...an entertaining offshoot of [the] well-received 2010 biography of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper ... Sisman is a serious writer of nonfiction...but he has a novelist’s sense of the importance of showing, not telling ... There’s a rather antique feel about the whole project. Partly this is down to Sisman’s tone, which belongs to a previous era ... There’s no impression that a modern sensibility has been brought to bear on the subject matter. Peters appears to have been a sex offender, with numerous instances of his predatory 'advances' on young girls. Sisman seems to have bought in to the tabloid portrayal of Peters as a 'Romeo', and reports the fact that “it seems as if he could scarcely be left alone with a woman without making advances to her” without censure ... I’m also not sure that one can describe someone as 'inscrutable, like an Oriental despot' in 2019. 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.
My purpose,' Mr. Sisman writes, 'has been to entertain, not to instruct.' In that he succeeds. The Professor and the Parson is no rival to Boswell’s Presumptuous Task or the rest of Mr. Sisman’s work, but it’s not meant to be—it’s a kind of amuse-bouche. As such, it demonstrates just how good Mr. Sisman is. Meticulously researched and flawlessly written, the book treats its obscure, contemptible subject with the same professionalism that Mr. Sisman brought to Trevor-Roper and the Boswell-Johnson relationship. If Peters seems a parody of the lecherous clergyman and the ruthless academic, Mr. Sisman is a model of the incorruptible biographer.
Sisman gives readers a chronological romp through Peters’ continual attempts to pass himself off as a student of the church, a preacher, a teacher, and even a principal of two religious schools, all in the name of notoriety. While Peters is definitely a character, he is also a bigamist, a misogynist, and a sexual harasser (at the very least) and yet Sisman passes these off as more of his trickster ways instead of recognizing them as the predatory behaviors they are. This lack of synthesis is unfortunate, but the story of Trevor-Roper and Peters is an entertaining case of truth being stranger than fiction.