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Frederick William Rolfe
Monochrome head-and-shoulders photo of Fr. Rolfe in coat, with biretta
Born 22 July 1860(1860-07-22)
Cheapside, London, England
Died 25 October 1913 (aged 53)
Venice, Italy
Pen name Baron Corvo, Frank English, Frederick Austin, Prospero and Caliban
Occupation Novelist, artist, fantasist, eccentric
Nationality English
Notable work(s) Hadrian VII, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, Don Tarquino, Chronicles of the House of Borgia

Frederick William Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, and also calling himself 'Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe', (July 22, 1860 - October 25, 1913), was an English writer, novelist, artist, fantasist and eccentric.


Life and work

Rolfe was born in Cheapside, London, the son of a piano manufacturer; he left school at the age of fourteen and became a teacher. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1886 and was confirmed by Cardinal Manning. With his conversion came a strongly felt vocation to priesthood which persisted throughout his life despite being constantly frustrated and never realised. In 1887 he was sponsored to train at St Mary's College, Oscott near Birmingham and in 1889 was a student at the Scots College in Rome, but was thrown out by both due to his inability to concentrate on priestly studies. At this stage he entered the circle of the Duchess of Sforza-Cesarini, who, he claimed, adopted him as a grandson and gave him the use of the title of "Baron Corvo". This became his best-known pseudonym; he also called himself "Frank English", "Frederick Austin", "A. Crab Maid", and several other pseudonyms. More often he abbreviated his own name to "Fr. Rolfe" (an ambiguous usage, suggesting he was the priest he had hoped to become).

As "Baron Corvo" he was an occasional contributor to the Yellow Book published by John Lane; these contributions consisted of a series called Stories Toto Told Me, humorous retellings of Italian peasant legends about the saints, later collected in book form with that title and with a larger sequel, In His Own Image. These made his early reputation, such as it was, and this was enlarged by his Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901), a serious if idiosyncratic historical study in refulgently Baroque prose. His extensive and obsessive erudition about the Renaissance period, of which the Chronicles is the most solid result, bore fruit in his two loosely-linked and intensely imagined historical novels of the Borgia period, Don Tarquinio (described by the author as 'a Kataleptic Phantasmatic Romance'), and Don Renato.

In his Noel Coward: A Biography (1996), Philip Hoare writes of "...late nineteenth-century enthusiasts of boy-love; writers, artists and Catholic converts inclined to intellectual paedophilia, among them Wilde, Frederick Rolfe, Sholto Douglas and Lord Alfred Douglas."[1]

During his own period, Rolfe was also a noted photographer:

"In the first volume of the Studio [a respected journal on art topics published by Gleeson White] is printed an essay on the male nude in photography which was almost certainly written by White himself, revealing him as an expert in this form of art. In the course of the article, he printed a photograph of Cecil Castle, nude, lying on his stomach, taken by Baron Corvo."[2]

An example of one of his photographs is here reproduced, Portrait of Tito Biondi at Lake Nimi (ca. 1890-92, Private collection[3]), and is consistent both with his techniques and chosen subjects. Rolfe also experimented with color and underwater photography:

"[As one of his former friends reported,] "The Baron chiefly occupied himself in what he called 'beating up' all the well-to-do Catholics, [...] for money to aid him in carrying out schemes which he put forward of colour-photography, submarine photography, new light for instantaneous photography, and all the rest." [...] Rolfe claims to have "invented a portable light by which I can dispense with the sun." His reference is to photography by magnesium light, at that time (the early "nineties") still a novelty. It is charitable, and reasonable, to suppose that Rolfe, who, even in the admission of the Aberdeen writer [of a newspaper article on him], was an "expert" photographer, had stumbled upon some advance, or improvement, on the methods then employed."[4]

In regard to the few paintings he made-several of which are still extant, including the fresco at St. Michael's Christchurch, Hampshire (This is almost certainly incorrect; it has yet to be confirmed that the painting he executed there was a fresco, a painting on canvas affixed to the wall or a wall hanging. In any case, the present image is not by Rolfe.)-photography served to augment his lack of skill: "Conscious of a weakness in figure drawing, it was his custom to photograph his models, make lantern slides from the photographs, and then project the image on to the painting area so that he could sketch in an outline".[4]

Rolfe spent most of the rest of his life as a freelance writer, mainly in England but eventually in Venice. He also executed a number of paintings and designs, including cover designs for some of his books, and some church paintings in Christchurch, Dorset and Holywell Chester( These paintings took the form of banners, lodged in the Catholic Church at Holywell and processed through the town on occasion. Rolfe painted the figures of the Saints and John Holden assisted with the lettering on the borders. Some 5 of Rolfe's banners remain in existence). Throughout Rolfe's life, his argumentative nature made him many enemies and lost him numerous friends. Rolfe was homosexual,[5] and many passages of his books can be read as more or less veiled descriptions of homosexuality; this is explicit in his posthumous work 'The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole' (published 1934) in which he also took revenge on his many actual and imagined enemies. Eventually, out of money and out of luck, he died in Venice from a stroke.

Tito Biondi at Lake Nimi Photograph by Rolfe; ca. 1890-92.
Rolfe's design for Don Tarquinio.

Rolfe's fiction steers well clear of any 'mainstream'. His works still find interested readers today, perhaps largely on account of his prose style and the unusual personality it reveals; erudite, ornate, and somewhat precieux, they belong on the same shelf with Symbolist prose poetry. His most autobiographical novel is Nicholas Crabbe and his best-known by far (and least-distracting in its eccentricities) is Hadrian the Seventh (1904), a fantasy autobiography in which an obscure literary Englishman, George Arthur Rose, bearing many similarities to Rolfe (including his heavy smoking) is elected Pope and moves forward with an ambitious programme to set the world to rights.

The book was very successfully adapted by Peter Luke as a stage production in London in 1968, in which the part of Hadrian/Rolfe was played by Alec McCowen. Further productions with Barry Morse played in Australia, on Broadway, and in a short USA national tour.

Rolfe engaged in a number of ill-starred collaborations, notably with R. H. Benson (brother of E. F. Benson and A. C. Benson) on a book about Thomas Becket (Rolfe's contribution to this is minimal), and with Harry Pirie-Gordon, which gave rise to two books almost entirely Rolfe's work, namely Hubert's Arthur, a historical fantasy about Arthur I, Duke of Brittany, and The Weird of the Wanderer, envisaged as a sequel to The World's Desire by Andrew Lang.

Rolfe's life provided the basis for The Quest for Corvo by A.J.A. Symons, an "experiment in biography" regarded as a minor classic in the field. This same work reveals that Rolfe had an unlikely enthusiast in the person of Maundy Gregory.


Rolfe's works include:

Rolfe's grave in Venice, (San Michele).
  • Tarcissus the Boy Martyr of Rome in the Diocletian Persecution [c.1880]
  • Stories Toto Told Me (John Lane: The Bodley Head, London, 1898)
  • The Attack on St Winefrede's Well (Hochheimer, Holywell, 1898; only two copies extant)
  • In His Own Image (John Lane: The Bodley Head, London, 1901. 2nd Impression 1924)
  • Chronicles of the House of Borgia (Grant Richards, London: E. P. Dutton, New York, 1901)
  • Nicholas Crabbe (1903-4, posthumously published 1958, a limited edition of 215 numbered copies in slipcase were to have been issued with the trade edition but industrial action and other factors meant the trade edition ended up with precedence)
  • Hadrian the Seventh (Chatto & Windus, London, 1904)
  • Don Tarquinio (Chatto & Windus, London, 1905)
  • Don Renato (1907-8, printed 1909 but not published, posthumously published Chatto & Windus, London, 1963, a limited edition of 200 numbered copies in slipcase were issued at the same time as the trade edition)
  • Hubert's Arthur (1909-11, posthumously published 1935)
  • The Weird of the Wanderer (1912)
  • The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (1909, published Cassell, London, 1934)
  • The Bull against the Enemy of the Anglican race (Privately printed, London, 1929) (an attack on Lord Northcliffe)
  • Three Tales of Venice (The Corvine Press, 1950)
  • Letters to Grant Richards (The Peacocks Press, 1952)
  • The Cardinal Prefect of Propaganda (Nicholas Vane, London, 1957)
  • A Letter from Baron Corvo to John Lane (The Peacocks Press, 1958)
  • Letters to C. H. C. Pirie-Gordon (Nicholas Vane, London, 1959)
  • A Letter to Father Beauclerk (The Tragara Press, Edinburgh, 1960)
  • Letters to Leonard Moore (Nicholas Vane, London, 1960)
  • The Letters of Baron Corvo to Kenneth Grahame (The Peacocks Press, 1962)
  • Letters to R. M. Dawkins (Nicholas Vane, London, 1962)
  • The Architecture of Aberdeen (Privately Printed, Detroit, 1963)
  • Without Prejudice. One Hundred Letters From Frederick William Rolfe to John Lane (Privately printed for Allen Lane, London, 1963)
  • A Letter to Claud (University of Iowa School of Journalism, Iowa City, 1964)
  • The Venice Letters A Selection (Cecil Woolf, London, 1966 [actually 1967])
  • The Armed Hands (Cecil Woolf, London, 1974)
  • Collected Poems (Cecil Woolf, London, 1974)
  • The Venice Letters (Cecil Woolf, London, 1974)


  1. ^ Hoare, Philip, Noel Coward: A Biography (University of Chicago Press, 1996, new edition 1998, ISBN 0226345122), p. 34
  2. ^ Smith, Timothy D'Arch (1970), Love In Earnest; some notes on the lives and writings of English Uranian poets from 1889 to 1930, London: Routlege, Keegan and Paul, ISBN 0710067305, OCLC 127346  
  3. ^ Kaylor, Michael Matthew (2006) (PDF), Secreted Desires: The Major Uranians: Hopkins, Pater and Wilde,  
  4. ^ a b Symons, Alphonse James Albert (2001), The Quest for Corvo, New York Review of Books, ISBN 0940322617, OCLC 45493285  
  5. ^ Woods, Dr. Gregory (1999), A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition, Yale University Press, p. 170, ISBN 0300080883, OCLC 59453858  

Further reading

  • Benkovitz, Miriam. Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo. Putnam, New York, 1977. SBN: 399-12009-2.
  • Bradshaw, David. "Rolfe, Frederick William" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (consulted online).
  • Connell, Brendan. The Translation of Father Torturo. Prime Books, 2005. Dedicated to Rolfe, this book is a clear homage to Hadrian the Seventh.
  • Johnson, Pamela Hansford. The Unspeakable Skipton. Macmillan, 1959; Penguin Books (No.1529) 1961. Rolfe's life as source for the characterization of Daniel Skipton.
  • Norwich, John Julius. Paradise of Cities: Venice and its Nineteenth Century Visitors. Penguin, 2004.
  • Reade, Brian (ed.). Sexual Heretics; Male Homosexuality in English literature from 1850-1900 - an anthology. London, Routledge, Keegan and Paul, 1970.
  • Symons, A.J.A. The Quest for Corvo. Cassell, London, 1934.
  • Weeks, Donald. Corvo. Michael Joseph, London, 1971.
  • Woolf, Cecil. A Bibliography of Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo The Soho Bibliographies, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, 1972 (Second Edition)
  • Woolf, Cecil and Sewell, Brocard (eds). New Quests for Corvo. Icon books, London, 1965.


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Frederick William Rolfe (1860-07-221913-10-26) was an English novelist, short-story writer, eccentric, and would-be Roman Catholic priest. He preferred to be known either as Father Rolfe or as Baron Corvo.



  • It's all nonsense to say that the Fifteenth Century can't possibly speak to the Twentieth, because it is the Fifteenth and not the Twentieth, and because those two Centuries haven't got a Common Denominator. They have. It's Human Nature.
    • Don Tarquinio (1905; repr. London: Chatto and Windus, 1941), Prologue, p. x

Hadrian the Seventh (1904)

Quotations are cited from the Penguin Modern Classics edition (Harmondsworth, 1963).

  • Brisk and prompt to war, soft and not in the least able to resist calamity, fickle in catching at schemes, and always striving after novelties – French characteristics remained unaltered twenty centuries after Julius Caesar made a note of them for all time.
    • Prooimion, p. 58
  • He took the imperial hand and shook it in the glad-to-see-you-but-keep-off English fashion.
    • Ch. 13, p. 223
  • An appeal to a goodness which is not in him is, to a vain and sensitive soul, a stinging insult.
    • Ch. 19, p. 296
  • That cold white candent voice which was more caustic than silver nitrate and more thrilling than a scream.
    • Ch. 22, p. 335
  • Most people have only half developed their single personalities. That a man should split his into four and more; and should develop each separately and perfectly, was so abnormal that many normals failed to understand it.
    • Ch. 22, p. 343
  • Pray for the repose of His soul. He was so tired.
    • Ch. 24, p. 360


  • He seems to have been a serpent of serpents in the bosom of all the nineties. That in itself endears him to one.
    • D. H. Lawrence, in Adelphi (December 1925); cited from Michael Herbert (ed.) Selected Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 200.
  • Rolfe's vice was spiritual more than it was carnal: it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith. He would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be…If he could not have Heaven, he would have Hell, and the last footprints seem to point unmistakably towards the Inferno.
    • Graham Greene "Frederick Rolfe: Edwardian Inferno" (1934); cited from Collected Essays (New York: The Viking Press, 1969) p. 175
  • I have…read it with a good deal of amusement and enjoyment. The latter is due, I suppose, entirely to the subject – for everyone likes to imagine what a man could do if he were a dictator or Pope, or Caliph; the amusement is mainly at the author's expence. The style is one of the most preposterous I have ever read, and I doubt if I ever saw so much pedantry combined with so much ignorance.
    • C. S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves dated October 1, 1934, cited from W. H. Lewis (ed.) The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) vol. 2, p. 143
  • He was a confidence-man, pauper, tutor, blackmailer, paedophile, translator – and author of seven novels and a number of short stories. Rolfe was a trickster whose failed life stank to himself as to the few friends whom he had and betrayed. But he was a fascinating figure: a bore, but also a pseudo-Borgian freak whose vindictiveness and paranoia have deservedly become legendary.
  • He wrote with great care, and with a sharpness, vivacity, and variety of epithet that give immediate and continuing pleasure, but he was not in any serious sense a novelist or even a writer of fiction. His emotionally injured self is the sole character of his fictions, with everybody else seen through the haze of his paranoia, like figures in a fun-fair mirror.

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