My quest for Symons—A. J. A. Symons, that is—began when, many years ago, I first read that strange novel Hadrian the Seventh (1904). Written by the so-called Baron Corvo, and admired by D. H. Lawrence, among others, the book opens with a magnificent description of a hack writer suffering from writer’s block:

In mind he was tired, worn out, by years of hope deferred, of loneliness, of unrewarded toil. In body he was almost prostrate by the pain of an arm on the tenth day of vaccination. Bodily pain stung him like a personal affront. “Some one will have to be made miserable for this,” he once said during the throes of a toothache. He was no stranger to mental fatigue; but, when to that was added corporeal anguish, he came near collapse. His capacity for work was constricted: the mere sight of his writing materials filled him with disgust. But, because he had a horror of being discovered in a state of inaction, after breakfast he sat down as usual and tried to write. Dazed in a torrent of ideas, he painfully halted for words: stumbling in a maze of words, he frequently lost the thread of his argument: now and then, in sheer exhaustion, his pen remained immobile.

After two hours, the writer—his name is George Arthur Rose—looks “askance” at his manuscript: “He had written no more than fourteen lines; and these were deformed by erasures of words and sentences, by substitutions and additions. He struck an upward line from left to right across the sheet: laid down his pen. .  .  . He could not work.”

Anyone who writes, or tries to write, will recognize Rose’s anxiety, disgust, and weary resignation. But mirabile dictu, this Grub Street washout is about to undergo an utterly astonishing, almost miraculous transformation: By the middle of chapter three, George Arthur Rose will find himself ordained a Roman Catholic priest and then, in short order, elected Pope. He takes the name Hadrian the Seventh.

What happens during his papacy is fantastic, occasionally comic, sometimes touching. Corvo’s prose, reflecting Rose’s new life, quickly grows theologically baroque, even fustian at times, but never releases the reader until the book’s shocking finale. In truth, Hadrian the Seventh is a novel like no other, with a George Gissing-like power rather than, as one might imagine, a Ronald Firbankian campiness.

But who was this Baron Corvo? According to my thrift-shop paperback, he was actually Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913), a minor literary figure of the fin de siècle, which didn’t tell me much. An even fuller answer, I was informed, could be found in the tantalizingly titled The Quest for Corvo by someone named A. J. A. Symons. On a trip to New York, I scoured half-a-dozen used bookstores before I found a copy of the first American edition, published in 1934. It cost only $2, mainly because of “bad covers,” as a penciled note inside succinctly summed up the worn spine and loose binding. I took a break from my slow-going dissertation and settled down for a bit of rest and recreation.

Subtitled “An Experiment in Biography,” The Quest for Corvo opens with a much quieter hook than Hadrian the Seventh, but it seizes the reader’s attention nonetheless:

My quest for Corvo was started by accident one summer afternoon in 1925, in the company of Christopher Millard. We were sitting lazily in his little garden, talking of books that miss their just reward of praise and influence. I mentioned Wylder’s Hand, by Le Fanu, a masterpiece of plot, and the Fantastic Fables of Ambrose Bierce. After a pause, without commenting on my examples, Millard asked: “Have you read Hadrian the Seventh?” I confessed that I never had; and to my surprise he offered to lend me his copy—to my surprise, for my companion lent his books seldom and reluctantly. But, knowing the range of his knowledge of out-of-the-way literature, I accepted without hesitating; and by doing so took the first step on a trail that led into very strange places.

The next 293 pages recount Symons’s adventures. Rather than simply present a biography of Frederick Rolfe from cradle to grave, Symons chronicles his own efforts to discover all he could about the author of Hadrian the Seventh. At times, the book risks becoming a dossier of press cuttings, letters, and archival material; that it never does so is due to a soothing prose style and a subtle attention to framing and rhythm, as well as a contrast of humor and pathos, light and shadow. Chapters introduce us to bookish clergymen, eminent publishers and novelists, quiet eccentrics, and even a mysterious millionaire spymaster, nearly all of them victims of the ruthlessly demanding Rolfe, who made friendship “a minor experiment in demonology.”

At the start, fellow biographer and bibliographer Millard lends Symons some scandalous Rolfe letters, packed with accounts of pederasty in Venice and written (says Symons) “in the most beautiful handwriting I had ever seen, in red, blue, green, purple, and black inks.” Millard then points him to a biographical article by Shane Leslie in the London Mercury, which provides several leads to further information. Before long, Symons discovers a magazine article by Rolfe, sensationally titled “How I Was Buried Alive,” but also a vituperative attack on both its veracity and the character of the author from the Aberdeen Free Press.

Having written letters “in all directions,” Symons is soon in correspondence with Rolfe’s lawyer-brother Herbert, the novelist Frank Swinnerton, man of letters Vincent O’Sullivan, several clerics, and the publisher Grant Richards. He learns that Fr. Robert Hugh Benson, now remembered chiefly for his occult religious thrillers such as Come Rack, Come Rope, had once been a friend and admirer of Rolfe. (R. H. Benson was the brother of essayist A. C. Benson and novelist E. F. Benson, the latter revered today for his comic Lucia novels and a handful of surprisingly gruesome ghost stories.)

As the “quest for Corvo” continues, the reader—I might honestly say the enthralled reader—gradually acquires a fuller understanding of Rolfe, this failed priest and paranoid author. “In person,” writes Canon Carmont, “Rolfe was about 5 ft. 7 in. in height—perhaps slightly less. He was pale, rather demure and ascetic in expression, wore eye-glasses, smoked rather heavily.” According to one Roman Catholic clergyman, Rolfe knew more about astrology than anyone then alive, while his appetite for gossip and scandal was insatiable. Vain to the point of megalomania, he once painted a wall portrait of St. William of Norwich in which all 149 mourners, and the saint himself, were given his own features. Another time, he hinted that Kaiser Wilhelm II was his godfather.

Throughout his life, Rolfe suffered from persecution mania, constantly turning against friends and well-wishers, often unleashing torrents of abuse. A master of invective, he opened one letter “Quite cretinous creature,” and ended many with “Your faithful enemy.” As he once said, he considered all men to be “too vile for words to tell.” Given such a hypersensitive and quarrelsome character, it’s not surprising that Rolfe was usually broke, and sometimes on the verge of starvation. He once asked to be certified insane so that he might have free quarters in the local asylum. In Venice, he applied for a job as a gondolier.

But that was near the end of his life. In his youth, he yearned for ordination but was found unsuitable. For a while, he painted religious tableaux; then he tried to establish himself as a photographer. Surviving pictures betray his idolization of youthful adolescents, as does his first book, Stories Toto Told Me (1898), in which an Italian peasant lad charmingly conflates pagan myths with saints’ lives. The legend of Perseus, for example, is reworked into a Christian allegory starring Saint George. Symons notes that the early Toto stories appeared in the notorious Yellow Book and compares them to Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales.

But Rolfe didn’t just write semi-autobiographical novels and fiction of a rather fantastic cast. His monumental Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901), once respected enough to be included in the Modern Library series, is in part an apologia for the notorious Renaissance family but also a grab bag of bizarre lore. (One chapter examines “the legend of the Borgia venom.”) This book, and some of his others—such as the novels Don Tarquinio (1905), Don Renato (1909), and the homoerotic Venetian romance The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written during 1910-13, published in 1934)—vividly display Rolfe’s linguistic preciosity and his liking for such recondite words and neologisms as “subturpiculous,” “insulsity,” “macilent,” “effrenate,” and “torose.”

While I enjoyed The Quest for Corvo immensely, by its final pages I found myself hungering to know more about the tall, thin, bespectacled A. J. A. Symons. Who was he?

Today’s readers are liable to confuse Symons with several other almost-contemporary writers. There is the Renaissance historian and translator of Cellini’s Memoirs, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). There is Arthur Symons (1865-1945), the poet and literary critic whose Symbolist Movement in Literature greatly influenced the young T. S. Eliot. And, not least, there is the distinguished crime novelist Julian Symons (1912-1994) who, as it happens, was the 11-years-younger brother of our Symons. In 1950, he brought out a superb short biography of his brother “A J.” Only when I traveled to Oxford did I finally find a copy of A. J. A. Symons: His Life and Speculations in a used bookshop—and I had to pay £6 for it. (There has since been a paperback reissue.) The book opens as dramatically as both Hadrian the Seventh and The Quest for Corvo:

One day in the last month of 1922 a young man named Vyvyan Holland was walking along Pall Mall. It was his habit to walk along the street staring firmly at the ground; but when about to turn from Pall Mall into Lower Regent Street, he departed from this custom so far as to look up at the first floor windows on the opposite side of the road. He saw there, written upon a large signboard, and also painted across two windows, the words The First Editions Club.

Though he was the son of an auctioneer and left school at 14, A. J. A. Symons transformed himself into one of the great aesthetes, connoisseurs, and dandies of his time. His announced aim was to build and shape his life as “an architect plans a house.” While living always beyond his means, Symons somehow managed to collect Victoriana, rare books, and music boxes. With determination, he perfected an exquisite penmanship, only sported handmade shirts and bespoke suits, and eventually owned a house in the country with an enviable wine cellar and garden. According to his brother, it was his conviction “that personal property could be both beautiful and useful, whereas money consisted merely of paper and metal pieces which were not, in general, of an appearance aesthetically pleasing.” At the same time, Symons loved games and gambling and dreamed of moving in the highest social circles.

Literary societies, combined with a seemingly irresistible personal charm, were the engines of his success. He started The First Editions Club, was elected a member of the exclusive Sette of Odd Volumes, helped edit The Book Collector’s Quarterly, and cofounded, with André Simon, The Wine and Food Society. In his biography, Julian Symons describes one of that society’s most egregiously lavish banquets: There were 42 courses, with 16 wines and liqueurs. Sadly, this great diner-out and bon viveur took ill just as World War II broke out and died at the age of 41, from a stroke caused by an undiagnosed haemangioma of the brainstem.

A. J. A. Symons: His Life and Speculations is one of the most entrancing biographies you will ever read, especially if you share its subject’s passion for collecting books, wine, or interesting friends. It is not, however, reverential: Julian Symons concludes, after describing his brother’s increasingly sybaritic lifestyle, that “we often think that we are conquering society, when in fact we are adapting ourselves to its remorseless vulgarity, its fathomless destruction of our own idealism.”

While A. J. A. Symons viewed himself primarily as a writer, much of his work can be characterized as occasional—comments in The Book-Collector’s Quarterly, an introduction to a volume of 1890s verse, a retrospective essay on the first 15 years of the Nonesuch Press. Apart from The Quest for Corvo, his very best writing can be found in the posthumous Essays and Biographies (1969), which includes the fragments of several unfinished books, including a life of Oscar Wilde. This last might have been Symons’s magnum opus, if only because he was a close friend to both Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland and Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas.

Somewhat surprisingly, Symons did write a short biography of H. M. Stanley and planned another on the African explorers Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke: He always admired risktakers and those who lived extravagantly. Other biographical essays provide brief accounts of Edgar Allan Poe, Regency wit and practical joker Theodore Hooker, and the preacher Edward Irving (the greatest orator of the Romantic age, according to Hazlitt, De Quincey, and others). Symons himself always insisted that “a biographer should choose his subject as a dandy chooses his suit, remembering cut and tone as much as texture; and his subjects should fit his talent as the suit fits the dandy’s body: exquisitely.”

It’s clear that in all these figures, and in Frederick Rolfe too, he recognized aspects of himself.

Writing came slowly to A. J. A. Symons, in part because he aimed for a witty, easygoing prose. Invitations, he declares with a Wilde-like flourish, are “the sincerest form of flattery.” A relentless social climber “taxed his constitution like a wartime Chancellor.” The women in Poe’s fiction, he notes, are “the grimmest heroines in literature.” Though he never left England, Symons can evoke the travails and horrors of early African exploration:

Instead of clustering to barter, the natives abandoned their huts and fields to the invaders; but the felled tree-trunks that blocked the way, the poisoned skewers concealed under leaves, the showers of yet more virulently poisoned arrows, the gigantic, grave-like elephant pits, left no doubt of the temper of these unwilling hosts. And Nature proved more savage than the savages. Quags of stagnant water and decaying vegetation, into which men sank to the neck, damped clothes as well as spirits; and in Africa damp clothes bring fever. Ticks which entomb themselves in the nostrils, bees which frequent the eyes and hair, wasps and hornets whose stings cause sickness, and ants in armies joined with snakes, spiders and lice in plaguing the column. .  .  . When to these terrors starvation was added (for all game was scared for miles by the noise of the party’s progress), the wretched carriers became marching skeletons, the slightest abrasion of whose skin caused sloughing ulcers. Those too weak to march fell by the wayside and were left to die.

Throughout his writing, Symons repeatedly stresses that a biography should aspire to be a shaped work of art, a book that can be reread for “the pleasure of its form alone.” Like Lytton Strachey before him, he helped do away with those enormous “memorial sculptures” favored by the Victorians, all those dully respectful multivolume “Lives and Letters”:

Constructed on the simple formula of chronological sequence, they begin, for the most part, with their subject’s birth, and describe his curly-headed innocence, his sailor suit. Chapters two and three, which show no diminution of the one or discarding of the other, are headed “Schooldays” and “Alma Mater,” and precede “Early Manhood” in which a passing reference to “wild oats” shows that the author also has experienced much; and then chapter five, “Marriage,” sets us on the trail for home. “Life in London,” “Early Work,” and “Later Work” lead naturally to “Last Days” and a deathbed scene, several moral reflections, a list of the books or acts of the victim, and one more biography is on the shelf, probably to stay there.

Such is not the case with The Quest for Corvo, though, as a repository of facts about Frederick Rolfe, the book has long been superseded by the work of more recent biographers—chiefly Donald Weeks and Miriam J. Benkowitz. But one can reread anything by Symons—and A. J. A. Symons: His Life and Speculations, too, for that matter—just for the stylish prose and the chance to spend some time in the author’s delightful company. Along with that unique autobiographical fantasy, Hadrian the Seventh, all these interconnected books just might become, as they have for me, personal favorites in your own reading life.

Michael Dirda’s On Conan Doyle received the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best

critical/biographical book of the year.

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