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Frederick William Rolfe [1860-1913]


Ever vigilant for an anniversary to celebrate, 1913 has delivered a big one: the death one hundred years ago of Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, a.k.a. Baron Corvo. If you don’t know him you should.


Baron Corvo

The eccentric idiosyncratic Rolfe disappeared from his native United Kingdom briefly during the 1890s and returned with an Italian title and a plausible explanation which, given his temperament, no one questioned. For those not familiar with the irascible baron, I recommend two books: 1) The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons (published in 1932 but reprinted recently in an inexpensive edition by New York Review Books) and 2) Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe’s own first semi-autobiographical novel published in 1904 and also available from NYRB.

Symons had been given a copy of Hadrian by a friend and became such a Rolfe enthusiast that he undertook to write a biography of the then very obscure, nearly forgotten author. But the task was so formidable, the sources more rumored than real, that he wrote instead, not a book about Rolfe, but a book about writing a book about Rolfe. It’s an involved detective story, really, and fascinating as a study in research strategies. I read it fifteen years ago in one night—couldn’t put it down.

Monday’s mail brought me a first edition of Nicholas Crabbe, or the one and the many which had remained an unpublished manuscript for forty years following Rolfe’s death. [Not incidentally, who gets the royalties on posthumous publication? Certainly not the hapless Rolfe.] And while reading Cecil Woolf’s cogent introduction, I noted Rolfe’s 1913 death date. I should have recalled it. So this morning at 6:30 the muse struck: If there is any place on Earth where the eccentric Rolfe will be celebrated in his centennial year, it’s Agincourt.

In 2006, in a Venetian water bus on the way to the outer island of Torcello, I passed within a hundred and fifty feet of Rolfe’s burial site on the cemetery island of San Michele. I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t know he was there.

Is it an honor to be on the top shelf? Out of sight is out of mind. Or is it out of reach?

Or closer to Heaven.


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