A.L. Rowse: In Memoriam

By Glasgow, Eric | Contemporary Review, December 1997 | Go to article overview

A.L. Rowse: In Memoriam


Glasgow, Eric, Contemporary Review


Only the other day, in my seaside resort of Southport, Merseyside, I was enlivened by some tangy Cornish accents, in a local cafe. On inquiry, these agreeably proved to be the speech of an elderly couple, from St. Austell in Cornwall. Yes, indeed, they were well aware of the local presence of the historian, A. L. Rowse, a man of great age and venerability, reading on the 'Black Head' of the peninsula of Trenarren. 'But now, being 93, he does not get out very much.' It was for me a very pleasing invocation of the 'Grand Old Man' of the Cornish literary scene. In his last months he received a visit from Prince Charles, who came to discuss Shakespeare.

Now it turns out that the well-deserved honour from the Crown was only just in time, because (not unexpectedly, in view of his great age) A. L. Rowse has just gone from us. Words, perhaps, cannot adequately convey all that he has meant for the literature and the history of the twentieth century in England: the innumerable books he has written and had published: the huge influence his life and work have had upon the budding scholars of our time (myself included). He was certainly chief among the mentors and the examples of my own youth, as a Cambridge undergraduate (1942-45). When, there and then, I studied History: impressionable, inexperienced, and untaught: A. L. Rowse, after a false and diversionary start as a potential Labour politician, was just beginning to publish: witness Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge, Tudor Cornwall, and of course his best-selling autobiography, entitled A Cornish Childhood. The latter of these was not a 'research' book, but a personal record of the extraordinary rise of a very poor Cornish lad, from St. Austell, born in the year 1903, to become Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford - that bastion of the rich and famous - at the age of only 21.

First published by Jonathan Cape, in 1942, A Cornish Childhood brought fame to St. Austell, and eventually it sold more than half a million copies, world-wide. 'There is a village in my mind's eye.' So, for A. L. Rowse, it always was: imagination and poetry embellished and decorated, illuminated and amplified, the 'dry as dust facts,' of the intentions of historians. Therefore, he repeatedly affirmed - in the able companionship of his mentor, the Cambridge historian, G. M. Trevelyan - history and literature went hand-in-hand: poetry with prose, and imagination with the factual contents of the past, wherever that might be.

In his youth, A. L. Rowse fought to prevent the corrosions of politics - inevitably those then of a Labour Left-winger - from overwhelming entirely his inner life, of poetry, literature, and imagination. It seems that it was only the war of 1939-45 - with its vast upsurge of patriotic ardour for the English past - that for him finally gave victory to the claims of literature and history.

In those years, of course, A. L. Rowse was fairly overshadowed by the greater fame of Sir Arthur Bryant. The latter, indeed, reaped mostly the Churchillian appraisals of the English past. Near the end, for A. L. Rowse, even an Oxford scholar could only wonder and contrive to guess why on earth it was that Arthur Bryant got a Knighthood whereas A. L. Rowse - probably of far greater distinction as an historian - was for so very long left out in the cold, as far as the nation's acknowledgement was concerned. Belatedly, and almost too late, A. L. Rowse was awarded a C. H. - Companion of Honour, in the Honours List for New Year's Day of 1997. We may all be glad to think that he lived just long enough to know of that tribute, to his great achievements, in the twin disciplines of literature and history.

Almost at the very beginning of his enormous output as a writer, A. L. Rowse produced his famous The Spirit of English History, in 1943: almost in the core of the Second World War. It was at once praised: 'fascinatingly readable, a triumph of restraint and artistry.' It ends with this brief paragraph: 'The long record of English history has been fortunate beyond belief: the greater the duty that rests upon every Englishman to see that the future is not unworthy of the past.

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