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Joseph Kaminski

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August 16, 2017

Book Review: The Elizabethan Renaissance by A. L. Rowse


Alfred Leslie Rowse, oftentimes shortened to A. L. Rowse, is best known for his work on England under Queen Elizabeth I’s reign as monarch. He was born on December 4th, 1903, in Cornwall. Mr. Rowse is the perfect example of a man of greatness born against all odds, as both his mother and father lived in poverty and never fully grasped the concept of reading. Despite his more poverty-stricken upbringings, A. L. Rowse found an educational safehaven at St Austell County Grammar School. While attending class there, he won a scholarship to Christ Church – a constituent college within the University of Oxford – in 1921.

Makins, Rowse and Baring

Makins, Rowse and Baring by Lady Ottoline Morrell, vintage snapshot print, June 1926

A. L. Rowse’s life was an incredible one; one that was centered on his thirst for knowledge and his excellent academia. His early love for poetry led to an interest to study English literature, which he would put to use when it came to his extensive Shakespearean research. He was encouraged and persuaded by friends and professors alike to look into history, which soon became his overall academic passion.

At the end of his four years of class as a rather popular undergraduate at Christ Church, A. L. Rowse graduated at the top of his class and was offered a fellowship at All Souls College at Oxford. There, four years afterward, he was awarded his Master of Arts degree. With his academic resume beaming with his over-the-top records, Mr. Rowse soon became a lecturer on various topics at Merton College and the London School of Economics.

From here, I enjoy categorizing the author as the perfect example for what someone in the field of history can do. He was increasingly popular as a lecturer, wrote books in his spare time, and dabbled in politics throughout the thirties. Coming in third place behind the Liberal Party in 1931, second place ahead of the Liberal Party in 1935, and having the outbreak of war postponing a general election that he might have actually won, A. L. Rowse ended his political career in favor of the academic background that he had come from. In his lifetime, A. L. Rowse published in of around one hundred books, certifying his position as an English historian. He received the Order of Companion of Honor, and he found himself as a fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Society of Literature, and the Royal Historical Society.

The Elizabethan RenaissanceWhile his place in the world of English History may be valid, the question can be asked about just how one-sided or biased that his works of history may be. As I previously stated, Mr. Rowse had his decade of political interest, in which he identified and ran as a member of the Labour Party. Thus, it is important to remember that the book The Elizabethan Renaissance: The Life of the Society was not only written by a British historian, but one that identified as a member of the Crown’s most loyal opposition – one that came out against advanced nationalism, in a sense.

On that note, I’d love to discuss the author’s nationalistic bias, or lack thereof. As we witness throughout the book, A. L. Rowse has a major problem with English historians bathed in nationalistic nostalgia. My personal favorite line in the book was when A. L. Rowse enlightened readers by describing his fellow English historians as men whitewashed in nationalism, making them unable to focus on the increase in arts of the time in favor of references to powerful navy, incredible alliances, and the start of a mighty empire (Rowse, pages 3, 5, and 6).

Another problem would be A. L. Rowse’s anti-Catholic stance. His historical period of knowledge is one struggling between the Catholic and Protestant faiths. As a historian, A. L. Rowse could have easily neutralized his foundation to prepare a more centrist perspective on the aspects of religion in the book. However, this bias only makes itself known whenever the subject of religion becomes dominant in the thesis – rather late into the book. Overall, his historical analysis finds itself above religious bias. I personally found that his natural bias against nationalism was more predominant than his religious quips.

Rowse’s writing style in The Elizabethan Renaissance was about as intriguing as long, drawn out sentences can be. As I read through the pages of the first chapter, I found myself rereading important names that were strewn – quite aimlessly – throughout his vivid descriptions of comparing the world of Renaissance Italy to the world of Reformation England and the lives of each society. He had the tendency to throw one or two sentences I deemed worthy of recollection on each page, and he found himself focusing more on details rather than the main idea that supported his thesis.

It is important to realize, however, that long sentences do not equally translate to being completely boring or without purpose. The book was incredibly informative, with each page offering just as much detail as the last. I believe that this work had a fantastic purpose – to describe the life of Elizabethan England through the arts, food, sex, sport, and customs in a viewpoint that many historians that focus on this time tend to ignore.

However, every book has crucial flaws; and A. L. Rowse’s The Elizabethan Renaissance holds the weight of so much information that it collapses beneath itself. I believe that this book had a great platform; one that had great purpose and a fantastic message with an astounding amount of information and references; but I found that A. L. Rowse, as great of a historian as he was, stumbled through research and spent most of the 304 pages meandering around one of the main points that he highlighted in his first chapter.

Overall, Mr. Rowse’s focus on long sentences would not be a negative had he given more than one or two per page dedicated to his central focus. The entire book’s platform should have been focused on the differentiations between the Italian Renaissance and the English Reformation, rather than pseudo-biographies and detailed perspectives from various men and women at the time. This is the reason I would label the author’s style as meandering around, and it almost felt as if he had a goal residing within a pre-destined page number. To reach that goal, it felt as if he was just throwing in more information than necessary. Perhaps this is because it was the third book in his series on the subject.

As stated prior, A. L. Rowse is a fantastic historian with a well-structured resume. Thus, it would be improper to say his work is invalid in any way. The validity of his work comes from various superscripts throughout his flowery phrases, each sourcing back to a rather extensive notes section that acts as a chapter by chapter bibliography. Averaging at around sixty-four references per chapter, the book has gone out of its way to give readers a various amount of materials to cite and source important facts. There are no footnotes used throughout The Elizabethan Renaissance, but he does a superb job by including what could have been footnotes within the extensive details on each page.

A good example of this would be how he described the difference of writing between two generations of the era in chapter one. By discussing the differences between Wyatt’s old school method and Surrey’s new school method of translating by giving comparisons to their individual translations of Petrarch, A. L. Rowse shot down a footnote in favor of directly informing readers within the piece itself (Rowse, page 12). The notes are helpful, directly relating readers to their references; and his inclusion of translations and images throughout the book made it that much more enjoyable as well as valid.

A. L. Rowse wrote “The Elizabethan Renaissance” in an attempt to portray the livelihoods of every class within the period. The book starts off with a vivid first chapter, dedicated to describing the overall influences it took from artistic ingenuity and the impact that “renaissance” had on “reformation”. The writing opened up his initial bias against nationalism early on, showcasing how he feels the beginning of the rising Royal Navy, the foundations of imperialistic colonialism, and the overall rise in power for the country during this time period overshadows the artistic implications during the time.

One can easily tell that this is the reason he wrote the book – not so much to describe the overall implications of life during the time, but to also discuss the wonders of art and the advancement of society and life through said art. As the book moves on, it opens up into major themes: law, religion, sanitation, sex, sport, and the “astrology” of witchcraft. The residue from his thoughts on nationalism and Catholicism remains within each theme.

Queen Elizabeth I

“The Rainbow Portrait” of Queen Elizabeth I, c. 1600

Elizabethan England is a complicated one, and the book describes this through focusing on the mixture of old-style narrative and extremely detailed descriptions on the lives of men, women, and children during the era.

One thing worth noting about the book itself is that this is the third – and final – book in A. L. Rowse’s trilogy on the era. After discussing Elizabeth’s reign on a political level within the first book and the colonialism and cultural advancements within the second book, it was a “fitting conclusion” to discuss the social norms for the era.

Although in more modernized editions, it would seem natural to start a historical trilogy on the social aspects and later evolve into the politics and culture, it still makes every point that it needs to make. This is, after all, a review on the third book – and not the series as a whole.

As written in the opening pages of Chapter III (titled The Rhythm of Town and Country), “a rising population in both town and countryside increased the demand for food and the demand for land […] [but] it was a well-knit and well-integrated society, as societies go […] there was a balanced rhythm between town and country, the main spring of it all being London.” (Rowse, pages 68 – 69) This level of foreshadowing in Rowse’s writing is a perfect example of connecting his major points rather early on. It’s not until two chapters later where the point returns to the concept of food and sanitation as a necessity in a growing population.

The Elizabethan Renaissance is essentially a book that produces a central thesis through meandering across several major themes in Reformation society. A. L. Rowse does a fantastic job connecting each point to the next, but the overall message is clouded by immense detail and long, drawn out sentence structure. From The Court (Chapter I, The Court) to The Bedroom (Chapter VI, Sex), Rowse finds a way to apply art and social normality into every way of life during the time.

Rebecca West

Portrait of Rebecca West by Madame Yevonde.

Rebecca West, a British journalist and literary critic at the time of the release of The Elizabethan Renaissance, had a rather interesting review plastered to the back of the book’s original cover. Her review claimed that “[Mr. Rowse] made dry bones not only live, but dance”, stating that it was “delightful [that…a] historian should also accept human nature so happily.”

Her review is a typical back-of-the-book blurb of positivity, meant only to encourage people to read the book if they decided to pick it up. This is the same for every professional review I’ve found on the book. I disagree with Mrs. West; and I believe that Mr. Rowse’s style of writing for this book is rather antiquated for being written in the seventies. A rather drawn out, old-fashioned method of detailing and explaining such a vast topic could be an easy turn-off for readers of all ages. But, that is not to say I wouldn’t recommend at least trying to read it.

Overall, this book deserves to be given a shot. It’s an extensively detailed piece, worthwhile if you’re interested in or need to write a paper about England during the reformation and renaissance eras. It gives a perspective that not too many historians pick at – one that showcases the “renaissance of England” as a renaissance indeed; not just one that lays in the shadows of the Italian renaissance and English nationalism. The book helped me identify a vast amount of details that had never really been brought to my attention before. As history is flooded with the continental European renaissance, many students can completely isolate England and label their own renaissance as a bland period of reformation.

I would honestly recommend this book to anyone – friend, student, or otherwise – as long as they realized just what the book was about. A. L. Rowse has an enlightening perspective; but do be warned! This book is not designed for lower-leveled students of history or the general population of our modern era. It takes a lot of background knowledge to understand the jest of what A. L. Rowse would like to portray as the truest English history.

Personally, I think that any nonstudent of history would find the book somewhat unorganized, as if A. L. Rowse droned on for far too long. But, as a student of the subject, I heavily enjoyed it – for the most part – and thus have to leave an overall positive review. If we were to place a star system review onto this book, I’d give it a solid three and a half stars at the very most. For those who would be interested in the time period or nation of England itself, this book supplies more than enough detail and labels plenty of sources to increase your awareness on the subject at hand, the Elizabethan Renaissance.

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