A short and unusual book, appropriately befitting its short, elusive and inscrutable subject, The Professor and the Parson is Adam Sisman’s biography of a man who never was what he pretended to be. Subtitled “A Story of Desire, Deceit and a Defrocking,” it is the history of an inveterate liar and the famous Oxbridge historian who tracked him. Rigorously researched and woven throughout with questions of “Why?” the book paints a picture of a man whose core essence eludes.
Robert Parkins Peters – though he had more than a few names over the decades – was a confidence man who inveigled his way into academia, schools and churches in the UK, Canada, America and South Africa for decades. In fact, Peter’s entire life, his curriculum vitae if you will, was deception, outrage and flight. He would make up credentials, forge letters of reference, and talk his way into a wide range of posts. None of these positions carried with them much money. They were all spots with intellectual, moral or cultural capital. He’d lead a church, support a program, and pretend to research.
Among the many questions haunting this biography, one is puzzled about why Peters chose this route. Was it some pathological need? For a man who had nothing real to his name, Peters was all about status. Peters used the same tactics and responses again again. He would move to a new place, find a position through forgery and deception, and then do a rotten job in the role. One of the great ironies of the story was the Peters was consistently ineffective in these positions. He was loud-spoken, given to bluster and rigidity, and more often than not, disliked the longer he stayed in one place. Did he ever believe that he’d find a real professional home?
When Peter was challenged, and he invariably would be from a reference, colleague, manager or offended woman, his response was consistent. He would fight back with outrage, litigation and noise. Cries of persecution, of skullduggery, or worse would cloud the issue. The smoke would dissipate and Peters would be fired or he would resign, moving to another place and starting again. Occasionally punctuating this cycle was a spot in prison for bigamy or bad checks. Peters behavior was exhausting. And in Sisman’s elegant hand, an extraordinary idiversion. The famous historian Hugh Trevor-Roper found it equally fascinating. Trevor-Roper was initially fooled by Peters. He then sorted things out and created a dossier on Peters, tracking him over the years.
Peters’ relationship with women was another puzzling aspect to the man. He was misogynistic and a strong advocate for traditional gender roles. He also was always after women, talking them up and looking for relationships. Peters was married many, many times. The church cast him out because of bigamy. What was Peters’ charm?
It’s a great question and one that motivated Sisman. I, too, thought of while reading The Professor and the Parson. What was it about this low-level confidence man that allowed him a lifetime of lies? And what it is about the church and college environment that enables this kind of actor? Are there more Peters out there, lurking in search pools and haunting our offices? It’s a very strange story, one that leaves you puzzled and entertained.