Frederick William Rolfe Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Frederick William Rolfe, known by the pseudonym Baron Corvo (CAWR-voh), wrote and published in obscurity while he lived. Although he never attracted a wide readership, his prose style, with its emphasis on the exact word and the sentence beautiful in itself, later influenced such writers as Henry Harland, R. H. Benson, and Leslie Shane. Rolfe achieved some notoriety twenty-one years after his death, when A. J. A. Symons, intrigued by both the charm of Rolfe’s writing and the “eccentricity, misery, and scandal” of Rolfe’s private life, published a lively biography, The Quest for Corvo, in 1934.{$S[A]Rolfe, Frederick William;Corvo, Baron}

Born in London in 1860, the eldest son of a piano manufacturer, Rolfe left home at fifteen, rejecting his middle-class Protestant background. In 1886, he became a Roman Catholic and began his unsuccessful attempts to become a priest, meanwhile maintaining his erratic existence by painting, writing, and seeking patronage. Wherever he went, he accumulated debts and enemies, and he eventually turned on most of those who befriended and assisted him.

Rolfe was first noticed as a writer when his stories, based on Italian folk tales, were published in the Yellow Book and subsequently collected in Stories Toto Told Me and In His Own Image. His historical work, Chronicles of the House of Borgia, is a learned but biased glorification of Alexander VI; his translation of The Rubaiyat of Umar Khaiyam is personal and idiosyncratic and is chiefly of interest as it compares to the more famous version done by Edward FitzGerald.

Rolfe is best known for the novel Hadrian the Seventh, published under his own name in 1904. In it, a character strongly resembling the author is belatedly granted his wish to enter the Catholic clergy, then almost immediately is elevated to the papacy. The book’s combination of genuine piety with personal spite has fascinated readers ever since.

The success of Symons’s 1934 biography of Rolfe inspired the posthumous publication of Rolfe’s last novels, of which the best-known is The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, in which another author surrogate finds happiness with a boyish maiden. Here, too, Rolfe uses fiction to attack thinly disguised versions of his foes and creditors. A second wave of interest in Rolfe was inspired by Peter Luke’s 1968 play Hadrian VII, based on both the novel and Rolfe’s life.