- Marlene Dietrich as Tana in Touch of Evil
It is very much in the spirit of Frederick Rolfe to remember him, like a Catholic saint, on the day of his death. That feast day now comes round for the 100th time: the writer who traded as Frank English, Frederick Austin, Nicholas Crabbe, A. Crab Maid, Uriele de’ Ricordi, Fradulph Authades and, most notably, Baron Corvo, died penniless in Venice on 25 October*, 1913.
This milestone is marked in Venice today by a centennial celebration which will move on to New York next week, accompanied by the publication of Alpha & Omega, which unites Rolfe’s first and last works. So Tarcissus, The Boy Martyr of Rome (a piece of juvenilia which preceded an 18 year gap in Rolfe’s publishing schedule) joins something called “Venetian Courtesy”, along with some other oddments including a 2003 essay entitled “Baron Corvo: The Greatest Asshole Who Ever Lived”. I should also note that Robert Scoble’s book Raven: The Turbulent World of Baron Corvo was published recently. Its essays reflect aspects of Rolfe’s life and the people with whom he shared it and I will be returning to it at greater length another time.
In the last hundred years Rolfe has been forgotten, remembered, rediscovered, re-forgotten and rediscovered anew while ever eluding broader recognition; you can scan the big foldy-out newspapers or their online equivalents in vain for mention of today’s milestone. Rolfe’s papers are scattered among collectors rather than held in a library or other public institution, and literary histories can barely accommodate him in their footnotes. Beyond Rolfe’s signature work, Hadrian the Seventh, most of his books remain out of print.
So why does he remain an object of veneration for a fervent few, how did this cult arise and what form does it take? Fortunately for his posthumous reputation, Corvo attracted the interest of writer A.J.A. Symons while many of Corvo’s associates were still alive (and Symons is a writer well worth investigating beyond just his interest in Rolfe). The resulting book, The Quest for Corvo, was published in 1932. As well as revealing the improbable course of Rolfe’s life, it fulfilled the dual role of chronicling the early Corvine cult while simultaneously serving as a catalyst for its expansion.
About half a century ago an anthology entitled New Quests for Corvo picked up where Symons left off. In an essay entitled “The Anatomy of Corvinism”, Rabbi Bertram W. Korn posed, and attempted to answer, the question: “What is it about Corvo that compels us to become his enthusiasts?”. There is some peevish bigotry (“Who could or would aspire to emulate the personality of this homosexual-ingrate-wretch!”), but we can charitably put that down to the less enlightened early 1960s, while noting that it was exactly those qualities which drew at least some of his followers. Elsewhere Korn gamely attempts to analyse the motives of what he estimates to be “less than two hundred readers and collectors” and those aspects of Rolfe’s temperament which resonate beyond the tomb:
Despite the exquisite refinement of his style, his unusual perception of colours and shapes and movements, the fullness of his research, the utter individuality of his characters, and the stark revelation of intense emotions which characterize his best writing, none of his works could ever have achieved for him the place that he aspired to reach, and that he has reached through the fascination of his life-story. Perhaps only Hadrian (and that only in part – the chapters dealing with Sant and Mrs Crowe are far less effective and meaningful than the enduring portrait of Rolfe-Rose) has some seeds of imperishable appeal. And even (or especially) Hadrian has an attenuated significance if the book is read without close knowledge of the life-story which forms its background.
Rolfe-Corvo will never achieve major status in any history of literature. His books are, at the best, for the delectation of those who like the unusual taste, who share some of the author’s tendency towards the bizarre and the peculiar. If they had been written by another sort of person, a natural sort of man, a family man, with a normal household composed of wife and children, and with all the accoutrements and encumbrances of middle-class respectability, I doubt there would be very much interest in them or in their author. But that would be impossible, because only Corvo could have needed to write the books as they were written: the wish-fulfilment of an unbearably frustrated man.
Corvo is, perhaps, attractive to some of us because we wish that we were free to become Corvo-like. Every shred of logic and reason and common-sense and conscience we possess holds us back, so we continue to act out our conventional, respectable rôles. But we have discovered a perverse (and, I think, unconscious) pleasure in identifying ourselves with this man who refused to submit to any sort of compromise, who insisted that the world and its people and institutions had to revolve around him, who tossed away every chance of material success and comfort because he persisted in being himself. We all, many times, particularly to-day when international unrest impinges upon every thoughtful person’s mind, want to escape from the real world and its real problems, to run away and to live in a world of our own making; we dare not, and we know that it is not even possible, because our real problems are within us. But Corvo was different – it was his problems (the result of his peculiar psychological make-up) which helped him escape from the world and live his own utterly selfish life, while damning everything that stood in his path. Still, in a way, we who curb our anger and smother our hostility, we who refrain from taking advantage of others, we who show consideration for our neighbours, must secretly envy Corvo’s ability to treat others as dust.
* On the evening of 25 October Rolfe retired to bed, never to rise. His lifeless body was discovered the next day, and it is the 26th which A.J.A. Symons, for one, records for Rolfe’s death. This, intriguingly, is the feast day of a certain St Evaristus who was born in Bethlehem in the 1st century AD, converted to the Mother Church and is recorded as a “pope and martyr”. Rolfe, of course, was both of these things, to his own mind at least.
Strange Flowers guide to London, part 1
Pages: Frederick Rolfe’s “Reviews of Unwritten Books”
Pearls: Frederick Rolfe
Doubles: Frederick Rolfe
Doubles: R. H. Benson