"A prophet and a portent, utilitarian and humanitarian, essentially secular and materialist; for all his protestations, an intellect without religion or that other refuge for those who have not faith - essentially without poetry."
Observant regulars will note the quotation on the landing page. What an extraordinary man A. L. Rowse was. In the picture on his wikipedia page, he is standing next to a bloke who for some reason looks exactly like someone I lived next to at Queens in my first year. Can't imagine why. I haven't read Rowse on Cornwall, but being currently in Devon - no, not researching the Prayer Book Rebellion, just resting - it seems appropriate for me to be reading him on the Elizabethans. His essential stance that the Elizabethans are the bridge between the medieval and the modern isn't quite justifiable on the general evidence (there was more of modernity in the medievals, and less of modernity in the moderns, than he seems to suppose), but his writing is among the most readable, lucid and exciting of any on the subject or indeed any other subject. He slips in a couple of absolute belters, as well:
"We have an immense amount of information about people's illnesses among the upper classes - as with Americans today their letters are full of their physical complaints." Like Bacon, Rowse marks himself out by the way he writes and by what he writes as not of his time, comfortable across a range of types of subjects and wonderfully perspicacious in his chosen area.
My cursory initial researches do not reveal a clear answer to this question, but Rowse strikes me as having been himself a gay man in an era when that was not an acceptable thing to be, given his discussion on the homosexuality of various of his favourites (and the thrusting masculinity of Ralegh!). Perhaps I am wrong to draw this conclusion (in the logical sense). Whatever his sexuality, he was a sensitive and thoughtful man whose attitude to the religion of his subject individuals is utterly scathing. "We do not need to go in detail into these propositions [on theology in Perkins], which constituted the myth that prevailed over most of Europe at the time - with variations over which different sects within it fought to the death, killed each other, roasted or hanged each other, broke each other on the wheel. It would be unfair to say that this was solely because they were Christians, fairer to say simply because they were humans." His sadness in this, the almost inevitable fact of human cruelty, is mirrored by his great enthusiasm for the progress in thought that he sees in the Elizabethan age. Rowse's perspective seems to be that of the lapsed Christian, that peculiar type of atheist who will almost certainly know a great deal of theology and a decent amount of the Anglican Church's liturgy. Perhaps that's why I find him so engaging, because he is in that respect at least like me. His philosophy certainly runs through his writing: "...it is not the truth of what men think so much as the effectiveness of what they think, its appeal to their emotional leanings, their prejudices, their illusions."
The two volumes that constitute the Elizabeth Renaissance are both fascinating, because they bring out the portrait of the age in a lively, tangible fashion; the earlier 'England of Elizabeth' less so, because - and this is perhaps a mark of my own prejudices - it deals with the common man, his experience of life, of farming, of making a living. I seem to want 'big' history, certainly at the moment - narrative, character and plot, rather than the bucolic (or not) history of the common man. I can read this in fiction, apparently: I stuck with Lorna Doone for the full six hundred pages, reading every word of Jan Ridd's farming advice. His love for Lorna herself (as, in a different way, his love for Exmoor) is a more affirming fiction than Heathcliff's, or Rochester's, despite the violence of their romantic passions. John Ridd is of course vastly more likeable than either of those two, although unlikely to be vaunted as a romantic hero.
In any case, the point of all of this was to offer a word of praise to Rowse for what, in the historical context of when he was writing, seems remarkable. Having set off to write this piece, though, I find to my immense consternation that he was, by a limited number of posthumous accounts but nevertheless unequivocally, not very nice, much more Rochester than Ridd. But then, no one (else) writes about how John Ridd's love for Lorna is more affirming than Heathcliff's for Catherine. Maybe I can stand this type of thing in my historians, but not in romantic heroes...
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought