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Bird or Devil?

Corvo: Saint or Madman?

by Donald Weeks
McGraw-Hill, 480 pp., $8.95

Most of us have been bothered by a Corvo at one time or another, especially if we live near the Mediterranean. Corvo is a generic term for a type of megalomaniac with a grievance against society for not accepting him at his own inflated valuation, an embodiment of Poe’s raven. Convinced that life has been far crueler to him than to his fellows, he solicits our financial aid again and again. When we explain that we have more urgent commitments, he is apt to turn nasty and try a bit of blackmail. Formerly he fashioned flowers out of feathers or lacquered miniature boxes or decorated empty bottles. Nowadays he dabbles in paint—so much easier since the vogue of abstraction. But his greatest talent is for writing begging letters.

Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo, remains a supreme example of this type though his literary talent was above the average. Sir Shane Leslie exhumed him from obscurity and prompted A. J. A. Symons to delve more deeply into his career. The resulting Quest for Corvo, an entertaining exercise in psychological and literary detection, reached a larger public and stimulated a wider curiosity about Rolfe and his writings. Symons’s enthusiasm for his quarry was infectious. Now Donald Weeks, with a scholarly patience worthy of a nobler subject, has produced the definitive biography.

After reading this lengthy tome we are driven to the conclusion that Rolfe was neither the saint nor the madman of the subtitle, which bears a question mark. No saint, however murky his origin, was ever so utterly self-absorbed, malevolent, and antisocial, and there is far too much method in Rolfe’s apparent fits of madness. His style, meretricious, labored, and often silly, reflects his personality: it is most effective in his autobiographical novel Hadrian VII. Brilliantly dramatized by Peter Luke and interpreted by Alec McCowen, Hadrian VII was recently received with international praise, and it seems a pity that Rolfe did not live to enjoy his belated success. But would he have enjoyed it? We suspect that he would have bombarded Mr. Luke and Mr. McCowen, with scurrilous letters and threatened the play’s producers with libel actions. He was nothing if not litigious.

Whereas A. J. A. Symons described Rolfe as “a habitual corrupter of youth, a seducer of innocence,” Mr. Weeks tends to prove that he was merely indulging his sexual fantasy in the letters he composed to extract money from a pederastic timber merchant. The extracts he quotes have a naughty novelettish flavor: “The clutch of us both was amazing. I never knew that I loved and was loved so passionately with so much of me by so much of another. We simply raged together. Not a speck of us did not play its part. And the end came simultaneously.” On the verge of starvation in Venice Rolfe had not the wherewithal to revel in such congress.

Born in London in 1860, Rolfe was the eldest son of a poor piano tuner. Schoolteaching became his earliest vocation until his conversion to the Catholic church, when at the age of twenty-seven he decided that he had a vocation for the priesthood. After a year at Oscott College where he wrote reams of sickly verse “about boys and saints, generally both together,” the best of which, according to Mr. Weeks, is “Ballade of Boys Bathing,” he was sent as a tonsured divinity student to the Scots College in Rome. There he seems to have sown his wild oats with a singular lack of discretion, overexcited by the Roman atmosphere. Obviously Mgr. Campbell, Rector of the Scots College, assailed by Mr. Weeks as “a vain man without imagination or the capacity to fathom anything beyond his own little world,” knew what he was about when, after fair warning, he expelled the troublesome student who had incurred various debts and owed the college for his pension.

What sort of priest would Rolfe have made had he been accepted? Probably a Firbankian figure prancing in purple vestments and pinching the bottoms of his acolytes. Rudely awakened from his dream of ecclesiastical preferment, cheated of romps in the sacristy, he persisted in visualizing himself as a rejected priest and cursing those who had rejected him. “What desire have I cherished since my boyhood save to serve in the number of Your mystics?” he prayed in the guise of Pope Hadrian. A mystic, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is “one who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the Deity.” Rolfe was temperamentally incapable of such self-surrender. His approach to the Deity was that of an interior decorator with a penchant for picturesque ritual. He would design a new crucifix, “the body and limbs of the Apoxyomenos with the head and bust of the Antinous…which was neither the Orphys of the catacombs nor the Tragic Mask of the Vernicle.”

Mr. Weeks drags us chronologically through the fifty-two years of Rolfe’s mortal span. Though an ardent partisan, he has mustered all the witnesses for and against him. A few of these, notably Professor R. M. Dawkins and Mr. H. Pirie-Gordon, who collaborated in the slushy Hubert’s Arthur, were friends of the present reviewer. The former had a rich fund of anecdotes about Rolfe’s eccentricities but he refused to take him seriously as a writer. Mr. Pirie-Gordon, who had been as sorely tried by Rolfe, retained a kindly sentiment for the man behind the mask, almost persuading one that the creature had a wayward charm.

The charm was certainly elusive. Many of his addicts, including Mgr. R. H. Benson, experienced it in the pages of In His Own Image, for which Norman Douglas found the apposite adjective “smirky.” The protagonist Toto is a Roman stripling who “fancied himself immensely when officiating in an English dog-cart; and he looked divinely smart in dark blue, makroskeles, with tan gaiters buttoned. That kind of blue, with Toto’s kind of brown, is fine. I learned the blend of him.” Toto spins his folksy yarns in a lingo that reeks of pseudo-Pre-Raphaelite kitsch. (An Italian film comedian with the same name vies in popularity with Charlie Chaplin.)

According to Graham Greene, who has written most compassionately about Rolfe, “his life always seems to move on a religious plane…it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith.” Mr. Weeks’s biography, despite its partisanship, casts doubt on this romantic view unless Rolfe’s faith merged with the obsession about his spiritual vocation. It is easy to practice celibacy if women provoke disgust. One of his contemporaries at the Scots College wrote: “He seemed to have a keen sense of externalities of all kinds, little or no apprehension of the inward spirit that is in most things.” He could not have renounced the world. Evidently Graham Greene recognized in Rolfe a character he might have created. Rolfe’s pederasty, even when restrained, permeated his writings as well as his daubs and photographs. Born fifty years later with a bigger quota of talent, he might have become an English Jean Genet.

At his best in another autobiographical novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, he produced some evocative vignettes of the Venice that is fast disappearing. For painting he lacked skill; his drawings were embarrassingly feeble. But these fragments of verbal petit-point have an added poignancy against his background of poverty and squalor. His most attractive trait was a love of words but even this was tainted with perversity. Their meaning did not matter much so long as they were flamboyant, erecting a garish façade of semiprecious stones over a flimsy scaffolding. Topaz and jasper, coral and cornelian predominate: “Tiber seemed to be a chain of chrysoliths meandering among mounds of emeralds.”

Mr. Weeks candidly admires what he calls “this polished maze of words.” He tells us that “for years he had added delicate phrases to the elaborate filigree of archaic language.” In an essay on Amanda M. Ros, an authoress who had much in common with Rolfe’s stylistic mannerisms, Aldous Huxley observed that “the first attempts of any people to be consciously literary are always productive of the most elaborate artificiality.” Like the euphuists before him, Rolfe became intoxicated with his discovery of artifice. A commission to write about the Borgias gave him a chance to wallow in obscure locutions. His Chronicles of the House of Borgia is more of a patchwork quilt than a serious history. Purporting to vindicate Pope Alexander VI, it buries him under bombast. A chapter entitled “The Legend of the Borgia Venom” is crammed with recondite information which is quite unnecessary since it concludes: “In fact there was no Venom of the Borgia.” After all this rant and fustian, what a relief to read a page of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall!

In the 400 pages of his biography Mr. Weeks puts a powerful microscope to our eye. Every storm in every teacup—and how monotonous in their repetition—is described in minute detail. The surrounding world of art and literature ceases to exist. Rolfe’s feud with the unfortunate Fr. Beauclerk, Rector of the Catholic church of Holywell in Wales, was characteristic. Under the alias of Frederick Austin he proposed to paint some banners for the church and the ingenuous priest agreed. After living two years in Holywell at Fr. Beauclerk’s expense he claimed payment for painting 105 figures at ten guineas a figure, for which he was ready to accept £700 “in settlement.” He had produced about ten ill-painted banners, one of which portrayed a crowd of people in the background, “their heads the size of a thimble.” Some of these are illustrated in Mr. Weeks’s book.

Fr. Beauclerk was unable to pay such a sum and was so persecuted in consequence that he had to leave his parish where he was much beloved. Rolfe had denounced him to his superiors in a 1,500 word letter and, as Mr. Weeks comments: “Throughout his life, the dynamic power of a personal letter brought the desired result only once—and at Holywell.”

Rolfe’s peculiar brand of Catholicism was divorced from human kindness. He never held up more than a distorting mirror to the restricted society in which he buzzed like an angry hornet. The mirror was held up to himself and he was well pleased with his reflection. Revenge on Fr. Beauclerk was sweet for not acquiring the parish of his dreams. He delighted in stinging his numerous mentors.

While at Holywell he had been able to contribute his first Toto stories to The Yellow Book, experiment in color photography, and indulge his craving for vituperative correspondence. Mr. Weeks maintains in his defense that “with his profound dislike of alms, he developed an incapacity to express gratitude. Yet he was never selfish. The man who alone was Rolfe runs through his stories. He is always self-concerned but never self-centered.” He also writes of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole that it is “the story of a man and his faith. Nicholas Crabbe’s agony in Venice can be identified with Christ’s passion.” With all due respect for Mr. Weeks’s literary fervor, this strikes us far-fetched. Rolfe’s “scenical strutting and furious vociferation,” to borrow Ben Jonson’s phrase, soon becomes a portentous bore. It is faintly possible that if we read him under the influence of hashish or LSD his prose might assume a more significant dimension.

Sir Shane Leslie stated that “Hadrian VII saves the necessity of writing Rolfe’s life.” A. J. A. Symons and Mr. Donald Weeks have both felt this necessity to such an extent that there is little more to be said about him. In this case surely enough is as good as a feast. His works may be prized by those who have never heard of Maurice Hewlett and Amanda M. Ros. “Fond Hearts Askew,” Max Beerbohm’s parody of the former in A Christmas Garland, might almost have been signed by the bogus baron, who is bound to remain a “collector’s item,” a rarity for certain bibliophiles.

At least it is a comfort to learn from Mr. Weeks that Rolfe did not die of starvation in an open boat on the Venetian lagoon. He expired of a heart attack in the Palazzo Marcello after dining “at his usual restaurant, Hotel Cavalletto” in October, 1913. Previously he had found another Protestant clergyman to finance him.