Even among the exceptional works of singular English writer Frederick Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo, this is an oddity. First, it’s not one book, but four. Second, although of relatively recent vintage this set is all but impossible to get hold of (during our tour of Berlin, I enthused in passing about the unexpected treasures held by Berlin’s main library, the Staatsbibliothek; this is a perfect example). Third, its authorship is far from straightforward.
What we’re looking at is Frederick Rolfe’s Reviews of Unwritten Books, a limited-edition anthology of eleven articles ostensibly written by Rolfe, posthumously published and annotated by Rolfe biographer Donald Weeks in 1985. Written around the beginning of the 20th century, most of them were originally printed in the London-based Monthly Review. They could have all been effortlessly encompassed by one book with room for more (there were 24 “Reviews” in total). Rolfe himself tried and failed to get them published in book form during his lifetime, but in issuing these four slim, elegant volumes, Weeks was evidently more concerned with crafting new artefacts for the Corvo cult than bringing these writings to a broader public.
In discussing the life and legacy of Rolfe a while back, I suggested that his signature work, Hadrian the Seventh, was a fascinating reflection of his personality while being something of a chore to read. These articles, written around the same time (1903/04) consequently come as a complete revelation. Where Hadrian was weighed down by Rolfe’s sense of aggrieved entitlement, these Reviews are light in the best possible sense, borne aloft on wit and invention.
The idea behind the “reviews” is the kind of arch, high-concept, Postmodern lark that Borges, for instance, wouldn’t get round to until well into the 20th century. It finds illustrious figures departing from their accustomed places in history or antiquity to comment on people or events which arose after their deaths, usually centuries hence; the resulting “book” is subsequently “reviewed”. And so we discover write-ups of Plato discoursing on Wagner, Sir Francis Bacon discussing wireless telegraphy, Tacitus assessing American democracy and Lionardo (sic) da Vinci admiring the Forth Bridge, St Gotthard Tunnel and other examples of modern engineering.
Witness Machiavelli commenting on the Boer War, a conflict which would have been fresh in the memory of the contemporary reader: “The object of the belligerent is to damage the enemy. He ought to do so in every possible way. He ought not to fight as a gentleman, but merely as a man.” It certainly sounds like something Machiavelli would have said. An appraisal of Walt Whitman’s poem about the Spanish-American War brings the conceit to the fore. “But who can write a Whitmaniac song which will bear comparison with the least of Whitman’s? We may make the attempt. It looks easy. But we fail to reproduce more than caricature.” There follows, of course, a “Whitmaniac” verse, supposedly Whitman’s own, and a convincing counterfeit at that. The levity and generosity of spirit here hardly seem to come from the same pen as the exhausting catalogue of injury that is Hadrian the Seventh.
That’s because they generally didn’t.
Although these pieces bear Rolfe’s name (and Weeks perpetuates the deception by including his name in the title) his contribution was comparatively minor. Most were originally written by a certain Sholto Douglas, who approached Rolfe and asked him to place them in a magazine under his own name. This he did, adding his own amendments but honourably passing on payment to their true author. Douglas claims that Rolfe “ruined” them in the process. Perhaps he is referring to the liberal use of archaisms (“cognosce”, “rapine”, “adscititious”) and invented words (“delectament”, “oceanicalised”,”existimated”). They certainly bear Rolfe’s imprint; Hadrian is littered with similar vocabulary.
Rolfe was definitely responsible for the critique of Cicero’s planned oration at the trial of Joan of Arc, which namechecks his most famous avatar. “It really was very fortunate for her, on the whole, that this oration never was delivered […] her subsequent rehabilitation at the hands of Pope Callistus the Third and beatification at the hands of Pope Leo the Thirteenth and canonization by Pope Hadrian the Seventh would have been rendered impossible.”
Frederick Rolfe is a shadowy figure of late-Victorian and Edwardian literature; Sholto Douglas stands in the shadow of the shadow, clearly a witty and original thinker who might today share Rolfe’s cult renown had he also shared his collaborator’s fanatical persistence. Whatever the authorship of these Reviews, the dizzying interplay of past, present and possibility, of fact, fiction and fantasy produce a work which was way ahead of its time and which recommends itself to a much wider audience. In The Quest for Corvo, A.J.A. Symons claims “the Reviews remain unworthy of revival”. Symons is, unusually, completely wrong.
Frederick Rolfe’s Reviews of Unwritten Books | Tragara Press, 1985 |Find on WorldCat