Saturday, April 07, 2012

Profile : A.L.Rowse Revisited

As an isolated and bookish only child, I resolved - unilaterally - at the age of twelve that I would try to go to Oxford and read history. Being "the first in one's family to go to university" now seems to be regarded as a cliche to be routinely sneered at by the "Daily Mail" and the process leading to my decision need not detain us here.

Once embarked upon this enterprise, which absorbed most of my conscious and probably sub-conscious thought for the next seven years or so, I was on the look-out for role models and validation. Examples of anyone who had trodden the same path were rare.

It was opportune that in my first year at grammar school in 1965, I came across the newly published "A Cornishman at Oxford" by A.L.Rowse. This led me to it's forerunner, Rowse's "A Cornish Childhood", published in 1944.

Try as I may, I now only have a dim recollection of my reaction as a first former to both volumes of autobiography. I recall I sympathised most of all with his huge ambition and need to express himself against the odds. I empathised with his loneliness and sense of isolation and felt sorry for the bullying he suffered, as someone so different. I already knew how strong his fear of failure must have been, but was shocked at the unkindness of his often superior attitude to his parents and phrases such as "Everyone is a fool in this house except me." Driven and insecure, Rowse certainly hated his working class origins. He may even at times have hated his family.

I related completely to his fascination with books and my strongest impression was of the total immersion in reading required to broaden the mind sufficiently to face the entrance exams and final Schools. My enduring image from the books is Rowse sitting alone with a blanket over his knees reading daunting texts whilst the gnawing pain of an untreated duodenal ulcer made life miserable.

So for a twelve year old, Rowse's autobiographies helped a little. They showed an all-absorbing ambition to enter the portals of the world's best university was not entirely foolish - although it would obviously be difficult and require sacrifices. They demonstrated that fascination with a subject did not make one a freak. It was also apparent that immersion in books and ambition gave a respite and shelter from other more painful issues -loneliness, isolation, inhibition and the pain of not really being like anyone else. My general recollection of the books was dark but reassuring: they gave some grounds for optimism.

Fast forward: study, examinations, Oxford Entrance, interview, College et in arcadia ego, Schools, articles,  earning a living, career, houses, cars, holidays, life partner,   retirement....forty years later. Now in looking back I decided to revisit Rowse's books to see what impression they create now and how much I had changed in the interim.

Of the two books, "A Cornish Childhood" is now much the more interesting. As well as the narrative autobiography there are sketches of village and family life. Rowse describes the customs of his youth, the local rivalries, the high jinks of the drunken "shivaree" on many a wedding night with the detachment of Alan Whicker talking of tribesmen up the Amazon.

Tregonissey in those days seems wilder and more pagan than Nonconformist. Perhaps this is the first of the contradictions that become apparent in Rowse's life and character and that his biographer Richard Ollard later focused on in summing him up a "A Man of Contradictions".

The descriptions of Rowse's uncle - Cheelie - a charmer destined to die tragically young, cast some light on Rowse's mentality and perhaps his sexuality. Cheelie seems to be everything that Rowse was not : good-natured, outgoing in a natural and relaxed way and comfortable in his own skin. That gregarious and talented free spirit seemed to strike a chord in Rowse and was perhaps the only person from his own family or even class that he ever truly respected and loved. Those like Quiller-Couch and Churchill whom he admired could hardly be said to share his background or class.

Here lies another contradiction. The brilliant but touchy Rowse is disdainful of the small-minded philistinism of many of those surrounding him. On the other hand, he recognises the hardships they endured and the qualities he regarded as "Cornish", combining the Celtic and Nonconformist heritage with a native intelligence of those on the margin, which some might call "cunning". One ends up with his view of the Cornish mindset and the way things worked then, including the deprivation that drove many to seek better lives abroad, as it did with so many Scots and Irish.

As ever, he contradicts himself in praising Cornish culture and history and the fortitude and enterprise of its people. On the other hand as a talented egocentric he finds his birthplace stultifying and provincial. Like some Mafia don returning to Sicily, however, he was drawn back to Cornwall throughout his life and attained the large house, that others might come to look at through its railings. Perhaps he had to prove something to those he had risen above or even to himself.

The Rowse's cottage might have been picturesque, but the life he describes there does not have any of the cosy appeal of Flora Thompson and Larkrise. The sanitation is rudimentary and the open drains smell. The poverty is accompanied by a narrow-mindedness that is not appealing and does not encourage rose-tinted nostalgia. One is left with a clear understanding of why Rowse felt like a fish out of water and wanted to escape. In childhood, he often looked through the locked gates of the Cornish gentry and wished he lived there instead, but that world that could never be his either. In some ways this encapsulates Rowse's personal tragedy: from birth he was a lost soul unfitted for his own world but never to be accepted in the world to which he aspired.

Strangely, the scene appears even more depressing when the family decamps from the cottage and shop to a newly built council house nearby. The bathroom facilities were no doubt better but one senses that, for Rowse, being stuck in a row of identical humdrum council houses was infinitely mediocre, isolating and sad.

"A Cornish Childhood" and to a lesser extent "A Cornishman at Oxford" is particularly strong in its descriptions of the Cornish countryside and Rowse's solitary tramps there. We are left with vivid pictures of Luxulyan Valley that meant so much to him and the fine houses against whose metaphorical window panes the young man pressed his nose with longing. The adult reader now knows that in later life Rowse achieved his early ambition of a fine property in the area.

Rowse's autobiographies leave one with a clear picture of his origins in the Cornish working class. We come to understand a good deal of his motivation, insecurities, sensitivities, resentment and drive. His tendency to boast is plain and as are the reasons for it. Rowse admitted "I am too sensitive" and that he had "one skin too few" and was correspondingly "vulnerable". This aggressive streak led him to accumulate numerous enemies amongst many already predisposed to find fault. Thus, he was regarded by many as a misfit inclined towards self-drama and self-indulgent wallowing in working class disadvantage. Some considered his energetic cultivation of the great and good as one of the few things that put a momentary stop to the flood tide of his insecurities.

On a more personal level, there is some evidence of affection for his own sex and strong boyhood bonds, but nothing definitive. This is particularly surprising in a man subsequently described matter-of-factly as openly gay. Since both volumes predated Wolfenden this discretion is understandable, if somewhat misleading.

We do see evidence of his strong self-righteous or petulant streak as exemplified in his spat as a Sixth former with his teacher Miss Griffiths over a letter to a local newspaper. He admits that, like similar incidents, it had an effect out of all proportion and "undoubtedly gave me a complex. I harboured the resentment and a sense of injury and for years I used to dream about that woman". In this case, the child is most certainly father of the man and Rowse developed a positive flair for vicious argument, deeply-felt hatred and bilious grudges. Rowse never forgot or really forgave Miss Griffiths for crossing him at grammar school and his unforgiving anger formed a sad template for later life. It made him capable of memorable, but ill-judged bon mots such as "I don't like other people. I particularly don't like their children."

Against his choleric side we see moments of tenderness revealed when Rowse seems off guard. He refers affectionately to Neddy, the inventively-named, family donkey for whom he seemed to care genuinely. This predisposition towards donkeys is reflected in his liking for R.L.Stevenson's book on travels with his donkey. It struck a chord with me since in the past year I enjoyed and been moved by Andy Merrifield's "The Wisdom of Donkeys" which told the tale of his slow pilgrimage around the Auvergne with his tender and intelligent companion, Gribouille. This affecting book shadowed in many ways Stevenson's treck in another part of the region one hundred and thirty years earlier with his donkey, Modestine. In my view, anyone naturally simpatico with such tranquil and enlightened beings as donkeys cannot be all bad.

At one point he also speaks of always doing up his father's stiff collars in a way that is human and gentle and quite appealing. He also worries about making a contribution towards family finances during vacations in a way that does him credit and is at odds with the stereotype of the vain son always critical of his ignorant family.

"A Cornishman at Oxford" was interesting but written in quite a pedestrian style. Sadly, even his account of the General Strike made for dull reading. Perhaps the real thrill had been been in getting to Oxford from Tregonissey. Rowse desperately needed to succeed in getting a First and obtaining a Fellowship to forge an academic career, but to the reader this was not the same matter of life and death that so damaged Rowse's health. The strain upon him in achieving his end is clear and well-described, but his walks, tea parties and office in the Labour Club do not set the pulse racing. The undergraduate that emerges from these pages is rather a prig and not entirely plausible or sympathetic.

Slightly disappointingly, Rowse's conventionality extends to being quite a tame "House man" upholding and revelling in the quaintnesses of its ritual and tradition. Someone from so far on the wrong side of the tracks might have been expected to have felt some antipathy towards the class-ridden smugness of the place and to seek to puncture it. Instead we have a Scholar who conformed, sought office in the Labour Club and participated in earnest undergraduate discussion and hoped to become a don - like so many of his contemporaries. Whether this working class boy adopting the mores of the upper class with such complete conviction and comfort smacks of Uncle Tom, I really don't know. It might have been strange for someone who fought so hard and long to reach a place to do anything but revel in it. On balance, I think I would have expected a man of his intellect at least to see the issue and feel some unease - even if he then chose to disregard it. To mix metaphors dreadfully, in Rowse's case he seems to have achieved his goal, seen nothing wrong with it, pulled up the lifeboats and sailed blissfully on.

We hear nothing material regarding his sexuality or anything remotely daring during his Oxford career, although there is a dreary sub text of not-very-subtle innuendo regarding such things as what he calls his "feminine side" from which one can wearily conclude where his preferences lay. By this time one doesn't care awfully much if he was homo-, bi-, a-, Ray or Fay.

Rowse seemed to like to convey a sort of a-sexuality with wistful remarks at the end of paragraphs such as that "excitement is reserved for my inner life" and that "the answer is to live it as an inner exile". This pure and abstemious vision is slightly at odds with later accounts of a roving eye and an energetic fascination with young policemen and sailors. In his later years a respected journalist speaks of using a hefty file to ward off "the octogenarian's groping attacks on his modesty", so I think it safest not to assume complete abstinence from carnal pursuits.

Having strived so diligently to get there and having the financial support of his hard-won scholarship and benefactors like Quiller Couch must have placed Rowse under a moral obligation to apply himself conscientiously and certainly not to be sent down in disgrace. This is more or less what he seemed to do with the odd light relief from the Labour Club and literary reading which was strictly speaking off-syllabus and writing of poetry for pleasure.

So Rowse's Oxford is no creation of Evelyn Waugh: no quail's eggs, teddy bears or punting in the Parks sipping champagne and eating ripe strawberries. In Rowse's world we have no instances of anyone declaiming Edith Sitwell's verses through a megaphone out of an open window over Christ Church meadow.

Nor do we see Harold Acton teaching Rowse how to tango and bickering with girlish laughter over who should lead. The odd friend is described in virtually romantic terms but disappointingly, there is no trace of the louche, decadent or unnatural - by way of vice or otherwise. Rowse lunches with the famous - the Masefields at home and Lady Ottoline Morrell out at Garsington - but emerges from the pages of his autobiography as chaste and unsullied by any impurity of thought or deed, like a dreary curate.

Nor should one forget that Rowse's Fellowship was the first election to All Souls from the working class and, as such, was written up as a news story in the "Daily Mail". Given that Rowse appears more than somewhat affronted that he was not born to the station his brilliance and hard work enabled him to attain, he must have had very mixed feelings about this rather patronising coverage.

As time passed, Rowse's anger and personal bitterness accumulated. His personality did not have the healthy capacity enjoyed by many to overlook or forget past slights. Rather than be put into perspective or simply forgiven they were amplified and fretted over. They were never filed away in a drawer and forgotten, they were dusted off and brought out for review at regular intervals. It seems he applied his oft repeated mantra "Never give up, never give in" to feuds and grievances.

As he went through life, Rowse's collection of slights, inane jealousies and perceived failures grew. He was "only" proxime accessit in the Newdigate poetry competition, he failed to be appointed to the history lectureship at his old college Christ Church, and failed in both parliamentary elections and in the contest to be Warden of All Souls.

In later life he deeply resented that he was not knighted or awarded the Order of Merit. When the historian, Veronica Wedgwood replaced G.P.Gooch he venomously remarked "She has my OM".

In many ways these disappointments weighed more heavily with him than his successes. They seemed to demonstrate that he did not entirely fit in -with his family and class in Cornwall, with academia in Oxford or in the world of letters as a whole. It might be argued that he felt more comfortable on the lucrative lecture circuit in the United States where he could more often rely upon being taken at his own very lofty estimation.

Such a fragile ego was extremely vulnerable to criticism. He was decried as "an impossible figure tarnished by lunatic self importance". The rejections upon which he placed such enormous weight seemed to become the basis of his entire view of himself, not unlike the defective body image of the anorexic or bulimic.

Rowse's self-image thus seems to have comprised a sequence of negatives whilst all around him inferior persons were preferred. Perhaps Rowse's most obvious weakness was an inability to cope with the ordinary disappointments of life - like the rest of us. When from your earliest years you have felt yourself better and cleverer than everyone else, this may however be different.

So where does that leave the prickly and difficult Alfred Leslie Rowse? Is he anything more than "a deeply unpleasant man"?

We come to hear of his agonizing uncertainty over his own paternity and wonder what effect his own musings over the long distant sexual encounters of his allegedly cold and egotistical mother had on his own sexuality. Was he then son of Dick Rowse, poor china clay worker, feisty Fred May the Tregonissey butcher or a scion of the local gentry?

Views of Rowse's academic standing vary. He was thought brilliant by some and by others erratic or simply someone who courted popular fame and failed to fulfill his promise of the greatness he so desired? Many called him "a gifted memoirist", some "an indifferent poet" and several "a first class prick."

I admit to having some reservations about the work of Rowse's chief biographer Richard Ollard. Whilst I do not think it is necessary to go into prurient detail regarding Rowse's personal life -"to make windows in mens' trousers" as Queen Elizabeth I did not say, I do think the delicate area needed to be touched upon more frankly, if we are to have a rounded and indeed truthful impression of the subject.

A biographer cannot really be excused such a key facet of his subject's psyche, just because he finds it distasteful or unfamiliar territory. If that's the case, leave it to someone better fitted to the task; it is not really something that lends itself to be excused from with a note from mother, like games at school.

Be that as it may, I find the rest of Mr Ollard's analysis scholarly, balanced and thoughtful, including what appears to be his overall conclusion. He saw Rowse as a man of great underlying kindness whose vanity and animosity ("deutero-Rowse") as distinct from the more likable "proto-Rowse" were a pose, allowing him to camouflage his vulnerability and manipulate a world which he despised and feared.

A gifted individual like A.L.Rowse struggled to achieve his ambition from an unpromising background. He did so by virtue of hard work and unremitting dedication to his task. The world in which he moved was daunting and difficult and Rowse did not always succeed as he thought he should - as witness the "failures " listed above.

Rowse's mechanism for coping with this unwelcoming world was extreme bluster, self-importance and aggression, but let us accept that this was often a front for a much nicer man.

The obituary of A.L.Rowse in the "Pink Paper" on 10 October 1997 noted "He was openly gay and despite a brusque and blustering disposition was well known for the habit of calling all-comers 'sweetie'." I find it hard not to like someone like that and, with all his "contradictions," am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel very grateful for this quiet, temperate, thoughtful, lucid sketch of Rowse as a human being. But I think it falsifies a bit, by not conveying clearly enough that as a historian he had genius, and that even centuries from now, much of his delectable prose will still be as fresh as when it was written. About every kind of person, even those wholly unlike himself, he was hungrily curious, subtly observant, and imaginative, and he knew how to make wonderfully penetrating portraits, that convincingly catch the 'likeness'.

And beyond that, he has always been precious to me as an example of someone who, by an astonishing capacity for hard work, 'realizes' in concrete works every ounce of his talent.

I know that artistic achievement does not excuse anyone's failings as a human being. But I think it better not to 'judge' him overall, but to leave that to God to do.

10:15 AM  
Blogger Deryck Solomon said...

I think this comment is fair and in retrospect agree I should have placed more emphasis on the brilliance of Rowse as a writer and historian. I think this error in emphasis occurred because to me his success and celebrity meant his talent was self evident. The abiding memory of his autobiography for me is the pain, dedication and sheer hard work involved - which in many ways inspired me from the age of 12to want to read history at Oxford despite and not because of a working class background. On the question of "judging", in writing the piece I had intended to explore a fascinating and complex personality rather than impugn it. I hope these comments redress any unintended impression of disapproval. For what it's worth, my personal sentiments are exactly the opposite.

2:05 PM  

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