A. L. Rowse: Historian and Friend

By Cauveren, Sydney | Contemporary Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

A. L. Rowse: Historian and Friend


Cauveren, Sydney, Contemporary Review


SADLY, A. L. Rowse died on my 50th birthday. But, due to the 11 hours time change across the world, the news did not reach me in Sydney, till Phyllis Cundy called from Cornwall, at 3am, the next day. Dear Phyllis, Leslie's ever loyal octogenarian housekeeper, whom I phoned regularly during Leslie's final months when he was laid up, at 93, crippled by a severe stroke with no hope of any real recovery at such an advanced age. Phyllis had promised to keep me informed, the only one who did, and like Rowse himself -- springing from similar solid Cornish stock, with its straight trait -- it was a promise she kept. But the curious co-incidence of the date was not lost on me. Leslie knew, over our twenty-year friendship, that (besides Carlyle and Samuel Butler) my own mother shared his birthday of December 4. And now, mysteriously yet again, three years on, my extensive bibliography of A. L. Rowse's work, published by the Scarecrow Press in America, is number 103 of their series -- i.e. October 3!

A. L. Rowse was born on 4 December 1903, the son of a china clay worker at St Austell. Against all the odds, coming from a semi-literate working class background, he won a scholarship to Christ Church College, Oxford -- the only one available in Cornwall at the time. He was elected a Fellow of All Souls College in 1925, the youngest ever and the first from his social class. A fellowship at All Souls is a great prize as it provides a place where a scholar can do research without the teaching duties of Oxford's other colleges. For a short time between the critical war years, he occupied his time as a Labour candidate, twice loosing out by a narrow margin. Later he was to declare politics a very second rate occupation and a waste of time. But he made exceptions: he was a firm follower of Churchill, strongly faught against appeasing Hitler (see his: All Souls and Appeasement); and eventually greatly admired Margaret Thatcher. By then he had firmly aligned any real political interest left in him with the Tories. R owse's natural ability lay as a writer -- an artist and a poet. But at Oxford they made him do the History class, where he excelled. Thus all his life he combined literature and history to write his masterly Elizabethan histories with a unique lucidity and style -- a living quality -- that few of his contemporaries could match.

Four years after his death, I think no one has been busier keeping A. L. Rowse close to heart than I have, as I meticulously quarried away to exhume an enormous cachet of his writings. And, what a legacy I found! At times he wrought my emotions as I read passages written half a century ago that still pulled as fresh as if penned yesterday. I realised deep down this primordial force just keeps on beating on through his writings; forging ahead still, against the odds, of the carping of some of his adversaries who seem intent even today, to go on attacking his reputation. Of course, easier now, with Leslie out of the way to correct -- or defend himself. Alas, not even one, I wager, qualified to do up the great man's shoe laces. Richard Ollard's biography, A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A. L. Rowse (Allen Lane/Penguin Press 1999) preceded my own work by a year. Indeed, Ollard found my research invaluable -- as it should have been. But the odd reception of Ollard's book in England, made it clear, beyond my nai vety, why no publisher in Britain would want to know my bibliography. It amounted to a tacit and blatant censorship of Rowse.

I thought the Ollard biography most engaging -- a very difficult work to write, on a subject almost impossible to get right. But why most reviewers in the UK press had pens poised with poisons surprised me. Knowledgeable readers will be aware that it is popular to strike out at the unpopular. After all, there's nothing new in the fact that nastiness and notoriety sells much better than nicety. And Rowse left his share of ammunition behind. When provoked, he could have a loud and sarcastic tongue. …

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