A. L. Rowse
|Born||Alfred Leslie Rowse|
4 December 1903
Tregonissey, St Austell, Cornwall
|Died||3 October 1997 (aged 93)|
|Occupation||Poet, academic and Elizabethan historian|
|Notable awards||Companion of Honour|
Fellow of the British Academy
Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature
Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
Born in Cornwall and raised in humble circumstances, he was encouraged to study for Oxford by fellow-Cornishman Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. He was elected a fellow of All Souls College and later appointed lecturer at Merton College. Best known of his many works was The Elizabethan Age trilogy. His work on Shakespeare included a claim to have identified the 'Dark Lady of the Sonnets' as Emilia Lanier, which attracted much interest from scholars, but also many counter-claims.
Rowse was in steady demand as a lecturer in America. In the 1930's, he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in the Labour interest, though he ended as a conservative in old age.
Rowse was born at Tregonissey, near St Austell, Cornwall, the son of Annie (née Vanson) and Richard Rowse, a china clay worker. Despite his parents being poor and having little formal education, he won a place at St Austell County Grammar School and then a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford in 1921. He was encouraged in his pursuit of an academic career by a fellow Cornish man of letters, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, of Polperro, who recognised his ability from an early age. Rowse endured doubting comments about his paternity, thus he paid particular attention to his mother's association with a local farmer and butcher from Polgooth, near St Austell, Frederick William May (1872-1953). Any such frustrations were channelled into academia, which reaped him dividends later in life.
Rowse had planned to study English literature, having developed an early love of poetry, but was persuaded to read history. He was a popular undergraduate and made many friendships that lasted for life. He graduated with first class honours in 1925 and was elected a fellow of All Souls College the same year. In 1929, he proceeded to a Master of Arts degree. In 1927 he was appointed lecturer at Merton College, where he stayed until 1930. He then became a lecturer at the London School of Economics.
In 1931, Rowse contested the parliamentary seat of Penryn and Falmouth for the Labour Party, but was unsuccessful, finishing third behind a Liberal. In the general election of 1935 he again stood unsuccessfully, but managed to finish in second place, ahead of the Liberal. In both the 1931 and 1935 elections, Maurice Petherick was returned as a Conservative MP to Parliament, albeit with a minority of the vote. Rowse supported calls made by the likes of Sir Stafford Cripps for a "Popular Front (UK), who was expelled from office for his views. Rowse worked to get agreement by Labour and Liberal parties in Devon and Cornwall, making a common cause with the Liberal MP Sir Richard Acland. A general election was expected to take place in 1939, and Rowse, who was again Labour's candidate for Penryn & Falmouth, was not expected to have a Liberal opponent. That would increase his chances of winning. But, due to outbreak of war, the election did not take place and his career was effectively ended.
Undeterred, Rowse chose to continue his career by seeking administrative positions at Oxford becoming Sub-Warden of All Souls College. In 1952, he failed in his candidacy for election as Warden against John Sparrow. Shortly afterwards he began what became regular trips to The Huntington Library in Southern California, where for many years he was a senior research fellow. He received a doctorate (DLitt) from Oxford University in 1953. After delivering the British Academy's 1957 Raleigh Lecture on history about Sir Richard Grenville's place in English history, Rowse was selected as a fellow of the academy (FBA) in 1958.
Rowse published about 100 books. By the mid-20th century, he was a celebrated author and much-travelled lecturer, especially in the United States. He also published many popular articles in newspapers and magazines in Great Britain and the United States. His brilliance was widely recognised. His knack for the sensational, as well as his academic boldness (which some considered to be irresponsible carelessness), sustained his reputation. His opinions on rival popular historians, such as Hugh Trevor-Roper and A. J. P. Taylor, were expressed sometimes in very ripe terms.
In his later years, Rowse moved increasingly towards the political right, and many considered him to be part of the Tory tradition by the time he died. One of Rowse's lifelong themes in his books and articles was his condemnation of the National Government's policy of appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the economic and political consequences for Great Britain of fighting a second war with Germany. Another was his horror at the degradation of standards in modern society. He is reported as saying: "...this filthy twentieth century. I hate its guts".
Despite international academic success, Rowse remained proud of his Cornish roots. He retired from Oxford in 1973 to Trenarren House, his Cornish home, from where he remained active as writer, reviewer and conversationalist until immobilised by a stroke the year before his death. His ashes are buried in the Campdowns Cemetery, Charlestown near St Austell.
Rowse's early works focus on 16th-century England and his first full-length historical monograph, Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (1937), was a biography of a 16th-century sailor. His next was Tudor Cornwall (1941), a lively detailed account of Cornish society in the 16th century. He consolidated his reputation with a one-volume general history of England, The Spirit of English History (1943), but his most important work was the historical trilogy The Elizabethan Age: The England of Elizabeth (1950), The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955), and The Elizabethan Renaissance (1971-72), respectively examine the society, overseas exploration, and culture of late 16th-century England.
In 1963 Rowse began to concentrate on Shakespeare, starting with a biography in which he claimed to have dated all the sonnets, identified Christopher Marlowe as the suitor's rival and solved all but one of the other problems posed by the sonnets. His failure to acknowledge his reliance upon the work of other scholars alienated some of his peers, but he won popular acclaim. In 1973 he published Shakespeare the Man, in which he claimed to have solved the final problem - the identity of the 'Dark Lady': from a close reading of the sonnets and the diaries of Simon Forman, he asserted that she must have been Emilia Lanier, whose poems he would later collect. He suggested that Shakespeare had been influenced by the feud between the Danvers and Long families in Wiltshire, when he wrote Romeo and Juliet. The Danverses were friends of the 3rd Earl of Southampton.
Rowse's "discoveries" about Shakespeare's sonnets amount to the following:
Rowse was dismissive of those who rejected his views. He supported his conclusions. In the case of Shakespeare's sexuality, he emphasised the playwright's heterosexual inclinations by noting that he had impregnated an older woman by the time he was 18, and was consequently obliged to marry her. Moreover, he fathered three children by the time he was 21. In the sonnets, Shakespeare's explicit erotic interest lies with the Dark Lady; he obsesses about her. Shakespeare was still married and Rowse believes he was having an extramarital affair.
The diary excerpts published in 2003 reveal that "he was an overt even rather proud homosexual in a pre-Wolfenden age, fascinated by young policemen and sailors, obsessively speculating on the sexual proclivities of everyone he meets". Much later, following retirement, he said, "of course, I used to be a homo; but now, when it doesn't matter, if anything I'm a hetero".
He was aware of his own intelligence from earliest childhood, and obsessed that others either did not accept this fact, or not quickly enough. The diaries describe what he said were "a series of often inane jealousies".
He described a "Slacker State": "I don't want to have my money scalped off me to maintain other people's children. I don't like other people; I particularly don't like their children; I deeply disapprove of their proliferation making the globe uninhabitable. The fucking idiots - I don't want to pay for their fucking."
Rowse's first book was On History, a Study of Present Tendencies published in 1927 as the seventh volume of Kegan Paul's Psyche Miniature General Series. In 1931 he contributed to T. S. Eliot's quarterly review The Criterion. In 1935 he co-edited Charles Henderson's Essays in Cornish History for the Clarendon Press. His best-seller was his first volume of autobiography, A Cornish Childhood, first published by Jonathan Cape in 1942, which has gone on to sell nearly half a million copies worldwide. It describes his hard struggle to get to the University of Oxford and his love/hate relationship with Cornwall.
His most controversial book (at the time of publication) was on the subject of human sexuality: Homosexuals In History (1977).
Rowse wrote poetry all his life. He contributed poems to Public School Verse whilst at St Austell Grammar School. He also had verse published in Oxford 1923, Oxford 1924, and Oxford 1925. His collected poems A Life were published in 1981. The poetry is mainly autobiographical, descriptive of place (especially Cornwall) and people he knew and cared for, e.g. The Progress of Love, which describes his platonic love for Adam von Trott, a handsome and aristocratic German youth who studied at Oxford in the 1930s and who was later executed for his part in the July Plot of 1944 to kill Hitler. Unusually for a British poet, Rowse wrote a great number of poems inspired by American scenery.
He wrote other biographies of English historical and literary figures, and many other historical works. His biographies include studies of Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the Earl of Southampton, the major players in the sonnets, as well as later luminaries of English literature such as Milton, Swift and Matthew Arnold. A devoted cat-lover, he also wrote the biographies of several cats who came to live with him at Trenarren, claiming that it was as much a challenge to write the biography of a favourite cat as it was a Queen of England. He also published a number of short stories, mainly about Cornwall, of interest more for their thinly veiled autobiographical resonances than their literary merit. His last book, My View of Shakespeare, published in 1996, summed up his life-time's appreciation of The Bard of Stratford. The book was dedicated "To HRH The Prince of Wales in common devotion to William Shakespeare".
One of Rowse's great enthusiasms was collecting books, and he owned many first editions, many of them bearing his acerbic annotations. For example, his copy of the January 1924 edition of The Adelphi magazine edited by John Middleton Murry bears a pencilled note after Murry's poem In Memory of Katherine Mansfield: 'Sentimental gush on the part of JMM. And a bad poem. A.L.R.'
Upon his death in 1997 he bequeathed his book collection to the University of Exeter, and his personal archive of manuscripts, diaries, and correspondence. In 1998 the University Librarian selected about sixty books from Rowse's own working library and a complete set of his published books. The Royal Institution of Cornwall selected some of the remaining books and the rest were sold to dealers. The London booksellers Heywood Hill produced two catalogues of books from his library.
In addition to his DLitt (Oxon) degree (1953), Rowse received the honorary degrees of DLitt from the University of Exeter in 1960 and DCL from the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, Canada, the same year.
Christopher William Hill's radio play Accolades, rebroadcast on BBC Radio 4 in March 2007 as a tribute to its star, Ian Richardson, who had died the previous month, covers the period leading up to the publication of Shakespeare the Man in 1973 and publicity surrounding Rowse's unshakable confidence that he had discovered the identity of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets. It was broadcast again on 9 July 2008.