A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A.L.Rowse

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9780140284706: A Man of Contradictions: A Life of A.L.Rowse

As historian and polemicist, Rowse was deeply involved in many of the key debates of the mid-century. He combined Marxist historiography and keen English patriotism, support for modernism with deep attachment to the traditions of the college he loved, All Souls. Above all, he was both an industrious and influential academic historian and an energetic participant in political, cultural and literary life. This engagement reached its zenith in Rowse's principled and vindicated opposition to appeasement. This authorized biography draws a full picture of one of the dominant figures of Oxford, Cornwall and England. In doing so, Richard ollard illuminates many of the bewildering changes of the 20th century.

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Historian, poet, short-story writer, playwright, politician, journalist; there was little that A.L. Rowse could not and indeed would not turn his hand to. Did he spread his talent too thin? Possibly. He wrote too much--nearly 100 titles bear his name but only a clutch of them, notably The Tudor Cornwall, The England of Elizabeth, and A Cornish Childhood, are likely to endure. Coming from a poor, barely literate Cornish family, he won the county's only scholarship to Oxford, where he developed the tetchy and belligerent style which was to characterise his academic career. He became one of the most eminent (and eccentric) historians specialising in the Elizabethan era, which is where his reputation may have stayed were it not for the his "great discovery" in 1973, at the age of 70, of the identity of Shakespeare's Dark Lady. His theory dominated his being to the extent that he refuted any digression from absolute affirmation of his ideas with a truculence that did his intellect no favours and only marred his reputation. Probably he projected into the mysterious voids of Shakespeare's myth the hurt of the "Great Rejections" by which he measured his life: failure to secure a teaching post at Christ Church, Oxford; failure to win a parliamentary seat in Cornwall and not being elected as Warden of All Souls College. Richard Ollard proves a loyal friend and a generous biographer to the friend he first met in 1946. Rowse, who called his collected poems A Life, left behind mountains of diaries and letters through which Ollard has faithfully waded. Where Rowse pontificates, Ollard disarms, a Watson to his Holmes, issuing mild rebukes and warm affirmations with unwavering patience and avoiding prurience with a discretion never found in his subject. Rowse was a solipsistic egoist, an obdurate hater of "idiot people" and "third-raters", but he was never boring and, despite himself, often generous. In undertaking this labour of love, Ollard has gone someway to reclaiming Rowse's rightful reputation as a most readable and involved historian, one who breathed life into his subject and fire at his detractors. -- David Vincent

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