Obituary: A. L. Rowse

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The Independent Online
Alfred Leslie Rowse, historian: born Tregonissey, Cornwall 4 December 1903; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1925-74 (Emeritus); FRSL 1947; CH 1997; died St Austell, Cornwall 3 October 1997.

A. L. Rowse was among the outstanding personalities in the Britain of his time. As historian, poet, essayist, commentator on politics and many other branches of public life, he was quick and witty, forthright, often brilliant and never afraid of the consequences of his plain speaking.

He came to address large audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, in books and on television, for 30 years and more. Though he was habitually provocative, that might be with his tongue in his cheek, and he had also the talent to persuade. A thing one commonly heard said of him, after one of his more outspoken television performances, was: "I don't often find myself agreeing with A.L. Rowse, and yet . . ."

He was too much of a loner to have a following or make a party of his own. He valued most highly the freedom to express what he believed to be true, about things that he saw around him or recollected or found in his study of history, owing no allegiance to anybody but himself. As he put it, the artist "must only say what he knows to be true: he cannot live (as an artist) on any other terms".

Alfred Leslie Rowse was born at Tregonissey, north of St Austell in Cornwall, in 1903, the third and last child of Richard and Annie Rowse. His father was a miner, working in the china-clay pits at a wage of about pounds 1 a week. His mother was, at the time of her marriage, in service with a St Austell doctor. In her family, the Vansons, there seem to have been earlier French strains. For the rest, his ancestry was entirely Cornish.

He has described his upbringing with an unforgettable clarity in A Cornish Childhood (1942); a work of careful and genuine autobiography, not the muddied, confused recollections that often masquerade under that title. His school education began before he was four, and he recalled every part of it - the infants' school, elementary, secondary - as "just happiness all the way along". It opened up new worlds to him, unimaginable in the home from which he came.

With the strong encouragement of the headmaster of his secondary school, he set his sights on getting to Oxford. That was still difficult then for a boy who must support himself entirely on scholarships. But he achieved his ambition in 1922, when he won an English Literature scholarship at Christ Church. With the additional aid of another from the County Council and one from the Drapers' Company, he had then got just enough to take him to Oxford.

Soon after his arrival there he was persuaded by his college to read for a degree in History, not in English, and he never regretted that decision. It guided and enriched his growing interest in politics. He quickly became an active member of the University Labour Club, and presently its chairman. The varied experiences of his undergraduate life were well recorded and analysed in his second volume of autobiography, A Cornishman at Oxford (1965).

There was a high price to pay for the intense concentration that carried him to Christ Church, and then through his degree course. In 1922 he developed a duodenal ulcer. It was diagnosed as no more than acute indigestion and treated ineffectually by the doctors. This was the beginning of 15 years of very severe pain - intermittent but often protracted, until he was at last delivered from it by a dangerous operation: even then not completely, for it recurred at intervals thereafter. It became a fixed condition of his life, affecting everything he did. He bore it with unyielding fortitude.

He took a First in History in 1925 and almost immediately afterwards he was elected a Fellow of All Souls. His doggedly maintained struggle had met with a splendid reward. There, and elsewhere in Oxford, he found much congenial company, an unfailing stimulus and help to further effort: friendships that lasted through life, with Richard Pares, K.B. McFarlane, G.F. Hudson, and many others. His mind was then engaged chiefly on the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, which bore also on the contemporary politics that he continued to watch very closely. His first substantial book was Politics and the Younger Generation, published in the autumn of 1931.

At that moment he was fighting a parliamentary election. He had been adopted as Labour candidate for Penryn and Falmouth two years before, to be defeated there twice, at this time and in 1935. He always regarded the general election of 1931 as fateful for Britain and for Europe, and with the new National Government never prepared to take the lead in frustrating the expansion of Nazi power, intent only on the appeasement he always utterly condemned. He travelled in Germany himself a great deal, forming one of the chief friendships of his life with Adam von Trott, who was executed by the Nazis in 1944. He diagnosed most accurately what was happening then, as other young Englishmen who also went there and made more noise about it, like Auden and Isherwood, did not. He grew sickened by political life (resigning as parliamentary candidate in 1941), heartened only as the war developed in his unswerving admiration and support for Winston Churchill.

His father had died in 1934. Six years later he took his mother down to live with him in a house on the southern edge of St Austell. Then, after her death, came an opportunity he had long desired, to move into Trenarren House, further out, facing down to the sea. That remained his home for the rest of his life.

Meanwhile, his study of history had moved backwards in time to concentrate on the 16th century in Britain. The first fruit of this change was his biography Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (1937). That was a by-product of a larger work, Tudor Cornwall (1941): a masterly book, which revealed his full powers, based on very extended research, written with unfailing point and zest and illuminated throughout by imaginative perception. He then turned to a very broad and penetrating study of the Elizabethan age, which eventually extended to three volumes: The England of Elizabeth (1950), The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955) and The Elizabethan Renaissance (1972).

For the long interval between the publication of the second and third of these books, there were two reasons. It became his practice to spend part of each year in the United States from 1957 onwards, when he went to the Huntington Library in California. He took to American life with ease, enjoying its direct friendliness, lecturing and teaching students and travelling widely. His American experience enlarged his mind and often went to his heart. Among its memorials is one of the best of his shorter historical works, The Cornish in America (1969).

The second reason was that he had turned away for a time to pursue the study of Shakespeare, embodied first in a biography, William Shakespeare (1963), and then in an edition of the Sonnets (1964), explaining them to the general reader. This led him to investigate the papers of Simon Forman at the Bodleian, more fully and profitably than anyone before, and there in 1972 he came upon a solution of the critically important problem of the Sonnets: the identification of the "Dark Lady", as Emilia Lanier. His announcement of the discovery, and of his firm dating of the poems themselves, was greeted with some cries of dissent, from scholars who had never pursued the strictly historical procedures of inquiry that Rowse used. There were others, however, of equal or greater eminence, who accepted what he said. He embodied his exposition in 1973-74 in a shorter biography, Shakespeare the Man, and in a life of Forman.

The writing of poems had been a lifelong exercise and pleasure to Rowse. They began to be published before he left school. T.S. Eliot appreciated them, and under his influence five volumes of them were published by Faber's in 1942-67. Others followed those, and in 1981 he produced a collected edition, entitled simply A Life.

Nearly all the poems are short: what Hardy called "Moments of Vision", of men and women and of places, from Wordsworth's Alfoxden to Abraham Lincoln's Springfield. More than a quarter of them relate to Cornwall, including all the three long ones. They reveal him at every state of his adult life more completely than any of his other writings.

After A Life a long interval followed, in which he published little that was memorable. But there was another burst in 1987-89 with three minor works, all good additions to the oeuvre: Court and Country, a set of essays on Tudor history, The Poet Auden: a personal quest and Quiller Couch: a portrait of "Q". The last of these paid tribute to a Cornishman who had befriended him from boyhood, and to a writer who is unjustly disregarded.

From time to time during the second half of his life he selected groups of essays and shorter pieces that he had contributed to the British and American press for reissue in book form, combined with others that had not been printed before. One set of these writings, Historians I Have Known (1995), was among the last of all his publications. His chosen historians ranged from G.M. Trevelyan to Barbara Tuchman. Vigorous, appreciative, sometimes trenchant, they demonstrated that his powers continued undiminished until the end of his active life as a writer, beyond the age of 90.

This account of Rowse has been mainly a record of the books he wrote: for, as he repeatedly said, his work was his life. Excepting his incursion into politics as a parliamentary candidate, he played no part at all in public affairs. Nor - until the New Year's honours list, when, at the age of 93, he was appointed a Companion of Honour -did he receive any honour at the hands of the state. He remained a solitary figure, who had always made his way in his own highly individual fashion.

He ceased to be a Fellow of All Souls in 1974, and thereafter based himself wholly in Cornwall. He remained loyal to his old friends, in Britain and America, and he kept friendship with them in constant repair by correspondence. Those who knew him well realised that, underlying and governing the occasional vehemence of what he wrote in books or said on television, there always lay a deep store of strong common sense.

- Jack Simmons