What makes this book hilarious, as well as poignant, is that it was Trevor-Roper who was collating all this. We can imagine his delight as he discovered one more bit of Peters piffle.
One day, he was snoozing through a history conference in Vienna, when up popped ‘M. le professeur Peters de l’université de Manchester’ to speak — and, as Trevor-Roper wrote to a friend, Peters’s contribution was ‘utterly worthless, meaningless, niggling, unverifiable pedantry whose sole purpose was to advertise the speaker’.
Ouch — those Oxford dons could be withering. Little did Trevor-Roper know that he would one day be at the receiving end of exactly that kind of withering damnation from his fellow-dons and from the world.
It’s an enjoyable and extraordinary tale. Among the highlights are Peters’s failed attempt to gain a PhD (his lack of familiarity with his own thesis told against him); his establishment of a Fawlty Towers-like theological college; an appearance on Mastermind (his special subject was the life of William Temple, former archbishop of Canterbury, and he came joint third); deportations from the countries where he conned his way into shortlived academic or ecclesiastical posts, including South Africa, Australia, Canada and (on three separate occasions) the US; and at least eight marriages, one lasting only 16 days and another ending when he abandoned his wife “on a train somewhere between Colombo, Ceylon, and Columbus, Ohio”... The chief problem with the book is that we know Peters little better at the end than at the outset. Sisman admits as much (“One cannot see the man himself but only the path he left behind”) but it’s little consolation; there’s a long paper trail but the reader craves more flesh and blood.
The material of Peters’s life is compelling... There’s a rather antique feel about the whole project. Partly this is down to Sisman’s tone, which belongs to a previous era. “The deceitfulness of such men was matched by their gall,” he writes at one point. There’s no impression that a modern sensibility has been brought to bear on the subject matter... For all this, the book is a gripping read, telling us as much about the rise and fall of Trevor-Roper as about its deeply unpleasant priest.
Sisman’s deadpan tone heightens his comic effects. Often while reading his book in a public place I embarrassed myself by uncontrollable guffaws. Partly it is Peters’s pomposity and aggrieved self-importance which is funny, partly his lasciviousness, which lasted into an impressive old age — no woman, it seems, could be in his presence more than a few moments without him literally pressing his attentions upon her.
The Professor & the Parson would make a fine TV series along the lines of A Very English Scandal, adapted from John Preston’s book about the Jeremy Thorpe affair. Russell T Davies, if you’re reading, this stuff is gold. A small warning, though, to any adapter: Peters’s story demands high enthusiasm for Oxford, Cambridge, public schools and the Church of England.
Adam Sisman has used the collection of notes Trevor-Roper put together on Peters over this period and supplemented it with his own research to produce a wonderfully entertaining account of this academic and clerical fraud. He follows him from lie to lie, job to job, marriage to marriage, continent to continent...The Professor & the Parson is a fantastic read and fully deserves to be among everyone’s books of the year. It is full of wonderful stories and splendidly comic moments. It is also beautifully written. And yet there is clearly more to be said. A sad little footnote records that, only last year, Peters’s son advertised for information about ‘Professor Robert Peters’. It would be fascinating to know more about his life and the lives of all the seven or eight women that his father apparently married. Although the conclusion to the book is unobjectionable, it might easily have been pushed further.
The hero here, the professor to Peters’s faux parson, is the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who spent a quarter of a century building a dossier on him. That file provided the research that started this book... While this is a clear portrayal of Trevor-Roper’s character (Sisman is also his biographer), Peters remains an enigma... I would have liked to read more on the psychology of Peters’s behaviour: what really drives fantasists? Why did he keep lying after he was first exposed? Perhaps Sisman feared moving into cod-psychology territory here, but the absence of much of an answer to these questions feels like a hole in the book. That didn’t dent my enjoyment much, for this is a lively, well-written story of skulduggery.
To say of a book that, once you start reading it, you cannot stop, is always a cliché and often an exaggeration. Yet it really was my experience with this one. Various chores were put off and a meal skipped as I kept turning the pages. Luckily the book is a short one. Yet this is no thriller or mystery novel, nor does it reveal any great historical secret. The subject matter, as I kept telling myself, is positively footling.