This Trying Time
- The Warden by John Lowe
HarperCollins, 258 pp, £19.99, August 1998, ISBN 0 00 215392 0
John Hanbury Angus Sparrow (1906-92) was a devotee of the poetry of A.E. Housman. He wrote a vivid introduction to Housman’s verse, whose tight control, both of metre and of homosexual passion, found obvious echoes in his own character. Sparrow was also co-author of A.E. Housman: An Annotated Hand-List, one of the few excursions into modern bibliography made by this great collector, 17th century bibliographer and connoisseur of Renaissance Latin, who counselled aspiring bibliomaniacs: (1) never lend anyone a book; (2) never sell a book; (3) never give anyone a book; (4) never read a book.
The ascending, punctilious nihilism of these injunctions is typical. Reading this disappointing memoir by one of Sparrow’s oldest friends, I was reminded of Auden’s line about Housman keeping ‘tears like dirty postcards in a drawer’. Then I remembered the line by which the same poet skewered Matthew Arnold: ‘And thrust his gift in prison till it died’.
Sparrow was a man who appeared to have had every girt handed him by the gods: unshakeable homosexuality – no pram in the hall to make war on his early promise; brutal, but stunning handsomeness; an exact and dogged intelligence, and a delight in arguing impossible positions which would have guaranteed him success at the Chancery Bar, had he wanted it; a bibliophile’s flair for finding rare editions – in an era when such discoveries could be made on bookstalls and in secondhand shops; an intense feeling for poetry; an exuberant sense of mischief; a romantic temperament which enabled him to enjoy a number of undemanding love affairs; a fellowship of All Souls and, at the age of only 45, the Wardenship.
Perhaps this last was the trouble, ‘OUR THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU DURING THIS TRYING TIME. JOHN AND PENELOPE’ read his telegram from the Betjemans when he was elected. Or perhaps it was money, never having to worry about it, having been born the scion of a line of extremely prosperous ironmasters near Wolverhampton. Something, some accursed thing, made him throw it all away and do almost nothing with his life.
As a schoolboy at Winchester, Sparrow bought an early edition of Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions; and before his 18th birthday, he had published a learned edition with Cambridge. It won laudatory reviews from Edmund Gosse, George Saintsbury and others. Surely a future stretched ahead in which Sparrow was destined to be a great scholar and man of letters, perhaps a good minor poet? Who could have predicted that when this learned and precocious adolescent had become an inebriated old man, his published work would consist of a few collections of footling Latin inscriptions, some elegant essays, some broadcast talks and four lectures on Mark Pattison (his hero) which were a substitute for the great book on Pattison which, John Lowe tells us, was never even begun?
Many dons, of course, regard publication as incurably vulgar. Bruce McFarlane, a fellow of All Souls before becoming the history tutor at Magdalen, knew more about the late Middle Ages than anyone alive, but could not translate any of his knowledge into books. Sparrow might have liked to be such a man, but he wasn’t Lowe describes visiting him in old age. He got Lowe to line up his complete works on a shelf by his elbow, and having inspected them for a few minutes, he asked: ‘ “Are you sure you’ve found everything?” “Yes, I’ve looked everywhere,” I assured him. “Quite respectable, don’t you think?” ’ It is hard to know how to read this sad little exchange. No doubt kindness compelled Lowe, in the old man’s presence, to agree. But he seems to suggest that the reader, too, will agree, and this is piety run mad.
Vol. 20 No. 24 · 10 December 1998
A.N. Wilson, in reviewing John Lowe’s biography of John Sparrow (LRB, 1 October), made copious reference to A.L. Rowse, who had been Sparrow’s ‘rival’ for the Wardenship of All Souls and whom Wilson admired. Wilson claims that Rowse had
written a damning book called All Souls and Appeasement, in which he exposed the damage done by this quasi-academic dining club when figures such as Lord Halifax and Cosmo Gordon Lang, both fellows during the Thirties, used the High Table as a place to discuss and plot their disgraceful foreign policy. The dry-as-dusts and the clubmen were able to unite against Rowse, not only ejecting him from the chance of the Wardenship, but also turning up their noses at his great series of popular and learned books about Elizabethan England, or his unimprovable two-volume history of the Churchill family.
This extract contains so many inaccuracies, it seems Wilson’s knowledge of the book referred to is limited to its title.
First, All Souls and Appeasement was published in 1961 – a decade after the election for the Wardenship which, according to Wilson, it had influenced to Rowse’s detriment. Secondly, Wilson has completely misrepresented Rowse’s purpose in writing the book. To substantiate this I need only quote page one, headed ‘Approach’:
It is not my business to defend All Souls College, but there is a widespread idea that the college as such had a large part in the fatal policy of Appeasement that led to war. Lord Boothby – with whom I saw eye to eye on this issue at the time, and over other matters since – has several times referred to ‘that disastrous dinner-table’, as if it were over dinner at All Souls that that policy originated or was planned. Of course it was much discussed in college, and some of the most eminent members of the college had a leading hand in it; but the overwhelming majority of us were opposed to it – the younger generation of Fellows practically to a man, most of the middle generation of professors and some seniors. Of the public men and politicians who were Fellows, Leo Amery was consistently opposed to Appeasement: throughout the whole of that deplorable decade he was more right than any front-bench figure, even than Churchill, with whom he fought side by side in vain. Sir Arthur (now Lord) Salter, though he was a recent recruit to the college from outside, had an equally good record of consistent opposition. There remain Simon and Halifax, and of course Geoffrey Dawson, editor of the Times during the whole period and the most powerful figure of the lot; these three were in it up to the neck.
Third, Rowse made it very clear in this book that he was consistently on cordial terms with these three upholders of Appeasement, however strongly and eloquently he challenged them personally. This is of some interest in connection with the election for the Wardenship, as two of them, Simon and Halifax, were involved. (Dawson had died in 1944.) Rowse, who was Sub-Warden at the time, wrote of Simon, in All Souls and Appeasement:
[At] the end he rewarded me with a great mark of confidence: loving All Souls as he did, he very much wanted me to become Warden of the College, a thing I had never in all those years dreamed of. Perhaps this may be set down as another mark of his bad judgment, for it would never have suited my book, nor was it what I wished at heart: it would have been an utter frittering away of life and time, when there was little enough left of either. I was perfectly clear in my own mind about that at the time, though loyalty to the College and to my friends made it impossible to say so – there were others, of course, not sympathetic enough to see that, and there would be no point in telling them. But that this was John Simon’s last wish for the institution he so much loved revealed a touching confidence.
Rowse subsequently recorded, in Friends and Contemporaries (1989), that Halifax had also backed him for the Wardenship, although he added that ‘when Simon saw which way the election was going, he characteristically went over to the majority.’
Finally, Rowse’s publications on Elizabethan England and on the Churchills were disregarded not only by members of the All Souls community but by those beyond it. Apparently, Rowse was never invited to lecture by the Oxford History School, in spite of his very considerable attainments as a historian, and his work on Shakespeare was constantly sniped at by the professionals in the Eng. Lit. industry. Even his close friend, David Cecil, who in 1948 had been elected Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at Oxford, ‘never spoke up for my (unanswerable) discoveries about Shakespeare’ and in the matter of the identity of ‘Mr W.H.’ in the Sonnets ‘he merely thought that I “might be right”.’ Isaiah Berlin, who Wilson claimed had even into his last years successfully and covertly opposed Rowse’s being knighted, was acknowledged by Rowse in All Souls and Appeasement as one of the younger fellows who during the Thirties had seen eye to eye with him on Appeasement. Perhaps then such hostility as Rowse encountered at All Souls was due more to his personality than to his political views or to his scholarship.
Vol. 21 No. 1 · 7 January 1999
I recently read A.L. Rowse's All Souls and Appeasement and can only hang my head in shame at J.B. Paul's devastating letter (Letters, 10 December 1998). The explanation, but no excuse, is that I wrote the Sparrow review miles from my books and had no chance to check. I stupidly thought All Souls and Appeasement was fired off during the early Forties … Mea maxima culpa. Rowse's attitude to the appeasers is puzzling in the light of the fact that he courted their support for his wardenship. This is just a blunder on my part and I apologise.
J.B. Paul mentions A.L. Rowse’s ‘very considerable attainments as a historian’. I wonder, though. In a biography of Matthew Arnold, one of Rowse’s own contributions to what Paul unoriginally snipes at as the ‘Eng. Lit. industry’, Rowse praises ‘the good work [the Victorian English] did in the outside world, the impartial administration of justice handed down in India, for example’. This would be a nicely ironic line in a good post-colonial novel, but unfortunately Rowse means it. Admittedly, it takes a certain kind of genius to choose ‘an example’ which so decisively destroys your premise. Perhaps Rowse, with his self-proclaimed working-class roots, is trying to prove his own contention in the same book that ‘the masses were hardly capable of education in any significant sense of the word – only the elect are.’ If we take his word on this, and dismiss as a ‘middle-class illusion’ any suggestion that the ‘working class was given to “ideas”’, then his concern about ‘frittering away of life and time’ (cited by Paul) is misplaced. ‘Misplaced’ because surely nothing better than frittering could be expected of a lad of the soil like Rowse, considering the working classes’ ‘preference for not even reading, but passively imbibing television’.