The Magazine

Symons Said

On the trail of a strange, elusive life in literature.

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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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.