Hugh Trevor-Roper, who died in January 2003 shortly after his 89th birthday, had several of the qualities cherished in Britain's so-called 'national treasures'. His schoolboyish playfulness and relish of mischief never deserted him, nor did an unerring compass in matters of style, which assured an elegant, and seemingly effortless, command of language and bearing. Above all, the British public tends to salute resilience in adversity; and for a scholar could there be any greater trauma than the terrible humbling and hounding of the proud, stoical Trevor-Roper in the aftermath of the Hitler Diaries fiasco? Yet Trevor-Roper never quite attained the status of national treasure notwithstanding an appearance on Desert Island Discs. Too much blood had been spilled; he was too divisive a figure, and too firmly - and perhaps unfairly - bracketed with the political right. In his later years, to be sure, Trevor-Roper was a much mellower figure than the controversialist who once seemed to delight in giving offence when correcting the historical errors of - variously but far from exhaustively - Arnold Toynbee, A.J.P. Taylor, Maurice Cowling, Lawrence Stone and the Cerberus of Scottish historiography, William Ferguson. But if the softer, gentler Trevor-Roper outlived many - though by no means all - of his foremost adversaries, their pupils and heirs had not forgotten the scars borne by the previous generation. In his battle with Trevor-Roper over matters of recusant history, the 'convert-novelist' Evelyn Waugh had offered some barbed advice to the young Oxford historian, whom Waugh presumed to have disgraced: the only 'honourable course' open to him was to 'change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge'. Decades later Auberon Waugh would exploit the Hitler Diaries affair to continue his father's vendetta; on this occasion, the indisputably disgraced historian was advised to change his sex and go to Essex.
LRB 22 May 2008 | PDF Download