James C. Hormel LGBTQIA Center

Friday, August 28, 2015

Frederick Rolfe Collection

In December 2014, Barbara (Mrs. Rocco) Verrilli donated a small collection of letters, a book, and some manuscript pages written by English author Frederick Rolfe. Also known as Baron Corvo, Rolfe was a gay writer, artist, and photographer.

His name was initially unfamiliar to us. However, a quick catalog search revealed a number of books written about him and many works written by him. We were intrigued.

Rolfe was born in London on July 22, 1860. He converted to Roman Catholicism in 1886 and felt himself called to the priesthood. Though he was never ordained a priest, the desire persisted throughout his life.

From 1895 to 1899 Rolfe lived in Holywell in North Wales, where he painted a number of processional banners for the church. He died in Venice, Italy on October 25, 1913. His life provided the basis for The Quest for Corvo (1934) by A. J. A. Symons.

The letters in the Rocco Verrilli Collection of Frederick Rolfe Correspondence and Manuscripts (GLC 97) address the publication and reception of his work, his financial difficulties, Catholics and Catholicism, photography, and the Order of Sanctissima Sophia. There are also a few letters from James Walsh to Rolfe biographer A. J. A. Symons.

Letter from Frederick William Rolfe, Hotel Victoria, Holywell
to the Rev. W. E. Scott-Hall, Staverton Fields, Oxford, Dec[ember] 28, 1898

Frederick Rolfe spent most of his life as a freelance writer and relied on benefactors for support. As we can see in the letter above, Rolfe declines an invitation from Scott-Hall to spend a week with him in Wales, due in part to Rolfe's impoverished state. He discusses his desire for literary fame and his feeling towards Catholicism. "I have no quarrel with the Catholic faith. It is that only which has kept me from slitting my gizzard in sheer despair of solitude." 

Tarcissus cover.
Other materials in the collection include a pamphlet-sized book Tarcissus: The Boy Martyr of Rome (Saffron Walden, Essex, 1880) and a few manuscripts. One manuscript is an autobiographical piece that details Rolfe's literary output and his often-contentious relationships with publishers and co-authors. In it Rolfe refers to Owen Thomas, Barnard and Taylor, the Reverend Robert Hugh Benson, C. H. C. Pirie-Gordon, and their efforts, or lack thereof, on Rolfe's behalf. Rolfe also gives a brief account of his life in Venice (1908-1910) and the writing of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole.

Autobiographical manuscript, page 1, [circa 1910]

In a number of his stories and novels Rolfe himself is the thinly-disguised protagonist. His better known works include: Stories Toto Told Me (1898), later republished as In His Own Image (1901); Hadrian the Seventh (1904); and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (written 1910-1913, published 1934). His other works include the Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901), and two books in collaboration with Harry Pirie-Gordon. The library has some editions of Rolfe's books: The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: a Romance of Modern VeniceHadrian the Seventh; and Stories Toto Told Me, among others.

Based on the letters in the collection and his biographers, Frederick Rolfe seems to be quite a colorful character. For the curious, check out The Quest for Corvo: An Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons; Corvo: Saint or Madman? by Donald Weeks; A bibliography of Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo by Cecil Woolf; and Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo: a Biography by Miriam J. Benkovitz.

And for those who would like to peruse some of his original letters and manuscripts, the Rocco Verrilli Collection of Frederick Rolfe Correspondence and Manuscripts (GLC 97) is available through the San Francisco History Center, 6th floor, Main Library.