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Rolfe, Rose, Corvo, Crabbe

The Literary Images of Frederick Rolfe


Miroslaw Miernik

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.
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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...

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