Dinner at Oxford with the World’s Greatest Elizabethan Scholar

by Stephanie Cowell

He came up the stairs of the community room in Jesus College Oxford one July afternoon asking for me by name for we had been corresponding for a time. He was Dr. A.L. Rowse, then in his mid-eighties and generally acknowledged to be the greatest Elizabethan scholar in the world. He was irascible and short tempered. He was unequalled in his field and he knew it; in short, he was terrifying.

I was 42, a divorced mom of two boys from New York City, working in an administrative position to support them. I had never gone to college, but read history and literature extensively. I wanted to write novels about the Elizabethans. I wanted to prove to the world that I was more than a secretary. It was the annual summer conference at Oxford of the English Speaking Union, and thirty-six winners from branches around the world had been granted scholarships to attend for ten extraordinary days, to live in the 16th century college less than a minute’s walk from the Bodleian Library. Dr. Rowse was our major lecturer.

I had discovered his writing about the Elizabethans while researching my first novel about a boy actor and his spiritual and scientific search. Somehow I found Dr. Rowse’s address in Cornwall and wrote him. “Optimistic, aren’t you?” a friend said. “He’s not very young.” And then a few weeks later his light blue letter lay on my doormat. After that, I won my scholarship to meet him.

I think there were no more halcyon days in my life than those warm days at Oxford. We dined in the wainscoted hall under the portrait of the great Queen Bess and attended lectures on all aspects of the British world, including a trip to Stratford and afternoon tea in the gardens of Rhodes House. I felt I had come home. I sat at high table in hall with Dr. Rowse, and in the Jesus College quad, and walked by his side in All Souls. I loved everyone. I loved Oxford. I loved every stone, every chapel, every bookshop. I walked in the history I had long read.

The other students left us alone; they were all terrified of him. I was too much in love to share their wariness. He was known for his terrible temper; to me he was only courteous. We talked about writing historical novels and he gave me historical advice. He also loved this place. He had written, “I loved Oxford because there I found my true self.”

After I left, his light blue air mail letters continued to reach me. I published two Elizabethan novels, Nicholas Cooke and another dedicated to him; I begged more advice. I addressed him as Dr. Rowse. He signed his letters, love, A. L. He gave me gracious blurbs for my books.

And then one day the letter from his address was in a regular envelope and not in his hand. It was from his nurse saying he had had a serious stroke at the age of 93 (he had completed two books the previous year) and could no longer write. Then a time later I opened the New York Times and saw that he had died. I was stunned. I was but one of thousands of people who adored him; how could he know how much I had loved him? And how could I ever thank him for taking time from such a brilliant life to encourage me?

It was wanting to meet him that brought me to Oxford. I touched a life that under other circumstances might have been mine and I cherished its values of hard work and tradition. Like A.L Rowse, I also loved Oxford because it was there I found my true self.

I find Dr. Rowse’s light blue letters around the house now and then. Somehow they are never all in one slim folder. I have no degrees from my ten days as an Oxford woman but it has stayed in my heart. The beauty of my days there remains in me forever and reminds me that for a very brief time I touched what was dearest in excellence to me and now for all my life it remains part of all that I do.

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About the author: Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com

  • http://www.facebook.com/susan.d.eisenberg.1 Susan Dormady Eisenberg

    What a beautiful tribute to an esteemed mentor. Sounds like a magical meeting in England and a rewarding, special correspondence