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Rolfe, Frederick William (1860-1913)  

Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe, who also used the name Baron Corvo, is important for the gay literary heritage because of his distinctive decadent prose style, his outrageous decadent lifestyle, and his unashamed celebration of eroticized male friendships in his works.

Although his formal schooling was never completed, he acquired a strong intellectual training in classics, theology, and history. At age fifteen, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Thereafter, although asked to leave more than one seminary, he pursued the dream of becoming a priest.

He supported himself after a fashion as a photographer and painter, as a teacher and tutor, and finally as a writer. In 1910, at the end of a twenty-year period of self-imposed celibacy intended to prove his vocation, he found himself in Venice. He fell in love with the city and its erotic license and refused to leave although this made it almost impossible for him to manage his business affairs.

In addition, he alienated himself from one friend after another with malicious letters. Turned out of his hotel for failure to pay the bill, he died of exposure, killed by the treacherous climate of the Venice he loved.

Perhaps more than his work, Rolfe's curious mismanagement of his life has brought him cult status, beginning in A. J. A. Symons's Quest for Corvo (1934), a work highlighting the excitement of a scholarly investigation. Rolfe appears as a distinctive presence in the nonfiction and sometimes the fiction of many writers who knew him. He is satirized as The Unspeakable Skipton (1959) by Pamela Hansford Johnson.

Frequently described with considerable justification as a paranoid personality, Rolfe is also frequently described without any justification whatsoever as a corrupter of youth. As The Venice Letters (written 1909-1910, published 1974) make clear, he was interested only in boys in their late teens, and these boys were characteristically worldly and aggressive sensualists.

Stories Toto Told Me (1898) and In His Own Image (1901), Rolfe's first books, are saints' lives narrated in dialect by a precocious servant. These collections earned Rolfe a certain early reputation as a stylist. They are now of gay interest because of their erotic, phallic imagery, which turn-of-the-century readers may not have been consciously aware of.

The particular frustration Rolfe felt in his futile pursuit of ordination is recreated in perhaps his masterpiece, Hadrian the Seventh (1904). In self-consciously exquisite prose, George Rose, the hero of this novel, is translated from expelled seminarian to Pope and then sets about reforming the world only to be assassinated by a socialist incorrigible.

The prose of Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901) is perhaps even more self-indulgent, but this less accessible book has helped make Rolfe a major exemplar of decadent style.

Apart from some poetry, the novels Nicholas Crabbe (written 1904, published 1958) and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written 1909-1910, published 1934) express most clearly Rolfe's admiration for adolescent beauty. Not this subject matter but venomous caricatures and Rolfe's business troubles kept the books from being published in his own day.

Both works are structured as romances of androgynous obsession somewhat in the manner of Théophile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835-1836). Crabbe's beloved in the novel that bears his name is based on Rolfe's sometime poetic collaborator Sholto Douglas. The sad conclusion of the novel suggests that Rolfe believed that such relationships could not succeed, at least among Englishmen.

In The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, however, Rolfe contrives to give his story a happy ending. In this book, Crabbe rescues an apparent boy from an earthquake and, although ostensibly pleased to discover that the one he has saved is really a girl, brings his beloved back to Venice outfitted as the fascinating gondolier Zildo (modeled on Rolfe's special friend of the time, Ermenegildo Vianello).

But Crabbe loses his ability to sustain the relationship and is finally tempted to suicide when illness reduces him to feminine passivity and leaves him unable to sort out disagreements with publishers or to circumvent the enmity of inconstant friends. However, in masculine guise Zildo, having recovered the patrimony lost in the earthquake, rescues Crabbe through creative business management and a timely blood transfusion.

By reversing the sexual dynamics normally prescribed for man and woman (or man and boy), this parable ends with the two about to complete their romance in marriage, a naked and improbable wish fulfillment.

Edmund Miller


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Frederick William Rolfe (Baron Corvo) in ecclesiastical clothes.
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Benkovitz, Miriam J. Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo. New York: Putnam, 1977.

Gilsdorf, Jeanette W., and Nicholas A. Salerno. "Frederick W. Rolfe, Baron Corvo: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him." English Literature in Transition 23 (1980): 3-83.

Symons, A. J. A. Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography. Intro. Julian Symons, 1934. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

Woolf, Cecil, and Brocard Sewell, eds. New Quests for Corvo: A Collection of Essays by Various Hands. Intro. Pamela Hansford Johnson. London: Icon, 1961.


    Citation Information
    Author: Miller, Edmund  
    Entry Title: Rolfe, Frederick William  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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