Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper:The Biography (2010)

Those of us near a ‘certain age’ may remember the scandal of the Hitler Diaries, purchased at great expense by Stern (a West German news magazine) in 1983 and promptly exposed as low-quality forgeries.

In an act of uncharacteristic stupidity, Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius Professor of Modern History, authenticated the Diaries after a cursory examination. He never lived it down.

Academic historians usually present as earnest, perhaps absent-minded, servants of the past aloof from the ordinary cares of day-to-day life. Bedevilled by an impressive range of personal insecurities, Trevor-Roper did not match this description.

Sadly, he had the potential for brilliance. His areas of interest included the Reformation and the causes of the English Civil War. As Regius Professor, he was expected to produce the standard history of that period. The man himself dreamed of emulating his heroes, Edward Gibbon and Thomas Macaulay.

But Trevor-Roper never delivered. Instead, he devoted himself to tearing down the reputations of competitors who worked harder and more successfully at their mutual craft than he did.

Sisman gives us a vivid, beautifully written portrait of this ghastly individual as he sank deeper and deeper into a maelstrom of vindictive feuds and petty jealousies that precluded him completing his much-anticipated work.

While he never lived up to the promise many felt he had shown, Trevor-Roper is at least fortunate to have had an extra-ordinary biographer. This book is a compelling read for those interested in how history is written and those who write it.

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