Title: A.J.P. Taylor A Biography
Author: Adam Sisman
Sisman, Adam (1994). A.J.P. Taylor: A Biography. London: Sinclair-Stevenson
- Taylor, A. J. P. (Alan John Percivale), 1906-1990.
- University of Oxford–Faculty–Biography.
- Historiography–Great Britain–History–20th century.
- College teachers–England–Oxford–Biography.
- Historians–Great Britain–Biography.
Date Posted: March 10, 2017
Review by Stefan Collini
Few scholars have been on such intimate terms with that tricky duo, hubris and nemesis, as Hugh Trevor-Roper. It may appear absurdly inflated to invoke Greek tragedy to describe the life of someone who, rather than being a statesman or general or artist or other traditional “great man”, was a historian and therefore a member of a tribe whose deities might seem to be scepticism and caution. Yet in reading his biography it is hard to escape a feeling of horrified fascination as, over and over again, the stakes rising at each new turn of the wheel, the overconfidence engendered (at least in part) by his prodigious talents led him to court, and eventually to encounter, disaster.
Nothing in his childhood, as the eldest son of a modestly successful country doctor, suggested what was to follow, except perhaps the combination of intellectual precociousness and a lack of love. Public school and Oxford accentuated both aspects of his upbringing; they also fostered in him an enduring susceptibility to the social, sporting and alcoholic tastes of the English upper classes. Precociousness became almost his trademark. In 1940, at the age of 26, he published an obviously clever if overly provocative first book, on Archbishop Laud. As a result of his role in wartime intelligence, he was called upon to investigate the circumstances surrounding Hitler’s death, with the result that he wrote an international bestseller, and perhaps minor historical classic, The Last Days of Hitler, when he was 33. By the time he was 41, he was being paid a handsome retainer by the Sunday Times, just entering its great days, to write “special articles”, which he did for more than 35 years. He married the daughter of an earl and was on visiting terms with heads of state. He was made regius professor of modern history at Oxford at 43. Was there anything that he couldn’t do?
“Complete a major work of history,” was the answer his contemporaries increasingly gave. Trevor-Roper failed to finish a truly remarkable number of books. His biography is studded with abandoned manuscripts and unfulfilled publishers’ contracts. He tackled the big subjects, always in an original and combative way: the causes of the English civil war, the relations between Protestantism and capitalism, the European witch-craze, as well as Hitler and the origins of the Second World War. He published some dazzling essays on these and other topics, but there were so many other things to do, so much money to be earned, so many duchesses to meet (he had a weakness for duchesses), so much journalism, so much travel . . . It says a lot about both his productivity and his underachievement that in the seven years since his death [September 7, 1990] his executors have already brought out nearly as many books under his name as he himself saw through the press in his lifetime.
Something else he conspicuously failed to do was to win universal affection. He could be superior, sharp-tongued and downright dismissive. He made enemies with abandon: sometimes they were bores, sometimes they were fellow scholars (two categories he was prone to conflate), but sometimes they were whole social groups–he was pretty offensive to Christians, especially to Catholics (he couldn’t be received at some of the best Catholic country houses, much to the chagrin of his snobbish wife), and for a while he came close to being public enemy number one in Scotland (he was very rude about Scottish history, and extremely rude about Scottish historians). Some of this was high spirits; some was love of the witty phrase (his own, anyway); some was the solipsism of the very clever; and some, it seems, may have been the expression of an emotional awkwardness, a deep self-protectiveness that few were able to penetrate. But when you have AL Rowse, of all people, asking, “Why are you so nasty to people?”, you should realize all is not well with your character.
Nemesis lurked at Trevor-Roper’s elbow in part because he was always so severe on other people’s scholarly errors while being prone to commit a few of his own. He was a magnificent controversialist and pamphleteer. He had a notable, and intellectually fruitful, passage of arms with Lawrence Stone over the economic history of the 17th-century gentry in relation to the causes of the English civil war. He had a high-profile spat with AJP Taylor about the origins of the Second World War. And he courted international controversy by challenging the Warren Commission’s report on the assassination of President Kennedy (he always believed he was a better detective than the professionals).
Having been ennobled by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 (as Lord Dacre), he took the Tory whip in the Lords, but he was at heart a kind of maverick Whig–allergic to pieties of all kinds, cultivating Gibbonian irreverence. When he unexpectedly became master of Peterhouse, Cambridge in 1980 he soon found himself at odds with the more notoriously reactionary of its fellows, casting himself in the unwonted role of modernizing reformer. (This chapter in Sisman’s book should be skipped by anyone of a delicate disposition: the ugliness of the behavior exhibited by his opponents was in inverse proportion to the laughable tinyness of the teacup.) It looked as though it was to be a sadly inglorious final stage of his career. But there was worse to come.
As a result of the worldwide success of The Last Days of Hitler, Trevor-Roper had frequently been asked to adjudicate on the authenticity of various documents allegedly written by the Führer or his inner circle. He enjoyed exercising his considerable forensic skills; he enjoyed being treated as an authority; and he enjoyed receiving large fees for relatively little labor. In 1983, the German magazine Stern claimed to have discovered Hitler’s diaries, and the syndication rights were offered to the Times. If the diaries were genuine, this would be the scoop to end all scoops. Trevor-Roper was flown to Zurich to examine the documents held in the vaults of a Swiss bank. Circumstances dictated that he had to arrive at a decision quickly: he decided they were real, and the Times went ahead with the deal, with extracts to be serialised in the Sunday Times. The advance publicity was mountainous, and Trevor-Roper was very publicly staking his reputation on this one, rushed decision.
Others were more skeptical; the evidence started to look shakier; even Trevor-Roper’s normally assured confidence began to waver. At a little after the last minute, he havered and made himself look foolish, even donnish, itself a defeat for someone who had always soared above such stereotypes. But it was too late for him or the Times to pull back. It was a case of publish and be damned—and boy, were they damned. When the “diaries” were revealed to be the work of a fraudster, Trevor-Roper was swept away in the mudslide of gloating. His reputation never properly recovered; the Times’ own headline on the day of his death 20 years later was “Hitler diary hoax victim Lord Dacre dies at 89”.
As Sisman reflects at the end of this hugely detailed but consistently engrossing biography, that was unfair and will surely not be how posterity rates him. Sisman has some of the partiality of the biographer who knew his subject and was given the run of his huge cache of personal papers (whatever else might be said about Trevor-Roper, he would have to be recognized as one of the great letter-writers, not out of place among the epistolary stylists of the 18th century). But he has done his subject a great service, both by putting together such a detailed narrative almost entirely from archival sources, and by giving us glimpses of a more ardent, more melancholy, even in his later years more lovable figure than the public image. Trevor-Roper’s work receives rather scant attention in places, but otherwise the thoroughness, fairness and frankness of this biography are exemplary.
I had expected that reading a life of Trevor-Roper would stir a kind of envy in me—envy of his opportunities and of his moment, but also envy of his confidence and courage, and above all envy of his gifts as a historian and a writer. It certainly does that, but, quite unpredictably, one of my chief feelings on concluding this very long but interest-packed book is a kind of sympathy, almost of pity. There is the obvious tragedy of a man burnt by the flame of celebrity, but there is the deeper pathos of someone driven to shine, someone whose intellectual development in the first half of his life so outstripped his emotional development that he formed habits of insensitivity and egotism from which he never fully recovered. He was too clever and too knowing not to realise that his boundless ambition was at times sabotaged by the ease with which he could deploy his rich talents, including his talent to wound, and this knowledge is part of his pathos.
The peak of that ambition was to write a book that “someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon”. Anyone who confesses to such an ambition is obviously not shy about chatting up hubris and so has to accept that nemesis will come along and rough him up sooner or later. Trevor-Roper never completed his Decline and Fall, and perhaps that was a minor tragedy of sorts, but he did write a lot of long analytical essays that had enough ideas in them to keep several seminars’ worth of lesser historians plodding in his tracks for years to come. And, as this biography reveals, he lived a life that was, for a scholar, unusually rich and varied in its achievements and gratifications. Anyway, nothing, I suspect, would have galled him more than the thought of lesser mortals feeling sorry for him. But then, perhaps nemesis never quite turns out to be what you expect.
 Stefan Collini, “Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography by Adam Sisman,” a Book of the week review, The Guardian (July 126, 2010), downloaded March 10, 2017. Stefan Collini’s books include Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford).
 Trevor-Roper, H. R. (1947). The Last Days of Hitler. London: Macmillan & Co.[LCCN: 47018942]