A. L. Rowse was born in Cornwall in 1903.
He was educated at a local grammar school and at Christ Church, Oxford. He was a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and emeritus fellow of All Souls College, Oxford.
He was one of Britain’s best known and most eminent historians. His publications include Tudor Cornwall (1950), Heritage of Britain (1977) and Four Caroline Portraits (1993). He also wrote many works of literary criticism, including several on Shakespeare and a life of Marlowe. He died in October 1997.
When I look at some of the people I interviewed for the Oldie magazine in the mid 1990s, most of whom were usually well past their allotted time-span, some have since departed this world and are presumably now talking to that great interviewer in the sky. I like to remember them for their foibles as much as their good points.
A. L. Rowse divided people into two groups: those ‘complacent in their ignorance’, and those ‘complacent in their mediocrity’.
Having told me his sexual proclivities were private, he went on to fondle my thigh throughout our brief encounter. It was rather embarrassing and totally out of order. In brief, I did not find common ground with him.
Here is the full text of my interview with the old bugger.
You are the living incarnation of local boy made good, rising from the working class to become a fellow of All Souls. On the one hand you seem to be very proud of your working-class origins, yet on the other there is no question that you wanted to leave them behind as far as possible. Are you aware of that as a contradiction?
I think it’s enrichment. It was quite natural when I got to Oxford that I should emphasize my working-class background because it was something very exceptional. You must remember how very difficult it was in those days for a working-class man to get there, I had had the greatest difficulty in collecting scholarships because my people hadn’t got a bean. I managed to get an open scholarship in English literature at Christ Church and there I was taken notice of by someone who became a lifelong friend, Lord David Cecil. He came from a tremendously famous aristocratic family, and I developed aristocratic standards partly from him, but I was also by nature an aesthete. I really loved music and pictures and books and art and all things that you couldn’t get in a working-class home. I had very much the same attitude as D. H. Lawrence, although he turned his back completely on the working classes. I never did that.
In the first volume of your autobiography you say that you thought of going into the Church. Did this ambition come from within, or was it something that was suggested to you?
It goes back to something very important. In the culturally rather impoverished way of life of the working classes the Church meant a very great deal to me. I had a rather fine voice as a boy, and I learned about music in church. It also opened my eyes to history. Of course people at Oxford thought that because I was a Cornishman I was a nonconformist, but I never was; I was always a Church of England man and that was a bit upper class too.
Why didn’t you join the Church?
I rather grew out of that boyish idea, because as a schoolboy I was already not only writing poetry but being published. My headmaster sent my poems to Public School Verse, and there I am along with Graham Greene and Christopher Isherwood and Evelyn Waugh, all the people with whom I had to compete later on.
The impression I have from your autobiography is that religion ultimately was a bit of a disappointment – its appeal was purely aesthetic and emotional. Is that still your position today?
You’ve got it absolutely right. It never really meant anything to me intellectually. It was aesthetic, and therefore consistent with my make-up; I’d always loved the ritual and the music and the historicity of the Church, and still do. And I subscribe to the church financially, though anonymously.
Did you ever turn to the Church in extremis, for example when you were seriously ill?
No. By that time I really had become very much of a stoic. Stoicism was also the religion of most of the boys who sacrificed their lives in the war against filthy Hitler. They did not believe intellectually in the dogmas of the Church any more than I did, but they did their duty, and I too was very much motivated by doing my duty. I learned that from All Souls, where all the old fellows were very loyal to the British Commonwealth and served it to the best of their ability. And I rather caught that. My own service was really to my daimon which drove me to writing – that was what I was intended for.
Your case for studying history is based on the fact that our problems are essentially political and social. In that context you say: ‘To that end no amount of physics and chemistry will help, but a knowledge of history may and should.’ Would you not agree that this is a rather idealistic view and that in practice we seem to learn very little from history?
I don’t think I do agree with that. I still am very much wedded to facts. I really do not like an awful lot of people who are what I’ve always called middle-class do-gooders. I’ve never been geared to ethics. Ethically and perhaps morally, I’m rather uneducated. My real interests are factual – that’s history – and then the life of the imagination, which is poetry.
But historically, apart from being factual, is also subject to interpretation…
Yes, but I’m not very much interested in people’s interpretations. I’m terribly anti-theorizing; indeed real historians don’t like theorizing. Right up to the war I remained tremendously anti-Chamberlain, because of his policy of appeasing Hitler. I knew at the time that it was all nonsense, though the whole country went whoring after it. So I’m not surprised when later on in life I find that people haven’t really been able to understand my work, since they don’t really know how to think.
At secondary school you were very affected by the death of a schoolfriend. You describe it as the only friendship at school that was based on ‘mutual attraction and affectionate sympathy’, and your account is very moving. Were you in love with the boy?
I don’t think so. You must remember how long ago all this was, and how very innocent a small grammar school was. We didn’t really know much about the facts of life. John was a dear fellow, with the advantage of a London background, but he was rather a follower of mine, because I always had a leading personality.
When you went to Oxford you described yourself as ‘largely a creature of feeling and sentiment’, and uncertain of yourself intellectually…
You’re absolutely right there. When I was a boy at school I was rather lonely because there weren’t many others who could really catch up with one, but when I got to Oxford I came into contact with other people who were as clever. The scholars at Christ Church spent an awful lot of time arguing about everything, and that was how I learned to think.
Your decision to go to the history school rather than the English school increased your interest in politics. How much was the interest to do with the idealism of a young man?
Quite a lot. I did not choose the history school, however, but I was sent there by the dons. I was a scholar in English literature and I expected to read English because I was writing poetry and was really very literary, but in those days Christ Church didn’t teach the English school. Later on, they asked me would I take on being their English literature don, but they had already made the mistake of asking me to stand for a history fellowship and then appointed somebody else, so I turned them down and banged the door and bolted it. That was overreacting a bit, don’t you think?
Elsewhere, in A Cornishman at Oxford, you write: ‘How limitless is human folly in the sphere of politics.’ When did disillusionment creep in?
As an undergraduate I was a member of, and ultimately chairman of, the university Labour club. This was partly loyalty to the working classes, because all my artistic taste was very un-Labour. I then learned from the political elections what idiots the masses really are about politics. President Roosevelt, a great democrat, once said, ‘the public never understands’. Well they don’t. And that was one of the fundamental factors that disillusioned me with political activity.
What do you think of politicians today?
I’m rather sympathetic to the poor souls who public-spiritedly take up the burden of being in politics. I think they have an absolutely awful time of it. I’m quite sympathetic to John Major, and also to Tony Blair – I’m sure that they’re out to do their best. Despite hating being a political candidate, I did get to know people whom I greatly admired. I was a great follower of Ernest Bevin, who was a truly great man, and so was Clem Attlee. They were both great servants of the country. Later on in life, I got to know Winston, and of course he was top of the lot, because not only was he a great man, but he was also a man of genius, and a historian, and a writer, so that naturally he spoke to me.
You have sometimes said that but for your working-class roots you would have been a natural conservative. If you were standing for election today, which party would you be representing?
I think that very naughty of you, asking something like that which I can’t very well answer. You are right in suggesting that my tastes were conservative, but I’m now non-party, and that’s consistent with my being sympathetic to the burden of all politicians. Look at the awful time Clinton is having. I’m rather shocked at the way in which people in any high place of responsibility are unfairly attacked constantly. It’s just like attacking the royal family, which is terrible when you think how devoted to their duty they are. This is a very important reflection on contemporary society, where everybody thinks he’s as good as everybody else. Well, that’s nonsense, and since standards of every kind are going down the drain, it is discreditable to attack public figure, whether they’re in politics or the Church. I wouldn’t be a bishop for anything today.
Your approach to academic matters has often been controversial, some would say adversarial. You have also been very dismissive of colleagues, calling them third rate and ultra conventional. Has this been a considered approach in the sense that you have set out to be controversial, or is it merely the pattern which has developed?
It’s the responsibility of other people. I don’t think of my work as controversial at all. I think of it as very down to earth, commonsense; but commonsense is itself very controversial today. An awful lot of people writing in the papers, especially liberal intellectuals, don’t have any commonsense at all. There was nothing controversial all those years ago about my attitude to appeasement. People were absolutely wrong in thinking that you could appease Hitler, and just as I was absolutely right then, I’m absolutely right about Shakespeare now.
But your Dark Lady theory is not accepted by the world of scholarship. You seem to attribute that more to professional jealousy than to flaws in your own argument.
I don’t think that’s right. When the great scientist Harvey discovered the circulation of blood, nobody in his own profession would believe it and his practice as a doctor fell to zero. So it doesn’t disturb me that a lot of third-rate people don’t really understand something that’s first rate.
To press you further, you seem to be absolutely certain of your theory, even though there is no circumstantial corroboration – Shakespeare left no notes to Emilia Bassano – and you dismiss everyone else who does not share that certainty. Isn’t this a rather rigid approach?
No, it’s completely consistent with my view that when it comes to thinking people simply can’t do it. And by the way, I have a bit of news for you – people are really coming round to my view. When I was interviewed by Ned Sherrin, he understood the whole shoot, and was in agreement with it. Why? Because he’s a very clever man with a first-rate brain. I’ve always been misunderstood by people with third-rate brains, which, although it’s rather irritating, doesn’t upset me, being just what I expect. But you be careful to keep your ears open and your eyes, because you will find that my identification of the Dark Lady is absolutely irrefutable. The great bulk of people don’t know anything about the Elizabethan age, so they would do very well to shut up and listen to somebody who does know about it. After all, Cornishmen are apt to be rather cautious, and I would never risk my neck if I weren’t completely certain. As the leading authority on the Elizabethan age, I would not have been worth my keep if I didn’t really know best what was going on in it.
Most scholars seem to believe that Shakespeare was a homosexual, and the evidence does seem to be overwhelming. Why are you so unwilling to accept that theory?
Well, because it’s absolute rubbish. Everything in William Shakespeare’s work shows that he was more than normally interested in women. That’s true of his work, and it’s true of what we know personally about him.
Enoch Powell, no intellectual lightweight, is convinced that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a committee. What is your reaction to that?
It’s just dotty. And I don’t agree that he is no intellectual lightweight. That’s exactly what he is, and conceited with it. He ought to be prepared to learn from other people who know. Take this latest nonsense of his, that there was no crucifixion; there’s not a sliver of evidence to support it. Enoch Powell has very erratic judgement. I believe he was born at Stratford-upon-Avon and I think the explanation of his nonsense about Shakespeare is purely psychological. I regard it as his adolescent reaction against Stratford.
You divide those you disagree with into two categories: those who are ‘complacent in their ignorance’ and those who are ‘complacent in their mediocrity’. Which group does Powell fall into?
He’s just a crank. I think if you’re a historian you know how stupid people are throughout the whole of history. I mean, imagine the whole of the German people, or most of them, voting to support Hitler. Or the great bulk of English people voting for Neville Chamberlain thinking that he could do a deal with Hitler and then surprised when it lands them in a war. I don’t really respect ordinary people’s thinking; they can’t think, only they don’t know it. Ordinary people’s thinking is practical; they can mend a fuse or they can extract a tooth, but they can’t think in the abstract. I quite like human beings, but I don’t respect their stupidity.
Your attitude towards homosexuality seems to be quite relaxed. You see it as a variety of ordinary sexual experience, but you don’t approve of gay-rights activists or homosexual lobbies. Why not?
I’ve never been in favour of people really sticking their necks out about awkward subjects like that. My own principle is that people should keep their private lives private. Of course if they want to make their private tastes public, like my friend Wystan Auden, then they’re open to discussion, but I happen to think that’s rather vulgar. And an awful lot of activist propaganda, whether on the part of men or of women, is also vulgar. I would prefer them to shut up.
You once said in a newspaper interview in 1993, ‘My sympathies are entirely homo.’ Was your own disposition exclusively towards homosexuality?
You must always be careful about this word exclusive, because people are really much more mixed than they realize. I have a strong feminine side in my sensibility, but I also have a rather strong masculine side in my aggressiveness. I’m against people categorizing themselves too simply. In all my work I’m very sympathetic to the complexity and ambivalence of human nature. And I don’t expect them to listen to me.
You were in love with Adam von Trott during the thirties. It seems to have been a very complex relationship, made more difficult by relations between Germany and England … how do you look back on that relationship?
I still value and remember it. Of course it was completely platonic, both of us being terribly high minded. I owed a good deal to it because it gave me a window into the German soul and enabled me to understand things which most English people don’t really understand. I once asked Adam why it was that the Germans have to be so hysterical about everything, and he gave me a fascinating reply to the effect that Germans don’t really feel that they’re alive unless they are being hysterical.
Have all your loves always been platonic?
Wouldn’t you like to know…
Yes I would…
I told you that I think people should keep their private lives private. But if you read my poems you will find that my private life is all in my poetry, and you can read between the lines for yourself.
You have never married … did you ever come close to marriage?
I’ve always had women friends and I’ve really been quite close to at least two or three of them, but as one of my friends in Oxford, a Roman Catholic monk, observed, I’m really married to my work. The other thing is that due to all that strain of trying to get to Oxford and being a political candidate, I developed the most appalling duodenal ulcers which nearly killed me, and since I was always under the strain of ill health, that helped to prevent me from being caught. In this respect I’m a little ahead of my time, because people don’t really go in for marrying nowadays. It saves the expense of divorce.
Do you think women are bad for one’s health?
No, I’m in favour of marriage for ordinary people. But I think that marrying a man of genius is an awful strain for the woman. Look at all the frightful stories of married unhappiness among gifted people.
C. P. Snow once said: ‘I wish I was as certain of anything as Dr Rowse is of everything.’ Do you find that remark cutting?
No, I didn’t have a very high opinion of Uncle Charles Snow as a novelist, and in any case that remark is a complete piece of plagiarism. It is actually what Lord Melbourne said of the historian Macaulay. One of the things that people don’t understand is that privately I’m really rather sceptical. If you notice, I haven’t really stuck my neck out about many things of public importance. But I am certain about things in the Elizabethan age, and so I damn well ought to be, having spent my life at it.
You seem to believe that since the end of the war British society has gone rapidly downhill and consequently you do everything you can to isolate yourself from it. Isn’t that a completely escapist outlook on life?
Don’t you think it’s a very good thing to escape from a burning house? To escape from a flood, washing everything down the drain? Yes, I do think that modern society is very shocking. There is a real breakdown of standards in public life.
You once said that modern Britain is governed by three things: thuggery, muggery and buggery. Did that statement appeal to you for its aphoristic qualities, or do you think it is a theory with a serious basis in fact?
I think I must have been making a joke, if I said it at all. I must say I don’t recognize it as a quote. You have to be awfully careful nowadays because people will print things in the newspapers that were never said.
Although you are an Elizabethan at heart, it is unlikely that you would have risen in society under Elizabeth I. Does this strike you as irony?
You’re absolutely right that I am more geared to Elizabethan standards than I am to the complete downfall of standards in democratic society. But I don’t agree that people couldn’t rise in the Elizabethan age. William Shakespeare rose from a rather good middle-class family in Stratford to be the leading dramatist of the age and he made himself independent with a small fortune. Francis Drake, a fellow west-countryman, did far better, because he started as a poor boy like me with absolutely nothing at all, and see what he made of his life.
You have often said that you know you are a better poet than most poets published today. What do you think has prevented this from being more generally recognized?
You’ve got a very searching point there. It’s partly due to the specialization of today. People think of me as just a historian and nothing else, whereas the truth is that I was writing and even publishing poetry years before I ever dared to write a work of historical research. Also I always regarded my poetry as fundamentally private and I think that’s one of the reasons why it isn’t really fully appreciated. Of course people never understand anything complicated and I rather think that my work is so complicated that it will only receive true recognition in the next century.
Is this a difficult cross to bear, given how important your poems are to you?
Partly, but it only confirms what I think about ordinary people’s stupidity. I never really take seriously what anybody thinks, because I know they don’t know how to think. I have known a number of poets in my time. I owed a very great deal to T. S. Eliot, who published the first three volumes of my poetry and wrote the blurbs. I’ve always thought that if my poetry was good enough for T. S. Eliot, it’s certainly good enough for third-rate people who never understand anything.
Do you think perhaps you have stayed young by remaining angry?
I’m rather less angry than I used to be. My attitude now is much more one of acceptance. At one time I was a very angry young man politically, and it made me hate people’s idiocy. I don’t agree with religious people who talk about original sin and say that human beings are fundamentally evil. I think that’s rubbish. The trouble with them is that they’re just stupid. It is human folly which is responsible for all the wars and all the hatreds between peoples. William Shakespeare recognized the fact of human idiocy, but he was more accepting than I am. My mind has been much more influenced by Jonathan Swift who thought that humans were awful fools. That’s really the true explanation of what goes on in Northern Ireland, or the Lebanon, or India, or South Africa, or nearer home.
In A Cornish Childhood you say that you never for a moment understood why humanity should be regarded as a virtue. ‘I thought it was contemptible,’ you say. Why do you think humanity so contemptible?
I think it’s quite right that humble people should enjoy the pleasure of humility, but an awful lot of humility is really bogus and just an inverse way of people recommending themselves. I think self-deprecation is nonsense. I’m more in favour of absolute honesty and commonsense.
You have compared yourself to Stendhal in the sense that you don’t expect your work to be fully appreciated till half a century after your death. What is it, do you think, that prevents it from being fully appreciated during your lifetime?
You’re asking an awful lot there. For one thing, I don’t really have an English temperament. Like most Cornishmen I’m really much more cutting and aggressive, and that’s one thing that makes it difficult for English people. The English have a great weakness for humbug, like Lord Baldwin. He was absolutely made of humbug. Well, I don’t stand for any humbug, and I have a very sharp nose for it. Another thing is that people don’t really understand an aesthete. There’s also a whole side of my life which people really know nothing about, and that’s America. So it would take them an awful long time to catch up with what really amounts to three lives: Cornwall, Oxford and America. All this will come right in time, but in the meantime it would be very difficult indeed for somebody to get all the way round the mountain.