In June 1959, A. L. Rowse was sitting on a train in the United States, writing up his journal. He was in the middle of describing an enjoyable encounter with Elizabeth Bowen in New York. Unfortunately, he was interrupted by a young woman asking if the seat beside him was vacant. Rowse indicated with his pencil that
‘There is a vacant seat, across the gangway.’ ‘But I want the one by the window.’ ‘I am sitting by the window,’ I replied, still not looking up. ‘Oh, I see’, she said, and moved on.
A trivial incident, and you might have wondered why the great Elizabethan historian, autobiographer and Cornish poet chose to record it in his diary. It was in order to distinguish himself from the unfortunate ‘human’, female at that, who had had the temerity to suggest she might sit in the window seat.
I took in that she was young and good- looking, evidently used to having everyone make way for her. Not so me. American bitches don’t get their way with me by their bitchery.
I knew Rowse, and although his behaviour sometimes embarrassed me, especially if we were eating out together in public, and he was yelling like an excited macaw about ‘her’ – the Dark Lady of the Sonnets – I had an affection for him. The last thing one would have expected from his diaries would have been an undiluted stream of human kindness. Yet the published diaries have shocked me.
What was the point of writing down that coarse and unfunny reflection about the woman on the train? Granted, a diary is a useful vehicle for letting off steam, especially if, like Rowse, you are solitary, or what the police in search of psychopaths sometimes call ‘a loner’.
Easter Tuesday 1955 found him in his native Cornwall. He broke away from a family party with his working-class brother, George, and drove over to Port Eliot for an altogether more congenial gathering of Lady St Germans’. (‘It all looked rather fine, particularly the Red Room we came through, with its soft lighting, two shades over big Chinese vases, old rugs and furniture and things that have always belonged’). For all his pleasure in the occasion, however, the day was not wholly serene:
I had a swift drive up, irritated by finding yet one more bitch in the spinney picking primroses – I was so enraged I couldn’t remember who she was, though I knew her face. Every Easter is rendered vexatious by people who will get over the hedge or unbar the gate and make a deadset at the primroses. It is always the bitches who do it, never a man – this is their idea of loving flowers – destroying them . . . I hate it more as one more indication of human idiocy – that they will, must destroy flowers. Not if I can stop them!
It goes without saying that ‘no one of a decent class would do such a thing’. Yet human idiocy is by no means limited to the ranks of the ‘Idiot People’, as he called them. At a Buckingham Palace garden party, ‘I watched the mob, top-hatted, tail-coated, well-conducted, less idiotic than most mobs, but still idiotic’.
He does not describe the Queen as a bitch. (Indeed, Malcolm Muggeridge, who wrote a notorious article critical of the monarchy, was, in the opinion of Rowse, a ‘cad’ who should have been ‘horse-whipped’). Her Majesty escapes unscathed in this episode, though, unfortunately for her, she was something even worse than a bitch. Making his way out through the Palace, the Cornish poet was disgusted by the ‘Germanity of it all: Duchesses of Hohenloe-Langenburg, of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Wurtemburgs, Coburgs everywhere.’ Of the royal family in general he observed, ‘How German the background is! – the one thing the Germans have been successful at, exporting royalties all over Europe.’
This is not the diary of a Cornish taxi-driver. It is the diary of a historian who prides himself on his exquisite taste, his love of poetry, his ear for music, his eye for great art and, incidentally, his fluency in German. (As a young man he planned a complete translation of Marx to rival Jowett’s Plato). How can he, even in a throwaway line, write something so unintelligent about the Germans? ‘The one thing they have been successful at . . . .’ In rather Rowse-like rage I scrawled in the margin: ‘Apart from music, theology, philosophy, science, architecture, engineering and, at least in certain periods of history, military conquest’.
In our long drives through Cornwall, Rowse would of course often exhibit this coarse side to his nature, his hatred of Germans and women, his chippiness about failure to be elected as Warden of All Souls, his loathing of fellow-historians, especially A. J. P. Taylor. But these outbursts were like unfortunate moments of flatulence in otherwise pleasant afternoons, when he was much of the time on ‘good behaviour’, discoursing of books, showing me old churches and houses, or introducing me to their owners.
How often he used to speak of these diaries as the summit of his literary achievement. They were, he believed, worth speaking about in the same breath as Proust. The funny, puckish, clever man I knew is hardly apparent at all in these pages, which seem to have been written by a latter-day Dogberry: ‘I am an ass! But, masters, remember that I am an ass! O that I had been writ down an ass!’
Do the diaries, unpleasant as they are, contain any clue as to the reasons for this Dogberry tendency, this desire to make himself seem coarser and stupider than he was? Not that the persona of the diarist sees himself as coarse and stupid. Far from it. The pique which led him to spend half the year in America after All Souls failed to elect him Warden is compared to Newman leaving Oxford after all the dons united to condemn Tract 90. Rowse doing a pleasant few months lecturing at Madison, Wisconsin is seen as ‘my form of T. E. Lawrence’s self-immolation in the RAF’. And the working-class visionary genius with whom he most identifies is D. H. Lawrence. ‘D. H. L. and I never belonged, and would never pay the price of belonging – the suppression of our own individuality, in a word conforming. So D. H. Lawrence’s real triumph has come after his death. I suppose mine may come then too, perhaps partly with this journal.’
There is real tragi-farce in this expectation. True, some of the set pieces in this book, such as his visit to Eastwood to meet an old man who knew D. H., or his days with Elizabeth Bowen in Ireland and America, or his reflections on T. S. Eliot, or his evocations of New York, Cornwall, Paris, Oxford are those of an intelligent man – though not always an interesting one. They are sadly prolix and repetitious. (The reader smiles unconsciously when, at Chartwell, we read, ‘With the beginning of lunch