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 and his erratic behaviour.
At this stage he entered the circle of the Duchess 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).
Rolfe spent most of his life as a freelance writer, mainly in England but eventually in Venice. He lived in the era before the welfare state, and relied on benefactors for support. But he had an argumentative nature and had a tendency to fall out spectacularly with most of the people who tried to help him and offer him food and board. Eventually, out of money and out of luck, he died in Venice from a stroke on October 25, 1913. He was buried on the Isola di San Michele, Venice.
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.
Frederick Rolfe was entirely comfortable with his homosexuality, and associated and corresponded with a number of other gay Englishmen. Early in his life he wrote a fair amount of idealistic but mawkish poetry about boy martyrs and the like, and these and his Toto stories contain pederastic elements, but the young male pupils he was teaching at the time unanimously recalled in later life that there had never been any hint of impropriety in his relations with them. As he himself matured, Rolfe’s settled sexual preference was for late adolescents. Towards the end of his life, he made his only explicit reference to his specific sexual age preference, in one of the Venice letters to Charles Masson Fox, in which he declared: 'My preference was for the 16, 17, 18 and large.' Those of whom it is either speculated or surmised that they had sexual relations with Rolfe - Aubrey Thurstans, Sholto Douglas, John 'Markoleone', Ermenegildo Vianello and the other Venetian gondoliers - were all sexually mature young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one (with the exception of Douglas, who was considerably older). The idealised young men in his fiction were of a similar age. Rolfe sought to characterise the relationships in his fiction as examples of 'Greek love' between an older man and an ephebe, and thus endow them with the sanction of the ancient Hellenic tradition familiar to all Edwardians with a classical education.
Rolfe’s most important and enduring works are the stories and novels in which he himself is the thinly-disguised protagonist: Stories Toto Told Me (1898) is a collection of six stories, later expanded to thirty-two and republished as In His Own Image (1901), in which ‘Don Friderico’ and his teenage acolytes embark on long walking tours in the Italian countryside, even as far from Rome as the eastern coast of Italy. The youths’ leader, the sixteen-year-old Toto, recounts tales of saints behaving like pagan gods. The stories are richly Catholic and unashamedly superstitious, and the saints who figure in them are hedonistic, revengeful and (though not licentious) entirely comfortable with nudity, the diametric opposite of any Protestant ideal of sainthood. Hadrian the Seventh (1904) is Rolfe’s most famous novel, with an original and compelling plot. Rolfe portrays himself as an Englishman with a quintessentially English name, ‘George Arthur Rose,’ who having originally been rejected for the priesthood finds himself the object of a spectacular and highly improbable change of mind on the part of the church hierarchy, who elect him to the papacy. Rose takes the name Hadrian VII and embarks upon a program of ecclesiastical and geopolitical reform. More self-indulgently, he takes the opportunity to review his past life and to reward or punish his friends and acquaintances according to what he believes to be their just deserts. Hadrian is thus essentially an exercise in wish fulfillment.
Rolfe's early books were politely reviewed but none of them was enough of a success to secure an income for its author, whose posthumous reputation began to dim. Within a very few years, however, small coteries of readers began to discover a common interest in his work, and a resilient literary cult began to form. In 1934 A J A Symons published The Quest for Corvo, one of the century’s iconic biographies, and this brought Rolfe’s life and work to the attention of a wider public. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a further surge of interest in him which became known as ‘the Corvo revival,’ including a successful adaptation of 'Hadrian VII' for the London stage. Two biographies of Rolfe appeared in the 1970s. These led to his inclusion in all the major works of reference and engendered a stream of academic theses on him. Although his books have remained in print, no substantial monograph has ever appeared in English on his work. With the growing academic interest in the history of literary modernism and acknowledgement of the central importance of life writing in its genesis, the true importance of Rolfe’s autobiographical fictions has come into focus. His influence has been discerned in novels written by Henry Harland, Ronald Firbank and Graham Greene, and in his coinage of neologisms and use of the Ulysses story there is some perhaps coincidental prefiguring of the works of James Joyce.
Burial: Cimitero di San Michele, Venice, Veneto, Italy
Stories Toto Told Me by Frederick Rolfe
Paperback: 128 pages
Publisher: Valancourt Books (July 25, 2008)
Amazon: Stories Toto Told Me
Frederick Rolfe, who early in his career also published under the name "Baron Corvo," became famous for his Hadrian the Seventh (1904), in which an Englishman is unexpectedly elected Pope, and later became infamous for his writings on his love for Venetian boys. But it was with the "Toto" stories, first published in John Lane's fin de siècle literary journal The Yellow Book, that Corvo achieved his first and most widespread authorial success. In these tales, an Italian peasant youth ingenuously recounts to his English master six poignant and often funny stories dealing with Heaven, saints, morality, and religion. First published in volume form in 1898 and long out of print, Stories Toto Told Me remains one of the most remarkable achievements of one of the strangest and most talented of English writers. This edition includes a new introduction and extensive annotations by Edmund Miller.
The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography (New York Review Books Classics) by A.J.A. Symons
Paperback: 312 pages
Publisher: NYRB Classics (March 31, 2001)
Amazon: The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography
One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe's Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel -- "a masterpiece"-- and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, subtitled "an experiment in biography," is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and sympathy that inspires the biographer's art.
The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homosexual Fantasy by Robert Aldrich
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (November 17, 1993)
Amazon: The Seduction of the Mediterranean: Writing, Art and Homosexual Fantasy
Through an explanation of forty figures in European culture, The Seduction of the Mediterranean argues that the Mediterranean, classical and contemporary, was the central theme in homoerotic writing and art from the 1750s to the 1950s. Episodes of exile, murder, drug-taking, wild homosexual orgies and court cases are woven into an original study of a significant theme in European culture. The myth of a homoerotic Mediterranean made a major contribution to general attitudes towards Antiquity, the Renaissance and modern Italy and Greece.
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