In a really good biography, an unemphasised detail can shed light far and wide into the life of its subject. Sisman's almost incidental note that the young Hugh Trevor-Roper had a particular enthusiasm for Samuel Butler's The Fair Haven (1873) is just such a rich detail, which suggests how the disposition of the young man expressed itself in the adult life.
If people read Butler today, they tend to confine their attention to Erewhon (1872), his comparatively playful and witty satire of Victorian values. Few go on to read the later, more pitiless and challenging work, The Way of All Flesh (1903). And hardly anyone now reads The Fair Haven, long out of print. It purports to be a work by the recently-deceased John Pickard Owen, in which Christian orthodoxy is vindicated against the powerful arguments that had been accumulating against it during the 19th century. Butler was compiling an anthology of the most disreputable arguments to which the defenders of orthodoxy had recourse in the hope of neutralising these unwelcome and devastating insights. Nevertheless, on its first publication, some reviewers failed to notice the irony, instead praising the book for its piety and the comfort it extended to the believer. It was only with the second edition, which Butler published under his own name and furnished with a preface explaining the joke, that the book's true nature was widely recognised.
Trevor-Roper's sense of affinity with The Fair Haven and its author ("I'm Samuel Butler!" Sisman records him exclaiming to himself) heralds important themes in the historian's life. In the first place, it directs us towards his anti-clericalism, and beyond that to his aversion to all kinds of religious belief. A student at Christ Church for many years, Trevor-Roper would occasionally attend services in the cathedral. Then, in the presence of his colleagues, he would loudly attack the sermon as "nonsense laced with malice". He was particularly scathing about Roman Catholicism's influence on the mind:
How well one knows the face of certain converts to Catholicism — that smooth, exhausted look, burnt out and yet at rest, as of a motorist who, after many mishaps and mounting insurance-premiums, has at last decided to drive himself no more, and having found a chauffeur with excellent references, resigns himself to safer travel in a cushioned backseat.
Even at the end of his life he took pleasure in drawing attention to some of the more startling absurdities that had encrusted that creed. A late letter to me asks whether I was aware that, according to legend, the Holy House of Loretto had made what he called "a stopping flight" from the Holy Land to Italy. To catalogue these follies offered opportunities for both consoling amusement and the reassuring exercise of his own politique secularism.
A volatile relationship: Hugh Trevor-Roper with his wife Xandra, in Oxford, 1957
But it was not just the irreligion of The Fair Haven that left a mark on Trevor-Roper. He must also have relished the indirection of its mode. Irony was to become one of the sharpest weapons in his stylistic arsenal. As a mature historian, he kept its edge in good repair by means of frequent re-readings of Gibbon's Decline and Fall. By contrast, Butler's irony is a simpler, more purely destructive thing. It never ripens, as did Gibbon's, into a way of thinking about and understanding human behaviour. Moreover, The Fair Haven is a hoax and Trevor-Roper would throughout his life be drawn, as both practitioner and appreciative observer, to that instrumental point where irony stiffens into disguise. The series of papers he wrote for the Spectator on the student unrest of the late 1960s under the pseudonym of "Mercurius Oxoniensis" and the creation of the fictitious historian "Miss Agnes Trollope" show how attracted he was to such sottises, even when, as is the case with some of the Agnes Trollope letters, the level of the humour is fairly schoolboyish.