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Book Review: The Professor and the Parson by Adam Sisman

A detailed biography of a masterful conman and the historian who pursued him.
Book Review: The Professor and the Parson by Adam Sisman

Author Adam Sisman. Photo courtesy of Profile Books.

The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking is the latest biography from British writer Adam Sisman, who won the US National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography for Boswell’s Presumptuous Task.

The professor of the title is Hugh Trevor-Roper, an influential British historian and scholar who was later elevated to Baron Dacre of Glanton. The parson is Robert Peters, a defrocked priest, convicted bigamist, and serial liar and fraud. Born Robert Michael Parkins, Peters was also known as Robert Parkin Peters, and sometimes as the self-styled Right Reverend Dr RP Peters.

The professor and the parson met in the 1950s after Peters wrote to Trevor-Roper asking for his help. Trevor-Roper became one of the hundreds of people deceived by Peters, and this triggered his own fascination with the man’s career. He kept a dossier for many years on Peters’ deceptive and illegal exploits, and ‘often entertained his friends with an account of Peters’ misdeeds’.

Adam Sisman became equally fascinated with Peters when he learned about the conman while writing his biography of Trevor-Roper. Using the records of Trevor-Roper and others – supplemented by his own investigations – Sisman has penned a fascinating and astoundingly detailed biography in The Professor and the Parson. It may be trite to say that truth is stranger than fiction, but if ever there were an example of that aphorism, this is it.

Sisman has gone to considerable trouble to collect accurate information about Peters’ doings and relate them in a non-judgemental way. Typically, Peters would apply for a job such as visiting professor at a university. He would present excellent (forged) testimonials from prominent academics and claim to have qualifications such as MAs from Oxford and Cambridge and a PhD from Manchester. Sooner or later, his deception would be discovered and he would be dismissed. He often disappeared in the nick of time, leaving a trail of debts behind him, only to re-emerge elsewhere with slightly different qualifications to start a new appointment.

Peters was indefatigable. He worked in the USA (from which he was deported three times), Canada, Australia, South Africa, the UK and Switzerland. Peters lived to age 87, and his funeral notice referred to him as ‘The Rt Rev’d Dr Robert Peters, Principal of Monkfield College’. (Incidentally, this college’s only valid affiliation was with Kensington University of Hawaii, ‘an institution so disreputable that it was eventually shut down by the state authorities’.)

Sisman’s assessment is that Peters was not a typical confidence trickster aiming to make money by deception. He concludes that what Peters wanted was status: ‘He sought the outward signs of this, as a minister of religion or a doctor of philosophy, in order to claim respect, admiration, or even . . . adulation’.

Perhaps the fascination so many of us have with confidence tricksters is similar to that of Trevor-Roper’s: the schadenfreude of seeing the mighty deceived. Perhaps it is our love of magic – the enjoyment of watching an engineered deception, so long as we are not personally harmed. Part of the appeal – as well as the puzzle – in this case is the sheer energy, persistence and ingenuity that Peters brought to his deceptions; the same attributes, honestly directed, could have led to much better outcomes. 

Sisman has written biographies of John le Carré (himself the son of a confidence trickster), Trevor-Roper and AJP Taylor, all of whom reached the pinnacle of their professions. In that respect, it could be said that Peters has earned his place among them. He could not have wished for a better biographer.

4 stars out of 5 ★★★★

The Professor and the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit and Defrocking by Adam Sisman
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 9781788162111
Format: Hard cover
Categories: Biography
Pages: 288
Release Date: 3 June 2019
RRP: $29.99

Erich Mayer

Wednesday 31 July, 2019

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog humblecomment.info