Making sense of a narcissistic con man

Michael Dirda

THE WASHINGTON POST – Ignore the lacklustre title, The Professor and the Parson. It’s the only part of Adam Sisman’s sprightly new book that is anything less than a reader’s delight. Best known as a biographer, most recently of John le Carre, Sisman here tracks the career of a narcissistic fantasist, bigamist and con man who during his mid-to-late 20th-century heyday styled himself, variously, as Professor, Dr, Father, Reverend or Monsignor Robert Parkin Peters.

A charlatan who apparently couldn’t distinguish reality from imposture, this illegitimate Anglican parson – he was defrocked in 1955 – falsely claimed degrees from Britain’s most prestigious universities, as well as expert knowledge of Renaissance ecclesiastical history. To provide bona fides for his many self-declared academic accomplishments, Peters regularly swiped letterhead paper from the offices of distinguished scholars and then used it to compose phony recommendations for himself.

Even more boldly, he presented papers at international conferences, though the more astute suspected that he plagiarised most of whatever he said.

He was certainly nimble-witted and hard to trap. A student pointed out the close similarity between the wording of one of Peters’s talks and a work by the theologian EL Mascall. Peters impishly turned the accusation on its head: “It was vewy naughty of Ewic to use my lectures in his book without acknowledgment.” Once he tried to wangle a legitimate PhD from the University of Manchester. All was going swimmingly until the examiners were “surprised to find the candidate unfamiliar with much of the content of his own thesis”. Denied the degree, Peters appealed the decision all the way up to the queen.

The professor of Sisman’s title is none other than Hugh Trevor-Roper, then Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford. Though a severe and exacting scholar, Trevor-Roper was attracted to clever rascals, especially those whose antics played upon the endless credulity of the human mind and the gullibility of bureaucratic institutions. Cheeky scoundrels like Peters or Sir Edmund Backhouse – subject of Trevor-Roper’s own scintillating exposé, Hermit of Peking – brought colour to the world and contributed to what Samuel Johnson called the gaiety of nations.

Adam Sisman stresses that ‘The Professor and the Parson’ has no purpose beyond entertainment. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

As Trevor-Roper soon discovered while compiling a substantial folder devoted to the deceptions of the pseudo-clergyman, Peters could bob up anywhere. Peters operated on a global scale. He regularly managed to land positions at churches and educational institutions around the world. In the United States alone he taught at the College of Wooster, was almost appointed to a tenured position at the University of Texas and, before his past caught up with him. In his behaviour toward others, Peters usually put on superior airs and treated those around him with undisguised condescension. What he seems to have craved, above all, were prestige and obsequious admiration. He particularly loved rituals, officiating at church services and academic ceremonies in gorgeous regalia, determined to be the centre of attention or, better still, of rapt adulation.

Over the years, he propositioned many young women (including Trevor-Roper’s stepdaughter!), married seven or eight times, usually without benefit of divorce, and even served a term in prison for bigamy.

During the first 18 months after his release in 1953, he unrepentantly “wooed and won no fewer than four women”, eventually marrying one of them.

In 1955 he was “betrothed to yet another young woman when he was arrested again”, this time for passing bad checks and stealing a car.

Though he might be charming if scams were going well, Peters could also be vicious when cornered.

As Sisman writes: “Whenever Peters felt in danger of being unmasked, he would counter-attack, seeking to discredit his accuser or accusers with slander and innuen-do, and threatening legal action. He would never retract, or apologise; he appeared to have no shame, and therefore no conscience. An egotist, he was indifferent to the thoughts and feelings of those whom his actions might have damaged; other people, it seemed, existed solely to serve his purposes.”