A Long Distance Runner

A Cornishman at Oxford

by A.L. Rowse
Hillary, 320 pp., $6.00

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 …

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