in Berenson, a brilliant Lithuanian Jew who had, through an extraordinary effort of self-creation, not only made himself very rich but virtually turned himself into an exotic relic from the imaginative world of the later fiction of Henry James?

It is a question which propels us down a fascinating line of inquiry, namely that of Trevor-Roper's creation of himself. For he, just as much as Berenson, played in life a part he had scripted for no actor but himself. The cynical - and shallow - answer would be that in the friendship of Berenson and Trevor-Roper we find like calling to like: the authenticator of dubious Italian paintings drew to him, with an inevitable and foredoomed gravity, the eventual authenticator of the Hitler diaries and biographer of Sir Edmund Backhouse. A smart formulation, but entirely misleading.

The draw of Berenson for Trevor-Roper was naturally not unrelated to the glamour of Berenson's trappings - in them Trevor-Roper saw the possibility of escape from what were by all accounts the drab and straitened circumstances of his upbringing (it is striking that, although his father survived until 1978 and his mother until 1964, neither of them receives even the most fleeting of references in this correspondence). But Trevor-Roper, although certainly no enemy to pleasure in any of its forms, was no shallow hedonist, and was certainly no snob. A recurrent theme in these letters is the intellectual and cultural bankruptcy of large swathes of the English and (particularly) Scottish aristocracy. Yet in art and douceur de vivre he glimpsed a redemption uncontaminated by religious dogma - a redemption embodied in Berenson.

When recounting the petulant squabbles of his University, Trevor-Roper is fond of casting the struggle in terms of a contest between Light and Darkness (e.g. p. 288). The joke, dropping as it does from such impenitently anti-clerical lips, is obvious and palpable. Less obvious is the extent to which, around the edges of even a mind and personality so hostile to them, shreds and fragments of a millennial outlook could survive, take root, and adapt themselves to a novel environment. After all, as a young man Trevor-Roper had lived through the extraordinary catastrophe and revelations of the final months of the war. Apocalypse, albeit in an un-theological form, had been his element while his mind was still susceptible to impressions.

This book has been the subject of a certain amount of sanctimonious attention in the press, of just the kind that Hugh himself would most have mocked and scorned. The letters are too often malicious, a reviewer sighs, while another colleague wrings their hands and regrets that the milk of human kindness trickles through these pages as, at best, a thin whey, occasionally obstructed by sudden curds of animosity.

Trevor-Roper's letters are certainly a refreshing contrast to the prevailing atmosphere of public sentimentality which allows us to pretend that our flinching from hard judgements and difficult questions is a sign of moral strength rather than a dreadful weakness. However, anyone who is not already botched and scabbed by that ethical blight will enjoy this book immensely. The letters have been splendidly edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, in a style (and with a stylishness) which both Hugh Trevor-Roper and Berenson would have relished.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

To read Prof. William D. Rubinstein's take on Letters from Oxford, see William D. Rubinstein on Hugh Trevor-Roper's strange friendship with Bernard Berenson.


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