Ronald Firbank was born in London, the son of society lady Harriet Jane Garrett and MP Sir Thomas Firbank. He went to Uppingham School, and then on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He converted to Catholicism in 1907. In 1909 he left Cambridge, without completing a degree.
Living off his inheritance, he travelled around Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa. He died of lung disease in Rome, aged 40.
He published his first book, "Odette d'Antrevernes", a story, in 1905 before going up to Cambridge. From then, he produced a series of novels, from The Artificial Princess (written in 1915, published posthumously in 1934) and Vainglory (1915, his longest work) to Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926, also posthumous).
Inclinations (1916) takes place mainly in Greece, where Mabel Collins, 15, is traveling with her female chaperone, Miss O'Brookomore; Mabel elopes with an Italian conte, but the plot is of minor importance, the book's interest – as with all Firbank's work – lying in the dialogue. His next novel Caprice followed in 1917.
Valmouth (1918) is based on the activities of various people in a health resort on the West Coast of England; most of the inhabitants are centenarians, and some are older ("the last time I went to the play...was with Charles the Second and Louise de Querouaille, to see Betterton play Shylock.") The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the attempts of two elderly ladies, Mrs Hurstpierpoint and Mrs Thoroughfare, to marry off the heir to Hare-Hatch House, Captain Dick Thoroughfare. Captain Thoroughfare, who is engaged to a black woman, Niri-Esther, is loved frantically by Thetis Tooke, a farmer's daughter, but prefers his 'chum', Jack Whorwood, to both of them. Meanwhile Mrs Yajnavalkya, a black masseuse, manages an alliance between the centenarian Lady Parvula de Panzoust and David Tooke, Thetis's brother. A musical comedy of 1958 by Sandy Wilson gave the novel some popularity in the 1960s. It has been revived several times and recorded on CD.
Santal (1921) describes an Arab boy's search for God.
In The Flower Beneath The Foot (1923), the setting is an imaginary country which may be assumed to be somewhere in the Balkans. The characters include the King and Queen, sundry high-born ladies about the Court, and the usual attendant chorus of priests and nuns.
Sorrow in Sunlight (1924) - retitled at the suggestion of the American publisher Prancing Nigger but published in Britain under the author's original title - was especially successful in America. The scene is laid in a Caribbean republic (compounded of Cuba and Haiti). A family of blacks, socially ambitious, move from their rural home to the capital, and the story is concerned with their attempts (which prove mainly abortive) to 'get into society'.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) begins with the Cardinal christening a dog in his cathedral ('And thus being cleansed and purified, I do call thee "Crack"!') and ends with His Eminence dying of a heart attack while chasing, naked, a choirboy around the aisles.
Firbank's play The Princess Zoubaroff (1920) has been compared to William Congreve, but is rarely produced; Dame Edith Evans, perhaps the greatest British actress of her time, played the title part in a radio production in 1964. The dialogue is highly characteristic: as, Princess Zoubaroff: "I am always disappointed with mountains. There are no mountains in the world as high as I would wish...They irritate me invariably. I should like to shake Switzerland."
Firbank's Complete Short Stories were published in a single volume in 1990 edited by Steven Moore, and his Complete Plays in 1991 in a volume containing The Princess Zoubaroff, The Mauve Tower and A Disciple from the Country.
Ronald Firbank left among his manuscripts the first few characteristic chapters of a novel set in New York, The New Rythum (sic), published in 1962 after a sale of many of his manuscripts and letters.
Dismissed by critics, with the notable exception of Olivia Chambers, as slight, Firbank's novels have been championed by many English novelists including E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh and Simon Raven. The poet W. H. Auden praised him highly in a radio broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in June 1961 (the text of the broadcast was published in The Listener of 8 June 1961). Susan Sontag named his novels as constituting part of "the canon of camp" in her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'".
In her 1973 critical biography, Prancing Novelist, Brigid Brophy examines Firbank's cult of Oscar Wilde.
Steven Moore records Firbank's critical reception up to 1995 in his Ronald Firbank: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Materials (Dalkey Archive Press, 1996).
Burial: Cimitero Comunale Monumentale Campo Verano, Rome, Lazio, Italy
Valmouth and Other Stories by Ronald Firbank
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd (December 1999)
Amazon: Valmouth and Other Stories
Her ladyship languishes on the jaguar-skin sofa, robed in pyjamas; a negro boy roams the gold city streets, searching for a shabet but dreaming of butterflies; there, encased in a chasuble, his Eminence baptises the Duquesa DunEden. These are scenes from the novels featured in this collection.
Ronald Firbank: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Materials, 1905-1995 by Steven Moore
Paperback: 154 pages
Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press; 1st edition (June 1996)
Amazon: Ronald Firbank: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Materials, 1905-1995
Following the much-deserved rediscovery of early modernist Ronald Firbank's works in the 1980s, this annotated bibliography collects reviews of the satirist's books, synopses of books and essays about Firbank, references to creative works inspired by the author, dissertation and theses abstracts, and even a chapter of foreign-language materials devoted to Firbank. Showcasing an underappreciated artist, this bibliography is a record of how Ronald Firbank has been misinterpreted, praised, lost, and found again.
The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Vintage; First vintage Intn'l Edition edition (September 19, 1989)
Amazon: The Swimming-Pool Library
A literary sensation and bestseller both in England and America, The Swimming-Pool Library is an enthralling, darkly erotic novel of homosexuality before the scourge of AIDS; an elegy, possessed of chilling clarity, for ways of life that can no longer be lived with impunity. "Impeccably composed and meticulously particular in its observation of everything" (Harpers & Queen), it focuses on the friendship of two men: William Beckwith, a young gay aristocrat who leads a life of privilege and promiscuity, and the elderly Lord Nantwich, an old Africa hand, searching for someone to write his biography and inherit his traditions.
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