Born in Bromley, England, Helen Rappaport studied Russian at Leeds University but ill-advisedly rejected suggestions of a career in the Foreign Office and opted for the acting profession. After appearing on British TV and in films until the early 1990s, she abandoned acting and embraced her second love, history, and with it the insecurities of a writer's life. She is a specialist in Russian history and 19th-century women's history. Helen's books include An Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, No Place for Ladies: The Untold Story of Women in the Crimean War, and Conspirator: Lenin in Exile. Her latest title is Capturing the Light: The Birth of Photography; and Four Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses is scheduled for publication early next year. Here Helen writes about A.J.A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo.
Helen Rappaport on The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A.J.A. Symons
What on earth could possibly be interesting about a biography of an obscure writer still known only to the initiated few, written by an equally forgotten author? Well, those who have never read this book and who love the process of discovery, as I do, who find the challenge of piecing together the facts of a lost and barely documented life utterly engrossing, will find this book as compelling and dark and intriguing as I did when I first read it. For this is not just the story of Frederick Rolfe, aka 'F[athe]r. Rolfe', aka the equally bogus 'Baron Corvo', it is also, obliquely, the story of another hidden life – that of his biographer Symons.
I can't remember exactly what prompted me to read The Quest for Corvo, but my inscription on the flyleaf of my copy says I bought it in 1993. Back then I was a freelance researcher for the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, which may well have led me to it, at a time when I was also writing short entries for biographical dictionaries and pondering my own first biographical subjects.
Rolfe found the ideal biographer in A.J.A. Symons, an aesthete, eccentric and dandy and who remains as much of an enigma as his subject. As an aficionado of fine and rare books (he was a founder of the First Edition Club), essayist and sometime unsuccessful biographer himself, Symons shared many of the experiences of penury, rejection and artistic frustration that Rolfe endured during his own haphazard and unfulfilled career. As scions of the 1890s they both had connections on the London gay scene, Rolfe managing to be briefly published in the Yellow Book, whose publications Symons avidly collected, and Symons's brother Julian becoming one of Oscar Wilde's first biographers. Despite their shared interests they never crossed paths; but their coming together after Rolfe's death is a poignant and revealing one.
Symons's quest sprang from a conversation he had in the early 1930s with bibliographer and bookseller Christopher Millard, about books that had 'missed their just reward of praise'. Millard suggested that Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh was one of them. In its story of a failed English hack writer and priest who is plucked from oblivion to become Pope, it presents a distorted self-portrait that mirrors Rolfe's own relentless quest for personal aggrandizement and recognition by his peers. Its satire of the Catholic Church is venomous - a 400-page act of revenge, first on the Scots College (a Catholic seminary in Rome from which Rolfe had been expelled in 1889) and also on all those who in his estimation had spurned or slighted him and denigrated his artistic talents.
After his failed attempt at the priesthood, Rolfe worked intermittently as a painter and photographer, at the same time pursuing a writing career. But he was constantly thwarted in his attempts to get published. In response, the whole of his short, sad and embittered life was lived in an atmosphere of mounting paranoia, watching at the door for enemies. Some called him a sponger, a charlatan, an imposter; he was, at times, all three, but he was also extraordinarily gifted. Yet, perversely, he refused point blank to compromise as a writer and his natural gifts went tragically to waste. As Symons shows, there were a few flashes of friendship and fleeting periods of happiness and self-fulfillment. But they never lasted long. Rolfe's erratic, picaresque career - wearing threadbare clothes and existing on handouts - was lived for the most part in debt and on the edge of destitution. His seething resentment at the bad hand that life had dealt him led him to quarrel with even those few friends he did make. One by one, every single person who offered the hand of friendship, who collaborated on a literary venture or helped Rolfe get his work published, every kind host who gave him free bed and board (often for extended periods of time), was ultimately spurned - and often libelled - by this stubborn outcast.
In response to the catalogue of missed opportunities he had to endure, Rolfe made a profession of the art of insult by letter. But there was artistry even in his invective; these letters, Symons observed, were always written 'in a script more beautiful than is used in Papal Briefs'. There was the same artistry and genius in Rolfe's venom, as in his extraordinary, ornate written works, such as Chronicles of the House of Borgia, crammed full of erudition and obsolete words, Latin and Greek phrases. Such self-indulgence was guaranteed to alienate all but the most devoted and persistent of readers. But Rolfe, the linguistic show-off and narcissist, who always placed himself at the centre of his own narratives, remained an unrepentant elitist.
In 1908 after being dogged by so much artistic misfortune and with £30 in the bank he gave up on England and decamped to Venice, where he swam a great deal and lazed in the sun with the Venetian fisher boys – who increasingly became the focus of his sexual interests. When the money ran out and he was thrown out of his hotel and reduced to sleeping in gondolas and going hungry for days, he wrote begging letters to his few remaining friends in England. 'I am now simply engaged in dying as slowly and as publicly and as annoyingly to all of you professing and non-practising friends of mine as possible,' he told them. In 1912 a few cheques once more bailed him out but his heavy smoking and unsettled lifestyle had fatally undermined his health; as too had the worm of unremitting anger and resentment. 'I am so awfully lonely. And tired,' he wrote in his last letter.
Symons brings Rolfe’s intriguing but often repellent character vividly to life, thanks to his concerted efforts to contact everyone who knew him. Published in 1934, The Quest for Corvo set the standard for a new style of experimental biography that challenged the conventional, cradle-to-grave approach of the genre till then. It made Symons's search for his subject's surviving manuscripts and letters as central to the story as the subject himself, which is why The Quest for Corvo remains a continuing source of inspiration to me, as I try to winkle out the truth of human lives that till now have been lost in the footnotes, or seek to restore the lost or forgotten phases of much better-known lives to history. A.S. Byatt, who wrote the introduction to the latest 2001 reprint, said that she had 'learned much from it about how to construct novels and how to think about human lives'; her novel Possession was directly inspired by it.
This year, 2013, is the 100th anniversary of Rolfe's death. It will no doubt pass unnoticed, as did his pathetic demise in Venice at the age of 53. His extremely rare first editions are highly sought after today; his letters, published posthumously between the 1950s and 1970s, are fascinating. But the written works remain familiar only to the few, bar Hadrian the Seventh, which in its stage adaptation earned a degree of critical acclaim when revived by the Chichester Festival in 1995 starring Derek Jacobi.
Like his subject, A.J.A. Symons, died prematurely - at the age of 41 of a brain tumour. But in writing this still largely unsung masterpiece, he posthumously secured his own place in literary history. He most definitely taught me 'how to think about human lives' and this is a book I shall always treasure.
I still haven't read a single book by Frederick Rolfe though, and never shall. But that's part of the enduring enigma. The subject rather than his written work is, in the end, far more compelling.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]