Benevolent deity

Commenting on English writer Frederick Rolfe (a.k.a. Baron Corvo) in his landmark study of fame, The Frenzy of Renown, Leo Braudy observed that, “once safely interred, the eccentric whose fiery presence scorched the ground while he was alive can be transformed into a benevolent deity of sustaining individualism.” As we saw on Thursday, Rolfe was a royal pain in the ass who blazed any potentially fertile field he came across,  but since dying in obscurity in 1913 he has enjoyed a fruitful afterlife.

Braudy notes how Rolfe had assiduously laid the groundwork for his posthumous legend: “everything he did might be material for a justifying posterity, and he seized, for example, on the slimmest excuse to write elaborate letters and notes, even to those living nearby or in the same house with him.”

And so Rolfe became the archetype of a semi-forgotten literary character, stuffed, labelled and musty in the glass cases of the antiquarian, lauded by a small but fervent group of admirers. It is no coincidence that his three major biographers to date have been bibliophiles, who fetishised every rejected manuscript, every unpaid bill, every scathing letter from their subject’s erratic career, like the relic hunters of Rolfe’s adoptive Catholicism.

The essential figure in Rolfe’s revival is English writer and bon vivant A.J.A. Symons. In 1925 he chanced upon Rolfe’s novel Hadrian the Seventh and the bawdy “Venice Letters”, in which Rolfe detailed his (most likely fabricated) homoerotic adventures. Symons was sufficiently intrigued by their then almost totally forgotten author to seek out Rolfe’s extant associates. By the time his findings were published as The Quest for Corvo in 1934, a “Corvine Society” had emerged which held occasional retro-Edwardian banquets where figures like Winston Churchill’s cousin, Catholic intellectual Shane Leslie, toasted Rolfe with equal measures of respect and irony.

There’s not a whiff of the archive about Symons’s fascinating, groundbreaking “experiment in biography”, as he termed it. It didn’t simply tick off chronological milestones; when Rolfe dies, there are still three chapters to go. The “quest” of the title is key: the cogs and springs of the life writing process are all visible, the biographer himself is in plain view. As such it’s a forerunner of much later “experiments” in literary biography, including In Search of J.D. Salinger, Flaubert’s Parrot and With Borges.

The next wave of interest in Rolfe’s life came with his centenary in 1960, which was marked with the publication of previously unseen works, followed by the 1965 essay collection New Quests for Corvo which furthered Symons’ enquiries. Peter Luke’s 1968 stage adaptation of Hadrian the Seventh stripped the fig-leaf of pseudonymity to turn Rose back into Rolfe; the blog Front Free Endpaper has unearthed some fascinating footage of the play being performed in London front of 300 bishops.

The 1970s, with their heightened appreciation for camp, brought Donald Weeks’ biography Corvo: Saint or Madman?, and Miriam J. Benkovitz’s Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo. While the latter is the most complete account of Rolfe’s life, the gruelling inventory of his every failure, enmity and deception – and there were many – is not for the faint-hearted.

Since then, no piece of Corviana has been too obscure to elude publication, usually issued by boutique presses in lovingly crafted limited editions. This is a fitting tribute: Rolfe himself was often as interested in the form of his books as their contents.

The key to this sustained, low hum of interest is that Rolfe has never bothered middlebrow consciousness long enough to break the spell of cultish mystery. But the quantity of Rolfean relics dwarfs the real significance of his legacy, just like the innumerable pieces of the True Cross “found” over the years, which could build a cross many times larger than the original. The obsessive quest for the recherché in itself constitutes a form of narcissism; the very obscurity of the subject flatters the taste and discernment of the discoverer and the bibliophile asserts the rare refinement of his or her connoisseurship with each precious dusty find.

As Braudy notes, Rolfe’s strategy was “to act like a genius so that people might pause and conclude he actually was one”, and he would no doubt be thrilled that he is being taken as seriously as he took himself. But whatever else may be laid at his feet, he was always and utterly true to that self, and at great personal cost, and he lacked neither tenacity nor industry. Let us then do him the favour of leaving him as would wish to be remembered.

In an extraordinary piece written shortly before his death, in which self-love is raised to the level of mysticism, Rolfe imagines his own ascension:

…enthroned above all in the centre of the apse, hierarchically weighted with tissue of gold with adornments of jaspers & carbuncles & sunstones, crowned with his mitres, holding his crook all crusted with gems, his eyes closed like the eyes of an ivory god rapt in ecstatic meditation while at his feet masses were sung by his canons.

Amen.

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12 comments

  1. John Hastings

    James,
    I am out of breath. This is a bravura account of an experience with a life and a writer that is much more intriguing than the life or the writer.
    I found “Hadrian” to be virtually unreadable. I prefer “la Bas” and “a Rebours” if I am in the mood to navigate that serpentine and aimless autobahn of ersatzerie.
    Baron Corvo is a decadent, but not in the first rank or the second. The malevalence however is as real as the genius is lacking. The only dazzle here is your wordplay. It does indeed dazzle.

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  9. J.B. Stahl

    It is hard to beat this or Symons’s writing.

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