Rolfe, Rose, Corvo, Crabbe

The Literary Images of Frederick Rolfe

by Miroslaw Miernik (Author)
©2015 Monographs 214 Pages


Drawing on theories of biography and autobiography, including the works of Philippe Lejeune, Michel Foucault, and Philip Roth, Rolfe, Rose, Corvo, Crabbe attempts to tackle the issue of Frederick Rolfe’s image. Like many other authors, Rolfe (1860–1913), also known as Baron Corvo, wanted to influence the way others see him through his works. However, the image he wanted to project was skewed by A.J.A. Symons’ fascinating, yet inaccurate, biography, The Quest for Corvo, which popularized a strongly autobiographical approach to his work. Analysing the issue, this book takes into consideration his biographies, his self-fashioning in his letters, and his novels, particularly focusing on the characters who were heavily inspired by his own experiences, such as Nicholas Crabbe and George Arthur Rose.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Chapter I: The Literary Image, Autobiography and Biography
  • 1.0 Introduction
  • 1.1 The Author and Interpretation
  • 1.2 The Literary Image, Reputation and Literary Fame
  • 1.3 Biography and Literary Image
  • 1.4 Authorial Self-creation in Autobiographical Writing
  • 1.5 Conclusions
  • Chapter II: The Biographies of Frederick Rolfe
  • 2.0 Introduction
  • 2.1 An Outline of Frederick William Rolfe’s Biography and Character
  • 2.2 Rolfe’s Biographies as a Means for the Self-portrayal of their Authors
  • 2.2.1 The Aberdeen Attack and Shane Leslie’s Article
  • 2.3 The Literary Images of a Biographer and His Subject in A. J. A. Symons’ The Quest for Corvo
  • 2.3.1 Symons’ innovative approach to biography
  • 2.3.2 Symons’ depiction of eccentrics and literary circles
  • 2.3.3 Symons’ handling of his sources and Rolfe’s works
  • 2.3.4 Criticisms of Symons’ Biography
  • 2.3.5 Conclusions
  • 2.4 Donald Weeks’ Corvo
  • 2.5 Miriam J. Benkovitz’s Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo
  • 2.6 The Historical Rolfe and Rolfe/Corvo the Literary Construct
  • 2.7 A Discursive Handling of Rolfe’s Sexuality
  • 2.8 Conclusions: The Corvo Image
  • Chapter III: The Projection of the Author’s Image in His Fiction: Frederick Rolfe and his Hadrian the Seventh
  • 3.1. Introduction: Frederick Rolfe in the Tradition of the British Decadence
  • 3.2. Hadrian the Seventh: Autobiography and Fiction against Autofiction and Fantasy
  • 3.2.1 The Religious Anarchist: Rolfe’s Literary Image as Rendered by the Religious Themes in Hadrian the Seventh
  • 3.2.2 Rolfe’s Political and Social Beliefs Basing on Hadrian the Seventh
  • 3.2.3 Mitigation and Self-justification of the Author: The Portrayal of George Arthur Rose
  • 3.2.4 The Fragmented Author
  • 3.3 Conclusion
  • Chapter IV: Nicholas Crabbe: Between Autobiography and Fiction
  • 4.0 Introduction
  • 4.1 One or Many? A Comparison of the Various Depictions of Nicholas Crabbe
  • 4.2 Nicholas Crabbe of Nicholas Crabbe or the One and the Many
  • 4.3 Nicholas Crabbe of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole
  • 4.4 The Use of Letters in Rolfe’s Books of the Crabbe Cycle
  • 4.5 The Motif of the Search for The Divine Friend in Rolfe’s Crabbe Novels
  • 4.6 Conclusion
  • Chapter V: The Letters of Frederick Rolfe
  • 5.0 Introduction
  • 5.1 Frederick Rolfe’s Self-presentation in His Correspondence
  • 5.2 Rolfe’s Self-depiction and Reception Based on Letters to his Publishers and Literary Agents, 1896–
  • 5.3 Rolfe’s Self-depiction and Reception Based on Letters to His Personal Acquaintances, 1899–
  • 5.4 Conclusion
  • Conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Index

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I wish to thank Prof. Piotr Skurowski, whose encouragement and assistance greatly contributed to this project. His immense knowledge played a crucial role in setting me on the right course and helped me to better understand a multitude of issues that were crucial in the writing of this book. Additionally, the confidence he placed in me was an extremely motivating factor, which allowed me to approach the thesis which was the basis for this book with the same enthusiasm, regardless of the many difficulties to which the writing process is inextricably linked. I am also deeply indebted to Prof. Emma Harris for her long-lasting support and guidance. Her courses aroused my interest in the field of biography and autobiography, and her seminars introduced me to the turn of the 19th century. It was also during one of those meetings that we discussed the practices of the publishing industry during that period, a discussion that had a direct influence on this book.

I would also like to extend my gratitude to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, particularly Mr Colin Harris, and the University of Leeds Library Special Collections, particularly Ms Kasia Drozdziak. Not only have they granted me the opportunity of working with Frederick Rolfe’s private notes, scrapbooks and correspondence, as well as a number of unique materials pertaining to him, but their administrative assistance also allowed me to complete a massive amount of work in a relatively short period.

I am grateful to Justyna Wierzchowska, the editor of this volume, who read the manuscript with painstaking care, and offered constructive criticism from which the book benefitted greatly. I thank Prof. Jacek Wiśniewski and Prof. Jacek Gutorow for their feedback on the early draft versions of this book. In addition, I would like to acknowledge the support and advice I received from my colleagues, particularly Anna Pochmara-Ryżko and Lucyna Krawczyk-Żywko. I also wish to thank my partner, Joanna Draszanowska, for her comments and notes on the text.

Finally, I would like to thank my parents for their everlasting support and the faith they put in me.

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I first learned about Frederick Rolfe from Leo Braudy’s book Fame: The Frenzy of Renown. The description of an individual who created a larger-than-life image of himself was not new to me, but Rolfe’s case struck me as peculiar. He had a lot in common with other writers who failed to achieve fame in their lifetime: books which received positive reviews but failed to catch public attention; a life lived in poverty; a death that was hardly noticed by the literary community; the subsequent rise of popularity when a new literary generation appeared. The elements I found characteristic for Rolfe were his audacious refusal to admit defeat and his desperate, and surprisingly often successful, attempts at securing funding, which were frequently distant from any notions of honesty.

I decided to tentatively pursue the subject. Not knowing yet whether this topic will provide me with worthwhile research material, I procured A. J. A. Symons’ biography of Rolfe, The Quest for Corvo, and Rolfe’s novel Hadrian the Seventh. After I read the former, I was still filled with doubts: it depicted Rolfe as a talented novelist, but it also mentioned that his literary output mostly was thinly-veiled autobiography, in which the author had a penchant for living out his fantasies. I turned towards Hadrian the Seventh, believing that I was to encounter a fickle novel by a boastful author. Luckily, this turned out not to be the case. Whereas many of Rolfe’s characteristics that Symons wrote about were visible, particularly his idiosyncratic lexis and aesthetic bent, some of Symons’ conclusions perplexed me. I could not categorise what I had read as either an autobiography or as a fantasy. Hadrian’s protagonist was not the one-sided, idealised self-depiction of the author that Rolfe’s biographer had led me to anticipate. I found him to be a complex character, who, despite his eccentricities, was psychologically feasible. Although he sometimes behaved impudently and was boastful, the narrative made no secret of the fact that this was a carefully constructed façade, behind which hid a person who was far from idealised, who struggled with suicidal tendencies, depression and internal inconsistencies that crippled his sense of agency. This clashed strongly with the introduction, which upheld the view that Rolfe used the book to live out his fantasies. I was nonplussed. On the one hand, the novel was characterised by a looming air of exhaustion and doubt; on the other, although Alexander Theroux’s introduction made it clear that he had read the novel, his conclusions included several arbitrary statements about its autobiographical status. It seemed that the influence of Rolfe’s biographies on the reading of his works was strong enough even to render an interpretation that was not fully supported by the text. ← 11 | 12 →

It was then that I decided to pursue this research topic. The other biographies of Rolfe I read all seemed, rather unsurprisingly, to be describing a somewhat different individual. Nonetheless, it was interesting to discover how deeply many of his readers were fixated on the perceived autobiographical quality of his fiction, even in the presence of evidence to the contrary. At the same time, I understood this approach, as it was not unfounded. Although I disagree with calling Rolfe’s novels autobiographies, it is true that the more one learns about Rolfe’s life, the more similarities one notices between his personal history and his fiction. As such, one of the goals of this study is to analyse those of Rolfe’s books that have most often been called autobiographical and try to establish whether they can convey any information on him and his life in light of the similarities they have with it, and to what degree.

I also continued to delve into Rolfe’s works. I discovered a capable and versatile author, who wrote various genres, including historical romances, contemporary fiction, and satire. He was also prone to experimentation with lexis and style. His oeuvre, however, was sometimes uneven. His best works are highly recommendable, but his weakest are forgettable. Nonetheless, the former greatly outnumber the latter, and even his least compelling books have some redeeming values. These elements, along with the most common settings of his novels, already rendered some information on him connected with his temperament, taste, fascinations, political and religious beliefs, as well as certain grievances. His protagonists were surprisingly often – though not universally – much more believable than he himself was in his own life. Most of them would not be seen engaging in such incongruous behaviour as Rolfe did, such as biting the hand that feeds, sending out volumes of acerbic letters that estranged his friends and colleagues or his habit of spending money lavishly despite his poverty. This leads me to believe that Rolfe was conscious of his flaws, at least to some extent. As such, he attempted to use his fiction to influence his literary image and the way he was to be received by his readers. However, I would not describe his protagonists collectively as idealised, although he does whitewash them in certain books. Those who are not idealised have more psychological depth than Rolfe displayed in his life, and although they share many of his flaws, the reader also learns of their underlying causes, something that Rolfe was secretive about in relation to himself.

The issues mentioned above have been divided into five chapters. The first chapter discusses the concept of authorship, various approaches to the author, as well as how one’s image may influence the reception of that person’s literary output. It also tackles such issues as biography and autobiography. The second chapter focuses on the most important texts that have influenced the perception ← 12 | 13 → of Rolfe. It begins with a brief retelling of Rolfe’s life, after which it analyzes three classic biographies of Rolfe: Symons’ Quest, Donald Weeks’ Corvo and Miriam J. Benkovitz’s Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo. It then summarises the main differences between the historical Rolfe and his literary image, and concludes with a discussion of several other elements that influenced the way Rolfe was seen, such as how he inspired other artists and authors and how his sexuality was handled in biographical texts. The third and fourth chapters discuss those books that were often believed to be autobiographical, that is Hadrian the Seventh, Nicholas Crabbe or the One and the Many, and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. They try to establish the interpretative scope of these novels in relation to Rolfe’s life through paradigms other than autobiography. It also analyses additional information about Rolfe that they offer, such as his religious convictions, socio-political views and personal conflicts. The final chapter tries to assess the images of himself that Rolfe attempted to convey through his correspondence with his personal as well as professional acquaintances.

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Chapter I: The Literary Image, Autobiography and Biography

1.0 Introduction

As a result of the departure from the idea of one fixed meaning of a particular text, the process of interpretation ensnares the reader in a seemingly unlimited chain of references, theories and other factors which lie outside of the text in question. However, despite the liberal limits of interpretation texts often produce a surprisingly small number of readings, most of which are similar to a considerable degree. Even more interestingly, one notices that they are not only constrained by the text of a given work itself, but also by other, extra-textual, factors.

The presence of such factors is recognised, and some of them, such as ideology, have been discussed in detail. There are also elements that have been downplayed, such as the role of the author as a universal semiotic signifier. This phenomenon, connected with the author’s fame as an element of mass culture, is closely related to the growth of literacy in the Western World1 and the development of the mass media2 between the 18th and 21st century. The influence of these changes soon became visible as authors, such as Mary Robinson and Byron, became recognised celebrities. Writers themselves were aware of their public status, and they often attempted to influence the way they were seen by their audience.

Readers in turn have displayed intense fascination with the person of the author and the demand for biographies, articles, essays, documentaries and interviews grew. Some publications were earnest attempts at analysing the writer’s life and works, while others were written in order to financially exploit someone’s status. Depending on the popularity of such materials, certain images of their subjects were assimilated by public discourse. Furthermore, the opinions and interpretations found in such writings were later referenced and reproduced by others, who may not have taken the time to assess the quality of ← 15 | 16 → such publications, and who subsequently have contributed to an image that is historically inaccurate.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
Biographie Frederick Rolfe Nicholas Crabbe Selbstbildnis
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 214 pp.

Biographical notes

Miroslaw Miernik (Author)

Mirosław Aleksander Miernik is an Associate Professor at the Institute of English Studies at the University of Warsaw. His research interests include 20th and 21st century American culture, Subcultural studies, Postmodern American literature, and British literature of the early 20th century.


Title: Rolfe, Rose, Corvo, Crabbe
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216 pages