Friday, August 08, 2008
Frederick Rolfe Notes: Saint William of Norwich
There is, to my mind, nothing more intriguing and juicy than a good literary mystery. Which is perhaps one of the reasons why Frederick Rolfe appeals to me so greatly. Certainly my first exposure to Rolfe’s writing was when I picked up a copy of the Collected Poems and read the footnotes. A number of the footnotes were nothing more than the editor, Cecil Woolf, naming the dedicatee of the poem (usually only designated by initials) and then saying ‘I have not been able to discover what became of him’ - and this was the point at which I was hooked, thinking to myself, ‘well you might not but I’m going to have a damn good go’. Since then Rolfe’s life has provided numerous mysteries for me to dig into, most of which have already been solved by other people, some still remain.
One such is a ‘missing book’ mystery. There are some tantalising references to a very early book by Rolfe, never published, but which suggest that there was at least a manuscript, or that the book had advanced even further than that towards publication. In 1889 Elkin Mathews and John Lane began, together, what was eventually to become The Bodley Head but, at that very early stage all the publishing was being done under Elkin Mathews’s name. In May 1890 Elkin Mathews’s catalogue of ‘New and Forthcoming’ works contained the following:
“Will be published shortly, medium 8vo., finely printed on handmade paper, in a limited edition, with etchings. The Story of S. William: The Boy Martyr of Norwich, from forty contemporary and subsequent Chronicles, all of which are given in full, with copious Notes and Translations &c., &c. By the REV FREDERICK WILLIAM ROLFE, late Professor of English Literature and History at St Marie’s College Oscott.”
The copy reproduced above is from the catalogue as bound into the back of Chambers Twain by Ernest Radford. In the Bodleian Library in Oxford there is a complete prospectus for the book, now called The History of St. William: The Boy Martyr of Norwich and the author given as 'Frederick William Rolfe, Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and of the Royal Society of Literature.' The book is given as ‘to be published shortly’. The prospectus not only goes into the lush details of the fine printing of an edition of 300 with the first 50 on handmade paper, old capitals and lines, parchment binding, gilt, etc. it also details every one of the 40 “contemporary and subsequent chronicles” which are going to be reproduced and states that the book will also include the proper Office and Mass of the Saint as well as his litany and hymns. This prospectus is simply dated 1890. The prospectus is decorated with a line drawing by Rolfe of S. William. The whole sounds rather juicy.
It seems unthinkable that Mathews and/or Lane would have allowed such extravagant and detailed advertising without at the very least having a manuscript in hand. And yet, the big BUT in all of this, the butt of the mystery, is not that the book was never published - these things happen and happened to Rolfe quite a bit - the mystery is that there is never another mention of it. It was obviously a substantial work but in all the vast body of letters Rolfe left behind, and in three romans a clef, there is no mention made of this book, neither is there anything more than this from Elkins and Mathews and The Bodley Head, despite the fact that five years or so later, Rolfe renewed his acquaintance with The Bodley Head and John Lane became the publisher of Stories Toto Told Me. Nothing!
There is further tantalising evidence that the book once actually existed. On Rolfe’s application for election to the Royal Historical Society, he gives under ‘publications’ his poem ‘Lytel Seynt Hew’ and the William of Norwich book, after which, in parenthesis, “in the press”. This is tantalising because the document is dated May 1889. Rolfe obviously had no problem exaggerating his qualifications - the titled Rev for example was only tenuously his as he had only been admitted into minor orders, the claim to have been a Professor of English Literature and History at Oscott was based on the fact that as a ‘divine’ or student for priesthood, he was also expected to do some teaching of the boys in the school. My point is, Rolfe exaggerates but to say ‘in the press’ is very specific and somehow I believe it. However, if that was the case it is extremely early for Mathews and Lane to have a book like that, very different to most of their output, in the press and almost ready to go, and then for it to be still ’forthcoming’ in even an October 1890 version of the catalogue suggests that there’s a story there.
Given the mention of Oscott in the catalogue, plus the clear need for access to a big specialist library, and the dates, it seems most likely that Rolfe wrote, or edited, this MS whist he was as Oscott. Certainly, it would fit with his interests too. Rolfe’s other publications thus far had all been about boy Martyrs and his poem about Lytel Seynt Hew - aka Little S. Hugh of Lincoln - published in The Universal Review also hints at a further specialisation of this interest. Little S. Hugh of Lincoln and William of Norwich are both saints by dint of their connection with the anti-Semitic blood-libel myth of the Middle Ages. Briefly stated it was believed that once a year, the Jews of Europe would conspire to kidnap a good Christian boy and to crucify him. It was obviously false and simply a figment of the fevered imaginations of a rabidly anti-Semitic population. However, it was strong enough that several of the boys concerned - who were probably not even crucified and were most likely the victims of common murders, perhaps with mutilation, were canonised. Their cults were later suppressed. Rolfe, however, was fascinated and he returns to the theme a number of times in poetry and prose. There is a scene in Hubert’s Arthur in which the protagonist is made the attempted victim of one of these ritual killings by the supposed Jewish conspiracy. I am not by any means blind to the faults of my subject here but I think it is probably true that this strange, heady mix of religious devotion and sado-masochistic imagery was the main pull of such stories for Rolfe, although I would never want to claim that his attitudes towards Jewry were enlightened. So it is hardly surprising that Rolfe tried to ‘write the book’ on William of Norwich, the supposed blood-libel victim, of all the English victims who had the strongest and most widespread cult, even though that was not large. And no surprise that it should come out of his time at Oscott when he seems to have developed and nursed this interest.
But the mystery remains. Wherefore the silence? Why is it that in all the years since 1890 that book is never mentioned again by Rolfe. In fact, he never actually mentions it at the time, save in his application to the Royal Historical Society. Perhaps, in some dusty crate in the basement of some antiquarian bookseller, there is a pile of papers made up of what might seem desperately uninteresting accounts of an obscure medieval saint. Stranger things have and do happen…