The ‘Tremendous Disliker’: A.L. Rowse

A.L. Rouse, either thinking great thoughts or about to explode "Scanners" style. Your call.

The British scholar A.L. Rowse was renowned for his contributions to Shakespearean studies, but the interest in the sale of his library after he died in 1997 was more for what he wrote in the margins of his books than the books themselves.

For Dr. Rowse was, as he scrawled in a book by Samuel Butler, “a tremendous Disliker.” In many of his 10,000 books could be found spiteful opinions, rude gossip and obscene observations about writers, royalty, heterosexuals, as well as Americans (incapable of understanding irony), the “bloody” Irish, Germans (“liars”) and other nationalities.

Nor did he limit himself to his library. One review of “The Diaries of A.L. Rowse” notes that “Into his diaries he seems to have poured the bile and vituperation of a successful man unable to cope with the ordinary disappointments of life.”

But getting back to his book jottings, to those of us who limit our annotations to stars of approval or a simple “disagree,” the range and heat of his malice and spite inspires awe and if not approval, at least admiration.

Most of Rowse’s spleen was vented at writers. In a biography of H.G. Wells, who teased him about his homosexuality, Rowse wrote: “He was kind enough to send me his books inscribed. I sold them.” Gore Vidal was a “snob”, “bore” and “very superior gossip columnist mitigated by some good perceptions.” Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” has “nonsense”, “aristo” and “snob” in the margin. As for Waugh, Rowse gloated: “He was my age. He is dead. A drunk.”

Rowse hated poets in particular. Stephen Spender had “no gift but tries so hard ? literary ambition the real moving spirit.” Robert Lowell was an “egotistic Puritan ass.” Under a photo of Allen Ginsburg wearing dungarees, he wrote, “Bad poet, fatuous dress.”

Even historical figures weren’t safe from his scabrous pencilings. “Helen of Troy was a silly bitch,” he wrote in “The Oxford Book of Greek Verse.”

Not surprisingly, Rowse was incapable of hiding his opinions of others. Although recognized as a genius who deserved a knighthood, a hint as to why he never received one could be found in his copy of Royal Houses Illustrated. Below his notation of “the hideous vulgarity of Sandringham,” could be found another note: “I wasn’t forgiven for saying that.”