A Cornishman at Oxford
The social history of Oxford in the inter-war years has almost been annexed by Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, and the poets of the Thirties. It is mellow autumn or radiant summer, there is a perpetual party, and we are all going to get a first or a fourth in Schools. As the college servants sweep up the broken glass from the latest escapade of the Bullingdon, an earnest disapproving figure hurries by: it is Potts, the middle-class industrious note-taker at lectures who is off to a league of Nations Union meeting, destined to get a sound second in his final examinations. The rest of the undergraduates are heartily playing games. The working classes exist in some exterior abstract world.
The legend has a good deal of foundation in fact. There had always been a considerable number of poor students at Oxford and Cambridge but they were the children of the middle classes: of impoverished gentry or clergy or of parents who could no longer afford the fees of a public school education. There were quite a number who had been to grammar schools where they had had to pay modest fees and had won scholarships to the University which had to be heavily supplemented by their parents if they were to be able to take up the place at their college which they had won on their merits. There were very few who, by being supported both by the scholarship that they had won and by an award given by the education authorities of their county, were able to get a free education at the ancient universities. Only occasionally did a working-class boy burst through the barriers and establish himself; and when he did he usually found that the best way of establishing himself was to assimilate as fast as he could.
The fascination of A. L. Rowse’s autobiography is that it is the story of such a working-class boy who was determined to preserve his individuality and yet at the same time found within himself strong reasons for assimilation. Rowse is a highly idiosyncratic Oxford figure who defies categorization. The son of a Cornish miner he was the first working-class Fellow of All Souls, and has never let anyone forget that he is a Cornishman and of the working class. In the Thirties, he was volubly against the policy of appeasement. At the same time he broke with his youthful affiliation with the Labour party and has been militantly contemptuous of leftwing intellectualism or dour trade unionism ever since. As a professional Tudor historian he is comparatively uninterested in such questions as the fortunes of the gentry which have exercised the minds of Tawney, Trevor-Roper, Christopher Hill, or J. H. Hexter. What has preoccupied him, as a devoted admirer of Churchill, have been the Elizabethan sea captains and men of action whom he opposes to the horrible Puritans and similar degraded intellectuals in politics. He is an historian in the Trevelyan tradition who writes with fire and feeling for the past and in the course of writing pays off a number of scores against the present. This book is his explanation of how he came to be what he is, an explanation of his love-hate relationship with Oxford, an analysis of his undergraduate days at aristocratic Christ Church and his election to a fellowship at All Souls.
The range of his acquaintances as an undergraduate is a tribute both to Rowse and to Oxford. The good-looking, hard, clever boy was invited out by the dons, watched over by his tutors and accepted by his contemporaries. The Labour Club activist not only met the great who came down to speak at meetings. He also made friends with Graham Greene, and David Cecil, who had been told by some don to look him up, and with the leader of the aesthetes, Harold Acton. By the time he was a Fellow he was being asked to lunch at Garsington by Lady Ottoline Morrell and taken up by the London Fellows of All Souls. No one could have got more out of undergraduate life than he: his reading in history and literature was studendous. All the time he was making up ground which public schoolboys would have covered and reading far more critically than they. But he suffered the humiliations of the poor student. No dinner jacket, no knowledge of when to leave a lunch party, no money for a doctor when ill. Rowse’s determination to preserve his independence and never fall into debt was fine. He thought of the world surrounding him as “they.” He would not be beholden to them for anything, he would respond to an approach but would make none himself. And Oxford knew when to put up its genteel barriers. Others had doors opened to them but none, he maintains, were ever opened to him. He had to kick them down by winning his spurs in open competition “What might have flowered,” he asks, “if I had been willing to go out to meet life instead of retreating within the fortress of myself?…I never wished to expose myself to chance: I wanted to have everything under my own control. That is not the way of love though it may be of achievement…”
It was not the way of love. He found plenty of reasons to retreat from girls at home and at Oxford. His working-class puritanism made him detest the endless chatter about sex. His book reveals an extraordinary mixture of misanthropy and affection. He craved affection and praise, and for him a friend is one who gives both without stint. Anyone who helped him with money, such as his fellow Cornishman, Quiller-Couch, or who recognized his genius such as Trevelyan, is a dear. But “it is very easy to get yourself demoted from the rank of friend to acquaintance if you misbehave.” Christ Church asked him to put in for a teaching fellowship (i.e., a post with tenure) and then turned him down: he has refused to dine there since. His friend Dawkins, the eccentric professor of modern Greek, spoke in the Thirties in favor of appeasement: he cut him dead. Did he know that dear Trevelyan supported appeasement? He explains somewhere that personal relations mean little to him. People seem mostly imbecile until they have been dead for a few centuries. Then his historical imagination can get to work.
Rowse’s vision of history is at once realistic and intensely romantic. As a student he was challenging the complacent liberalism of his teachers, the prelude to his own revulsion from his undergraduate socialism. When he met Tawney he seemed a “trifle too noble to be true…Ethical high-mindedness, that middle-class virtue, never much appealed to me, a genuine son of the working class.” Soon he was to regard Russell, Lowes Dickinson, G. D. H. Cole, and Orwell with varying degrees of contempt. He wrestled with the familiar undergraduate problem: did goodness and truth exist or were they middle-class hypocrisies to cover up their self-interest? Later, so he tells us, he found the clue. In “Pareto I recognized the constant habit humans have of dressing up their own interests as objective generalizations when they are mere rationalizations of their own interests. Who is taken in by it? Certainly not Pareto nor, I may say, A. L. R.…One does not need to pay much serious attention to what human beings suppose themselves to think; more important is to observe what makes them think as they do.” This proved to his satisfaction that intellectuals make asses of themselves in politics.
Pareto might have led him to the extreme right or left, but here the other feature of his historical imagination came into play. He is a self-conscious Celt brooding over and mourning a lost past. He detests the present. Like E. M. Forster he deplores the rape of rural England by suburbia and the dissolution of family relations by mass society and the welfare state. But whereas Forster acknowledges that people must have homes and new roles. Rowse ends by giving the impression that society has let him down, just as Oxford lets him down by electing the wrong people to professorships and fellowships, or critics let him down by preferring Hopkins to Robert Bridges. One might expect Rowse to despise the trappings of Oxford college life, but it is precisely the feasts, the customs, the ceremonies which enshrine the past that appeal to him. The true Oxford is the city of chimes and of the gate through which Charles II drove to dissolve Parliament: the true political theorist is Burke.
A dissatisfied and disgruntled man? By no means. As his idols in history are heroic men of action and as he compares his own poetry, which is disregarded, with the poetry of the past decades, which has been praised, he sometimes appears soured. But in fact he is resilient. For he has the puritanical sense of having been called, and the romantic sense of fulfilling his genius. He thinks that people ought to acknowledge his genius and forget his superficial touchiness. It is not always easy to do both. He is a considerable historian. No one in England can extract more suggestible information from a parish register than Rowse. He is immensely learned in his period, the breadth of his reading is superb, and his emotional gifts make his historical works throb. No one has written better county history than he. But his sense of genius undoes him. In his quater-centenary study of Shakespeare he poured scorn on the scholars of literature. For years these moles and troglodytes had ignored evidence which he, as a trained historian, has only to examine to reveal the solution to a dozen or more crucial problems. When the book appeared to a fanfare of judicious publicity in the Times, the moles turned, they dismissed his findings and hypotheses as hoary chestnuts and errors, and Rowse took their criticism as a personal affront. Here in this book can be found the genesis of this and the many other feuds and controversies which have brought him both delight and mortification. To Rowse the explanation has always been clear. “The very fact that a man wishes to do his best, is anxious to make his contribution, is in itself a motive to frustrate, to stop him.”
All this gives the curious impression of a double-take. Rowse sees himself as a working-class boy who defeated “them” and by sheer ability established himself in the Establishment citadel of All Souls, emancipated himself from vulgar left-wing stock responses, and preserved himself from ideological alignments, whether conservative or liberal or socialist, to be a free-ranging individualist. He believes that he has always had to fight against literary or cultural fashionable cabals. Yet at the same time he is only too aware that he is liable to be charged with having sold out to the life of success and flattery and the upper-class embrace of the very sector of respectable conformism from which the appeasers of the Thirties came. The fascination in reading his book is that the reader is left to judge for himself. The reminiscences of dons are often depressingly cosy. Rowse’s book is never cosy. It is inspired by passion: against the mediocrity and timidity of dons, against their lack of literary or visual sense, against the insipidity of liberals. There is emotion in the tributes he pays to those who helped him and in the amends he makes to those he misjudged long ago. His agnosticism crackles when he speaks of priests and creeds. His book has body because the extracts from his undergraduate diaries add another layer to the experience he describes. The flavor, as of everything he writes, is odd. His attributes run counter to each other. Militant rationalism moves alongside contempt for philosophy and calculation, the fierce belief in success and sales contrast with the dreamy orchidaceous descriptions of Nature. The flavor of the book comes from the emotion with which Rowse regards his past. He is totally engaged. He writes with his diaries, engagement books, lecture notes, and letters before him, the archives of his own history, and his heart goes out to the penniless scholarship boy, already afflicted by ulcers, struggling in the alien Oxford he was to make his own. Again he fights the distant battles, again the black bile erupts when he recalls rebuffs. He springs to the defense of his hero before his reader has even thought of raising an eyebrow. This boy, he says, may have been a prig and a fanatic but how could he have been otherwise? He kept faith with his origins and would not be seduced from the path along which his genius impelled him. His autobiography is the story of a love affair—the love affair being with himself.