Edith Sitwell

The English have something of a reputation for being eccentric. Dame Edith Sitwell famously wrote a book on the topic and there seems to be a more modern one as well. There is also an interesting anthology of eccentrics, which links them with villains, which, of course, they sometimes are. Eccentricity is by no means limited to the English, particularly where writers are concerned. The French, for example, have Proust with his long lie-in writing his novel or Céline with his Nazism or, indeed, more recently, Houellebecq and his strange and often impetuous behaviour. But, in this post, I want to discuss one English eccentric.

Frederick Rolfe

I first read Hadrian VII many years ago but have just reread it for my website. It was written by a man who was christened Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, though he used many pseudonyms during his life, most famously Baron Corvo, allegedly given to him when he was supported by the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini. His father’s family had manufactured pianos at one time but, by the time young Rolfe was born, business had gone down and they were now merely agents for the manufacturer. Rolfe attended school till he was fourteen but then left, not least because he did not fit in. He became a teacher but when, at the age of twenty-six, he converted to Roman Catholicism, he felt that he had a vocation as a priest and enrolled in a seminary. He did not fit in there so he went to a seminary in Rome. He was expelled from there because he also did not fit in. It has been suggested by Pamela Hansford-Johnson, in her introduction to the excellent collection of biographical essays on Rolfe, edited by Cecil Woolf called New Quests for Corvo, that he wanted less to be priest than to be Pope. Hadrian VII, of course, confirms this.

Poster for dramatisation of Hadrian VII

Like his fictional pope, Rolfe finally had to earn his living first by painting and then by writing. Much of his work is about the attacks he thought others had made on him and his literary attempts to redress these. One of many is his attack on Father Beauclerk over the painting of banners. This and other slights will appear in Hadrian VII. These were not his only themes. He was gay and homoeroticism certainly appears in his work. Premature burial also appeared in several of his works. Rolfe spent the last years of his life in Venice, where he died, aged fifty-five. He never made much of a living from either his painting or his writing, and lived, to a great extent, by scrounging off friends. After his death, his reputation diminished but, in more recent years, his reputation has risen, not least because he is an excellent writer and, though his work is certainly eccentric, his eccentricity adds to the the fascination of works such as Hadrian VII.