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A L Rowse. A Clever Boy.

It would be easy to list all the  achievements of Dr Rowse, but as his Bibliography is simple to find online along with his many honours, I don’t need to add to them. Instead, I shall add here, a few links and comments not readily available elsewhere.  I include a copy of the photograph and postcard I discovered in a book I bought,  along with a copy of a letter. In another blog about him on this site, I wrote that many of his peers had a problem with him and his attitude. But these personal notes show that he had many friends and admirers, who thought of A L Rowse as a clever boy and kind man.

A L Rowse

He sent a lovely photograph of himself on the Malpas Ferry and wrote on the reverse side

Malpas Ferry on the Fal, where, according to the medieval French chronicle . Tristram crossed over to Iseult on the bank, in the wood of Morois.  Moresk we call it today .ALR

On a postcard sent to Mrs. Richard Hatchwell of Chippenham on 27th March 1980, he wrote.

You are both sweet  to me. Delighted to have G’s book. I have most of his but this will make it complete. I have a  Corn Childhood  for you, but now when you come down will have some early Vols of  Poetry O.P. + unobtainable instead. You must go and see this place near Totnes. Nice old town too. Splendid! Medieval house and gardens. Love Leslie.

Rowse postcard

Richard and Mary Hatchwell were great friends of his and the interview and obituary below describe Mr. Hatchwell as the well known and respected antiquarian book seller that he was.

Richard Hatchwell Interview
Richard Hatchwell Obituary

The house he insisted they visit was Darlington Hall at Totnes. A L Rowse loved grand houses and the grand  families who lived in them and was friends and acquaintances with many in that circle. He was allowed access to many private libraries and family papers in order that he could complete the required research for his books. If anyone reading this wants to discover historical facts written in a flowing and easy to understand style, then read A L Rowse. He researched in great detail and his knowledge was second to none, especially with regard to Elizabethan,  Carolean and Jacobean history.

A letter he wrote to them from his home at Trenarren on 25th October 1994, shows their easy friendship.

Dearest Richard and Mary, Both,

Slow in sending you my horrible Regicides. But hope you approve my Shakespeare article in Daily Telegraph Week End Supplement, Oct 22.

When you come down again shall I sort out as last time – the mixture as before, some old rare books along with the moderns [though no fiction all good academically.]

All my friends are having ops, and Phyllis shingles – worried with re-decorating after dry rot! No worries of that sort when I lived in College. College life for me.

Wilts is not so damp as Cornwall – so hope you are spared re-decorating and shingles.

Much love Leslie.

Phyllis Candy was his housekeeper and looked after him for years. She was very protective of him, although Dr. Rowse was perfectly capable of looking after himself.

If you want to hear his voice, there are some lovely recordings on the BBC Archive website.

Desert Island Discs

Women of Mystery

and lately on You Tube.

He had such a wonderful speaking voice, which he honed himself at Oxford. He was never ashamed of his Cornish roots  or the thick accent, but he needed to be taken seriously.  He found himself mocked for having improved himself by some of his contemporaries, but he did not let it bother him unduly. Alan Bennett wrote a particularly cruel and unnecessary obituary about A L Rowse, soon after his death. alan bennett

Rowse does not appear to have had a great fondness for his mother, although he let her live with him in later years in spite of her nasty words and ingratitude. Their awkward relationship was discussed in Richard Ollard’s ‘A Man of Contradictions.’
Some of Rowse’s friends have also written books about him and all talk of him honestly and with great affection.

Tregonissey to Trenarren
Dr A L Rowse
A Man of Contradictions

Although a prolific and brilliant writer, his peers did not praise or revere him as they should have done. Dr Rowse certainly had a high opinion of himself and I feel the resentment he sometimes felt didn’t help his humour. A L suffered for years with stomach ulcers and in spite of  medication and operations,  at one time it was thought that he would die.  He seemed to live in a perpetual state of anxiety and perhaps a psychologist would point to the difficult relationship he experienced with his parents. We may decide, upon learning that a local butcher, Fred May , one day found it highly amusing to temporarily imprison the young boy inside a warm carcass, that here was another reason to create an underlying anxiety. There was also a strong rumour, not without foundation, that Fred May was, in fact, his real father. Sadly, in the end Rowse acknowledged that he was probably fathered by the butcher. He did visit some of the May descendants during one of his many USA lecture tours, but found little in common.
A L Rowse had no patience with some members of his family and neighbours in the small, tight community of Tregonissey. When he discovered that his eldest sister was born before his mother wed his father,  he romanced that he was really the son of  a St Aubyn. His mother had worked for them at St. Michael s Mount. The girl’s father was probably the daughter of a doctor where Rowse’smother had worked as a maid.
As he was writing one of his books  when living at Polmear Mine, his house overlooking Sr. Austell Bay, he noted that there was no one now left in Tregonissey from his childhood. That tight community had lived and worked and argued together for generations, but were now all gone. He experienced nostalgia as much as any of us do.
The personal reminiscences of his friends in the books detailed above confirm that his real friends and family genuinely loved and respected him. I am glad about that. I think he enjoyed his life and made sure that he got as much of of it as he could. Can everyone say that….
I am seriously thinking about starting a campaign to have Dr. Rowse properly recognised for his great works.
What do you think?

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A L Rowse 1903 -1997

rowseMy roots are Cornish and I have spent a good deal of time roaming and living in Cornwall during my life. Many of the greatest writers of our country were either born in the West Country  or lived there at some point. The land brings such inspiration to creative people and I am sure that  others feel the magic of the Universe when they stand on a misty moor or take a  walk through Luxulyan.

But, perhaps they don’t. The Cornwall I think of when I hear it’s name, are the narrow leafed lanes and the small communities who speak in guttural  tones. This I why I love reading A. L. Rowse. His ‘Cornish Childhood’ was a bestseller in its day and is still read now. In it, Rowse writes only about his young life before he leaves Cornwall for Oxford. But through his words, the reader soon understands the Cornish society, its people and its landscape.

Rowse came back to his Cornwall following his Oxford years and lived in the house by the sea at Trenarren, where he always thought he would.

He wrote many books in addition to his meticulous diaries, which were  historical non fiction and in my humble opinion, he  has never been given satisfactory recognition for his works. He had the rare skill of weaving facts  with expert story telling  and so as we read, we walk with him along the  streets and meet those he describes, as if they were in our lives right now. Then, as if by magic we discover that we have learned and understood some  interesting history.  If I had been given his books to read at my school, instead of listening to the constant droning of teachers who obviously understood little of what they taught me, I should have learnt a lot more, a lot sooner.

A L Rowse quickly dropped out of fashion  and out of the Oxford set in the 20’s and 30’s due to his forthright and often rude manner. He could be arrogant and suffered no one he considered a fool. I only recently met a man who knew him at University when they were both lecturers and he told me a tale of an unpleasant conversation they had had. I will not repeat it here, but have heard similar reports on different occasions.

When you read his early work it is possible to see what turned this rather clever boy from a relatively poor background, into the capricious and complicated man he became. I believe his attitude was the classic defence mechanism of a man who did not want to let anyone in.

He collected a great library of books, many first editions, which he bequeathed to the University of Exeter, The Royal Institution of Cornwall selected some and others were sold to dealers. I have quite a few of his books, many signed. It is rumoured that some wag said that in the latter years, a book not signed by A L Rowse would be worth more as it was rarer than a signed one. One of the books I bought from a dealer had a personal photograph of Rowse alongside a  letter written by him. Just an everyday letter, but I treasure it.

When I go to Cornwall, I visit his grave and place flowers. He has other friends living in the area still, who tend his grave and his memory and another book is being written about him now. It seems he is not forgotten.

Although so much of old home ground has been altered by new roads and  buildings,  if you read his work and that of his friends, such as Dr James Whetter,  it is possible to find the lanes and the fields he talked about. You can eat your lunch under the viaduct at Luxulyan as he did at Christmas with his good friend David Treffry . Or you could walk up the high lanes and sit and look at the spectacular view. I have done that. Rowse’s Cornwall is the Cornwall I think of, for it changed little from his younger day to my childhood. It has changed dramatically since then.

I don’t know how many times I have read ‘A Cornish Childhood’, but I do know that it’s not too many.