An Oxford Quarrel: Evelyn Waugh and Hugh Trevor-Roper

Note: This blog was originally published on the site of the University of Leicester.

Ahead of our Waugh’s Enemies event on Monday 25 September, Milena Borden gives a brief history of Waugh’s hostile relationship with Hugh Trevor-Roper – and asks what it tells us about Oxford’s post-war battle of ideas.

Posted by University of Leicester in Waugh and Words on September 19, 2017

There is no shortage of writing on the feud between Evelyn Waugh and Hugh Trevor-Roper. Most of it has tended to focus on Waugh’s hostile letters to Trevor-Roper and their incompatible characters. But what about looking into the story as a guide to the battle of academic ideas in Oxford after the end of the Second World War?

The son of a country doctor, Trevor-Roper read for two degrees, Classics and History, at Christ Church (1932 – 1937), became a Research Fellow of Merton College in 1938 and from 1957 until 1980 was Regius Professor of Modern History at Christ Church.

Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, pictured in 1975. Source: Wikicommons

During the Second World War he was a code-breaker and also became an expert on Germany. One year before his retirement, he accepted to be Master of Peter House at Cambridge. In 1980 Trevor-Roper concluded his valedictory lecture with the words of Evelyn Waugh during one of their public spats twenty-six years previously: ‘One honourable course is open to Mr Trevor-Roper. He should change his name and seek a livelihood at Cambridge.’ He expressed regret that Waugh was no longer alive to enjoy his victory. Trevor-Roper was an admirer of Waugh as a prose writer, but was afraid to meet him in person because of their intense intellectual animosity.

Trevor-Roper’s first book The Last Days of Hitler (1947) became famous. It was enthusiastically reviewed and praised by established Oxford historians including Alan Bullock, Lewis Namier and Lawrence Stone. But one aspect of his book provoked angry reactions in Catholic circles. It claimed that Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda in Nazi Germany, learned how to manipulate knowledge during his Jesuit education. Trevor-Roper also wrote that Himmler was like Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, known for his role in the Giordano Bruno and Galileo Galilei affairs, because they both were kind to animals.

Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler (1947) erroneously claimed Goebbels was educated by Jesuits.

Waugh first wrote to Trevor-Roper privately and then made a public accusation in The Tablet. He accused him of seeking to promote his own prejudice in a sensational book: ‘There was not the smallest reason why Mr. Trevor-Roper should introduce Catholic theologians into this nasty story…They are dragged in ignorantly, maliciously and irrelevantly.’ But most importantly, it was Waugh, who first suggested that Trevor-Roper should make a correction in the next edition of the book. At the end, the New York publisher of The Last Days of Hitler demanded changes under the pressure of American Catholics and Trevor-Roper made some corrections in the second edition of 1950. In its preface, he specifically apologised for a factual inaccuracy: ‘…I must admit an error in my description of Goebbels. I stated that he was educated by the Jesuits. Though this is widely believed and repeated, I am satisfied that it is untrue, and that Goebbels learnt that brilliant casuistry that could distinguish between “concrete truth” and “poetic truth” from other sources.’

So, what does this quarrel tell us about Waugh, Oxford, and the bigger question – ‘What is history?’. Is it factual, unemotional and secular or is it inductive and tainted with beliefs, and religious faith? Waugh, a devout Catholic, argued against the idea that fascism could be linked to his religion, whereas Trevor-Roper – a staunch anti-Catholic – understood and accepted criticism only if it was on the ground of academic accuracy. Waugh extended his absolute disdain for the historical empiricism of C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, his history tutor at Oxford, to The Last Days of Hitler, the book, which A. J. P. Taylor called ‘a delight for historian and layman alike’. The quarrel reached a point where all could enjoy the infinite view of history debates at Oxford.

At the time of posting there are still a few places available for Waugh’s Enemies. Visit our eventbritepage now to join Alexander Waugh, Ann Pasternak Slater and Barbara Cooke in picking over Waugh’s hit-list.


Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: The Biography, 2010.

Martin Stannard, Evelyn Waugh: No Abiding City 1939 – 1966, Volume II, 1993.

The Tablet, 28 June, 1947.

H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler, 1947; Second Edition, 1950.

Kelmscott, Rossetti and Waugh

Kelmscott Manor built around 1600 was the Cotswolds home of William Morris – writer, designer and craftsman – from 1871 until his death in 1896. It was also the retreat of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, who was a close family friend and the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s first biography Rossetti His Life and Works (1928). Waugh gave a detailed description of the Kelmscott house in Chapter VII, ‘Kelmscott, 1872-1874’ in the first edition. There is also an entry in his Diaries for Thursday, 6 October 1927, about his visit to Kelmscott, which is closely reflected in the biography. In Morris’s words it was ‘a heaven on earth’ but Waugh wrote that the house was ‘much smaller than expected…the rooms very low and dark and the whole effect rather cramped and constricted.’

Nowadays Kelmscott Manor is a Grade I listed building owned by the Society of Antiquaries of London which attracts many visitors. The two floors and the attics are nicely restored with original Morris fabrics on display. At Kelmscott, Rossetti occupied the Tapestry Room, turned into a studio, and complained that it was claustrophobic. Waugh noted that the tapestries which ‘worried Rossetti’ were in the house before the Morris family moved in and have a heavy feel. Today there is an easel on display, which presumably was used by Rossetti or other of the Kelmscott artists, a stylish oak table designed by Philip Webb and a Chaucer book with woodcut illustrations by Morris. Rossetti’s presence is also marked by the two crayon portraits of the Morris’s young daughters, mentioned by Waugh in his diary entry, and his oil painting “Mrs. Morris” also known as the “The Blue Silk Dress” (1866-70). He referred to her in the book as being ‘in the full maturity of her profound and lustrous beauty’. Waugh met May Morris (daughter of William Morris’s wife Jane) and described her in his diary as ‘a singularly forbidding woman – very awkward and disagreeable dressed in a slipshod ramshackle way in hand-woven stuffs’.

Waugh was twenty four years old when he gave his verdict about Rossetti’s art and the Pre-Raphaelites, underlining that he was stating the problem of subjective aesthetics ‘fatally lacking essential rectitude that underlines the serenity of all really great art.’ This seems still to be a point made by critics of the Pre-Raphaelites. But equally there is an agreement that Rossetti’s mystically romantic style was followed by many artists in the various forms of the Arts and Crafts movement and laid a stone in the foundations of European Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Perhaps Waugh’s biography should be read by everyone interested in connecting Rossetti (the artist) to Waugh (the biographer), with Kelmscott Manor being a nice place to do this.
Waugh’s biography was recently republished in the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh: Rossetti His Life and Works, volume 16, edited by Michael G. Brennan, published: 14 September 2017. Deposited at the British Library but not yet available to readers. Kelmscott Manor is open to the public from April to October (most recently on Wednesday and Saturday). For details see https://www.sal.org.uk/kelmscott-manor/

At Madresfield

Madresfield Court.
At Madresfield

A strikingly beautiful house appears a short distance after driving through Madresfield village and turning towards Madresfield Court. It is sitting at the foot of the Malvern Hills and is approached across a bridge over a moat. I arrived at noon on a balmy autumn day to see the real house of the Lygon family and get closer to their sensibilities, which inspired Waugh’s masterpiece novel Brideshead Revisited.

Inside this grand but very homely English country house, Tudor, Victorian Gothic and Arts and Crafts styles are all interwoven with a charming accumulation of Parisian, Dutch and Danish furniture, massive family and rare royal portraits, fake Holbeins, William Morrison fabrics, unusual artefacts and sculptures, marble fireplaces, valuable armoury, early-oak carved chests and antique travel trunks.

Waugh’s desk and chair have been moved from the upstairs nursery, where he stayed during his many visits to Madresfiled (1931-1938), to the bay in the Long Gallery overlooking the Moat Garden. They seem to be the only uncomplicated items displayed on the otherwise highly ornamented first floor. Hugh Lygon, Waugh’s Oxford friend famously depicted as Sebastian Flyte, stares melancholically from a small modestly framed photograph tucked away in a corner of the dramatic top-lit, double-height staircase hall designed by his father, the seventh Earl Beauchamp who is the prototype of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead. Portraits of his sisters who adored Waugh and also found a place in the novel are spread across the wood panelled walls of many rooms and corridors. Waugh wrote his novel Black Mischief while staying at Madresfield in 1931 and a copy of the book dedicated to Mary and Dorothy together with other first editions are said to be kept in the Smoking Room but in the today’s Madresfield there is no public access to it. In the Library one can see shelves going all the way up to the high ceilings holding thousands of volumes including bibles, musical scores, dictionaries and albums.

The chapel seems unchanged since it was first seen by Waugh in 1931. It is decorated in the Arts and Crafts emblematic expression with idyllic pastoral scenes surrounding the portraits of the Lord and Lady Beauchamp as well as their seven children. There are beautiful murals, stained glass and candlesticks designed by Henry Payne. This is a Church of England chapel with some soft blue Italian Renaissance style colours. Although it does look a lot like the one in Brideshead, it also feels different from the strictly Catholic chapel given as a present to Lady Marchmain by her exiled husband.

In Brideshead Waugh seems to have immortalised just one episode of Madresfield’s almost one thousand years old life. But it is deeply convincing especially as shaped by his affectionately fictionalised romantic love for the Brideshead set. My two hours inside Madresfield was like stepping into an extraordinary still-life painting to meet its amazing inhabitants and to eat, drink, sleep, read, write and laugh with them.

26 September, Madresfield.

Happy Warriors

James Macdonald’s new play staged at the Upstairs of the The Gatehouse is inspired by the Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill’s Second Wolrd War mission to Yugoslavia in the autumn of 1944. The venue is the charming 16th century Highgate village pub just under two and a half miles away from Waugh’s family home on 145 North End Road. The scene is the farmhouse in Topusko where their stormy friendship escalates to a comical antagonism fueled by the angry local cook, Zora Panic. The script followes closely the well documented wartime espisode with the name of Fitzroy Maclean who was the head of the mission dropped more then once during the two acts. Details such as Waugh’s “camel-hair dressing gown”, the £50 Bible reading bet and the box of Havana cigars sent from London seem to have been borrowed from the Earl of Birkenhead’s memoir “Fiery Articles” in “Evelyn Waugh and His World” (1973: 137). The pattern of the play is a circle of a dialogue with the two main heroes going back to where they started unable to escape the hillarious agony of cohabitaning in Tito partisans’ controlled area of Croatia.

Simon Pontin as Randolph and Martha Dancy as Zora managed to provoke laughter in the audience of around 30 people and a smile of approval from the playwright who attended the Preview night. The mantle of being Waugh falls upon the shoulders of Neil Chinneck, a young London actor, who attempts to blend wit and satire into the characher by threatening to kill Randolph and himself. He achives a decent presentation of Waugh at war although it is somewhat dry in expression and wiry in appearnce.

The German bombardment effects work well together with the the décor of the bare village room and Winson Churchill’s portarit on the wall. The choice of Vera Lynn’s songs as a musical background adds to the vitality of the performance. But it is the total lack of pretence that seems to be the main merit of the play.

At Campion Hall in Oxford

At Campion Hall in Oxford

In March this year I visited Camion Hall: Jesuits in Oxford on Brewer Street in Oxford to see the place with which Evelyn Waugh’s name is so closely associated. The Secretary, Sarah Grey, arranged an appointment for me with Professor Peter Davidson who is the Senior Research Fellow and Archivist at the Hall. Davidson explained that the accounts of Waugh at the Hall are minimal, but there are three Waugh things on permanent display.

The first one is an Abyssinian religious painting of the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus, which hangs centrally in the hallway of the first floor. The body paint is preserved behind a glass displayed in natural light with a beautiful blue color dominating the imagery which also has a Coptic inscription on the top. Waugh presumably brought it from his travels in Abyssinia in the 1930s and gave it as a gift to the Hall’s Collection.

The second object is a Campion’s illegally printed book, which Davidson explained, Waugh must have bought on the book market in the 1930s before donating it to the Hall. It was rebound in red leather with delicate gold and is one of the five known copies of Rationes Decem (1587). The pocket size book is displayed in a glass cabinet covered with cloth together with other memorabilia including a relic silver box believed to have belonged to Campion containing traces of his blood.

Finally our small group of three reached the Chapel designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with the Stations of the Cross on the walls leading to the Lady Chapel decorated by Charles Mahoney’s (1903-1968) mural commissioned by Waugh. The gentle seasonal representation of the Lady is full with garden flowers creating a natural English botanical landscape feel. Waugh knew Mahoney who worked over ten years on the mural and almost finished it except for one wall sketch in graphite. Davidson told me that the Chapel would have been almost the same during Waugh’s time. The mural is washed every five years with distilled water. As we were leaving the immaculate Chapel with an air of absolute order and stillness, we chatted a little bit about Waugh’s friendship with Father D’Arcy who was Master of the Hall (1933 – 1945) and a very important figure for English Catholicism.

At the end of my twenty five minutes visit, I glanced through the windows towards the simple geometrical garden of the Hall and took the leaflet from the table. On the back of it there was a description of the Campion Hall Collection: “Many of the works of fine and applied art in the collection were gifts from the circles of writers, artists and patrons who visited, and were inspired by, Campion Hall and its ethos, most notably Evelyn Waugh.”

Waugh on Tito

Standpoint, February 2018


Letters, Page 10. 

Robin Harris’s fine report from Zagreb, ‘Tito’s Crimes Should Never be Forgotten’ (Standpoint, Nov 2017) would have been applauded by Evelyn Waugh. Fifty five years ago almost to the date, in his Sunday Express article ‘Our Guest of Dishonour’ (30 Nov 1952). he asked, ‘Who is the man?’. Waugh argued that ‘Tito was simply his Comintern code-word. Marshal was a rank of the Red Army unknown in Yugoslavia. He had Stalin’s commission and Stalin sent him his marshal’s cap.’

Waugh protested to Anthony Eden’s invitation to Tito to visit London and was against the ‘English Conservative courtship’ of the Yugoslav leader. This was intensified by the split with Stalin in 1948, correctly judged by Harris as a matter of personal ambition rather then principal disagreement. [No doubt Waugh would have also enjoyed hearing more about Tito’s undignified personal life as he jokingly referred to him as a ‘she’ presumably meaning among other things that he was not a real ‘man’. ]

The main agreement he would have had with Harris is the deceptive misconception that Tito was a heroic ‘antifascist’ rather than a communist dictator. Waugh himself wrote an important report about the brutal elimination of Catholic priests by Tito’s partisans. He immortalised the British alliance with Tito in Unconditional Surrender (1961), the third part of his war trilogy Sword of Honour as the ultimate betrayal: ‘He was busy then, as now, in the work for which he has a peculiar aptitude – hoodwinking the British.’