March 22, 2015, by Oliver Thomas
Hugh Trevor-Roper and Edward Gibbon
Simon Malloch traces a bridge from his current research on Hugh Trevor-Roper to his teaching on Edward Gibbon’s classical scholarship.
In March 1959 Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, took his wife Xandra, the daughter of Field Marshal Haig, to convalesce in Beaulieu-sur-Mer. From there he wrote a long letter to the Yale historian Wallace Notestein – about their move to Scotland at the end of the previous year (couched in the metaphor of Abraham’s travels), Xandra’s illness, his holiday reading (Madame de Sévigné and ‘Bertie’ Russell), work on his latest book, A. L. Rowse (at length), and the fate of Bernard Berenson’s Florentine villa I Tatti after his death. The letter was first published in 2014 among One Hundred Letters from Hugh Trevor-Roper (ed. A. Sisman and R. Davenport-Hines).
Having described his reading in Beaulieu-sur-Mer, ‘this Phaeacian spot’, stuck like a ‘battery hen…on a narrow perch between the mountains and the sea’, Trevor-Roper turned to the subject of his current book, a large history of the Puritan revolution in the seventeenth century. ‘But it is no good trying to write here’, he told Notestein, ‘I can only write in a large room, full of my own books, and with space to walk up and down while I meditate the clausulae of my sentences’. This description of his work habits passes unglossed by the editors, who are otherwise adept at detecting allusions and sourcing quotations. Trevor-Roper was of course evoking Edward Gibbon.
In one of the several memoirs that remained unfinished at his death Gibbon observed that ‘it has always been my practise to cast a long paragraph in a single mould, to try it by my ear, to deposit it in my memory, but to suspend the action of the pen till I had given the last polish to my work’.1 That description was fleshed out by Lord Sheffield, Gibbon’s faithful friend and executor: ‘…it is very true, that before he sat down to write a note or a letter, he completely arranged in his mind what he meant to express. He pursued the same method in respect to other composition; and occasionally he would walk several times about his apartment before he had rounded a period to his taste’.2
It is little wonder that Gibbon lurked behind Trevor-Roper’s working habits, imitatively or allusively, in his letter to Notestein. His deep and enduring admiration for Gibbon had long since become intimately bound up with his self-fashioning as an historian. In May 1944 he wrote in a notebook that
To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon, – that is my fond ambition. And if I fail, at least I shall say, as it was said of Don Quixote, ‘Si no acabó grandes cosas, murió por acometerlas‘.3
Trevor-Roper’s ambition indeed remained fond, as his ‘vast’ and ‘ambitious’ book on the Puritan revolution foundered, like so many other projects after it. Trevor-Roper’s inability to produce a big book is customarily regarded as a sign of his ‘failure’ as an historian.4 The judgment elides the achievement of those books he did publish and, particularly, his mastery of the essay form. But Trevor-Roper was not asserting Gibbon as a model exclusively for a big book. Uppermost in his mind was Gibbon as a model writer of prose in a period when he was inspired to refine his own.
Trevor-Roper’s letters to Wallace Notestein were among his most allusive and mannered. They prompted and cultivated Notestein’s hope, expressed in a letter of 22 January 1951, that Trevor-Roper would one day publish his correspondence:
I shall hardly live to see the letters of the late Warden of –– Hugh Trevor-Roper, in eight volumes, edited by –– but they will be worth publishing, and will be a great deal better than most of the sets of letters I have read…5
Notestein’s appreciation was prescient. The publication of a selection of Trevor-Roper’s correspondence since his death in 2003 reveals him to be one of the most accomplished letter-writers of the twentieth century. His letters will be a chief reason why his name retains currency, and they will draw readers to an appreciation of his other writings. Ronald Syme, Trevor-Roper’s Oxford contemporary, concluded his Tacitus with the observation, inspired by his subject, that ‘men and dynasties pass, but style abides’.6 Measured in these terms, and illustrated lavishly by his correspondence, Trevor-Roper has fulfilled his ambition to be mentioned in the same breath as Gibbon – as a master of English prose.
1. Memoir E in J. Murray (ed.), The Autobiographies of Edward Gibbon (London, 1896) 316.
2. J. Sheffield (ed.) Miscellaneous works of Edward Gibbon, Esquire (London, 1796) vol. 1, p. 188.
3. H. Trevor-Roper, The Wartime journals. Ed. R. Davenport-Hines (London, 2012) 200. Davenport-Hines translates the Spanish in a footnote as follows: ‘Even if he did not achieve great things, he died in their pursuit (quoted to T-R by [Logan] Pearsall Smith).’
4. E.g. A. Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: the biography (London, 2010) 375. The charge is routinely made by lesser mortals in reviews of Trevor-Roper’s works published posthumously.
5. Wallace Notestein to Hugh Trevor-Roper 22 January 1951 = R. Davenport-Hines (ed.), Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson (London, 2006) 281.
6. R. Syme, Tacitus (Oxford, 1958) 624. Cf. Tacitus Histories 4.61 meditatio et labor in posterum valescit.
Image: Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Gibbon, via Wikimedia.