The death of Narcissus
Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo: A Biography Miriam J. Benkovitz (Hamish Hamilton £6.50) Like other rare, desirable things (money and manuscripts, for example), Corvine studies seem to have moved to the United States. In 1971 there was the collector Donald Weeks's Carve: Saint or Madman ? (False Dilemma, anyone?), and now there is this Skidmore College professor's much more sophisticated and scholarly biography exploiting the rich holograph deposits of New York and Austin, Texas. Corvo provides a special frisson for Americans, whose tradition offers few eccentrics in the grand style. Gross idiots like Howard Hughes, Lee Harvey Oswald or Tennessee Williams are about all that it can manage. Corvo offers the American scholar the opportunity to tease that forbidden subject, social class, whose secret vibrations now provide all the thrills once offered by news about sex. Professor Benkovitz's life of Rolfe constitutes a tragicomedy of money and class, a notation of a touching pre-Joycean moment when Art was still not sure whether it was part of Establishment piety or its resolute enemy.
Rolfe's origins were 'artistic' in exactly this sad, Period sense. He was the son of a broken manufacturer of pianos, and little Frederick's early snob religiosity, like Wilfred Owen's, assumed the form of playing 'priest' at home. He was energetically intelligent, persuading himself early that his cleverness made him much finer than his schoolmates. He left them behind at the age of fourteen and himself commenced schoolmaster junior grade. This meant composing pederastic verses and toying with Roman Catholicism, meditating at once the delicious curves of Narcissus and St Sebastian. It also meant writing 'shew' for 'show' and using words like 'persequent' and `purrothrixine.' Professor Benkovitz performs a service by ascertaining that Rolfe's discharge from numerous teaching and tutoring jobs during the 'eighties had nothing to do with his homoeroticism: it was his lower-middle-class pride and his sense of injured merit that made him unemployable. He desperately aspired to the priesthood, and his dismissal from the Scots College in Rome for debts, absences and pride was a blow from which his 'regal dignity' never recovered. Henceforth, while vowing twenty years of 'celibacy' to demonstrate his sincerity, he became a violent:enemy of Catholic institutions and a self-appointed scourge of that church's moral pretensions.
Back in England in 1890, he projected countless Bouvard & Pecuchet schemes to establish himself as a valuable and up-to
date person: new methods of making lantern-slides; bright ideas for underwater photography; improved stratagems for photographing nude boys. Conceiving himself gifted as a painter, he spent a hopeful year at Holywell making ghastly arts-andcrafts banners to promote St Winefride's Well. This source of dubious income collapsed like all the others. The usual monumental quarrels ensued and he found himself supporting life with nothing but cigarettes for two days. He also became acquainted with the Holywell workhouse.
Turning to writing, he found his métier. In the next sixteen years he produced with impressive application the exquisite fictions and imaginative histories that have fascinated posterity, although in their own time they merely impoverished their author. Rolfe could never get along with an agent or publisher, and his assumption that good writing results in instant riches embittered him while it beggared his creditors. He
became perhaps the angriest writer in English. Hadrian the Seventh and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole are devoted largely to paying off old social scores with that brilliant high-class scornful Latinate diction that has become part of the British 'autodidact's stock-in-trade: 'pusillanimous,' 'perridiculous,"mendacious,"dirty Demos.' To understand why only the half-educated lower middle class talks this way when infuriated would be to understand a great deal of the social history of the nineteenth century. Other overworked words of Rolfe's are those designating the costly Edwardian gems in whose light he is always seeing physical nature: amethyst, sapphire, topaz, jasper. Fantasies of Bond Street are always
breaking in. • Rolfe is so closely associated with Venice that it is a surprise to find that he lived there for only his last six years. He went there for a brief 'gorgeous holiday' in 1908 with Richard Dawkins and was left behind after the usual quarrel. The more and the better he wrote the poorer he became. His suits turned into smelly strings, and he harboured under a thin blanket in various unpaid-for rooms. The uncelebrated hero of Rolfe's Venice years is Edward de Zucatto, His Majesty's Britannic Consul there, who intervened numerous times on Rolfe's behalf and was always abused for his trouble. Typical of Rolfe's absolute approach to things was his assuming that the passport's scant words, 'assistance and protection,' meant what they said.
He managed to annoy the whole colony of British 'resident aliens' in Venice, and class was the reason. It was the spectacle of unearned money that infuriated him. In their turn the local British patronised him and wondered why he didn't get a job. A sturdy beggar, Gosse called him. Rolfe retaliated by sailing the lagoons with his gondolier boys in his extravagant boat, its mainsail painted with a nude St George. He was impossible but eminently the superior of the 'artists,' exqu isites and remittancemen then swarming in Venice. Something always propelled him towards the worst people—horrible Anglican and Catholic divines, the daughter of the bizarre American health 'nut Horace Fletcher, at whose board he had earnestly to 'Fletcherise,' that is, chew each mouthful one hundred times.
Professor Benkovitz seems not quite sure what to make of Rolfe's famous 'Venice Letters,' those narratives of homosexual experience sent off to Charles Masson Fox to entice him to Venice, where Rolfe hoped to function as his pimp. She thinks they are largely fictional; I think they are largely real, just as real as Rolfe's hopes that Fox actually would come to Venice and pay him real money for providing real boys. Rolfe's character is quite odd enough to make such behaviour compatible with his Johnsonian habit of praying aloud while walking the streets. His last years in Venice are a reminder of how very nasty that version of pastoral can become for a foreigner without money. He writes to Fox: No tobacco. Alps covered with snow .. .
simply perishing cold no privacy. & no heating arrangements whatever. And I have but one thin blanket. My dear, I'm simply dying of cold and hunger.
It was true. Pneumonia followed, and a heart attack finished him off in 1913.
Professor Benkovitz has based her biography on Rolfe's letters, and this means that her focus is mainly on Rolfe's financial obsessions. The theme of the book is money, and the Rolfe it reveals i a man destroyed by lower-middle-class fantasies about riches and aristocratic rarities. His ambitions of holiness were inseparable from compensatory images of high rank and administrative domination. If the real Frederick William Rolfe was ragged, nutty, stubborn, and disaster-prone, Baron Corvo had swank and elegance. The distance between these two creatures is what this biography emphasises, and in measuring the distance between the real loser and the fictive winner the book is both funny and touching.