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Rowse, Elizabeth and England

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Christopher Haigh considers the man behind the mesmerising image of Elizabethan England, and his relevance today.

A. L. Rowse (1903-1997) was a complex and contradictory character. He was a hugely successful historian, but he constantly complained that his talents were unappreciated. He was a friend of poets and novelists, politicians and socialites, he was a guest at the great houses of the nobility, but he thought of himself as a neglected outsider. He sailed through scholarships and examinations, a plum post fell into his lap, he lived in congenial comfort and made a fortune from his books – but whined that he had always had to struggle against adversity and never had any luck. He was a Labour Party activist and parliamentary candidate, who soon came to despise ‘the idiot people’ and to prefer the country-house set. He was a Marxist internationalist who turned Tory nationalist, and an English patriot who insisted he was Cornish and not English at all.

Rowse was certainly a significant academic historian: he wrote one ground-breaking book, Tudor Cornwall (1941); one major work of reinterpretation and synthesis, The England of Elizabeth (1950); and he almost invented a new subject in The Expansion of Elizabethan England (1955). In search of fame and fortune, he turned himself into a prodigious populariser, one of the first and most successful of the coffee-table historians. He published four volumes of autobiography, the first a minor masterpiece (A Cornish Childhood , 1942), and books about politics, sex, diplomacy and his cat. He wrote poetry and literary biographies, and edited Shakespeare plays and the sonnets. The scholars finally lost patience with the pontificating, but the fans kept on buying.

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