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Last Updated: Friday, 25 August 2006, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
A tale of two historians
AJP Taylor, Robert Kee and Hugh Trevor-Roper
AJP Taylor (left), Robert Kee (centre) and Hugh Trevor-Roper

By David Cannadine

Before Schama and Starkey, the stage for popular historians was dominated by two giants of their time: AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. So why is one now lauded and the other slated?

One of the ways we historians comfort ourselves as we grow old is by the thought that our best work may be yet to come. Being in my mid-50s, I'm increasingly drawn to this view, although it's not universally valid.

Some historians die young and unfulfilled; others die old, infirm and no longer in command of their faculties. But as a general rule, there's something in it. For while mathematicians often burn themselves out by their early 30s, there are historians who still do important work, not just in their 60s, but in their 70s or 80s. The confidence and creativity of ardent youth may have departed, but life-long learning and accumulated wisdom can be more than adequate compensations.

The trouble is that such compensation only goes so far. For when historians finally lay down their pens, the reputations of even the greatest of them are prone to precipitous collapse. Their books, previously best-sellers, suddenly become unread; and their names, once widely known, abruptly disappear from popular consciousness.

These days, we expect historians to be public commentators as well as university-based academics. But for all the talk of a current history boom, there's nothing new in that.

When I was growing up, two of Britain's most famous historians were AJP Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper. From the late 1940s to the 1970s, they were as well known as Simon Schama and David Starkey in our own time.

Taylor died in 1990, and Trevor-Roper in 2003, both after years of ill-health. Not for them the consolations of productive old age.

But their posthumous reputations now seem set on two very different courses, and while one bears out my opening observations, the other emphatically does not. Taylor was born just 100 years ago, in March 1906; but the centenary of his birth has been largely ignored, and his standing seems in irretrievable decline.

Trevor-Roper, by contrast, has recently staged a come-back, thanks to the publication of his letters to Bernard Berenson, the world-famous art critic. They've been greeted with stern disapproval in some quarters, but with rapturous acclaim elsewhere.

Arch rivals

Taylor and Trevor-Roper were not only contemporaries, they were also in some ways similar figures. They were both products of the north of England, but spent most of their lives in the south. They were both Oxford dons, enjoying a love-hate relationship with their university. They both wrote in stylish and scintillating prose that was instantly recognisable, and they both liked appearing in the newspapers, on what was then the wireless and, when it arrived, on television.

Simon Schama
History today - TV's Simon Schama
And they both loved a fight - courting controversy, in academe and in public, with a determined relish that can only be described as self-indulgent.

But there the similarities end - for they particularly liked fighting with each other.

In 1957, Taylor was passed over for the Regius Professorship of Modern History in Oxford, which was given to Trevor-Roper on the advice of the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, his friend and publisher. Four years later, Taylor and Trevor-Roper clashed again, over one of Taylor's most tendentious books, The Origins of the Second World War, which argued that Hitler had not been responsible for precipitating that conflict, a view with which Trevor-Roper vehemently disagreed.

Although their social relations in Oxford seem to have been cordial, neither had much time for the other's work.

Taylor was an astonishingly fluent writer, who produced 23 books, hundreds of essays, broadcasts and newspaper articles, and over 1,500 reviews. He could not understand why Trevor-Roper was so much less productive, never completing the great masterpiece that was always expected, and preferring to write short pieces on a wide range of historical subjects.

When a book of Trevor-Roper's essays was published in 1957, Taylor waspishly noted that "it seems like an original work, and will enable Mr Trevor-Roper to conceal for some time the fact that he has not yet produced a sustained book of mature historical scholarship".

Taylor's reputation has fallen still further, but Trevor-Roper had left behind a massive, unpublished accumulation, which will revive and perpetuate his reputation for years to come
There was truth in this jibe: for Trevor-Roper was easily distracted from his researches, especially by the academic politics of Oxford University. He was an incorrigible plotter and consummate intriguer, and his greatest triumph was when he obtained the Oxford Chancellorship for Harold Macmillan in 1960, just three years after Macmillan had appointed him to the Regius chair. One good turn, you might say, deserved another.

For his part, Trevor-Roper was equally disparaging about Taylor. He distrusted Taylor's easy and effortless fluency, and thought him perverse, cock-sure and irresponsible.

Once again, there was force in these criticisms. Taylor did love to shock and to provoke, and he didn't much care what he said, so long as he grabbed the headlines, with phrases that often sacrificed historical truth to rhetorical effect. "German history", he once wrote, "is the history of extremes." That was partly true; but it was also partly false.

And his public views were equally wayward, including support for Communist Russia, and hostility to the United States. After Taylor failed to obtain the Regius professorship, Trevor-Roper thought he went "berserk", lending his name to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and selling his soul to Lord Beaverbrook, for whose newspapers he wrote tendentious and often xenophobic articles, with such titles as "Why must we soft-soap the Germans?"

Disparaged and forgotten

Trevor-Roper was scarcely inhibited about appearing in public print, but he wrote for the Sunday Times rather than the Sunday Express.

Harold Macmillian
Trevor Roper fought, and won, for Macmillan
During the last decades of their lives, the reputations of both men declined. Taylor's autobiography, A Personal History, revealed him as an unattractive character, deriving no pleasure from his public fame, endlessly sensitive to slights both real and imagined, constantly worried about money despite his large literary earnings, and blighted by a chaotic private life.

Trevor-Roper retired from Oxford ennobled as Lord Dacre of Glanton, but soon after, his scholarly reputation took a savage beating when he rashly authenticated the Hitler diaries, which subsequently turned out to have been forged. Great was the delight of his (by then) many enemies. What else, they exulted, could have been expected of someone whose valedictory lecture in Oxford had been entitled "history and imagination"?

Since their deaths, Taylor's reputation has fallen still further: with three well-meant but unflattering biographies; his pioneering television lectures have been largely forgotten, his books no longer sell, and his journalism seems embarrassing.

One recent magazine article dismissed his work as superficial and meretricious, appealing primarily to adolescents - a verdict which I rather blushed to read, since I was myself just 15 when I first encountered and admired Taylor's books. When Taylor stopped publishing, there was nothing else: he stood, or rather fell, by what was already in print.

But Trevor-Roper had left behind a massive, unpublished accumulation, which will revive and perpetuate his reputation for years to come: the letters he had written, in exquisite calligraphy and beautiful, Latinate prose, to friends across his lifetime and around the world.

Almost anybody who was anybody had received Trevor-Roper's letters from the 1940s to the 1990s, and their literary merit and caustic judgments have long been privately recognised.

But it's only now, with most of the protagonists safely dead, and no longer able to sue, that they can safely be published. This first volume is mainly concerned with the 1950s, and is much preoccupied with Oxford gossip concerning elections and appointments. These battles, Trevor-Roper insisted, were fought out between the party of light, which stood for gaiety, pleasure, brilliance and scintillation, and the party of the dark, which stood for primness, dullness, conformity and mediocrity.

Needless to say, Trevor-Roper put himself and his friends in the first category, and in battling with the forces of darkness, they had to win over those he scorned as the "jellies": the spineless floating voters whose support was essential for any victory.

Trevor-Roper describes these groups and these episodes in a high ironic style worthy of his hero Gibbon, and his eye for folly is unerring: he did not so much suffer fools gladly as gloatingly.

These letters can be justly criticised: for their parochialism, their prejudices and their lack of human warmth. They are peopled unrelentingly with knaves, fools, crooks, charlatans and egomaniacs.

And Trevor-Roper's loathing of Catholics is more than a touch obsessional.

But there's a more substantive criticism: for his correspondence is full of allusions to books he never finished, or in some cases never even began. It's easy to see why, since a disproportionate amount of Trevor-Roper's creative energy was poured into his correspondence, including a 36-page letter explaining how he obtained the Oxford Chancellorship for Macmillan - after a protracted contest which he admitted was of no fundamental significance.

Is this what the Regius Professor at Oxford should have been doing? Probably not then, and certainly not now. As Trevor-Roper may have surmised, an historian in search of immortality may be better advised to write letters than to write books. But who now bothers to do even that, when most of us communicate by e-mail?

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I owe AJP Taylor an enormous debt from my teenage years in that his TV lectures were one of the main things that first drew me to academic history. Later, I grew distrustful of some of what he wrote, but no matter, he imparted enthusiasm and that is a wonderful gift.
Peter Smith, Bangkok, Thailand

Both are fascinating reads, although Trevor-Roper was always a bit of an intellectual lightweight in comparison with Taylor. Their work, however, ensured many a good debate with my father and an enduring delight in reading history for fun (I'm a computer scientist by trade).
Megan, Cheshire UK

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