In person he was somewhat short and spare; he wore glasses which accentuated a myopic expression; moreover there was a cold shyness in his manner, due, as I found out later, to the fear and mistrust which were part of his general make-up. He told me fragments of his story, mostly his experiences at the Scots College in Rome. I was amazed to hear of his penurious circumstances. It was somewhat of a shock to learn that the erstwhile patron of an interesting band of followers, living in a noble house and touring the Italian coast for pleasure, was now so straitened that he had lately been writing Chronicles of the House of Borgia ‘in conditions resembling serfdom’.
His own life ambition was to be a priest, and he could not understand the opposition that had barred his way. Priests in general he had a poor opinion of, and he spoke with scorn of the kind of conversation common to their gatherings – particularly of ‘priests’ stories’ of a certain shade of blue. His descriptions of his fellow students at the Scots College, and the Rector, Mgr. Campbell (who deprived him of a dressing case with luxurious fittings on the score of worldly vanity), were devastating.
My wife instinctively disliked him, and unhesitatingly qualified him as a liar, a sponger, and sexually abnormal. He filled her with what she called ‘creepy loathing’.
– A.J.A. Symons (quoting Trevor Haddon), The Quest for Corvo
Beyond the single candle on the white and crumbly table-cloth, stood a man a year or two older than himself and a couple of inches taller; one hand was hidden in a buttoned-up Chesterfield coat, the other, with a silver ring upon it, rested with finger-tips on the cloth; a bowler hat with a caved-in top lay beside a knotted black-thorn near his hand. The man’s face, as Dick saw it in the candlelight, was smooth-shaven and long; he had a long nose that appeared slightly pressed into his thin cheeks: his black hair was parted neatly in the middle; his full-lipped mouth and projecting chin seemed tilted in a kind of tragic appeal, and his sharp black eyes looked at him under half-lowered lids.
Chris had always been an odd creature from Oxford onwards, strangely vivid and impulsive and theatrical all at once – subjectively sincere but not always objectively genuine.
Now Chris’s personality did not reside in his will; it ran about the battlements, mixed in the fray, ordered and counter-ordered at random, was swept off its feet in panics and sallies, and all the while stormed or paced or attitudinised according to mood in a hundred varying postures.
He had so completely accepted Chris’s poses in the place of Chris’s soul, that he did not dare to enquire after the latter. They were as formidable footmen who always said Not at home with an air of personal grievance.
There stood the man whom he had last seen three months before in a trim well-cut suit, well groomed and tidy; now in heavy gardening clothes, stained about the knees, with great earth-coloured boots, a weather-beaten buttoned corduroy jacket showing a leather belt below, a red handkerchief tied around his throat, ill-shaven, closely-cropped, and with an old cap in his hands.
– R. H. Benson, The Sentimentalists
The Sentimentalists was published in 1906, a year after the novel’s author, Robert Hugh Benson, met the writer who inspired its pivotal character: Frederick Rolfe (who died on this day in 1913). Having delivered his own roman à clef in Hadrian the Seventh, his best-known work, and arguably living his own thinly veiled fiction under the assumed title of Baron Corvo, Rolfe appears in Benson’s book as Christopher Dell.
The connection began when Rolfe received a fan letter full of praise for Hadrian. Its author was one of six extraordinary children of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury, all of whom achieved prominence in one way or another; Robert’s older brother, E. F. Benson, was the author of the Mapp and Lucia novels. The friendship which ensued between Rolfe and Benson was passionate in sentiment if not in deed, full of great plans for joint projects and doomed, as Rolfe’s attachments inevitably were, to breakdown, enmity and recrimination. The other central character in The Sentimentalists is Dick Yolland, a Catholic priest and essentially a stand-in for Benson himself who also exercised said office, although he is scarcely flattering about his avatar (“the dear man who meant so well and who understood so little”) and has Dell “a year or two older” than him rather than the decade or so which separated their real-life counterparts.
The chapters of The Sentimentalists (“Infection”, “A Relapse”, “The Operating Table”, etc.) suggest the progress of a “disease”, which is exactly how Benson would have regarded Rolfe’s moral unorthodoxy. Dell, Yolland’s old Oxford friend, presents with numerous Rolfean symptoms. He is a spiky, suspicious, quixotic character, sensitive to criticism, in whom supplication gives way to grotesque expressions of entitlement at unpredictable intervals. He is a pitifully poor vagrant who cannot, however, relinquish his silk pyjamas and leather-bound Decameron. He is a defector to Rome, a lover of Italy, in sway to the gods of antiquity as much as their singular successor. Above all, and at tiresome length, it is the artifice in Rolfe/Dell’s character which Benson dwells upon. “There was something dramatic in the very pose of the figure…” “He paused again dramatically…”; “…he ate, Dick thought, like a suburban gentleman would eat, who impersonated a starving gentleman….”: “the food vanished with dramatic swiftness”; “He clenched his fists, murmuring a benediction like a man in second-rate literature”; “there was not a movement of his which was not an exaggeration”…and on and on.
But he’s not just a drama queen, Yolland additionally diagnoses Dell as morally inoperable. The era being ill-prepared for a frank account of Rolfe’s actual man-love, Benson makes him instead a lover of a fallen woman, conveniently offstage in France. The heterosexual hero is less convincing than the heterodox believer in unnatural thrall to the pagan ancestors of the Mother Church, but affectation and corruption aggravate each other. Dell might throw his Boccaccio on the fire in a pantomime of repentance, but Lorrain still sits on the nightstand.
How to heal such a man? The answer, according to Benson, is feudal servitude, and Dell becomes more or less indentured to a country squire. It is the assurance of moral elevation and stench of self-satisfaction that makes this such a mean-spirited book, especially cruel considering Benson already had the one thing that Rolfe wanted above all else: a priesthood. Although there are flashes of sly humour, The Sentimentalists is essentially a Victorian “improving” book updated with a dose of Edwardian “muscular Christianity”. It is no less a work of wish fulfilment than Hadrian the Seventh, in which Rolfe famously ascends not just to Benson’s level, but to the very papacy. But Benson’s prescription for salvation sends him in the other direction, stripping Rolfe/Dell of everything and remaking him until he becomes the pathetically debased creature in “earth-coloured boots” and other attributes intended to convince us of his redemption and of his embrace of the good and natural.
It’s a remarkable transformation, but even more remarkable is that which Benson wreaks in the reader: an attitude of sympathy for the insufferable Rolfe previously thought impossible.