The importance of not being earnest

Christopher Sylvester reviews Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson edited by Richard Davenport-Hines, in the London Times:

These letters were never intended for publication. Indeed, when asked late in the correspondence whether he would want them returned, Hugh Trevor-Roper even contemplated burning them. For apart from being wonderfully wise and witty, they are vicious about Oxford colleagues, and at least one of them contained such a heinous libel (of the royal physician attending George VI, see panel, below right) that it might have cost Trevor-Roper dear if it had fallen into the wrong hands. Although their context is Oxford university life, they afford an invaluable and entertaining insight into our national intellectual life in the 1950s.

Bernard Berenson was an intellectual and social celebrity. An American-born, Lithuanian Jew, whose parents had immigrated to Boston but who himself had gravitated towards European civilisation, he had become a ground-breaking art critic, but had also sullied his reputation in some quarters by deriving a substantial income from certificating works of art for dealers selling to wealthy Americans (he made $80,000 in 1909 alone). Nonetheless, he was considered a sage, to whose homes in Italy numerous intellectual and social figures made pilgrimage.

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