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 …

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