Letters and Manuscripts of a Great English Eccentric to be Sold at Bonhams

A collection of manuscripts, books and letters by Baron Corvo—one of the great eccentrics of English Literature—is to be sold at Bonhams Books, Maps and Manuscript sale in London on 18 June.

Corvo (1860-1913), whose real name was Frederick William Rolfe, was a gay would-be Roman Catholic priest, school master, amateur photographer, and writer. A Catholic convert in his 20s, he believed for the rest of his life that he was destined to become a priest, a view not shared by the Church authorities. In frustration, he styled himself Fr. Rolfe—a shortening of his Christian name, Frederick, but almost certainly intended to give the impression to strangers that he had been ordained.

Rolfe was closely associated with the Uranian Poets, writers with an interest in what was then called Greek Love.  Much of his fictional work is highly romanticised and adolescent fixated—one of the items in the sale, for example, is a hand written copy of Ballade of Boys Bathing (£4,000-6,000)—though his best known work, the novel Hadrian the Seventh, is more concerned with religion and settling scores with his many enemies. Effectively an extended piece of wish fulfillment, it tells the story of an Englishman, refused entry to the priesthood who unexpectedly becomes pope and takes revenge on those who had snubbed him.

Rolfe, who could never see a helping hand without biting it, alienated practically everyone who was kind to him. A former friend—and all his friends became former sooner or later—described him as a hedgehog. He lived in a state of almost perpetual penury, at one stage subsisting in an open boat in the lagoon in Venice. In a letter of 1910 to a friend in America, James Walsh, (est £2,000-3,000) he wrote “I am living in a filthy hole where I have caught sixty one rats since June…. Whores howl day& night under my window.  I have not bathed since last November nor changed my clothes since August 1908.”

Rolfe’s letters are regarded as minor classics—WH Auden called him ‘one of the great masters of vituperation’—and the collection contains several examples of his invective. Here he is writing in 1904 to the publisher John Lane, about his novel Nicholas Crabbe in which Lane is lampooned as a scheming villain and ‘a sniveling little swindler’: “I offered  the American rights to you first… simply because I wished to give you one more chance of behaving honestly for a change.  I was not aware that you had any friends and I certainly don’t know them.” Unsurprisingly, Lane did not publish the book. The letter is estimated at £1,500-2,000.

Towards the end of his life, Rolfe formed a close friendship with Robert Benson the Catholic convert son of the Archbishop of Canterbury and brother of EF Benson the author of the Mapp and Lucia books. The two men wrote to each other every day for two years until the relationship fell apart possibly at the prompting of Benson’s worried family.  Predictably Rolfe then cast Benson as a traitor and villain. The situation was not helped by Benson’s friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas with whom Rolfe was also in dispute.     

Among the works to be sold is a scarce first edition of Rolfe’s first published work, Tarcissus the Boy Martyr of Rome in the Diocletian Persecution, (£4,000-6,000).  Rolfe was only 20 when he wrote the work and did not publish again for nearly 20 years when he produced the successful Stories Toto Told Me.  A collection of 32 of these stories under the title In His Own Image is included in the sale (£6,000-8,000). This copy comes with nine very rare photographs taken by Rolfe of youths in various stages of undress and notes on which of the characters in the Toto stories they inspired or most closely resembled.

Bonhams Head of Books Matthew Haley said, “For all his eccentricities, Rolfe was a talented writer and this wide ranging collection of his manuscripts and letters is a reminder that at his best his work transcends the clichés of Uranian literature.”

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