Hugh Trevor-Roper: Never to emulate the "Decline and Fall"
Who was the greatest English historian of the mid-20th century? Was it that flamboyant ancestor of our current rash of teledons, A. J. P. Taylor? That severe technician, Lewis Namier? That progenitor of endless dullness, E. P. Thompson? Confronted by such contenders, judgment is baffled. However, if you narrow the question to "who was the greatest historical stylist", there is no competition. Hugh Trevor-Roper suddenly emerges at the head of the field. How did he do it? It's clear that Trevor-Roper's élan as an historian was partly derived from his great 18th-century counterpart on whom he wrote so often and so well, Edward Gibbon. But why did Trevor-Roper make such a close study of this great predecessor? What sustenance did he draw from him?
It seems to have been that Chelsea boulevardier, Logan Pearsall Smith, who first encouraged Trevor-Roper to make a study of Gibbon — perhaps along the lines of that heroine of Trollope's, who was advised to take "two hours of Gibbon daily". In Trevor-Roper's case, the prescription worked. In a notebook entry dated May 1944, and headed "The Solution", he confided: "To write a book that someone, one day, will mention in the same breath as Gibbon — this is my fond ambition." In 1951, he wrote to Smith's brother-in-law, Bernard Berenson, and gave exuberant expression to the delight he was taking in the Decline and Fall:
I am now re-reading, for the nth time, that greatest of historians, as I continually find myself declaring — Gibbon. What a splendid writer he is! If only historians could write like him now! How has the art of footnotes altogether perished and the gift of irony disappeared! I took a volume of Gibbon to Greece and read it on Mount Hymettus and the island of Crete; I read it furtively even at I Tatti, where 40,000 other volumes clamoured insistently around me to be read; and I cannot stop reading him even now.
So from the outset Trevor-Roper's admiration for Gibbon had two aspects. He rejoiced in a companionable Gibbon — a source of stylistic solace and inspiration, a brilliant scourge with which to lash the grey specialists who were polluting the groves of Clio, particularly in Oxford. But he also admired a more remote Gibbon — the man who stood alone and unchallenged on the summit of European historiography.