Hugh Trevor-Roper: His published letters

Historians in the News

These letters were never intended for publication. Indeed, when asked late in the correspondence whether he would want them returned, Hugh Trevor-Roper even contemplated burning them. For apart from being wonderfully wise and witty, they are vicious about Oxford colleagues, and at least one of them contained such a heinous libel (of the royal physician attending George VI, see panel, below right) that it might have cost Trevor-Roper dear if it had fallen into the wrong hands. Although their context is Oxford university life, they afford an invaluable and entertaining insight into our national intellectual life in the 1950s.

Bernard Berenson was an intellectual and social celebrity. An American-born, Lithuanian Jew, whose parents had immigrated to Boston but who himself had gravitated towards European civilisation, he had become a ground-breaking art critic, but had also sullied his reputation in some quarters by deriving a substantial income from certificating works of art for dealers selling to wealthy Americans (he made $80,000 in 1909 alone). Nonetheless, he was considered a sage, to whose homes in Italy numerous intellectual and social figures made pilgrimage.

Trevor-Roper (who was given an introduction to Berenson by the latter’s sister-in-law Alys Russell, Bertrand Russell’s ex-wife) had read his way out of a gloomy, conventional childhood. He was a research fellow at Oxford in 1940 when he published his first book, Archbishop Laud, aged 26; he spent the war in intelligence and wrote a definitive report on Hitler’s fate, which formed the basis of a bestselling book, The Last Days of Hitler; and during the 1950s he emerged as a scourge of mediocre Oxford dons, a prolific book reviewer and essayist, mainly for this paper and the New Statesman, and the dynamic force in English historiography.

Trevor-Roper visited BB, as he called him, and Nicky Mariano (Berenson’s female secretary and permanent companion after the death of his wife) a dozen times — either at I Tatti, his villa outside Florence, or at Casa al Dono, his mountain retreat at Vallombrosa. He wrote to BB and Nicky (who would read his letters aloud to her increasingly frail charge) from 1948 to 1959. For seven of those years he wrote to them more than half a dozen times, often at a fair length. Beset with the travails of old age, BB could manage only short replies offering snippets of gossip or recommending books and eagerly inviting further correspondence....

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