Friday, January 02, 2009

William of Norwich Saga... continued...

For those of you interested enough to want to catch up with the slowly unravelling story of a book by Frederick Rolfe that was never published then you should start with my first post on the subject. This had to be followed up by another post when Mark Valentine, guru of all things literary, and editor of the inestimable Wormwood magazine, wrote with a little more information. Then another contact told me about a short analysis of the poem so I felt I should direct my readers there in a third post.

Mark has recently uncovered a previously unrecorded short story by Saki and so it seems that he's in the mood for literary detection. He wrote again recently, passing on the theory of Rosemary Pardoe, editor of the hugely respected Ghosts and Scholars M R James Newsletter about why Rolfe's version of the life of William of Norwich might have foundered before the presses. She points out that in 1890, the year Rolfe's book was due out, M. R. James discovered in a "small dank building" in the churchyard in Brent Eliegh in Suffolk, the earliest known life of the saint, a twelfth century manuscript by Thomas of Monmouth. Such a discovery would have superseded all other work on the subject and James was the one in possession of the manuscript, the purchase of which by Cambridge University he had overseen. Certainly in the list of accounts of the life of William in the prospectus for Rolfe's book, Thomas of Monmouth isn't mentioned.

James got together with another well known medievalist Augustus Jessopp to work on the manuscript and they produced a scholarly edition of the text in 1896. Their edition does, as Rolfe's promised to do, reproduce all four known medieval depictions of the saint including the one above from a screen in the Suffolk church of St Peter and Paul, Eye*. A little more digging reveals that Jessopp published an article on William in The Nineteenth Century of May 1893, and whilst I haven't laid hands on a copy yet it seems likely that this article would in some way relate to the Monmouth manuscript.

Whilst it is only a theory still, I can't see anything wrong with the idea that this discovery was the thing which scuppered Rolfe's plan, with Elkin Matthews and John Lane, to publish a life of William. Of course, tantalisingly, if this theory were correct it would add weight to the notion that Rolfe's book was actually written... However, it doesn't help with my fundamental question which I raised at the end of my first post on the subject, which is why doesn't Rolfe ever, to my knowledge, mention or speak or write about this book ever again?

*photo was mercilessly nicked from the Suffolk Churches set on Flickr by Simon_K whose photos are well worth going to explore.

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