Thursday, February 23, 2012

Don Tarquinio by Frederick Rolfe: An Unpublished Manuscript

A lot of Corvines (that is, followers of the cult of Frederick Rolfe Baron Corvo) are enamoured of his romans a clef, the great threesome Hadrian the Seventh, Nicholas Crabbe, and The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. There is something of a tendency to be a little sniffy about Rolfe's 'historical' novels, the two Dons, Don Renato and Don Tarquinio, and Hubert's Arthur (so few people, Corvine or otherwise have ever read The Weird of the Wanderer that it's hardly worth mentioning in this context). But I have a contrary nature and I am, on the whole much more drawn to the historical novels and, in particular, feel that Don Tarquinio is somewhat neglected. It is the tale of a day in the life of a Renaissance "man of fashion" and there's no getting away from the fact that it is slightly bonkers: stuffed to within an inch of its velvet doublet with neologisms, arcane and often apocryphal details, and beautiful young men. It is written with such energy and sheer joie de vivre that I can't help loving it all the same.

The published version has Rolfe introduce the story from the present day as himself, claiming that the bulk of the novel is, in fact, his translation of a medieval manuscript. This is a device he uses a number of times in various novels. However, worried that his publisher might think the whole thing just a little too arcane, he also created a second version of the novel. This, as he wrote to his brother Herbert, the dedicatee, was written in the voice of "an entirely modern rather slangy story-teller". Rolfe submitted both versions to Chatto and, himself, preferred the second. However, Chatto had already accepted the first and that was the version that was published. The manuscript, hand-wrriten and bound in cream cloth and decorated on the upper cover with an image and lettering in black ink (above), was returned to Rolfe and he then gave it to Herbert. The decoration on the front cover of this MS contains a version of the image which was eventually used on the published version. The main difference is that, in the hand drawn cover you can see at the top right of the insert illustration of the boy on the battlements, a bird in the sky. This would certainly have been intended to be a Raven which is how Rolfe signed his artwork.

Somehow, possibly through the intermediary of A. J. A. Symons, this unpublished manuscript ended up in the collection of Donald Weeks. and in 1987 it was offered for sale at Sotheby's. It was to have been one of the stars of a particularly starry sale, estimated at 50,000-70,000 GBP. According to the prices realised list for that auction, it failed to sell. However, at some point after that it was bought by Fay and Geoffrey Elliot and eventually was donated by them in 2002 to the Brotherton Library at Leeds University where it resides today and where it was eventually joined just a couple of years ago by the bulk of the rest of Weeks's collection.

The published version is a genuine romp with lots of truly Corvine flourishes and makes a great introduction to Rolfe's work. The Phoenix Library edition (below) published by Chatto in the 1920s is still cheaply and widely available.


Cecil Woolf said...

Had Callum asked me how Don Weeks came to own the beautiful holograph manuscript of Don Tarquinio, I could have enlightened him. It was I, in my earlier incarnation as an antiquarian bookseller more than half a century ago, who tracked down this gem to a niece of Frederick William Rolfe, and sold it to Weeks. I might also mention, by way of post script, that the price this ungrateful collector paid me was a mere fraction of the 50,000-70,000GBP that Callum refers to Weeks hoping to receive when it was subsequently offered for sale at auction.
Incidentally, looking at Maggs Bros' fine Catalogue of Weeks's Corvo treasures, I reckon that I had the pleasure of finding and
supplying more than half the collection.
Cecil Woolf

Callum said...

Hi Cecil,

Thank you for dropping by and welcome to the blog. Thank you also for clearing up the blank spot in the published history of that MS.

Given that it failed to sell at Sotheby's I would imagine, though I don't know, that the actual price paid probably was still a fraction of the estimate.

Best wishes,


J said...

My copy is the Chatto "Landmark Library" edition fromm 1969, with a nice purple dust jacket (art by Mozley). I don't suppose this DON T. ever might be published as an alternate version...

It's a pleasure to be posting in the same Corvo thread as Mr Woolf! ;-)

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