What is it about mid-Cornwall that produces such prolific authors? The Hocking siblings, from St Stephen in Brannel, wrote almost 200 novels. A century later Alan Kent, who grew up in the clay country, is giving us scores of novels, plays, poems and histories. Not to mention Jack Clemo and Anne Treneer. And then there was Arthur Leslie Rowse, born at Tregonissey, just outside St Austell, on December 4th, 1903. Rowse became Cornwall’s foremost academic of the mid-twentieth century. Unlike his predecessor Arthur Quiller- Couch, he was of more working-class background, although his clay worker father had a small shop.
Keenly supported in his career by Q, Rowse gained a scholarship to Oxford in 1921 to study English literature. He soon switched to history and it was the combination of history with a literary bent that made his name. He became best known for his work on the sixteenth century and Elizabethan England. His Tudor Cornwall, published in 1941, is still a key text for that period of Cornish history.
After being overlooked in 1952 for the post of warden of All Souls, Oxford, where he was a research fellow, Rowse spent a considerable time in the States, especially in California. It was there that he wrote The Cornish in America (1969). Never one to take either rejection or criticism easily Rowse later admitted that losing the wardenship enabled him to concentrate on his best work.
Rowse was never backward in coming forward to assert his own greatness. But equally, he was able to laugh at himself too. Everyone who met him has their favourite Rowse anecdote. Mine is of him at a conference at Perranporth in the 1980s. He had pompously backed up some opinion by stating ‘I’ve got a first-class Oxford-trained brain’. Responding from the audience the late Pedyr Prior prefaced his question with ‘As someone with a third-class Plymouth-trained brain … ’. Collapse of audience, as well as Rowse.
Rowse’s ground-breaking work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, when he claimed he had identified Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ involved him in his best-known academic controversy. While largely ignored in the outside world, it caused some bitter academic fallings out and much harrumphing over the port. Rowse’s autobiographical books, beginning with the widely acclaimed A Cornish Childhood (1942) were the tip of his unpublished and voluminous diary writings, which are by all accounts not a little scurrilous in their acid observations on academic colleagues.
Loyalty to his background meant that in the 1920s and ‘30s Rowse was a Labour man, even standing as Labour candidate for the Penryn and Falmouth constituency (which included St Austell) in 1931 and 1935. The voters of that constituency were saved the fate of having Rowse as MP when he resigned as candidate in 1943, later leaving the Labour Party over its opposition to Suez.
Rowse’s attitude towards the common people was ambivalent, to say the least. His love-hate relationship with both Oxford and Cornwall are summed up in the titles of the two biographies written about him. For Richard Ollard, he was a ‘man of contradictions’. From a Cornish perspective, Philip Payton dubbed him a ‘paradoxical patriot’.
Paradoxical or not, in later life he mellowed somewhat (although never totally) and became reconciled once again to his homeland. He spent his final years at Trenarren on St Austell Bay, a house he had first leased in 1953. Rowse continued to publish extensively, even after his All Souls fellowship ended in 1974. From that time, aged 71, to his death in 1997, he turned out a phenomenal 36 books. There’s hope for us all yet!