Felled by the dark lady

PROFILE : A L Rowse At 92, his ego is as agile as ever. Charles Nevin on a singular historian
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NEXT WEEK will be a fairly routine one in British publishing: A L Rowse has a new book out, a slim volume with a characteristically unretiring title, Historians I Have Known. Rowse is 92; he thinks (he has lost count) that this will be his 92nd book, roughly. Small wonder that a junior fellow toiler, David Starkey, has dubbed him "History's Barbara Cartland".

If the book's title is typical, the content is yet more so. By the end of the preface we know that the Doctor is a poet as well as a historian, and that he is the one and only discoverer of the identity of the Dark Lady in Shakespeare's sonnets. By the end of the book we will learn that A J P Taylor is unsafe, Alan Bullock is ungrateful, Hugh Trevor-Roper is lacking in judgement, R H Tawney's study was squalid in the extreme and Veronica (C V) Wedgwood is clouded by womanly sentiment.

We may also find that the Doctor is a little repetitive in choice of phrase and that some incidents will be familiar to readers of his last- but-one work, All Souls In My Time. But we will still marvel at the nonagenarian energy that can produce such a fizz of sequitur, non sequitur, insult, insight and affection. Finally, though, we will be faced with the old question: should Alfred Leslie Rowse be taken entirely seriously?

THE DOCTOR was in bed upstairs in his home on his Cornish headland, resting after lunch. He is a little more frail, and rather more deaf than he was; but he is still very much the Doctor. Names, for example, are dropped as quickly and efficiently as ever: Lord Jenkins has written to say how much he enjoyed the new book. A book club deal has been secured; Blackwell's are going to put 200 in the window. "Remember," he says, in the arched, impossibly patrician tones, "I'm an old-fashioned don, dear. I don't expect anything."

The hand, too, as ever, spends a lot of time on the interviewer's knee. Once, a limousine left the Athenaeum for Sutton Place, bearing John Julius Norwich, Sir Roy Strong, and Dr Rowse who sat in the front, next to the chauffeur. "Did you see the chauffeur's knee?" said Norwich to Strong afterwards. "It was positively burnished!"

A friend of Phyllis, the Doctor's housekeeper, brings in tea and scones. She is a former teacher who is working on a history of St Austell, down below the headland, where Rowse was born, the son of a china-clay worker. Rowse says he is going to lend her his edited version of the sonnets: "Sir Penderel Moon, the cleverest man at All Souls, told me he had never understood them until he read my book!"

But the Doctor is rather more of a droll than you might think. "A lot of these people," he says, after a scone, "don't realise that some of what I say is in inverted commas. I do have a sense of humour. Don't you think that?" And, while happy as ever to proclaim himself a genius - "That will annoy them, what, don't you think?" - he foregoes the chance to rank himself among the historians he has written about, choosing to talk about something completely different.

Which, inevitably, is the Dark Lady, the Doctor's great discovery, identified by him as Emilia Lanier, mistress of Elizabeth I's Lord Chamberlain, proved to his satisfaction and corroborated "in every circumstance and detail". But, circumstantial corroboration. No document spelling it out, no note saying, "I love Emilia Lanier, signed W Shakespeare". And so, not proved to everybody else's satisfaction. But the Doctor knows it to be true; and those who doubt him, doubt him, a man uniquely qualified as both poet and historical authority. These doubters are the famously reviled "second- and third-raters" of Eng Lit academia who continue to ignore Emilia.

"I rise above it, as my wife always tells the children to do," said Stanley Wells, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Birmingham University, director of the Shakespeare Institute and general editor of The Oxford Shakespeare. "But it's taken a long time. Frankly, to be called a third-rater and that sort of thing in print is very offensive. I did get very irritated." And the debate? "It stands where it always did. Any evidence is inferential. There's nothing whatever directly to link her with Shakespeare." Wells endeavoured to be positive and allowed that Rowse has been a great populariser of Shakespeare; but that was for another generation.

It is possible, now, to see the Dark Lady as his King Charles's head, the obsession that knocked him off his professional balance and has coloured all views of him since. Before the Dark Lady, Rowse was a minor eccentric Fellow of All Souls, an acclaimed, if perhaps too prolific, historian who also wrote poetry in a manner too traditional, and perhaps too sentimental, to attract the critical attention he thought it deserved.

Lord Dacre (whose maiden name, as Rowse puts it, was Hugh Trevor-Roper) says that the Dark Lady changed him; from then, Dacre thinks, "his characteristic egotism and exhibitionism began to invade his scholarly work".

"It is very difficult to defend him," says Dacre, with a happy sigh. "But I will defend him, on the grounds that his work is good, has great historical imagination, and is very readable ... You should judge writers by their best writing and not by their worst, and so I ignore Conversations With My Cat [actually, A Quartet of Cornish Cats] and so on. But his early work, like Tudor Cornwall, and The England of Elizabeth, was really very good, first-class historical writing.

"I think one has got to take him whole. The work is overlaid by egotism and everything else, but you can't discount his historical judgement. But it's very difficult to put this across: my friends and pupils won't accept this."

SO WHAT is it with the Doctor? Stand back to avoid being trampled under the couch wheels of amateur psychology, and then consider the fertility of the field: boy from poor family, no books in house, strong, adored mother with no interest in learning, works so hard to get Cornwall's only Oxford scholarship that he contracts duodenal ulcer and says he never really felt well again until middle age; oft-advertised contempt for the common "idiot people"; and the famously ambivalent sexuality: "I have the advantage of ambivalence in every respect, dear".

Dacre has his own theory. He believes that Rowse's rise from Cornish cottage to aristocratic acquaintance and ambience at Christ Church and All Souls caused him to miss out on the stable, moderating values of the middle classes.

Back at the Cornish bedside, this goes down well. "I dare say he's right about that. You see a working-class man does not subscribe to this middle- class humbug of false self-deprecation, 'I'm not really very good', and so on." Warming, he goes on to explain his character by reference to his Cornishness, and the Celt's delight in taking a rise out of the English. And defiance in the face of their incomprehension and irritation. And, we might add, although he doesn't, their sometimes infuriating lack of interest. He quotes Henry James: "Nobody ever understands anything"; and Shakespeare: "A fig for opinion"; and Rowse: "The answer is that I don't care tuppence about reputation, thinking what I do about people's judgement".

Still, he takes comfort in comparing his failure to convince us all of his Shakespearean findings with his earlier struggle to convince the appeasers of Hitler in the 1930s, confirmation that the fault lies with the fools then and third-raters now, not with him. And if you wanted to sympathise with the bruises beneath the bravura, you might turn to All Souls In My Time, and read about his "fierce rejection complex", which started with his first real academic failure, when he was not given a fellowship at Christ Church, followed by his attempt to become a Labour MP in the 1930s, by his attempt to become Warden of All Souls, and by the Dark Lady. And you might read, too, his poem on leaving All Souls at 70, unwanted; and, elsewhere: "Loneliness was good for work and for poetry, always my consolation".

Dacre sees Rowse "as part of the comedy of life". David Starkey, the LSE and media don, sees him, despite the Cartland crack, as much more, a pioneer in socio-political history, or "histoire totale" as the French have it, a populariser, albeit one who has spread himself too thinly for too long, an antidote to the "dry-as-dust" school of Geoffrey Elton. Starkey also thinks him a more important historian than Dacre.

Rowse would like that, but not sympathy. He prefers to take a quick side-swipe at another old enemy, Christopher Hill, for omitting to buy John Evelyn's manuscripts when he was Master of Balliol; and to seize a useful opportunity to urge the new Globe theatre to put on his simplified Shakespeare texts, before mentioning the next book, about an unjustly neglected 18th-century vicar of St Austell and canon of Windsor, who was both poet and historian.

And then he struggles downstairs to show off his library in the house he coveted as a child, the house his father knew he would get. "We never had any books. Perhaps I've over compensated," he says, with the first touch of uncertainty. Later, Phyllis says he has given her teacher friend the sonnets to help her cope with a recent loss. And then you remember his delight, long ago, in Stratford, among the anoraks at a Shakespeare "audio-visual experience"; and his tears at the bard's grave. And his insistence that his life has been a happy one, topped with the fine Rowsean high note of defiance: "Anything wrong with that, sweetie?"