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Firbank, Ronald (1886-1926)  
 
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Although his witty, high-camp, modernist fabulations mock the late-Victorian world of bourgeois materialism and "hearty" moral earnestness, Ronald Firbank, born Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank in London in 1886, was himself the product of a "rags to riches" Victorian success story.

Although his great-grandfather was an illiterate Durham coal miner, his grandfather acquired an immense fortune as a railway contractor, which enabled his father, Sir Thomas Firbank, to become a Member of Parliament. His mother, Lady Firbank, the daughter of an Irish clergyman, was an educated and cultivated woman who, with her husband, became a renowned collector of rare prints and porcelain.

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Until her death in 1924, Lady Firbank lent steadfast encouragement to her second son, which evidently helped sustain Firbank in a world he often regarded as malicious and self-serving, and which had become increasingly in outward demeanor since the prosecution of Oscar Wilde for "indecent behavior" in 1895.

Indeed, much of Firbank's work takes the form of a homage to Wilde and other fin-de-siècle aesthetes, inflected with a pervasive modernist irony and skepticism that, though eschewing propaganda and self-important "seriousness," evinces profound sympathy for blacks, lesbians, women, homosexuals, and other victims of early twentieth-century materialism and moral self-righteousness.

Like his contemporary Virginia Woolf, Firbank constructed an elaborate mask of protective self-mythology designed to blur the distinction between the "Firbankian" legend and reality.

Because of frequent childhood illnesses, Firbank developed the lifelong habit of traveling abroad to more favorable climates and cultures. His sudden disappearances and evasiveness contributed to the aura of mystery surrounding him.

Educated privately for the most part in his youth, he subsequently attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge, which he left in June 1909, after six terms, without taking a degree.

Already a published author and a fully formed personality by the time he entered Cambridge at the age of nineteen, Firbank took the further step of divorcing himself from English culture by converting, in 1907, to Catholicism, a religion whose ornate rituals, costumes, symbols, and pageantry provided him with a vehicle through which to express his homosexuality obliquely.

His early sentimental story, "Odette d'Antrevernes," concerning a pious girl who prays for a vision of the Virgin Mary and instead encounters a destitute prostitute whom she dissuades from committing suicide, reveals his interest in sacred and profane love as well as his abiding sympathy for innocents victimized by circumstances beyond their control.

Firbank visited Rome with the intention of taking holy orders; however, as he later revealed in a letter to Lord Berners, "The Church of Rome wouldn't have me, and so I mock her." Accordingly, his mature fiction is populated with a ribald gallery of homosexual choirboys, lesbian nuns, cross-dressing priests, salacious bishops, flagellants, and self-canonized saints.

Between his frequent travels abroad, Firbank resided in London and became a well-known figure in pre-war cafe society as well as in various dramatic and literary circles. The advent of World War I brought an end to his customary mode of living and was indirectly responsible for transforming Firbank into a serious literary artist.

Evincing no interest in patriotic duties or war work, Firbank secluded himself for the duration of the war in Oxford, where he produced four novels in rapid succession.

Vainglory (1915) concerns the ambitions of Mrs. Shamefoot to achieve immortality by having a stained glass window commemorating herself built at St. Dorothy's Cathedral.

Inclinations (1916) tells the story of Miss Geraldine O'Brookomore ("authoress of Six Strange Sisters, Those Gonzagas, etc.") whose vision of an Arcadian lesbian romance is destroyed when the hostile Count Pastorelli ("not so pastoral as he sounds") marries her companion Miss Mabel Collins.

Caprice (1917) follows the adventures of Miss Sarah Sinquier, the stage-struck daughter of a provincial clergyman, who, the morning after her successful debut in London as "An unfeminine Juliet . . . A decadent Juliet," accidentally falls to her death through a trapdoor while inspecting the empty theater.

In the utopian world of Valmouth (1919), an imaginary health resort presided over by the black masseuse Mrs. Yajnavalkya, the characters engage in an intricate arabesque of secret amours and are eventually revealed to be gay, lesbian, or bisexual.

After the war, Firbank further developed the theme of gay-lesbian utopia in his one-act play, The Princess Zoubaroff (1920), which creates a pastoral "green world" of homosexual freedom and explores the advantages of social arrangements in which the sexes live apart. The happy, middle-aged Lord Orkish is Firbank's portrait of the Oscar Wilde who might have been had Wilde gone into exile rather than facing his persecutors in England.

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