Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

11 September 2007

I still agree with the opinion about academic conflicts mentioned below. Very much so.

Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson, edited by Richard Davenport-Hines

Let me preface this book review with an opinion I’ve developed recently. In my opinion, conflicts in academia are only enjoyable (let alone interesting) when they’re witnessed thirdhand. They’re awful when you’re part of them, and very unpleasant when you’re dealing with the fallout from them, but seen from a distance (and especially after most of the participants are dead) they can be remarkably fascinating. It’s rather like watching an early nature documentary — only without the voiceover person’s nearly incomprehensible accent.

That said, the Letters from Oxford are a collection of letters written by historian Hugh Trevor-Roper to art historian and critic Bernard Berenson. Trevor-Roper was an Oxford don and former military intelligence officer who had made a pile of money with the publication of his best-selling book The Last Days of Hitler. His work on Hitler was only the prelude to his career as a historian — or rather, his career as a historian who thoroughly enjoyed attacking OTHER historians of his day and age in various published articles and letters. His correspondence with Berenson began shortly after the end of the war and continued until Berenson’s death in 1959, and Trevor-Roper’s letters to his friend and occasional host (Berenson lived in Italy, and opened the doors of his villa to an exclusive array of guests) provided what Berenson wanted most to hear: gossip, and plenty of it.

Setting aside the snippets of gossip that would probably only interest people who like reading about old scandals amongst the literati, Trevor-Roper’s Letters from Oxford contain two remarkable gems of correspondence: his farcical descriptions of Oxford University politics (not the party-political kind, but rather the kind that determines who gets the vacant Regius Professorship or other high-powered post) and a remarkably trenchant real-time analysis of the Suez crisis. It’s in these sections where Trevor-Roper’s skill with words and turns of phrase really comes through, and the art of good letter-writing shows itself most vividly. Reading other people’s letters generally doesn’t tend to be interesting — even the Letters from Oxford have their fair share of syncophantic bread-and-butter notes and an almost nonstop undercurrent of whinging over Trevor-Roper’s latest bete noire — but it’s a treat nonetheless to find a correspondence that manages to capture a vivid and occasionally intriguing picture of the foibles of the past.


One comment

  1. […] volume take different approaches to studying the invention of tradition. Some of the essays, like Hugh Trevor-Roper’s history of Scottish Highland traditions or Prys Morgan’s account of the nineteenth-century […]

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