There will, perhaps, never be a more apposite time than the present to read the works of Frederick Rolfe. Rolfe lived a difficult life, full of perceived injustices; but none might be so unjust as his having died before Pope Benedict XVI abdicated. The man the Vatican needs right now has been dead a century.
Frederick Rolfe was born in 1860 in London to a middle-class family; after attending Oxford, he decided to convert to Catholicism, and that is where the trouble started. Becoming Catholic made things harder for him. He strongly believed that he had a vocation for the priesthood, though this belief was not shared by the Catholic hierarchy, who seem to have been afraid of his convert’s zeal. His failure to become a priest only made Rolfe more creative; he began abbreviating his name as the ambiguous Fr. Rolfe. He moved to Italy; he acquired, or assumed, the title Baron Corvo. His life was hard, and he seems to have fallen out with everyone he ever knew; he died in poverty in Venice in 1913.
His writing, however, remains, as strange as when it appeared. Hadrian the Seventh, his best-known novel, was published in 1904. The novel starts out semi-autobiographically: George Arthur Rose lives in poverty with only his cat for company, having been unjustly denied the priesthood he desired. And then everything changes: a bishop and a cardinal appear, who explain that a terrible mistake has been made. Rose is made a priest; they go to the Vatican, where a papal conclave is deadlocked. Against all odds, Rose is elected Pope, taking the name Hadrian VII after the previous British pope. He institutes sweeping changes, which anger many, and redresses past wrongs against him. After a brief reign, he is assassinated by a deranged socialist.
Hadrian VII sounds funny, and it is. But it’s not the rollicking satire that the summarized plot implies: rather than being presented as a ridiculous figure, Rose is simply right, and he deserves to be Pope in a just world. The book that Rolfe thought he was writing is a different one than any reader who is not Rolfe reads; Rolfe’s world-view is utterly and uniquely his own.
Some of his later novels continue this autobiographical streak, most notably The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, written near the end of his life; Nicholas Crabbe, the protagonist, has written very similar books and lived a life similar to Rolfe’s:
Beside, he had published a book of personal experiments with priests, Peter of England, an awful audacious book which flayed whom it did not scald; and his mood was not to compete for reprisals. ‘It is not I who have lost the Athenians; it is the Athenians who have lost me,’ he superbly said. So, when priests slank up to him, he civilly warned them off: if they merited kindness and persisted, he gave them double: but, never any more would he admit them beyond the barbican of his lifted drawbridge, never any more would he go beyond parleys from the height of his impregnable battlements – unless they should come, at high noon, with a flag of truce and suitable gages – never any more would he on any account seek them, but to serve him as ministers of grace. (pp. 60–61)
Fiction, however, allows him the last laugh, as when a character strongly reminiscent of one of Rolfe’s former friends – there were many! – is described:
The Reverend Bobugo Bonsen was a stuttering little Chrysostom of a priest, with the Cambridge manners of a Vaughan’s Dove, the face of the Mad Hatter out of Alice in Wonderland, and the figure of an Etonian who insanely neglects to take any pains at all with his temple of the Holy Ghost, but wears paper collars and a black straw hat. (p. 36)
“Bobugo Bonsen” is presumably the mostly forgotten Catholic novelist Robert Hugh Benson; here, Rolfe is settling scores with Benson for his 1906 novel The Sentimentalists, which contains a none-too-flattering portrayal of Rolfe.
The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole has a plot past biographical recounting, though it’s so strange that it’s hard to know what to make of it. Crabbe, sailing on the Adriatic Sea, rescues a girl, Zilda, from an earthquake that has destroyed her village; but propriety says that an unmarried man and woman shouldn’t be on a boat together. Crabbe gets around this by declaring that Zilda is actually Zildo and everything is fine; his companion is accommodating. After several plot twists, Zildo becomes Gilda and she marries Crabbe, bringing the novel to a confusing ending.
Rolfe’s diction goes well past baroque into the rococo; it’s one of the great pleasures of his prose. Don Renato: An Ideal Consort, a medieval fantasia, might be his most extreme work. Ostensibly the notebook of a monk engaged in horrifying experiments on his prisoners, the book is written using a macaronic language of Italian, Greek, and Latin of Rolfe’s own concoction; helpfully, a glossary is provided so that the dedicated reader might decipher what Don Renato is saying. From it, we learn that a progymnast is a “slave who performs gymnastics with (but preceding) his master”, proterve is an adjective meaning “violent, wanton,” a pube is “one arrived at puberty,” and something that is pudibundis “modest”. The result is something like this:
This day of Venus, at Nemi, in the ilicet, an immense number of little serpents were disturbed in the termination of their torpor; and, having returned to this munimental city, palatial and ducal puerice has adsisted at vespers with a still torpid serpent on each head, in the similitude of the anguicomous Gorgon, in order to secure immunity from snake-bite. And the said serpents, decapitated, are dejected in the river. (p. 215)
Don Renato predictably had trouble making its way into print; it was rejected numerous times, Rolfe wrote in a letter, because “the work errs on the side of extreme distinction." One can’t argue with that.
It should be noted that it’s not entirely fair to call Rolfe a writer that no one reads; Hadrian the Seventh and A. J. A. Symons’s 1934 biography, The Quest for Corvo, are both in print in nice editions from New York Review Books. (The latter is a good place to start with Rolfe, though not without its flaws: Symons stays well away from Rolfe’s homosexuality, both in life and fiction.) For the strangeness of his life and prose, Rolfe is a particular favorite of book collectors. Several of his books can be found online, though caution should be used: the text of the online Don Renato, for example, is badly mangled. And finally, a syndrome has been named after him, though it has not yet attained the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Perhaps that’s what he would have wanted.
It’s the 154th birthday of Baron Corvo. Above, two of his works, a photograph and a bookplate, from a special copy of In His Own Image owned by the Uranian writer John Gambril Nicholson. Via Front Free Endpaper.
No man, save One, since Adam, has been wholly good. Not one has been wholly bad. The truth about the Borgia,no doubt, lies between the two extremes. They are accused of loose morals, and of having been addicted to improper practices and amusements.
Well; what then ?
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Frederick Rolfe, who styled himself “Fr. Rolfe” and “Baron Corvo”, is famous for Hadrian the Seventh (1904), a fantasy in which a downtrodden writer is unexpectedly elected Pope, and infamous for his scandalous “Venice letters”. He shows a different side in Don Tarquinio (1905), a fast-paced, high-spirited romp purportedly translated from a Renaissance manuscript and set in late 15th century Italy among the intrigues of the Borgias. Rolfe’s story tells of twenty-four hours in the life of a comely fifteen-year-old Roman youth, Don Tarquinio, whose family has been banned from Rome by edict of the Pope, but who undertakes a dangerous mission on behalf of the Pope’s son, Cesare Borgia, to regain his family’s lost honour and win the love of a beautiful maiden. Along the way, he and his companions, the handsome teenaged Prince Ippolito and the lovely French prince Réné, whom Don Tarquinio rescues from slavery, undergo a series of motley and comic adventures, related in Rolfe’s charmingly unique prose.
Bizarre, inventive, and highly entertaining, Rolfe’s novel was an unexpected hit with contemporary critics, who raved that it was “a brilliant tour de force which might have come out of Boccaccio”, “a novel of exceptional interest and dramatic power”, “an extravagant wealth of quaint conceit and irony”, “the vivid verbal brilliance of the book is wonderful”. This edition reprints the unabridged text of the 1926 edition published by Chatto & Windus.