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Home :: Archive :: 1997 :: October ::
Obituaries: A. L. ROWSE
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 8.1012.  Tuesday, 7 October 1997.

[1]     From:   Daniel Traister  <
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        Date:   Monday, 06 Oct 1997 11:14:36 -0400
        Subj:   A. L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93

[2]     From:   Daniel Traister  <
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        Date:   Monday, 06 Oct 1997 11:24:55 -0400
        Subj:   The Times: Obituaries: A. L. ROWSE

From:           Daniel Traister  <
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Date:           Monday, 06 Oct 1997 11:14:36 -0400
Subject:        A. L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93

October 6, 1997

A.L. Rowse, Masterly Shakespeare Scholar, Dies at 93


[A] .L. Rowse, the brilliant authority on Shakespeare and Elizabethan
England whose grandiose opinions of his scholarship were not always
shared by rival historians he invariably dismissed as third-rate, died
on Friday at his home in Cornwall. He was 93 and best known for his
confident identification of "the Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.

During a career in which he turned out some 90 books-among them a
monumental four-volume study of the Elizabethan age, two biographies of
Shakespeare and an exhaustively annotated edition of Shakespeare's
complete works-Rowse awed reviewers with both the brilliance of his
writing and the sheer scope his scholarship.

If he had not, as one suggested, read everything written during or about
16th-century England, he had read enough to speak with uncommon
authority and never hesitated to do so, even if his pronouncements
seemed to go beyond the evidence at hand.

Even before the publication of his 1964 book "William Shakespeare: A
Biography," for instance, Rowse made headlines on both sides of the
Atlantic-and created a run on bookstores-by announcing that he had
solved all but one of the problems of the sonnets, including their dates
(1592-95) and the identity of the poet's unnamed rival (Christopher
Marlowe). It was left to spoil-sport reviewers to point out that the
only thing original about the discoveries was that unlike a number of
earlier scholars who had come to pretty much the same conclusions from
essentially the same record, Rowse alone was not dissuaded by the lack
of definitive evidence from proclaiming his conclusions as
incontrovertible facts.

A decade later, just before the 1973 publication of his second
biography, "Shakespeare the Man," Rowse won a new round of headlines by
announcing that he had solved the last mystery of the sonnets: the
identity of Shakespeare's mistress known as the Dark Lady.

Drawing on circumstantial evidence, he identified her as one Emilia
Bassano Lanier, the daughter of an Italian court musician.

As for recent scholarly work insisting that most of the sonnets were
written to a gay lover, Rowse, who was himself openly gay, had tried to
nip that error in the bud, finding irrefutable scholarly evidence that
Shakespeare was "a strongly sexed heterosexual" and a man "more than a
little interested in women-for an Englishman."

Rowse, who had divined Lanier as the Dark Lady from a close and inspired
reading of the sonnets and the diaries of a well-known Elizabethan
figure, Simon Forman, knew when he was on to a good thing. He also knew
the value of a catchy title.

Three years later, in 1976, he used the diaries as the basis of a
full-blown sociological study he called "Sex and Society in the
Elizabethan Age.

If his pronouncements and his outspoken disdain for virtually every
other scholar in his field made him an object of some controversy, Rowse
reveled in it as a man who seemed to take delight in going against the
grain, even his own.

His very life as an Oxford don ensconced in the academic splendor of All
Souls, a college of such rarefied scholarship that it has no students,
seemed to belie his own upbringing.

For Alfred Leslie Rowse, whose erudition and refined speech came to
personify the pinnacle of upper-class England, grew up in a home without
books in Cornwall, that narrow Celtic refuge that stretches into the
Atlantic in southwest England.
The son of a china clay miner, Rowse, whose parents were barely
literate, was a brilliant student who learned to read by age 4, became
obsessed with speaking precisely correct English and worked so hard to
win the only Cornwall scholarship to Oxford that it almost ruined his
already precarious health.

As soon as he got to Christ Church College, Rowse knew that he had found
his spiritual home at Oxford, but he remained so fiercely loyal to his
native Cornwall that he always maintained a home there and wrote
extensively about Cornwall and Cornish culture, including "Tudor
Cornwall" (1941) and "The Cousin Jacks" (1969), a study of the Cornish
in the United States.
Rowse, who had been writing poetry since he was a child and had intended
to study literature, was persuaded to switch to history at Oxford and
never regretted it.

After being elected a fellow of All Souls at age 22, he threw himself
into the scholarly life with a couple of detours into politics, making
two unsuccessful runs for a Labor seat in Parliament in the 1930s.

It was a reflection of the range of his early interests that in
successive years in the 1930s he published "Queen Elizabeth and her
Subjects," and "Mr. Keynes and the Labor Movement."

A 1938 book, "Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge," a gripping account
of an Elizabethan naval hero's last stand, helped establish his
credentials as a solid scholar and a master writer with broad appeal.

But it was a 1942 memoir, "A Cornish Childhood," that put him on the
best-seller lists for the first time and made him a bona fide scholar

Over the next decades Rowse played the role to the hilt.  In addition to
turning out dozens of works on Tudor England, several of which became
best sellers, he demonstrated his versatility by producing a two-volume
history of the Churchill family, continuing to write poetry and
traveling widely, especially in the United States.

As if his books did not make him prolific enough, Rowse also found time
to write widely for newspapers and magazines, among other things writing
scores of essays, book reviews, travel articles and Op-Ed pieces for The
New York Times.

In his last years he had slowed down a bit but hardly mellowed. His last
book, published two years ago, was "Historians I Have Known," a
routinely brilliant work examining 30 prominent historians, most of
whom, Rowse made clear, could not hold a Celtic candle to him.

                Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

From:           Daniel Traister  <
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Date:           Monday, 06 Oct 1997 11:24:55 -0400
Subject:        The Times: Obituaries: A. L. ROWSE

October 6 1997                         OBITUARIES


A. L. Rowse, CH, historian, died at his home  in Cornwall on October 3
aged 93. He was born on December 4, 1903.

An historian and autobiographer of rare quality, A. L. Rowse was a man
whose work was too often sadly defaced by trivial absurdities. His
splendid gifts and his solid accomplishment were easily devalued by his
rivals since he himself provided them, in abundance, with the means of
doing so. And his irritability, his pride, his bitter resentment of
criticism, his readiness to sit in the seat of the scornful ensured him
a plentiful supply of enemies.

Thus, in 1973, when he claimed to have identified the Dark Lady of
Shakespeare's Sonnets as being the daughter of an Italian court
musician, he spoilt what was an enjoyable piece of detective work by
vaunting the superiority of his methods as an historian and scholar over
those whom he considered hidebound and timid establishment academics.
This naturally made many of those who might have been inclined to give
him credit reluctant to do so.

How and why a man so kind and so generous could regularly contrive to
appear the exact opposite was not the least astonishing of his
capacities. But whatever he was, whatever he did, he could never be slow
or insipid. He could, however, be ridiculous.

Professional opinion of his value as an historian was, is, and will
probably continue to be, divided. Rowse published so much that is better
forgotten for him to rise unchallenged above the hurly-burly. But his
best work, Tudor Cornwall (1941), The England of Elizabeth (1950), The
Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955), The Elizabethan Renaissance:
The Life of the Society (1971) and its pendant, The Cultural Achievement
(1972) constitute a suitably magnificent interpretation of the age with
which he felt the closest sympathy. There are other works, such as his
early Sir Richard Grenville of the Revenge (1937) and his later Ralegh
and the Throckmortons (1962) which enlarge and enrich it.

In the early 1960s he published two biographies: William Shakespeare
(1963) and Shakespeare's Southampton (1965) that challenged, somewhat
stridently, the main body of Shakespearean scholarship. These proved no
more than ranging shots for the full-scale attack launched in three
successive salvoes: Shakespeare's Sonnets (1973), Shakespeare the Man
(1973, new and revised edition 1988) and a biography of the Elizabethan
astrologer Simon Forman, Simon Forman, Sex and Society in Shakespeare's
Age (1974).

Rowse had used Forman's manuscript journals to identify the Dark Lady of
the sonnets, as Emilia Lanier, wife of a young court musician William
Lanier, to whom she had been married off after falling pregnant by Lord
Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain, whose mistress she had been
for the previous three years. Rowse contended that since she was a young
woman of Italian extraction (her father was Baptist Bassano, an Italian
musician of the Queen) the case for Emilia's being Shakespeare's Dark
Lady was inescapable. Not only was Will Shakespeare among her lovers, so
was Forman. Her identification, according to Rowse, explained
Shakespeare's rueful play in two of the Sonnets on the words "Will" (to
denote her husband and poet-lover) and "will" (her sexual precocity and
fickleness, as well as being a wry comment on the physical endowments of
the men in her life). Rowse thus felt himself able to reinterpret both
the poems themselves and the career of their author.

The brilliance of the conjecture, and the learning and the insight that
supported it, would have won a more respectful hearing among scholars if
it had been voiced in tones that permitted the possibility of dissent or
acknowledged the achievements of others. To the general public, the
noise of the Shakespearean battle made Rowse better known than anything
he had written or was to write.

Nothing about this extraordinary man can be understood without some
study of his early life and, in particular, his childhood.  Fortunately,
he published two volumes of autobiography: A Cornish Childhood (1942)
and A Cornishman at Oxford (1965), both of them interesting and highly
readable and the first a considerable work of art. They were followed by
others, such as A Man of the Thirties (1979), which are perhaps of more
value as evocations of the period than of the personality of the author.

Alfred Leslie Rowse was born at Tregonissey, a village near St Austell,
the son of Richard Rowse, a china-clay miner, and Ann Vanson.  Like the
young John Aubrey, Leslie Rowse had from the first a passionate sense of
the continuity of the everyday world that everyone else took for
granted, and an eager curiosity about its past. The thrill, he felt as a
young researcher in the Public Record Office when he stumbled on a
document showing his family established in that very village in
Elizabethan times, echoed the deepest feelings of childhood. This
curiosity, the truest mark of the historian, was touched with poetry,
with romance, with nostalgia, and above all with the tragic sense of the
brevity, the transience of human life.

To all this, the stolid, taciturn, matter-of-fact culture of a poor
workingman's home at the turn of the century returned a cold
incomprehension. The bright, affectionate, inquisitive, talkative boy
was snubbed and stifled. This intellectual and emotional solitary
confinement destroyed such balance and unity as might have been possible
in so ardent a nature. To defend the core of his consciousness, he
fortified himself with contempt for the people and the milieu that would
otherwise have crushed him into a contemptible conformity.

And yet they were his people, his milieu: and his nature was not only
affectionate but passionately loyal. The two volumes of autobiography
movingly and often brilliantly record the hurts he suffered and
inflicted.  Unhappily, the resort to scorn as the main defence of his
personality grew into a habit, in effect a reflex action that he could
not eradicate. Too intelligent, too self-aware not to recognise this and
too proud, too defiant, to admit it a defect, he boldly professed it a
virtue. To this fudging of the moral compass card may be traced almost
all that is silly or spiteful in his work, notably the writing-off of
opinions or beliefs that he did not share.

Rowse's difficulties were not merely emotional and personal. The
practical obstacles that in the early part of the century faced a poor
boy with overmastering intellectual and aesthetic yearnings seem
nowadays almost incredible.

Getting to St Austell Grammar School was nothing out of the way, but
going on from there to a university was another matter.  Rowse was one
of the first working-class boys to be elected to a scholarship at Christ
Church, Oxford, and subsequently the first to be elected a Fellow of All
Souls. Books, clothes, medicines, fares, all the things that for even
the most impecunious of his university contemporaries came with handouts
from home, had to be paid for by squeezing a county scholarship till the
pips squeaked.

Even with the most careful stewardship, the thing would have been
impossible without the timely and tactful generosity of his fellow
Cornishman Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the subject of one of Rowse's later
biographies (1988). The strain of all this, above all the ever-present
difficulty of attempting to cultivate a literary and intellectual life
in a house where books and reading were unknown and unwelcome, told on
his health. No sooner had he won through to All Souls and freedom than
he was laid low by duodenal ulcers and operations that intensified both
his loneliness and his sense of having been done down by life.

The cost of Rowse's experience was high, but much of its fruit was
pleasant. Indeed, he himself drew the contrast with his public school
contemporaries: "My schooldays were just happiness all the way along. It
is a great tribute to day-schools." Paradoxically, it was the capacity
for enjoyment of this often unhappy and embittered man that lay at the
heart of his work. Like Pepys he never lost the child's wonder at
beauty, whether it was a starlit night, a piece of music or a familiar

Few historians have been so keenly aware of the visual and the human
setting of a particular period or event. And few have been more keenly
sensitive to personality. The books that made the deepest impact on him
were autobiographical. Although he published several volumes of poetry,
finally collected as A Life: Collected Poems (Edinburgh, 1981), the
instinct that inspired them found its truest expression in the power to
evoke time and place that both informed and transcended his historical

Rowse was elected to Christ Church in 1922 and took a first in history
in 1925, in which year he was elected a Fellow of All Souls, where he
lived, except for vacations in Cornwall, for the next 40 years. As an
undergraduate he was prominent in the University Labour Club and did not
wholly abandon politics in favour of literature and learning until the
Second World War, having stood unsuccessfully for his native
constituency of Penryn and Falmouth in the general elections of 1931 and

Little as he would avow it, his chivalry, his loyalty and his sense of
justice as well as his social resentment probably moved him to champion
the poor against the rich. His idolatry of Churchill later led him to
rationalise his Labour past as a crusade against appeasement: but, like
his party, he was still opposing rearmament as late as 1935.

In 1952 he stood for the wardenship of the college that held so much of
his heart. His defeat was a deep wound. Mercifully, in 1954 he was
appointed a Senior Fellow of the Huntington Library, and usually
wintered, for the next 20 years or so, in California.

Public recognition came, but was sporadic and perhaps not as generous as
Rowse himself would have liked. He was elected a Fellow of the British
Academy in 1958, President of the English Association in 1952, and
received honorary doctorates from Exeter and New Brunswick. In 1982 he
was awarded the Benson Gold Medal of the Royal Society of Literature.
His appointment as a Companion of Honour only last year was as belated
as such recognition can well be.

In his later years, he spent most of his time in Cornwall (he had
written an excellent history of St Austell in 1960), producing a stream
of books in which his likes (Tudor England, country houses and the
families through which they were transmitted) and dislikes (Puritanism,
the bien pensant Left) are vividly delineated. Among his most recent
books, All Souls in my Time (1993) and Historians I Have Known (1995)
happily exhibit his gift for portrait sketches coloured by personal
reminiscence. The vigour of his mind, the range of his astonishing
memory and the breadth of his reading remained unclouded. So, too, did
his readiness to encourage and praise the work of younger writers and

In his last, as in his first, writings his love for and deep
understanding of his native county, its landscape, its architecture, its
individuality and its people, achieves a depth and vibrancy that best
expresses his personality. He was a great and generous Cornishman.

Rowse was an amusing and stimulating companion and an excellent
lecturer. It is for his intuitions, his artistry, his scholarship and
his vitality that he will continue to be read.  His impatience with
theory was largely the product of his intense perception of an actual
moment in history.

From first to last, A. L. Rowse was a cat that walked by itself. It will
be a bad day for England and a worse one for historical scholarship when
there are no more like him.

He never married.

Copyright 1997 The Times Newspapers Limited.

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