Neal Ascherson on Adam Sisman Weidenfeld's new biography of Hugh Trevor-Roper, in the LRB:
Seven years after his death, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation is still a cauldron of discord. He would have enjoyed that. Steaming in the mix are the resentments of those he expertly wounded, the awe of colleagues at the breadth and depth of his learning, dismay at his serial failures to complete a full-length work of history, delight in the Gibbonian wit and elegance of his writing and – still a major ingredient – Schadenfreude over his awful humiliation in the matter of the Hitler diaries.
In his lifetime, nobody was sure how to take him. Those who supposed they had his measure soon found that they were wrong. The fogeyish camorra who ran Peterhouse in the 1980s chose him as master because they assumed he was a semi-Fascist ultra like themselves. But, as the Cambridge historian Michael Postan put it, ‘They are such fools: they thought they were electing a Tory and never realised that they were electing a Whig.’ Mrs Thatcher imagined that the scholar who had written The Last Days of Hitler would share her hostility to a reunified Germany. But at the infamous Chequers meeting on Germany in 1990, Trevor-Roper faced her down and tore her arguments to pieces.
The historian John Habakkuk was an editor of Economic History Review in 1952 when Trevor-Roper’s onslaught against R.H. Tawney landed on his desk. He mused: ‘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. Reading Adam Sisman’s steady, carefully fair and gracefully written biography, I kept coming back to it. Sisman declares at the start that he knew and liked Trevor-Roper and that in writing this Life ‘I may have been influenced by feelings of loyalty, affection and gratitude.’ He leans towards the ‘fundamentally nice’ view. But the niceness was not apparent to many people, who had to judge Trevor-Roper by what and how he wrote.