Pages: Frederick Rolfe’s Reviews of Unwritten Books

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

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14 comments

  1. Rolfe a bit of a “chore”?
    Reading Rolfe is like slogging up Golgotha burdened by the heavy lifting of the Saviour and the Cross with nothing but a back of raw flesh to support the effort. The eyes glaze, as the human spirit is extinguished in the universe of Rolfe’s addlepated glossolalia. If bad writing could be considered a form of murder, Rolfe would be remembered as a serial killer.
    Rolfe, the blatherous exegete; not interesting by any standard unless mindless logorhea is one’s particular fatal addiction, one’s chronic need for useless affliction, one’s savage self directed foray into a sea of nullity.
    You cite his neologisms as perhaps a saving grace. Yet they are clumsy, unaesthetic, and forced. His eminences wordlets, frankensteined on the surface of every innocent page are all apuddle and hemmorhaging their gnostical anomias, but to no purpose.
    Rolfe is a sphinx without a secret.

    • My hearty thanks for your frank commentary. “Blatherous exegete” is one of my favourite descriptions of anyone, ever.

      • You are most welcome dear James. As you might imagine I occasionally am guilty of some of the offences I condemn with such gusto. Saint Paul speaks truth to power when he says in Corinthians that, “we all fall short of the glory of God”. Alas and alack for the human condition…

  2. Jay C-k.

    Is Yeats, Count Stenbock and the Yellow Nineties by any chance another of the hidden treasures of the Staatsbibliothek?

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  8. Seth Joseph Weine

    Dear Mr. Conway,
    You mention that most of the reviews were written “by a certain Sholto Douglas”, and that “Sholto Douglas stands in the shadow of the shadow”. I think I might shed some light on who Sholto Douglas could be.
    I’m betting that that nom-de-plume was that of Lord Alfred Douglas.
    My proposal turns on several facts:
    — Lord Alfred Douglas–former lover of Oscar Wilde–was the son of the Marquess of Queensbury—and the Marquess’ full name was John Sholto Douglas.
    — Lord Alfred was a pretty good poet: one can read some fine excerpts from his works in that most commendable biography, “Bosie”, by Douglas Murray. One might reasonably conclude that if he could write good poetry, then clever prose would be well within his skill-set.
    — Lord Alfred and his father were pretty much life-long enemies. So Lord Douglas might have used his father’s name as a manifestation of his bitterness about his family.
    — Doublas and Rolfe were contemporaries.
    So, considering the above together, I submit that a case for this identification is highly plausible.
    Respectfully yours,
    –Seth Joseph Weine

    • Thank you for your thought-provoking theory. I am sure there are others reading this better qualified to comment, though I was aware of the name “Sholto” in the Douglas clan (I believe a number of Alfred’s forebears bore the name). If I might, tentatively, offer some counter-arguments, I would point out that at the time LAD was newly married, and keen to put distance between himself and the disgraced literary firmament of the 1890s and so aligning himself with someone as disreputable as Rolfe would have been a step backwards. And if he were acting out in secret, then he would surely have chosen a better disguise. Also (and this, naturally, is subjective) I just don’t think LAD was talented or witty enough to have come up with the concept or content of the ‘Reviews’. But it’s an intriguing idea, and I would stress that I’m not qualified to either confirm or deny its validity.

      • On top of what James has just said about his image control and questionable talents, Bosie was related to an actual Sholto Douglas (he stood guarantee for Wilde’s bail), so he hardly could have pretended to be his own kin. Another (very shadowy indeed) Sholto is apparently the right one to credit:

        At least three people in the first half of the twentieth century were named Sholto Douglas. Rolfe’s collaborator was presumably Sholto Osborne Gordon Douglas (1873 – 1934). Little information about him is available online apart from the fact that he wrote A Theory of Civilisation. Their acquaintance began in March 1902 when Douglas wrote to Rolfe in praise of the latter’s Stories Toto Told Me and ended – apparently later in 1902 – with disagreements over the translations of The Songs of Meleager. They met only two or three times and collaborated through correspondence.

        (I knew none of this beforehand- I merely deployed my faithful minion, Google. This is all very interesting!)

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