Frederick Rolfe

Frederick William Rolfe
Monochrome head-and-shoulders photo of Fr. Rolfe in coat, with biretta
Born (1860-07-22)22 July 1860
Cheapside, London, England
Died 25 October 1913(1913-10-25) (aged 53)
Venice, Italy
Pen name Baron Corvo
Frank English
Frederick Austin
A. Crab Maid
Fr. Rolfe
Occupation Novelist, artist, fantasist, eccentric
Nationality English
Notable works Hadrian the Seventh
The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole
Nicholas Crabbe
Stories Toto Told Me
Don Renato
Don Tarquinio
Chronicles of the House of Borgia

Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, and also calling himself 'Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe',[1] (22 July 1860 – 25 October 1913), was an English writer, artist, photographer and eccentric.


Rolfe's grave on San Michele, Venice

Rolfe was born in Cheapside, London, the son of a piano manufacturer. He left school at the age of fourteen and became a teacher. He taught briefly at The King's School, Grantham, where the then headmaster, Ernest Hardy, later principal of Jesus College, Oxford, became a lifelong friend.

He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1886 and was confirmed by Cardinal Manning. With his conversion came a strongly-felt vocation to the priesthood, which persisted throughout his life despite being constantly frustrated and never realised. In 1887 he was sponsored to train at St Mary's College, Oscott near Birmingham and in 1889 was a student at the Scots College in Rome, but was thrown out by both due to his inability to concentrate on priestly studies, his "reputation as a pederast",[2] and his erratic behaviour.

At this stage he entered the circle of the Duchess Sforza Cesarini, who, he claimed, adopted him as a grandson and gave him the use of the title of "Baron Corvo". This became his best-known pseudonym; he also called himself "Frank English", "Frederick Austin" and "A. Crab Maid", among others. More often he abbreviated his own name to "Fr. Rolfe" (an ambiguous usage, suggesting he was the priest he had hoped to become).

Rolfe spent most of his life as a freelance writer, mainly in England but eventually in Venice. He lived in the era before the welfare state, and relied on benefactors for support. But he had an argumentative nature and had a tendency to fall out spectacularly with most of the people who tried to help him and offer him room and board. Eventually, out of money and out of luck, he died in Venice from a stroke on 25 October 1913. He was buried on the Isola di San Michele, Venice.[3]

Rolfe's life provided the basis for The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons, an "experiment in biography" regarded as a minor classic in the field. This same work reveals that Rolfe had an unlikely enthusiast in the person of Maundy Gregory.


Rolfe was entirely comfortable with his homosexuality and associated and corresponded with a number of other gay Englishmen. Early in his life he wrote a fair amount of idealistic but mawkish poetry about boy martyrs and the like. These and his Toto stories contain pederastic elements, but the young male pupils he was teaching at the time unanimously recalled in later life that there had never been any hint of impropriety in his relations with them. As he himself matured, Rolfe's settled sexual preference was for late adolescents. Towards the end of his life he made his only explicit reference to his specific sexual age preference, in one of the Venice letters to Charles Masson Fox, in which he declared: "My preference was for the 16, 17, 18 and large."[4] Grant Richards, in his Memories of a Misspent Youth (1932), recalls "Frederick Baron Corvo" at Parson's Pleasure in Oxford – where scholars could bathe naked – "surveying the yellow flesh tints of youth with unbecoming satisfaction".

Those of whom it is either speculated or surmised that they had sexual relations with Rolfe – Aubrey Thurstans, Sholto Osborne Gordon Douglas, John 'Markoleone', Ermenegildo Vianello and the other Venetian gondoliers – were all sexually mature young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one (with the exception of Douglas,[5] who was considerably older). The idealised young men in his fiction were of a similar age.[6]

In 1904, soon after his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest, the convert Robert Hugh Benson formed a chaste but passionate friendship with Rolfe. For two years this relationship involved letters "not only weekly, but at times daily, and of an intimate character, exhaustingly charged with emotion." There was a falling out in 1906, and Benson satirised Rolfe in his novel The Sentimentalists. Rolfe returned the favor a few years later, putting a caricature of Benson named "Bobugo Bonsen" in a book named Nicholas Crabbe. Their letters were subsequently destroyed, probably by Benson's brother.[7]

Rolfe sought to characterise the relationships in his fiction as examples of 'Greek love' between an older man and an ephebe, and thus endow them with the sanction of the ancient Hellenic tradition familiar to all Edwardians with a classical education.


Principal works of fiction

Rolfe's design for Don Tarquinio

Rolfe's most important and enduring works are the stories and novels in which he himself is the thinly-disguised protagonist:

In 1912, the year before his death, Rolfe began to write another autobiographical novel, The Freeing of the Soul, or The Seven Degrees (written 1912–1913, published 1995), of which only a few pages have survived.[10] Set in the fifth century, the novel was to have as its protagonist a middle-aged Byzantine bishop named Septimius, preoccupied with the likelihood of another of the barbarian attacks which had been terrifying his Venetian flock. The novel was a departure for Rolfe, as his four previous autobiographical works had been set in his own time.

Other writings

Rolfe wrote four other novels: Don Tarquinio (1905), Don Renato (1909), The Weird of the Wanderer (1912), and Hubert’s Arthur (published posthumously in 1935). Both The Weird and Hubert’s Arthur were collaborations with Harry Pirie-Gordon. These works differ from the autobiographical novels in two respects: they are set in previous centuries, and the principal protagonist in each is not Rolfe’s alter ego, although there is a strong degree of identification. (In The Weird of the Wanderer the hero, Nicholas Crabbe, becomes a time traveller and discovers that he is Odysseus.)

Rolfe also wrote shorter fiction, published in contemporary periodicals and collected after his death in Three Tales of Venice (1950), Amico di Sandro (1951), The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda (1957) and The Armed Hands (1974). He also published an entertaining but unreliable work of history, Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901), translations of The Rubáiyát of 'Umar Khaiyám (1903) and The Songs of Meleager (published posthumously in 1937), and a little poetry, later gathered into one volume, Collected Poems (1974).


Rolfe was an enthusiastic letter writer. John Holden recalled that "Corvo was one of those men who never speak a word if they can write it. We lived in the same house, a very little one, yet he would always communicate with me by note if I was not in the same room with him. He had dozens of letter books. He seized upon every opportunity for writing a letter, and every letter, whether to a publisher or to a cobbler, was written with the same care."[11] About a thousand of his letters have survived, and several sequences of them have been published in limited editions. The letters reveal a lively, intelligent and absorbent mind, but because of Rolfe’s paranoiac tendencies they are often disputatious and recriminatory. Among the commentators who rated Rolfe’s letters more highly than his fiction was W H Auden, who wrote that Rolfe "had every right to be proud of his verbal claws … A large vocabulary is essential to the invective style, and Rolfe by study and constant practice became one of the great masters of vituperation."[12] The letters have yet to be collected into a single scholarly edition.

Photography and painting


Tito Biondi at Lake Nemi (photograph by Rolfe, ca. 1890–92)

Rolfe took an interest in photography throughout his life, but never achieved any more than basic competence. While he began to experiment with photography when he was a schoolmaster, it was his time in Rome in 1889–90 that introduced him to the work of the 'Arcadian' photographers Wilhelm von Gloeden and Guglielmo Plüschow. His seminary, the Scots College, was quite close to Plüschow's studio in via Sardegna, just off the via Veneto, and when Rolfe was expelled from the College and came under the benevolent patronage of the Duchess Sforza Cesarini, he began his own photographic efforts in imitation of von Gloeden and Plüschow. His models were the local ragazzi from the streets of Genzano di Roma, a town dominated by the Duchess's palazzo. These youths were later to become the principal characters in Rolfe's Toto stories, published first in The Yellow Book in 1895–96 and later collected in Stories Toto Told Me in 1898 and In His Own Image in 1901.

Rolfe continued to indulge his interest in photography in Christchurch in 1890–91, upon his return from Rome, and experimented with colour and underwater pictures. He began to lose interest, however, and really only took photography up again when he returned to Italy in 1908. His photographic career has been fully documented in Donald Rosenthal's book The Photographs of Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo 1860–1913, which was published in 2008.


Rolfe never lost his conviction that he had been called to the Catholic priesthood. When he worked in his late teens and early twenties as a schoolmaster, and later when he tried his hand at painting and photography, he saw these as stop-gap occupations, means of earning an income until the Church authorities came to their senses and agreed with his own firm view that he had a priestly vocation.

It was for this reason that Rolfe never undertook any formal training in either painting or photography. His paintings and designs, including several for the covers of his own books, were bold and surprisingly accomplished amateur efforts. He executed some of the most impressive of them when he was living in Christchurch in 1890 and 1891, including a small but striking oil painting of St Michael.

From 1895 to 1899 he lived in Holywell in North Wales, where he painted some fourteen processional banners, commissioned by the parish priest there, Fr Charles Sidney Beauclerk.[13] Rolfe painted the figures of the saints and John Holden assisted with the lettering on the borders. Only five of the banners have survived, and may still be seen in the Holywell Well Museum; they are colourful representations, in a naive style, of Saints Winefride, George, Ignatius, Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

Rolfe produced no further paintings after he became a full-time writer.

Posthumous literary reputation

Rolfe's early books were politely reviewed but none of them was enough of a success to secure an income for its author, whose posthumous reputation began to dim. Within a very few years, however, coteries of readers began to discover a common interest in his work, and a resilient literary cult began to form. In 1934 A. J. A. Symons published The Quest for Corvo, one of the century's iconic biographies, and this brought Rolfe's life and work to the attention of a wider public. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a further surge of interest in him which became known as "the Corvo revival", including a successful adaptation of Hadrian for the London stage. Two biographies of Rolfe appeared in the 1970s. These led to his inclusion in all the major works of reference and engendered a stream of academic theses on him. Although his books have remained in print, no substantial monograph has ever appeared in English on his work.[14] With the growing academic interest in the history of literary modernism and acknowledgement of the central importance of life writing in its genesis, the true importance of Rolfe’s autobiographical fictions has come into focus. His influence has been discerned in novels written by Henry Harland, Ronald Firbank,[15] Graham Greene,[16] and Alexander Theroux,[17] and in his coinage of neologisms and use of the Ulysses story there is some perhaps coincidental prefiguring of the work of James Joyce.[18]


Rolfe's works include:


  1. 'I was baptized iii Jan. 1886 at St. Aloysius, Oxford, receiving the names "Frederick William". "Serafino" was conferred by Bishop Hugh Macdonald in Aberdeen Cathedral on my profession in the third order of St. Francis. "Austin Lewis Mary" were conferred by Cardinal Manning in the chapel of Archbishop's House, Westminster, at my confirmation.' A.J.A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo, Cassell, 1934, p.188.
  2. "Rolfe, Frederick William", in Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature (1995), Springfield, MA.
  3. A.J.A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo.
  4. Rolfe to Fox, 13 January 1910, in Cecil Woolf ed., The Venice Letters, Cecil & Amelia Woolf, 1974, p.46. In a September 1909 letter to John Gambril Nicholson, Rolfe discussed the subject of sex between a man and a boy, a matter, he told Nicholson, of which "you have the practical experience which I have not." (Miriam J Benkovitz, Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo, Hamish Hamilton, 1977, p.248, quoting a letter in the Martyr Worthy Collection, Columbia University Library). Nicholson is the person Rolfe is least likely to have lied to about this.
  5. This was Sholto Osborne Gordon Douglas (1873–1934), educated at Fettes College, Portsmouth Grammar School and Christ Church, Oxford, author of A Theory of Civilization (1914) and of several volumes of poetry, most notably Ungodly Jingles (1923).
  6. Toto in Stories Toto Told Me, Tarquinio and Lucrezia in Don Tarquinio, Renato and Eros in Don Renato, and Zildo in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole are all in their mid- to late-teens.
  7. David Hilliard, "UnEnglish and UnManly: Anglo-Catholicism and Homosexuality" in Victorian Studies, Winter 1982, p.199.
  8. The book was very successfully adapted by Peter Luke as a stage production in London in 1968, in which the part of Hadrian/Rolfe was played by Alec McCowen. A further production starring Barry Morse played in Australia, on Broadway, and in a short USA national tour.
  9. See Andrew Eburne, 'Frederick Rolfe: The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole 1908–1912', DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1994.
  10. The five-page fragment is at MS Walpole c.11, and Rolfe’s notes for the novel at MS Walpole c.13, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. The full text of the fragment, edited by Andrew Eburne, may be found in English Literature in Transition 1880–1920, Volume 38 Number 4, 1995, pp.492–495.
  11. Robert Scoble ed., The Colt & The Porcupine: Four Letters from John Holden to A J A Symons, Callum James Books, 2007, p.12.
  12. W H Auden, ‘Foreword’ to the second impression of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, Cassell, 1953, pp.vii-viii.
  13. Robert Scoble, Frederick Rolfe's Holywell Banners, Callum James Books, 2010.
  14. There is one work in Italian: Carla Marengo Vaglio, Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo, Mursia, 1969.
  15. See David Dougill, 'Firbank: A Long Look', in Books and Bookmen, Vol 18, May 1973, p.36. Dougill appends to his article a short bibliography of the evidence for the influence of Rolfe on Firbank.
  16. Greene's biographer claimed that Pinkie, the protagonist in "Brighton Rock", was based on Rolfe. See Norman Sherry, "The Life of Graham Greene": Volume One 1904–1939, Jonathan Cape, 1989, p.645.
  17. See Steven Moore, "Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat and the Tradition of Learned Wit," Contemporary Literature 27.2 (Summer 1986): 235.
  18. The similarities between the work of Rolfe and Joyce were first remarked upon by Stuart Gilbert: ‘Had the Fates been kinder, that unhappy genius might have moved parallel, if on a somewhat lower plane, to Joyce’s. Nicolas [sic] Crabbe…had a good deal in common with Stephen Dedalus.' (James Joyce's Ulysses: A Study, Faber, 1952, p.95).

Further reading

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