Note and Biography
is a rather obscure figure in modernist literature whom I discovered quite
by accident as almost none of his works are in print - my intrigue was
set aflame by A.J.A. Symmons' "Experiment in Biography" of Rolfe titled
The Quest for Corvo.
Regardless of the difficulty of acquiring Rolfe's work, his books have a very large following in the field of book collectors (most notably in the UK). Unfortunately, this latter fact leads to an inclination towards Rolfe's work which consists of a taste for the curio and rarity - that is, for the object of the book itself, as opposed to that of its content. This often obscures the fact that, however intriguing Rolfe's eccentric character may have been, he was an astounding writer who deserves far more critical attention than he has received.
In the latter 20th century the inattention Rolfe receives is quite understandable (though not commendable) as his work is exceedingly language oriented; in other words, it is very wordy and thus the reading public craving immediate gratification and entertainment would have to undergo a bit of a trial - such as that required in reading Henry James or Marcel Proust for instance - authors who, regardless of their greatness, remain, by and large, unread outside of academic circles and are tossed aside by most as 'boring and tedious.' Nonetheless, if you are one who swoons under the touch of literary mastery, I would encourage you to try and lay your hands on some of Rolfe's texts. Please note that Rolfe's work varies a lot in the depth and incision of its stylistic tendencies - some works, such as Nicholas Crabbe - are rather light in tone and the plot/story is central - others, such as Don Renato, are absolute masterpieces in their outstanding command of and creativity within the English language.
Be forewarned - Rolfe's personality is exceedingly present in almost all of his works, that is, a less staunchly opinionated being you will rarely find. This can create a bit of frustration in reading, as there is often so much bitterness and bile overshadowing Rolfe's often divine pages; be this as it may, these pages often remain, indeed, divine ...
of Rolfe's texts may be found transcribed on-line (including the masterpiece
Don Renato, An Ideal Content) at: The
Golden Gale Electronic Library.
Stories Toto Told Me may be downloaded as a .Zip file from The
Dream Forge's Free Library.
Thanks are due here to Keith Rodwell of Barterbooks for supplying me with some much coveted information and content, such as the text for the article below which is quoted from "Book and Magazine Collector," © 1991
by Kevin Nudd
literature is full of bizarre figures, but few led a more extraordinary
life than Frederick William Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo who scandalised
society around the turn of the century. Failed schoolmaster, painter,
and photographer, he was nevertheless a literary genius. He was also his
own worst enemy. His paranoia an an unremitting conviction of his own
merit brought him a deluge of disasters, and left him literally destitute
for much of his adult life. He eventually died penniless and unknown in
Venice in 1913.
From this unhappy life, however, he managed to produce some highly original and erudite books, most notably Hadrian the Seventh and Stories Toto Told Me. They were virtually ignored during Rolfe's lifetime, but since his death they have become established as modern masterpieces. Almost immediately after his death a cult began to develop around his life and work, particularly after A.J.A. Symons published his seminal biography The Quest for Corvo in 1934. Symons did a masterly job in promoting Rolfe's works and getting much of his unpublished work in print.
recent years much more Corviana has been discovered by Rolfe's
bibliographer Cecil Woolf, and virtually all of it has found its way into
print, usually in very collectable limited editions from independent publishers
like Edinburgh's Tragara Press. All Rolfe's works are very collectable
today, and he has a large and dedicated following among bibliophiles.
It's ironic that a man so shunned in his own lifetime (and who felt so
bitter in return) should become a popular and collectable author today.
Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe was born on 22 July 1860 at 61 Cheapside, London, into a Dissenting family. He was a precociously religious child - indeed, such was his religious ardour that when he was fourteen he had his breast tattooed with a cross.
After leaving school, Rolfe worked as a master at a succession of schools, including Winchester Modern School (where he contributed to The Wintonian) and Grantham Grammar School, where he arrived on 22 September 1884. By this time he was already a published author. Whilst working at the Stationers' Company School in 1878 one of his favourite pupils was drowned in the Thames. As a mark of respect Rolfe dedicated a poem called Tarcissus: The Boy Martyr of Rome to "Thomas Reardon R.I.P." It was privately printed by Boardman of Saffron Walden in 1880.
During his spell at Grantham Rolfe converted to Catholicism, perhaps the most momentous decision of his life. From the moment he was administered the Sacrament of Confirmation by Cardinal Manning early in 1886 his efforts to become a priest became the driving force behind most of his actions, but like most things he attempted his efforts were doomed to failure. He started well enough, even managing to persuade the Bishop of Shrewsbury to sponsor him at the centre of English Catholicism St. Mary's College at Oscott, near Birmingham; but he was expelled for concentrating on his hobby of painting rather than studies. Then he managed to get himself forcibly ejected from Scots College, Rome, where he was a probationary candidate for the priesthood.
Although the reason given was that he was spending too much time writing poetry (many of his poems appeared in various magazines around this time), he was also ar rogantly disdainful of his fellow novitiates and his tutors - an attitude sure to bring about his expulsion. He had also begun his lifelong habit of running up numerous debts he had no hope of paying. What particularly galled the authorities, though, was Rolfe's habit of attacking anyone who ever questioned his actions, even his superiors.
When he was expelled from Scots College, all Rolfe's hopes of priesthood were at an end, although he determined to remain celibate for twenty years so he could be ready for the 'call' if it ever came. He later described the expulsion as his "life's great disappointment," and for the remaining thirty years of his life he maintained appalling relations with the Catholic church and individual Catholic friends, although he never once lost his faith. He actually became convinced that all his hardships were the result of a Papist conspiracy against him, and his letters to other Catholics like Father Beauclerk and Harry Bainbridge make extraordinary reading. Rolfe had a habit of biting the hand that fed him, and his life was littered with disillusioned friends who had been attacked after offering him friendship, work and money.
the 1890s Rolfe contributed various poems and articles to a number of
magazines but he always considered this an unpleasant diversion from his
real interests: painting and sculpting. He was an accomplished painter
and an innovative photographer (indeed, he made great advances in developing
colour and submarine photography), but as he was so hopeless at managing
his affairs he couldn't make money from them.
After the Rome debacle Rolfe settled in Christchurch, Hampshire, where he presented himself as Baron Corvo - according to him it was an honorary title bestowed upon him by the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini, a wealthy patron who had taken him in when he was homeless in Rome, and who agreed to make him a regular allowance while he was in England. Baron Corvo was just one pseudonym he used for "the loathsome occupation of writing" - he also called himself Frank English, Frederick Austin, A. Crab Maid, and a host of other names.
After being obliged to leave Christchurch under a cloud of debt and fraud, Rolfe tried to start a new life in Aberdeen, but his Aberdeen career was another series of follies, deceptions and hardships which haunted him for the rest of his life. Within two months of securing a job as a photographer's assistant he was sacked (although he refused to accept his dismissal and had to be physically pre vented from attending work by the police); and after running up a huge bill at his lodgings he was eventually thrown out into the street in his pajamas - on the many occasions Rolfe was evicted throughout his life he always tried to prevent the inevitable by going to his bed, and staying there! Despite the odd success (such as having a photograph of a nude published in The Studio) he soon resorted to accepting help from the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor in Aberdeen and writing begging letters to William Waldorf Astor and the Duke of Norfolk. Eventually he was befriended by the maverick socialist M.P.H.H. Champion who made Rolfe his secretary and gave him a staff job on his radical newspaper The Aberdeen Standard. Even this didn't last long, though. Champion was drummed out of the Labour Party, and emigrated to Australia in 1894. Although Champion made arrangements for Rolfe in London, he had to fend for himself once again.
One of the most important pieces of Corviana is related to Rolfe's Aberdeen period, although he didn't write it himself - far from it! In 1898 Rolfe wrote a preposterous 'true-life' life story called "How I was Buried Alive" for Wide World Magazine which carried his photograph. In November 1898 this was taken up by the Aberdeen Free Press who published a series of articles claiming Rolfe's life was far more interesting than even he claimed. Their virulent (but essentially true) account of his life and career to date was reprinted in many Catholic journals and further fueled his bitterness towards his Church. Rolfe's last real chance of living respectably as an artist or photographer came in the mid-1890s when he was engaged by Father Beauclerk at the shrine of Holywell to paint some banners for his church in return for board and lodging. This failed too, and after Beauclerk refused Rolfe's demands for E700 payment an argument started which lasted for at least ten years. Rolfe called Beauclerk an "habitual wanton and malignant liar, a calumniator, a curser, a thief," and when he was forced to enter the Holywell workhouse in January 1899 it was obvious that every Catholic from the Pope' down was to blame, not Rolfe himself. Rolfe's Holywell career may have been as disastrous as Aberdeen, but it was important for his development as a writer. When he couldn't afford to buy paints, he wrote. "You will not let me ... earn my living in my own way," he told Beauclerk; "you ... have forced me into a position which I hate, and loathe, e.g. Literature." As well as being a frequent contributor to The Holywell Record he also produced an anonymous pamphlet called The Attack on St. Winefride's Hall, or Holywell Gone Mad.
important though was Stories Toto Told Me, published by John Lane
on 27 September 1898. These tales were based on conversations Rolfe had
with local peasant boys during his happy period with the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini
in Italy years earlier, and had already appeared in The Yellow Book
in 1895 and 1896. Lane reissued them as Bodley Booklets.
Three years later Lane also published In His Own Image by 'Frederick Baron Corvo' containing many more Toto stories, including those which had appeared earlier. This volume was published on 5 March 1901, complete with a title page designed by Rolfe himself. This featured Rolfe's personal motif of a raven's head (Corvo is Latin for raven) and priest's hat.
Despite all his faults and hardships Rolfe was a conscientious worker, and in the early years of the new century he worked long and hard on several projects, including a verbose translation of The Rubaiyat of Umar Khaiyam for John Lane in 1903; several magazine articles; and his seminal Chronicles of the House of Borgia. This was published by Grant Richards in 1901. Incidentally, Rolfe's manuscript included a controversial appendix on the Borgias' homosexuality. A few proof copies were run off before being withdrawn, and these are notoriously scarce today - only a handful survived.
Rolfe's relations with his publishers were strained to say the least. His most notorious quarrel was with Grant Richards, initiated when Richards' reader criticized the Chronicles as loose, clumsy and badly spelt. This may well have been true - since his days at Oscott Rolfe had adopted an arcane and idiosyncratic writing style; archaic spelling designed to present an aesthetic 'feel' to his work; and he was notorious for making up bizarre compound words like 'totutiloquence,' 'noncurant' and 'occession'. Rolfe's Letters to Grant Richards were collected and published by The Peacock's Press in an edition of 200 numbered copies on handmade paper in 1951. This volume was criticised for only presenting one side of the argument, and in 1974 the Tragara Press issued The Reverse Side of the Coin: Some Further Correspondence Between Frederick William Rolfe and Grant Richards. Rolfe's letters to John Lane were privately printed for Alien Lane in 1963 entitled Without Prejudice.
If Rolfe's relations with publishers were strained, his relations with his many literary collaborators were appalling. Rolfe liked working with others, but after the initial honeymoon period all these partnerships ended in failure. Friendships with the novelist priest R.H. Benson (with whom he tried to write a book about Thomas A'Beckett), and Sholto Douglas (with whom he wrote a series of "Reviews of Unwritten Books" for the Monthly Review) both ended in mutual recriminations, and when he expanded Owen Thomas's Agricultural and Pastoral Prospects of South Africa (Archibald Constable, 1904) from a 20-page pamphlet into a 500-page volume, the squabble which followed Rolfe's request for payment ended in a court case. Needless to say, Rolfe lost.
Rolfe's only fruitful collaboration was with Harry Pirie-Gordon. As 'Prospero' and 'Caliban' they produced The Weird of the Wanderer and Hubert's Arthur, two novels ostensibly based on records left by Rolfe's literary alter ego Nicholas Crabbe. Only the former was published in Rolfe's lifetime, though, and even their friendship ended when Rolfe unfairly accused Pirie-Gordon of forcing him into poverty.
Rolfe never forgot the people he considered his enemies, and they invariably turn up in his fiction. Autobiography is an important part of his art. His most famous work, of course, is Hadrian the Seventhin which he presents himself as George Arthur Rose, an impoverished and oppressed writer who manages to be elected Pope - Rolfe's greatest fantasy. Written from 1900-03, all his old enemies are there. Father Beauclerk appears as "a harebrained and degenerate priest" who ends up in a mad house, and Nancy Gleeson White (an old 'friend' from Christchurch) is portrayed as Mrs. Crowe, the author of an attack similar to the one in the Aberdeen Free Press. To be fair, though, Rolfe hardly presents himself as a saint and those men who had helped him - Monsignor John Dey and Father George Angus - are made Cardinals under Hadrian.
The book was a marvelous achievement, particularly as it was written when Rolfe was invariably penniless, destitute and living in a cramped and cold lodging house. 1,500 copies were published by Chatto & Windus on 14 · July 1904, complete with Rolfe's own design of a Pope stamped on the front cover and a white dustjacket.
|adrian the Seventh has been in print ever since, and it has been justly acclaimed as a twentieth century classic. Graham Greene called it a "novel of genius", and D.H. Lawrence called it a "book of our epoch" as early as 1925. He went on: "If it is the book of a demon as Corvo's contemporaries said, it is the book of a man demon, not a mere poseur. And if some of it is caviare, at least it came out of the belly of a live fish." None of this brought Rolfe any relief from his hardships, of course, nor did Don Tarquinio, A Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance or Don Renato, an Ideal Content, a novel Rolfe worked on for at least ten years. This story based on a priest's diary was accepted for publication by Francis Griffiths in 1909 but it was never officially published by them. They produced several copies bound oatmeal cloth decorated in purple with a design by Rolfe, but Rolfe refused to pass the proofs and the few copies were destroyed. It was thought to be a 'lost work' until a diligent Corvo scholar found a copy in the basement of the printer's office twenty years later. Copies of this first 'edition' are unobtainable of course, but Chatto & Windus issued a limited edition of 200 copies in 1963.|
|rederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo spent the last five years of his troubled life in Venice. By this time he had given up his hopes of priesthood, but he continued writing, particularly an attack on Lord Northcliffe's Daily Mail entitled The Bull Against the Enemy of the Anglican Race (published posthumously by A.J.A. Symons for the Corvine Society dinner on 27 June 1929) and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. This "Romance of Modern Venice" is a chronicle of Venetian life as Rolfe lived it in the person of Nicholas Crabbe. Once again it tells how supposed friends like Benson, Pirie-Gordon.and his solicitors Barnard & Taylor brought Rolfe to the brink of ruin, and how he kept alive. The book was eventually published by Cassell on 29 November 1934. Despite these titles, Rolfe's Venice years are particularly remembered today for a series of pseudo-pornographic letters sent to Charles Masson Fox between 1909-1910, hoping they'd tempt Fox to live in Venice where Rolfe could rely on his generosity. They failed. The Venice Letters were suppressed for many years before being published by Cecil and Amelia Woolf in 1974. They are a highly prized collector's item today. Rolfe's years in Venice were no more comfortable than any other time, though, and he was constantly living on a knife-edge of debt and homelessness. He applied for a job as a gondolier, and for a while he thought about setting up a photographic business in the city, but usually he relied on other people's He applied for a job as a gondolier, and for a while he thought about setting up a photographic business in the city, but usually he relied on other people's generosity for his survival - even Queen Alexandra the Queen Mother sent him £10. Nevertheless, his position gradually became increasingly untenable and after a period of sleeping under tarpaulins on the canals, he died of "heart paralysis" on 25 October 1913 in a flat belonging to a friend. Largely because of the efforts of A.J.A. Symons and the Corvine Society Rolfe's books didn't die with their author, and in the last thirty years particularly there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest in his work. Almost all the completed works, fragments and letters have been published by a variety of specialist publishers, and these are all very collectable today. In many cases their limited print runs make them even scarcer than the books published during Rolfe's lifetime. Mr. G.F. Sims and his Peacock's Press started the trend in 1951 with Amico Di Sandro and Letters to Grant Richards, and Cecil Woolf, Nicholas Vane and the Tragara Press have supplied Corvo enthusiasts with a wealth of material, including The Armed Hands (1974), Letters to Harry Bainbridge (1977), and The Collected Poems of Fr. Rolfe, Baron Corvo (1974). It's fascinating to speculate what would have happened to Rolfe if he had become a priest. It was certainly his dearest wish and he usually signed himself Fr. Rolfe, keen to seem as clerical as possible. It's fairly certain he wouldn't have become "one of the great masters of vituperation", as W.H. Auden called him in 1961, but it's also certain he wouldn't have produced so many great books.|
Return to Top