Stumbling Past the Tree

This is a solid and sensible biography, but it is not a scintillating one.  I have the impression that Adam Sisman is a little wary of his subject; he indicates respect for Hugh Trevor-Roper, but not affection.  Yet without personal warmth to some degree, it is hard to catch the reader’s imagination.  However, there is much in the life of the famous Oxford historian to make one ponder both the man and his milieu.

Born in 1914, Trevor-Roper’s upbringing shows the cruelty and rigor of his class.  His parents were undemonstrative and uninvolved in their children’s lives; from the nursery, Hugh, their elder son, went to prep school, where he won a scholarship to Charterhouse; thence the inevitable scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford.  Emotionally awkward and intellectually precocious, he accepted the (then) all-male world of a major Oxford college, with its intrigues, sumptuous living, and intellectual eminence, as his natural habitat.

The philosopher Freddie Ayer, a friend, provides a deft portrait: He admired Trevor-Roper’s breadth of culture and his stylistic elegance; he also appreciated his malice, his anticlericalism, and his maverick attitude toward authority.  In 1941, Hugh wrote an astute self-appraisal in his diary: “Pride is my chief fault and will be my undoing”; also “imprudence, ostentation, volubility and the need for company.”  I would question...

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