So yesterday I felt guilty about neglecting Brian Howard‘s verse (which I am coming to like more and more) and posted one of his poems, but having carefully formatted it to reflect the original line breaks and indentations, it came out completely differently when published. Now I feel guilty again. HTML is the enemy of poetry! Have a look here to see how it should be.
Today’s subject, English novelist Ronald Firbank, was born on this day in 1886 and thus belonged to the generation prior to Howard’s, which was probably all for the best. Had he been younger, his wit and thirst would probably have swept him into the frantic frippery of the Bright Young Things and we may have been denied the subversive brilliance of the dozen or so books that he left. Howard himself called Firbank’s Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli “the wittiest book ever written”.
Firbank, it seems, was born blushing; his associates never fail to mention his social awkwardness, particularly the incessant fluttering of hands (or compulsive washing of same) and the hysterical laughter which would periodically erupt, leaving him incapable of completing an anecdote. Attempting to embolden himself with drink merely exacerbated the problem.
The key to Firbank’s life as well as his art is a sense of never quite belonging. He was born into wealth but it was only two generations old and thus socially suspect. His delicate health led him to constantly seek out more sympathetic climes, and his friends knew of his comings and goings largely from notices in The Times. He was also a Catholic convert, like Waugh in the following generation and Frederick Rolfe in the previous. In fact he was accepted into the Church by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, who enjoyed a short-lived friendship with Rolfe and Firbank was, like Rolfe, rejected from the priesthood and ever after maintained a strange, Oedipal love-hate relationship with Catholicism.
All of these things, as well as his homosexuality, gave Firbank a privileged vantage point to observe the rituals of his circle as well as its hostility to outsiders, but the barbs in his writing are sometimes so subtle that they only become visible on a second reading. While his plots and dialogue can occasionally seem as precious and overstuffed as a Victorian salon, Firbank was also remarkably forward-looking, such as in the impressionistic passages in Valmouth which record fragments of conversation, out of context, or his regular deployment of characters who were gay or lesbian or otherwise alienated.
There are numerous accounts of Firbank’s personal eccentricity, such as presenting the Marchesa Casati with a bunch of lilies and suggesting that they embark immediately for America, sending his cab driver to smooth the way before his first meeting with Augustus John, or his unlikely participation in sports. While at Cambridge, Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland recalls seeing the effete Firbank incongruously dressed “in the costume of sport”. Confounded, Holland enquired what he had been doing, and learning that he had apparently been playing football, further enquired whether it was rugby or soccer. “Oh,” replied Firbank, “I don’t remember”.
Firbank’s persistent ill-health and self-destructive drinking finally caught up with him in Rome where, in 1926, he died alone in a hotel room. The only person who knew him there was Lord Berners, who hastily arranged a funeral ceremony with a Reverend Ragg (who, to complete this chain of coincidence, had been an associate of Frederick Rolfe’s in Venice). Firbank was an outsider to the last; Berners, having no inkling of his conversion, had him buried in the Protestant Cemetery (he was later reinterred).