I bought this pamphlet for the subject and especially as a specimen of printing. The colouring is particularly evocative of the period, the paper nicely textured, and you can see the press of the type on the front card. The Queen Anne Press was run by Ian Fleming, the author of the James Bond novels.
Whenever I see a photo of a girl sitting in a window I am always reminded of an experience several years ago when I was researching in the University of a very pretty provincial European city. Normally I would spend my days in the library, but sometimes I’d work in the office that the University had given me. My office window looked out over the street at a coffee shop, an antiquarian bookshop, and, at eye level, the apartments above it. If I turned my head to the left while I was sitting at my desk, I would be looking right into an apartment that turned out to be occupied by a girl. One day I noticed that her windows were wide open. She was making her bed wearing black underwear that contrasted strongly against the whiteness of the apartment walls, and the whiteness of her sheets. She had a slim figure and long dark hair. She walked over to the window, still wearing only her underwear, a book dangling in her hand, and proceeded to sit herself on her window sill, in profile, her legs slightly bent, her back against the left frame of the window, her feet pressed against the right. And there she sat, reading, and sunning herself like cat. This happened several times during that hot summer. I have no idea if she was aware that everyone on my side of the street could see her. I could – but had anyone else noticed her? I don’t know if she was trying to send a message, a hint, an invitation, to someone she knew, or hoped, was watching. Maybe she was just enjoying the sun? I never found out; and suddenly she was gone.
By way of a postscript: I had another strange experience in that office. Once I won some 18th century books on ebay, only to discover when I read the seller’s address that they had been auctioned by the very antiquarian bookstore I could see from my window.
My latest research has involved the consultation of quite a few rare books on line. I’m certainly grateful for this development. I am able to read books that are not available in my university library, and I should prefer to keep articles as PDFs rather than as photocopies, and print them out where necessary. (The offprint – those elegantly printed and bound copies of individual journal articles or lectures – are a dying breed, and dead already in the UK.)
But I feel a deep frustration at not being able to handle physically the books that I consult on line. It’s not just about the leather binding, the smell, the texture of the paper imprinted by movable type – I relish all these aspects of the book that some consider ephemeral and therefore irrelevant. It’s also about gaining total knowledge of a particular edition or copy of a book in one’s hands. Today I consulted what I think is part of a larger work. There were clues, but I could only be sure by studying the binding – and this was impossible on line. So I need to see a hardcopy.
I am beginning to think that the best thing about consulting books on line is the moment when one realises that the task in hand in fact requires a trip to a great library to consult the work in person. And the pleasure there is the travel, the expectation, the sense of purpose and love shared with other book users, and (often) the beautiful library housing one’s passion.
I mentioned in the previous post that I like inspiring places to read and write. This photo illustrates my point nicely. On a recent trip to Cambridge I treated myself on the final day to a morning in the archive at King’s. I positioned myself at the right desk and in the right chair to achieve this perspective. I was there to read and take notes from the 40-odd letters that Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote to Noel Annan, sometime Provost of King’s, from 1950 until the 1990s. But I was not just there to study. I relished the chance to handle Trevor-Roper’s letters for the first time, to feel the writing paper he used, and to see the stroke of the pen and watch the passing of letterheads over time: Oxford…Scotland…Cambridge…The House of Lords…Didcot. As always I try to mingle the aesthetic with the intellectual, and the view I had as I raised my head occasionally from these wonderful letters was an important ingredient in the experience.
Léon Cogniet (1794-1880), The artist in his room at the Villa Medici, Rome.
This is currently my favourite painting. Cogniet won the prix de Rome and was resident at the Villa Medici from 1817 to 1822. On the back of the painting he wrote that the scene depicts his reading the first letter he received there from his family. The weapons and armour signify the historical work that Cogniet was expected to produce each year, but they are forced to the margin of the painting by the view of the Roman landscape that so captivated him on his arrival. Its importance is established by the window that acts as a frame to a landscape that centres the painting as a painting itself.
The piece speaks to me personally as someone who thrives on inspiring settings for reading and writing.
The name Hugh Trevor-Roper hovered on the fringes of my mental horizons before I met him for the first time in June 2010. I was attending the centenary conference of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies in the Senate House of the University of London when I decided to visit Waterstones rather than attend a paper on the aristocracy of Roman Britain in the fourth century. Standing at the till with the book I wanted to purchase, I happened to spy out of the corner of my eye a gentleman sitting at a desk, wearing a white shirt and tweed jacket, hands folded in front of him. It was Hugh Trevor-Roper, and he had a hint of a smile on his face.
I was glancing at the cover of Letters from Oxford: Hugh Trevor-Roper to Bernard Berenson. There on the cover was Hugh in his rooms in Christ Church, from where he would send so many of his letters to Berenson in his villa, I Tatti, perched in the hills above Florence. In this photo of 1957 Trevor-Roper exudes the comfortable confidence that accompanied the renown and success of the Last Days of Hitler and important interventions in the study of early modern British history.
Drawn, admittedly, by the Oxford context, I purchased a copy and started reading it on the train home that evening. It was one of those defining moments in life. The elegant, vivid, and sometimes vicious prose captured my imagination. The introduction by Richard Davenport-Hines brought to life the biographical contexts of Trevor-Roper and Berenson, of whom I knew nothing. Oxford and Florence mid century, travel on the continent, history and politics, academic gossip, love, the Third Reich and its legacy and survivors – Trevor-Roper’s world in the 1950s came alive for me. It was so near, but at the same time so very distant, in social, cultural, and historical terms. And it seemed so much more glamorous, so much more alive than ours.
The timing of this discovery was fortunate. My appetite whetted, I searched for books about Trevor-Roper only to discover that Adam Sisman was about to publish Hugh Trevor-Roper: the biography. I picked up my copy on 12 July in Munich, where I was maintaining a pied a terre to which I would escape during vacations to enjoy the library resources and the city and alpine life. Several of the different phases of Trevor-Roper’s life appealed to me, but I particularly relished his travels on the Continent, not merely those to Berenson’s villa, which frame his correspondence, but also to Germany in the months following the end of the second world war, as he researched the whereabouts of survivors of the Third Reich that provided background to his Last Days of Hitler. These travels brought out some of Trevor-Roper’s supreme powers of description:
It was a fascinating piece of historical research – a fig for Archbishop Laud; he never led me, or could have led me, on those delightful journeys, motoring through the deciduous golden groves of Schleswig-Holstein, and coming, on an evening when the sun had set but the light had not yet gone, and the wild duck were out for their last flight over the darkening waters, to the great Danish castle of Ploen, gazing like a sentinel over those white autumnal lakes. (Sisman 137)
Grand descriptions such as this one from the wartime journals, since edited and published by Davenport-Hines (2012), sit alongside exquisite portraits in miniature. Trevor-Roper visited Dick White in the Schloss he occupied at Reelkirchen, and found his friend waited on by a family whose hotel in Rheydt had been destroyed. They had ‘no ambition but genuinely to ensure that he and his guests wanted nothing’:
At that moment they were arranging copious Vorspeise on the table, and bringing in an adequacy of slender bottles, while we sat, after our walk, round a huge log-fire, and the golden September sunlight flowed in through the stately windows; then the whole family, bowing obsequiously like a cornfield in a breeze, with a rustle of Bitte Schoen and Herr Brigadier, announced the preliminaries of a five-course lunch (WJ 266)
On another occasion
the slender bottles were being carried deferentially forward, like aristocratic infants being passed up to the font. (270)
The finely-crafted description hints at the artificiality that Dick White claimed characterised his ‘colonial life’ in Germany.
Trevor-Roper’s nocturnal adventures to Bavarian villages in pursuit of fugitive Nazis offer glimpses of his appreciation of the humour and humanity of life more ordinary:
At Aidenbach, as I stumped round the deserted village streets looking for the house in which Zander was staying, fearful of every clatter lest I should cause an alarm, I suddenly saw that an upper room in a house was lit up. ‘What can that mean?’, I said to the local German policeman. ‘What can anyone be doing at this hour of the morning?’ But he was not disturbed. There were only two conceivably causes, in this world, for a light at 3.0 in the morning, and he answered, without surprise or hesitation, ‘Sie spielen Karten, oder die Kuh ist krank’. (WJ 280)
Such scenes were rendered more vivid for me by my own knowledge of the Bavarian countryside and its hamlets.
Alongside the Letters from Oxford and the biography I have since been reading my way through Trevor-Roper’s published works. He is particularly interesting for the classical education which he received before he transferred to History during his undergraduate studies at Christ Church and which informs his writing in contexts both public and private; for his reflections on classics as a discipline in his lecture as the President of the Joint Association of Classical Teachers in 1973; for his elegant, vivid prose, and interest in literary style; for his penchant for controversy; for his historical method, both in his triumphs and in his errors; for his historical range, ever alert for the appropriate comparison; and for his dedication to the letter in an age that has increasingly abandoned it to extinction. Trevor-Roper’s works – his style and range, and especially his private, reflective writings – have much to teach us: they stand, as Davenport-Hines so eloquently puts it of the wartime notebooks, as a reminder of ‘what has been forfeit in our intellectual life – and how much more that is precious there is still left to lose’ (WJ 23).