DEC. 9, 1983/The Star 9
Not Quite Priest,
Not Quite Nobleman
By Patrick Franklin
Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis
Mary Rolfe will not disappear. His flamboyant writing and even more flamboyant
character have always branded him as a
"minor" prosodist, and yet after many of
his more highly regarded contemporaries
have been relegated to the dusty corners of
old libraries, Frederick Rolfe, "Baron
Corvo," bursts forth every few years when
a new group of avid readers discovers his
florid soul and acid words.
Rolfe was born in London on July 22,
1860, and died in Venice on Oct. 25,1913.
Between those dates, he managed to write
18 books, innumerable stories, dabble in
several other arts and alienate anyone
who came to him in friendship. He was a
staunch Catholic who revelled in orthodoxy and a socialist who hated conservatives. He indulged himself in making up
new and wonderful words, while writing
in an antique style that is nearly imdupli-
He was born into a family that was at
best "shabby gentille." His ancestors had
founded a piano manufactury that furnished instruments to the royal family in
George Ill's time, but had in following
years come the full round to poverty once
again. Rolfe never even had the satisfaction of calling the capital his home; economics forced a move to the provinces
when he was very young.
Nor could he claim the distinction of a
university education. He says himself that
"all the education I ever had took place in
third-rate schools and terminated by my
fourteenth birthday." All those elements
combined to create a personality that
simultaneously loved and hated the
advantages it had been denied.
Despite his lack of formal schooling,
Rolfe found employment as a teacher in a
provincial boy's school. He was regarded
as eccentric even then, and his attachment to an obscure local saint, "Little
Saint Hugh," was thought strange. So
was his depiction of another boy-saint,
William or Norwich, in which he painted
over 100 fibres that bore a resemblance to
the child, who in turn had an uncanny
similarity with his own features.
He .somehow wheedled an appointment
to the Scots' College in Rome, where he
was to take up holy orders. His eccentricities and abrasive personality made him as
unpopular there as it had elsewhere, and
he was soon ejected from the school. That
turned him against his fellow Catholics,
but he maintained his deep affection for
the church. It was then that he took to
signing his name "Fr. Rolfe," an ambiguous autograph that could be understood as
"Father Rolfe" or "Friar Rolfe," as well as
Back in England, he worked what in our
own times would be called "confidence
games" He assumed the title "Baron
Corvo" and pretended to be a nobleman.
Using the bogus title for entree, he drew
funds from naive acquaintances for fictitious projects and lived by cadging meals
and lodgings from kind-hearted friends.
However, some of Rolfe's projects weren't bogus at all; they merely sounded that
way to suspicious ears. He tried to raise
funds to finance underwater photography, something thought laughable at
the time. Rolfe had become fascinated
with the new art and pioneered some
methods of camerawork and film developing. The underwater scheme never came to
His writing was better accepted, if narrowly published. The Yellow Book, famous for its Beardsley covers and
associations with decadence, accepted
several of his stories, and of all the short
pieces in those volumes, Rolfe's tales
stand up today as still interesting. He
devised ways of telling Biblical tales as if
they were pagan legends and also managed a turnabout that made tales of
Romans and Greeks sound as if they were
stories of the Saints.
After gulling so many important people,
he found it prudent, as well as cheaper, to
move to Italy. There hecontinued his practice of taking lodging wherever possible,
often from unwilling but courteous hosts.
He also found an outlet for his taste in
boys in the street urchins ofthe city; one of
them he called "Toto," and he collected his
stories as Tales Toto Told Me.
Toto exists for us today on film. There
are numerous studies of naked youths that
Rolfe took in Venice and elsewhere. He
used their personalities as thinly-veiled
girls in his books; The Desire and Pursuit
of the Whole, and Nicholas Crabbe. He
continued his interests in painting and
even built himself a boat with beautifully-
painted sails so that he could travel the
canals and lagoons of Venice.
And he wrote. His fascination with the
Borgias resulted in an extraordinary
book. The Chronicles of the House of Borgia, which he frankly admitted to writing
as a whitewash of a family for which he
felt respect. The book recounts the family
history from early beginnings in Spain
through its 19th century descendants.
The Borgia book fascinated some, infuriated others. He did not limit himself to
strict history, but made other comments
along the way, such as his claim that the
rightful ruler of England was Vittorio
Emmanuele of Italy because of a tenuous
connection with the deposed Stuarts. He
used exotic words and spellings, insisting
that the "Sistine" chapel was more properly the "Xystyne," and peppered his
prose with terms such as "fumicables" for
tobacco, "fylfot" for swastika, and so on.
Rolfe might have described his life as
"contortuplicated." The sheer effort of
maintaining his precarious independence
and .self-esteem in face of continued poverty and disdain from critics took its toll.
He died at the age of only 53 and was
buried in a free plot in the cemetary in
If his talent had been totally expended
in cadging a living, he would have soon
been forgotten. But his exquisitely-written
prose still attracts readers. Its attraction
is never enough to insure commercial success; The Modern Library published an
edition of A History of the Borgias which
remained on the list for only a few years.
Alfred Knopf put out several luxurious editions of his novels which couldn't quite
stay in print.
Sill, periodically, he becomes rediscovered. A.J. Symonds renovated his image
with "The Search for Corvo" in 1934.
Broadway, in the 70s, produced Hadrian
VII> & dramatized version of his best-
known book. Biographies came out in 1971
and again in 1979.
Toast his memory with a bottle of the
Sicilian wine from which he drew his title.
"Baron Corvo" was a fraud and an
unprincipled rogue. But he was a writer of
great talent .and a stylist of incomparable
Franklin, of Carmel, Calif, is the director
of Stonewall Features. &1983 Stonewall
When New York's Playboy Club reopens
early next year, some ofthe scantily-clad
bunnies serving drinks may be men.
Company executives are considering a
proposal to add the male bunnies, and
some old-timers are hopping mad about
But many Playboy officials reportedly
feel it's time to update the clubs image,
reports the New York Post.
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