A. L. Rowse: Historian and friend.
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. Like all his friends, I was a recipient of it. Leslie could cut you dead in your tracks, but then mere moments later, turn nice as pie. I saw it as theatre; an excitement; an eccentricity. It is even possible an Australian soberness shielded me from the seemingly irreparable verbal bruises English ears sustained from him. How nauseating and pathetic to find them carrying on years later, offloading their resentments and grudges beyond the poor man's grave; as if bearing the stigmata forever! But no doubt Chard's biogr aphy provided the catalyst for their purpose.
Frankly, I was outraged by so-called reviews, which were outright character assassinations of Rowse; that had nothing to do with the biography itself -- snide, viperous thrusts; a knifing at Rowse; the book not the target, but its subject. I was disgusted by the juvenility and meanness running through it all. Richard Ollard must have felt some discomfiture with such incivility from his home-grown literary circle. He had written what is a good book. That is all!
Leslie told me straight: 'Ignore the Eng-Lit-Snake-Pit. They will discourage you if they can'. So, even if I felt a bibliography on a British writer should be published by a British publisher, undeterred, I went to America to find instant enthusiasm for my book over there. Leslie was quite right with his acute perception: 'The generosity of the Americans', he told me, 'seems inexhaustible'. Anyhow, his press was always better in America. There, he basked in celebrity, even cult-figure status, when he lectured at the major campuses from coast to coast. Sales of his Elizabethan and Shakespearian books soared into the bestseller lists. Yes, there are records of the odd adverse academic encounter, (Rowse was too ready to call a 'third-rater' when he considered he met one, wherever he was) but few of the silly, petty complexes followed him across the Atlantic, where he could enjoy the delicious climate of California and conduct his research in the decorum of the Huntington Library, where he was a visiting research fellow for years.
Yet when mentioning A. L. Rowse amongst academics in England, it appears they cannot find anything positive to say about a man who is internationally, recognised as one of the most extraordinary men of letters Britain ever produced, and, arguably the greatest Cornish literary figure in its history. Well, I am sorry to disappoint the sceptics, but my Rowse experiences do not equate with the invective kind. Richard Ollard calls mine: 'Sydney Cauveren's uncritical enthusiasm'. I thank him for the observation. How refreshing! And, I do think it's time to turn the tables and find some balance for a writer who was, admittedly, a character with his own incredibly complicated personality.
There was a lot of ploughing on with my bibliography through his work: the histories; the biographies and autobiographies; the poetry; the short stories; the reviews and the essays; an overwhelming productivity! What I repeatedly encountered, particularly with reviews of his later books, was this constant sniping put forth about my friend. I had read much of this work, and received almost a hundred personal letters from him. We received his encouragement as we went through serious illness -- like my partner John's cancer -- and he lamented with us over the death of Marlene, our ginger cat: 'It goes to one's heart', he sympathised, 'I never got a successor to dear loving little Flippy, though I think of him every night when I go to bed. And sometimes say a prayer to him' (letter 19 February 1992). So, why was such a warm-hearted, caring man, singled out for such spleen?
To the contrary, I found some jewels amongst his last books which continued to extend his range, beyond the historian he was best known for, into the all-round ambivalent man of letters he actually was. All Souls in My Time (Duckworth 1993), and, I particularly enjoyed Historians I Have Known (Duckworth 1995). Yes, there was bias; there was also some score-settling bile. It coloured the texture! But, the brilliance of his re-collection and, importantly, the vivacity of his prose, drove right through till his pen finally fell from his hand a year later. He wrote on the controversy his Historians book generated: 'Thank heaven John that you have Sydney to console you -- and that you have each other as a stout defence, a refuge against the cruelty of the world. I have not got that good fortune, and as a public target am under constant attack. . . They resent my hating their filthy society and down-grading their media-icons like A.J.P. Taylor. But private letters are quite different. The Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Jenkins, has written to me warmly praising the book and agreeing with me about A.J.P.T. This is the price one has to pay for all the publicity -- it will sell out the book and I shall cry all the way to the Bank' (letter dated 25 September 1995).
Himself a first rate reviewer, (see my bibliography for his numerous reviews in Contemporary Review 1990-1996), he was nearly always generous and positive to other writers. My secret thoughts on it were that some of these prickly, prissy dons really needed toughening up. A couple of bullies in the college quads might have improved them, instead of engaging in their sniping tactics behind closeted surroundings, planning literary assassinations against each other.
In July 1976, early in our friendship, John and I were invited guests for tea in the Common Rooms at All Souls. I remember a sheepishly inquisitive don approaching, no doubt nosy to see the young strangers in tow. 'Oh, Leslie, how nice to see you'. Before the don got his next enquiry out, Leslie burst back in high pitch: 'You too, some other time'. The don retreated smartly. And just like a mischievous schoolboy, full of impish fun, Leslie chuckled to us: 'He desperately wants to know who you are'. The altercation probably added to the Rowse reputation (in a negative way!). Granted, these were foreign surroundings to us, but we couldn't pick up much humour in the rooms of this most august of Oxford Colleges. Leslie to the contrary, full of it, constantly had us on our toes with his antics!
Leslie was a one off, if there ever was. Obviously jealousy played its part at Oxford, with one so gifted, and, prolific. He was an early successful author, perhaps too successful, and, too quickly for some! And, some of his books became classics in his lifetime. So diverse too. From The England of Elizabeth: The Structure of Society (Macmillan, 1950) -- this was the book that hooked me on Rowse in my high school days in Adelaide in 1964; through to A Cornish Childhood (Jonathan Cape, 1942). And, even his Poems Chiefly Cornish (Faber & Faber 1944), so characteristic, and encouraged in his poetry, by T. S. Eliot!
Rowse sat early on Olympus, hard work and great sacrifices triumphing over the odds of illness and a poor working class background. I think that stuck and stung all his life. He never forgot his roots, even if they impeded his social progress. He had an intensely sharp mind, coupled with an acute sensitivity. Envious colleagues, left trailing behind -- were occasionally told where to get off -- and I think that's the legacy that's stuck. I am inclined to think his contacts may have done better to humour the talented raconteur in Rowse; and recognise there was showmanship there from a man who enjoyed teasing people -- pulling their leg! As an outsider, I have observed the snub and snobbery in dons. No sense of humour about themselves; quite insufferable. By contrast I found Leslie was never stuck up and certainly preferred to encourage others, instead of tripping them up, or engaging in endless altercation for which he seemed to make more of a reputation than he deserved. Some of it was undoubtedly at his inst igation, but much of it equally, unnecessarily provoked by his antagonists.
His Shakespeare controversies stand out. His discovery of the real 'Dark Lady' of the sonnets -- made in Oxford's Bodleian Library in the Case Books of Simon Forman, the astrologer, created classic clashes with his rivals engaged in Shakespearian studies. Reading his: Discovering Shakespeare: A Chapter in Literary History, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989) I can fully sympathise with what he had to put up with. It amazes me why he bothered to respond to it all. His stamina was simply staggering. No wonder his patience sheered. On 19 September 1991 he wrote about the still ongoing saga to me: 'A Bassano-Dark Lady Exhibition for 1992 is preparing for Richmond -- Virginia and Bassano near Venice. It seems that my Shakespeare work is gradually getting across. The third-rate academics defend themselves by saying it is 'faulted' -- but there is not a single fault they can find. Bugger them. But I'd rather horsewhip them'.
My affection for him continues. It started with a letter of appreciation, congratulating him on a TV interview with Sir Ludovic Kennedy. A reply came for an invitation to tea at his London club, the Athenaeum. That was 1976, some 25 years ago. But the reality is, since his death, I have purchased over 200 annotated books from his personal library, possess almost all of his published works (in successive editions as well) -- from 1976 onwards almost all his new books were presents, and duly inscribed! In addition, I collected a huge amount of personal manuscript material, from his letters, to whole manuscripts, in autograph, of some of his books. Thus, A. L. Rowse - so absurdly overlooked in England - thrives on happily in Australia.
My air career with Qantas as a crew member, saw me based in London 1976-77, and provided subsequent opportunities for the occasional rendezvous for lunch in London, always at the Athenaeum. On a later occasion, 10 December 1982, he was in high spirits. The previous night he had been presented with the Benson Medal by the Royal Society of Literature. Over lunch, wrestling with some tough club cutlets, suddenly his right hand flew up, crooked index finger out: 'Look over there Sydney, that's where that thug Ribbentrop had his headquarters between the wars. I should like to see him hanging from that tree!' The force of the outburst arrested the whole dining room. It was vintage Rowse!
He returned to that visit in a letter almost two months later: 'What an enjoyable visit to the Athenaeum, nearly ordered out by the management for laughing so much. And giggling like drunks - this TT - along the pavements of Piccadilly, and losing my reputation in the basement of Hatchard's!' (letter dated 7 February 1983). (Rowse's big book of poems: A Life: Collected Poems (Blackwood, 1981) was recently out and he generously autographed the copies in that famous bookshop.) In an earlier letter he stressed the importance of that book: 'I regard my: A Life: Collected Poems as my most important book, for it is the register of my inner life (and my secrets) where the history books contain the outer interests' (letter dated 30 September 1982).
After London and Oxford, invitations to Cornwall followed. In August 1976, for the first, and only time, John and I went together. Both of us curious to see the 'writing cottage'. Instead we were bowled over by the beautiful location and magnificence of Trenarren House, an elegant Georgian manor situated on St. Austell Bay, with its luscious gardens, fuchsias and rhododendrons. The whole atmosphere bursting with inspiration! That trip, busy as he was, he took his young friends to see Place, the ancestral home of the Treffry family, and acquainted us with one of the prettiest towns in all of Cornwall - Fowey. On a postcard of the place, two months later, he penned: 'This is to remind you of your naughty pilgrimage to Cornwall just when I was most pressed with work' (dated 4 October 1976). Well, when wasn't this literary dynamo busy? One had to grab the opportunities.
During the next twenty years of our friendship, he wrote and edited over forty books, including his massive: The Annotated Shakespeare (Orbis, 1978) which Time magazine (USA) called 'an extravagant three-volume work that has no precedent and is not likely to have successors'. Contrary to their prediction, another multi-volume Shakespeare blockbuster appeared six years later: The Contemporary Shakespeare (University Press of America 1984-1987). Whatever his critics thought, even if they were in awe of Rowse, it was never penned.
My June 1984 visit included sightseeing tours to Lanhydrock, Restormel Castle, Trerice and Penzance. That involved a lot of driving: 'Sydney, I consider it a duty to show you around'. But, Leslie was no automobilist. In fact, many times I held my heart, surprised we kept to the narrow roads: always a little safer along the high hedged lanes; convinced we were protected by one of those many ancient Celtic Saints. But amongst all that hard work, he took the time to do it, and that's what counted. Furthermore, I considered the cargoes of Earl Grey - his favourite tea - that we regularly sent him to: 'pep me up', insufficient gratitude for my part!
Thus germinated the idea of my bibliography, which was a 'no strings attached', promise. I wanted to honour a friend in a lasting way. That was all! It was a long shot that I should pull it off, but, I stuck to my 'Rowse guns' as it were and seven years later the result materialised - I think, magnificently!
So, on my penultimate trip to Trenarren, in September 1993, I proposed to him my ambitious plan! If I were granted an exclusive interview in which he would discuss his long literary life at length, I would compile his bibliography, with the further suggestion that I should encompass his correspondence to me as well. Then in his 90th year, and still unbelievably enthusiastic about all matters literary, the appeal of my idea - a unique concept for a bibliography - brought his characteristic, instant encouragement, with the introductory interview now in the book. I thus embarked on a literary biographical bibliography for A. L. Rowse; new to the genre - so long recognised for being very useful but also very boring. In my work I intended to integrate and thus compliment A. L. Rowse's own lively literary style.
He was by that time mainly operating out of his bedroom, doing all his writing and reading there. As Phyllis said: 'He refused to get up and dress. The last time he did so was on Christmas day'. But his vitality remained undaunted. My interview was conducted at bedside, only interrupted by two sharp whistle blows from below. That was lunch, and, after nearly an hour and a half, it abruptly concluded the session, for breast of chicken and Cornish ice cream.
No sooner had I returned to London from my whirlwind three day visit, or he picked up his pen to write: (13 September 1993): 'The heavens have wept at your departure, rain has poured down, the trees have raged and tossed, the magnolia slashed against my window, the whole of Cornwall is angry, electricity cut off. Good thing you are not here for lunch today - no heating. You see how you are missed and what an impression you made - a disturbance all over Cornwall you raised a storm'.
Four days later, and before the earlier letter even reached me, he continued to write: 'In the Elizabethan Age, it is well known that witches raised up storms. Today you must be the most powerful wizard, considering the storm you called up on leaving. We had three big trees blown down, any amount of rhodos and fuchsias flattened the gravel and paths all strewn with leaves. Or, if it wasn't you perhaps Cornwall was raging and protesting at your departure. It shows what an impression you made! Well, Phyllis and I enjoyed seeing you again, and now that the whirlwind is over, and all is quiet, we miss you. Didn't we put our time to good use? The young man full of wizard energy quite wore the P.O.M. out. (signed) Much Love to John and You, Leslie'.
Whatever others may have experienced, with me, all the blustering aside, underneath it all he simply showed a heart of gold. This may be news to some, but I speak from personal experience without reason to embellish. From the encrusted negative press in England, I knew very well that no one would devote seven years of their life, at their own expense, to honour A. L. Rowse for posterity. There were many contradictions in his life. Look at my work to find the essays of celebration he contributed to the festschrifts of other writers he knew. Generous and lively tributes all. In return, he received almost nothing. Not forgetting the compliment that amounted to an insult, of the Companion of Honour on his death bed.
For years an embarrassing rumour has persisted that the highly decorated committee man for honours, Sir Isaiah Berlin, had repeatedly vetoed every effort to honour his senior Fellow of All Souls. Apparently, Prince Charles (Duke of Cornwall) is said to have had a hand in the last minute CH, there being no vacancy for the Order of Merit at that time.
I saw him for the last time, in April 1996, wasting away in bed. He looked a mere skeleton of his robust former self. Still full of fight with his mind in overdrive; angered by his failing physical condition; cataracts were blinding him. With irritation, he repeatedly wiped his sore eyes with paper tissues. He was abrasive too: 'I am not interested in being cheered up!' A letter on the heels of my emotional departure (I realised I would never see him again) explained: 'Lovely to see you, looking so well -- but too young. I want you to look more your age and make them take you as a serious authority . . . You were very good to take it rough and rude -- but I am twice your age, and am ambitious for you' (letter dated 28 April 1996).
Phyllis was by now retired to a nearby village, but Leslie refused to surrender Trenarren. He further refused the high costs of permanent staff. So his new help, hastily arranged, (he never was much of a domestic arranger) held a kind of 9 to 5 mentality. What happened soon after could all too easily be foreseen. Three months later, he suffered his major stroke that led to silence, and his death, just over a year later.
How desperate of the moguls I thought, to deliver the CH to his beside before death approached. Knowing Leslie well, had he remained strong enough he might have mustered up the energy to throw it back at them. It merely exposed the rottenness and the hypocrisy of the establishment he hated anyway.
Deeply involved in a writer, I came to love like an Uncle, I saw his failings too, but prefer to concentrate on his gifts -- his genius. As for negative criticism, others have done enough of that already, too readily. But I do realise his output was so extraordinary that his best work is likely to be overlooked. And, I will not detract from my conviction that A. L. Rowse, in his best Elizabethan and Shakespearian work, is a masterly -- a great -- historian. No doubt, a future generation of scholars will discover that fact. But, with his exacting scholarship, coupled with the lively brilliance of his staccato prose, he will live on. This new century is ripe for A. L. Rowse's re-evaluation.
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|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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