One of Cornwall’s most famous sons was the author, AL Rowse. As a brilliant authority on Elizabethan England and Shakespeare, he is credited with identifying the famous “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He wrote more than 90 books during his long career, which spanned seven decades.
It was said that he had read everything ever written in 16th-century England, as well as books written since about the era. The sheer scope of his knowledge and the brilliance of his writing led to his lofty position among peers as the definitive expert on Shakespeare.
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Born in Tregonissey, near St Austell, in December 1903, Alfred Leslie Rowse was the son of china clay worker Richard and housewife Annie Rowse. His parents weren’t well off and had little formal education, but the young Alfred worked hard at his education and earned himself a place at St Austell County Grammar School.
In 1921, he won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford, where he read history. Fellow Cornishman, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, of Polperro, who was a writer famous for his Oxford Book Of English Verse 1250–1900, recognised Rowse’s great potential, encouraging him to follow an academic career.
After graduating from Oxford with first class honours in 1925, Rowse was elected a fellow of All Souls College. In 1927, he became a lecturer at Merton College.
Writing his first book the same year, called On History: A Study of Present Tendencies, he earned his Master of Arts degree in 1929. One year later, he became a lecturer at the London School of Economics.
Growing up in the small coastal community of Tregonissey, on the edge of Clay Country (the area where clay had been discovered in Cornwall in 1746), as his literary career blossomed, he never forgot his Cornish roots. He co-edited Charles Henderson’s Essays in Cornish History in 1935 for the Clarendon Press.
Writing under the name AL Rowse, his first best-seller was his autobiography, A Cornish Childhood, published in 1942 by Jonathan Cape. It has sold almost half a million copies to date. It described his struggles to win a place at Oxford University and his experiences of Cornwall in adulthood.
He also wrote poetry about Cornwall, including The Road to Roche, in which he remembered his boyhood, celebrating the eccentric characters he had met and recalling his favourite views across Trenarren and St Austell Bay. He wrote of the poetic Cornish place names and looked at religion in his community.
He described the medieval hermit who lived at Roche Rock. According to popular legend, the hermit occupied a room within Roche Chapel, which was built in the early 15th century and dedicated in 1409. He followed local religion through the ages, to the time of John Wesley, who would preach to the 18th-century miners.
In another of his poems, Bus Ride, Rowse recalled, “The bus goes up the valley road, with mounds of gorse on either hand,” before passing “granite cottages” and “gardens with a shrub in flower” among the clay pits on the moor. Most of his poems celebrated the beauty and tranquillity of St Austell Bay.
His works on Elizabethan England, and in particular Shakespeare, won Rowse international acclaim. After writing two biographies of Shakespeare, a four-volume study of the Elizabethan period and an annotated edition of the complete works of Shakespeare, he left his peers in awe of his brilliant writing and expansive knowledge.
One of his most famous books was William Shakespeare: A Biography, published in 1964, but even before this, he had been making the headlines, claiming he had solved one of the challenges that had been bothering the literary community for generations. He revealed he had worked out the dates of the sonnets – 1592 to 1595.
Almost 10 years later, just before the publication of his second biography in 1973, Shakespeare the Man, Rowse announced he had solved the sonnets’ final mystery by identifying the “Dark Lady”, who was believed to be Shakespeare’s mistress.
He claimed she was Emilia Bassano Lanier, whose father was an Italian court musician. He refuted some scholarly works which had claimed the mystery lady was actually a man and that Shakespeare was gay. Rowse said the bard was “heterosexual” and “more than a little interested in women”.
Rowse received many awards for his work, including Companion of Honour, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Fellow of the British Academy and Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.
He lived in a grand house on Trenarren point from 1953 until his death in 1997, at the age of 93. He wrote numerous poems about the beautiful cliff walks nearby and his picturesque garden, and continued to write books, articles for magazines and newspapers, essays, travel articles and book reviews, including in the New York Times.
Published in 1995, his final book was called Historians I Have Known. It examined the life and work of 30 well-known historians. Critics said that Rowse, known for his feisty nature and views, hadn’t mellowed, in spite of his advancing years. They described his swansong as “routinely brilliant work”.
He has left the legacy of his wonderful books and poetry, which are filled with colourful images of the breath-taking county of Cornwall.
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