Monday, November 01, 2010

A Frederick Rolfe Treasure

A correspondent of this blog, James Clanchy, has been in touch to share a remarkable 'piece of luck' story and a remarkable object. Some time ago, being in need of a copy of Rolfe's Don Tarquinio, James saw a copy advertised online for sale, the first edition but at a very low price because of the extensive water damage. In fact, so bad is the damage that even after he had ordered it the bookseller contacted him to say "Are you sure? I wasn't kidding about the damage?" James, however, was trying to put together a collection of Rolfe's books published in his own lifetime and so was fine with the condition.

So, it was a surprise to open up the book and find the inscription in Greek with some astrological symbols underneath. Immediately there was a little frisson. The two symbols are the zodiacal symbols for Cancer (the Crab) and the Moon. Rolfe himself identified heavily with both these symbols. One of his 'author self-insert' characters was called Nicholas Crabbe and there is an astonishing passage in which Rolfe describes his character in terms of the attributes of a crab. The full significance of both these symbols is explained in The Crab and The Moon by Robert Scoble. Suffice to say, it's as good as a signature to see those two symbols together.

If any other evidence were needed that this book had once been in Rolfe's own hands, then we can turn to the inscription. The Greek is slightly affected but James's own translation is as good as any I could offer "Life is hard for a lonely man". This is a remarkably Corvine sentiment, something that could easily be imagined at the head of any number of Rolfe's chapters. And then there is some slightly more forensic evidence. Like so much of Rolfe's writing, even in English, the handwriting and style is somewhat idiosyncratic. However, those idiosyncrasies come to our aid in this instance. There are other places where Rolfe has written those characters and we can compare them. The most accessible place is in the collection of Rolfe's letters to R. M. Dawkins published by Cecil Woolf in the 1960s there is, on pages 113-115, a fair amount of Rolfe's Greek script and the way he forms his letters is consistent with this inscription. Indeed, I then went on to look at a number of other piece of Greek script in Rolfe's hand in photocopies of original documents in various archives that I have in my files and the formation of these Greek characters is very consistent. So, an accidental purchase of a book with an inscription by Rolfe inside - such things are pretty rare precisely because so few of Rolfe's books were published in numbers during his lifetime.

James goes further that I can: squashed between pages 98-99 of his copy is a mosquito - proof positive he is sure that this book was Rolfe's own copy and the water damage is not from some London basement but from the glittering waters of the Venetian lagoon - who am I to deny the poetic truth of this!?

The other thing I can't deny is that Don Tarquinio is actually one of my favourite of Rolfe's books. This feels a little like a guilty secret since it is also one of Rolfe's shortest, lightest, and most easy to read books but by Gawd it's a thumping good read and just damn good fun.

My thanks to James for allowing me to tell this little tale and for the photos to illustrate it.


J said...

Yes, there are still treasures out there, and you never know when one is going to come your way!

M. A. said...

Fantastic stuff!
Also, I also am an avid admirer of the book. It up there with those i consider best, that is Hadrian and Nicholas Crabbe. I really get a feeling that a lot of people don't like the latter, don't get it why, because it is both written well, and the story is good, and those, who accuse the book of being a gratuitous attack on his publishers mest be forgetting their correspondence with Rolfe (Rolfe was his usual self, but the publishers were very distant from being fair with him in my opinion), and must be forgetting that such practises were common in the publishing business (think Gissing's New Grub Street).

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