In honour of a toad

By David Hill

Although often abusive in nature, the literary work of Fr Rolfe is worth remembering, writes David Hill

'Hadrian the VII' by Fr Rolfe.
'Hadrian the VII' by Fr Rolfe.

Almost exactly 100 years ago, there died one of the more astonishing authors you're never likely to read. He was Fr Rolfe - it stood for Frederick, but he abbreviated it so people would think he was a priest.

It's hard to find any of his books now. You may come across a fifth-hand copy of Hadrian VII, his rococo narrative of a misanthropic writer in a bed-sitter who is elected Pope, reforms the Catholic Church and is then assassinated by - naturally - a disappointed woman and a socialist agitator.

Rolfe was born in Cheapside, London, in 1880. From his youth, he was obsessed with liturgy and theology. Aged 14, he had a cross tattooed on his breast. He habitually wore a silver crucifix so heavy it lacerated his skin.

He studied for the priesthood but was expelled for his debts, his homosexuality, and his habit of reciting his offices in the bath. So he turned to a series of influential lay friends, alternately toadying to them and abusing them. Somehow, he won the friendship of Duchess Sforza Cesarini, who (he said) adopted him as her grandson and who (he said) awarded him the title of Baron Corvo.

He arrived at dinner parties, to which he'd been invited (he said), in shabby corduroys and "withered cloak". Literary and society folk gave him food, money, lodging. He gave them the finger. One furious benefactor broke a walking stick over his head.

He lived in a wretched mental state, seeing enemies and plots everywhere, convinced that publishers, other writers, the Catholic Church were all conspiring against him. He began wearing a ring with a metal spur; if Jesuits tried to kidnap him, Rolfe was ready to sweep the spur across their foreheads, blinding them with their own blood.

His physical existence was miserable as well. He was chronically unable to pay his bills.

In Aberdeen, a landlord once ended up dragging him from his bed, carrying him down the stairs while Rolfe clutched at banisters, and dropping him on the footpath with his few belongings.

His persecution complex pulses through his letters, works of exquisite calligraphy in multi-coloured inks, that greet a publisher as "Most Cretinous Creature" and sign off to editors with "Bitterest Execrations" or "Your Faithful Enemy". They don't carry literary grudges like that these days. Actually they do, but not with such style.

Why is he worth mentioning? Because through poverty and paranoia, he wrote and wrote, often for seven hours a day. Fiction, polemic, lit crit, philosophy, history poured from his special fountain pen that held three times as much ink as a standard model.

Quite a bit of it got published. Hardly any of it made money, thanks to Rolfe's litigiousness and fecklessness.

Even Hadrian VII earned him nothing, in spite of its headlong plot, perfumed aesthetics and ultra-violet style. It's a novel drunk on language, flecked with spectacular neologisms: "contortuplicate ... tolutiloquence ... noncurant". Sentences sprawl like convolvulus. Metaphors swell and explode. Or implode.

Rolfe wrote it in Venice, whence he'd removed himself after alienating most of the English literary scene. He lusted after gondola boys; slept under boats when he ran out of sympathetic ex-pats; wrote recriminatory letters to benefactors threatening to die on their doorsteps, "or give you the pleasure of committing me to jail".

And eventually, on October 25, 1913, the pale, bespectacled, chain-smoking, tonsure-affecting misfit did die, probably of a stroke. He's buried on the Isola di San Michele.

If it's not easy to find Rolfe's books, it's also not easy to find books about him. The sole, superb biography is A.J.A. Symons' The Quest For Corvo, a Byzantine treasure-hunt by a music-box-collecting, socialist gourmet and forger almost as eccentric as his subject.

I believe Rolfe is worth remembering: as an almost-made-it, a there-but-for, a symbol of the ephemeral, arbitrary side of fame. And because he may be on the comeback. Some critics are arguing for him as a precursor of modernism, an influence on Ronald Firbank and Graham Greene. If he'd lived a century later, fashion, medication, niche publishing and a benevolent arts council may have enabled him to flourish. He'd probably still have written those abusive letters.

David Hill is a Taranaki writer whose young adults novel, My Brother's War, was awarded best junior fiction in this year's NZ Post Children's Book Awards.

- NZ Herald

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