Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson by Richard Davenport-Hines (Editor)
|Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson by Richard Davenport-Hines (Editor)|
|Reviewer: Sue Magee|
|Summary: The edited letters of Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson are beautifully written, deeply interesting, well-edited and occasionally scurrilous. Recommended!|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 368||Date: July 2007|
Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and art critic Bernard Berenson met in 1947 (the year that Trevor-Roper's most famous work The Last Days of Hitler was published) and there was an immediate rapport between the two. The meeting took place at Berenson's Florentine villa, I Tatti, and it was to be the start of a correspondence that continued until Berenson's death in 1959. Despite a difference in ages of nearly half a century this was a profound and moving friendship by two people pre-eminent in their professions.
In many ways you have to appreciate what this book isn't before you can appreciate what it is. The letters were sent to Berenson in a private capacity and were not written for publication. In fact Trevor-Roper did say that he thought that if the letters came back to him he would destroy them. He was well aware that he could be indiscreet: I shudder to think of some of the things I sometimes say!. This is, of course, great fun for the reader, but it does mean that the writer will be judged - and harshly in some quarters - on the basis of comments which anyone of us might mutter to a friend but moderate before a wider audience.
It might be argued that the letters should never have been published - and I have some sympathy with that view - but it would have been a great loss. Trevor-Roper is one of the great letter writers of the twentieth century. Don't judge his style by the early letters - there's a rather stilted formality there that soon disappears - but once he relaxes into the correspondence he has the ability to make the reader feel that they're part of a conversation. He was remarkably placed too to report and comment on much of what was happening in the post-war period - and with an historian's insight too.
And I won't deny that some of the more scurrilous passages are deeply entertaining.
The subject matter is wide-ranging, from literature to high-society, Suez to Isaiah Berlin, never lingering on one point for too long or failing to do any of them justice. It's a superb balancing act particularly when you think that these were simply personal letters between friends.
And what of the editing? Well, Davenport-Hines has handled the task very stylishly. He says clearly that there are passages which he has removed, such as those dealing with mundane matters like travel arrangements. He's also removed some passages which he says are libellous, but has done so without any textual indication. I would have preferred to have known that text had been removed, but accept that in the circumstances this might have proved difficult. Some comments which might prove 'unduly hurtful to the living' have also been removed.
I did appreciate his annotations. Trevor-Roper would have scorned them but much of the text would simply not have been accessible to me otherwise as I don't have the author's breadth of reading or grasp of multiple languages. They support the text without intruding upon it. Davenport-Hines' introduction is masterly and set the scene perfectly, providing sufficient background information but without making the reading of the text superfluous.
It's not an easy read but it is deeply satisfying on many levels and I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.
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