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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 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.