Friday, March 30, 2012

The Raven Series as a Whole

A little while ago, with the publication of Raven 15: The Splendid Olympian, we came to the end of our  five and a half year publishing project, the Raven series of monographs. At the head of each edition there were 12 casebound copies which, when we started, seemed like a perfectly sensible number. However, it soon became clear that demand for the special state was going to outstrip supply but we took the decision to keep the number at 12. As a consequence I think you are looking at one of only 3 complete sets in the world: I have a set, the author also and one particularly assiduous and lucky collector. I say, 'I think' because from time to time copies have been in the hands of dealers and so I can't be 100% sure to whom some of these books were finally sent. Anyway, as I am painfully aware of how out of date and in need of an overhaul my website is, I thought this might be a good time to run through all fifteen Ravens, making sure to mention whether, as of this date, they are out of print or not. Please be aware that when a title is marked as having a few copies available still, that may mean, in some instances, just two. So, here is the original blurb for each publication:

Raven 1: The Quest For Cockerton
Since the original publication of The Venice Letters by Frederick Rolfe some forty years ago, the identity of the man referred to only as Cockerton or Cocker, who travelled to Venice with Charles Masson Fox for their fateful meeting with Rolfe, has remained a mystery which has stumped all of Rolfe’s biographers. The Quest for Cockerton tells the story of a brilliant piece of detective work by the Corvine scholar Robert Scoble, who has followed leads all over the world to track down this elusive character. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 2: Alfred James Rolfe: The Real Sebastian Archer
The protagonist of Rolfe's novel of Venice, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, is a struggling writer named Nicholas Crabbe,whose tribulations mirror those suffered by Rolfe himself in that sparkling city. Crabbe is eventually saved from his troubles by an unexpectedly generous offer from his publishers for a novel he has been writing, entitled Sebastian Archer. The Corvine scholar Robert Scoble has tracked down the real person upon whom the hero of Sebastian Archer was based - Frederick Rolfe's younger brother, Alfred. In a life full of incident, Alfred spent his childhood at a prestigious London school, emigrated at an early age, met with misfortune in the Australian outback, but ultimately carved out a successful career nurtured by a happy marriage. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 3: The Lost Borgiada
The Lost Borgiada, turns the spotlight directly upon Rolfe himself, describing how a simple workaday commission to write a book on the Borgia family was turned by him into an obsession. As he researched and wrote, he began to identify with the Borgia Pope Alexander VI and with his wayward children. Rolfe became convinced that, like himself, the Borgias had been execrated and condemned unfairly. When his book was published it attracted little interest, but Rolfe's obsession continued to absorb him. He spent the following few years creating a massive genealogical wall chart, documenting the history and vicissitudes of the Borgia family from its twelfth century origins to the modern day. This multi-coloured chart, which Rolfe called the 'Borgiada', contained almost three hundred names, each meticulously numbered and many sporting tiny hand-painted coats of arms. The story of the chart's creation, of Rolfe's deluded attempts to sell it, and of its mysterious disappearance, is vividly told in this fast-paced narrative. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 4: Justus Stephen Serjeant
Frederick Rolfe's final five years were spent in Venice. Halfway through that time, when his fortunes seemed to have reached their nadir, a nondescript Anglican clergyman arrived in the city on a holiday and walked into his life. The Reverend Serjeant was a somewhat colourless and unprepossessing man, and Corvine scholars have long been puzzled as to why he should have found Rolfe so impressive as to agree, after a short acquaintance, to bankroll his writing career. Now, at last, the clergyman's life has been thoroughly researched, and his full story can see the light of day. Ensconced, by his own choice, in a lucrative but stultifying country parish, Serjeant travelled alone on the Continent for many weeks of each year, in search of adventure and good cheer. When he met Rolfe, he found they had much in common. Rolfe proved an enthusiastic and entertaining guide to the artistic wonders and carefree inhabitants of the city, and Serjeant's judgement began to cloud in the drowsiness of that Edwardian summer. The story of his hitherto uneventful life, and the circumstances surrounding his patronage of the eccentric writer, are engagingly told in this charming addition to our Series. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 5: Rolfe the Jacobite
This latest volume in the Raven Series on the life and work of Frederick Rolfe, 'Baron Corvo', examines his lifelong enthusiasm for the Jacobites. Having embraced the Catholic religion in his mid-twenties, Rolfe lived in Scotland through the next several formative years, and did not need much persuading to support the cause of the Stuarts, who had lost their throne because of the fear that they were planning to restore Catholicism as the preeminent religion in England. Throughout his life, Rolfe was drawn to historical figures who had been rejected, disenfranchised and treated unjustly both by their contemporaries and by later historians. The story of the Stuart Pretenders, and their attempts to regain their throne, is a romantic and colourful one, with martyrs such as Charles I and Mary Queen of Scots in starring roles, and Rolfe did not hesitate to weave it through his own novels and essays. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 6: The Ruin of the O'Sullivans
A few years before the outbreak of the First World War, one of the most prominent business families in the United States was comprehensively ruined when its head suddenly engaged in some spectacularly inopportune trading on the coffee market. Percy O'Sullivan was still only 39 and had been for several years at the apogee of his career as President of the New York Coffee Exchange when he made his incomprehensible mistake. What his business colleagues - and perhaps even he himself - did not know was that Percy had been portrayed a few years before as one of the principal characters in the great novel Hadrian the Seventh. When Percy was a boy, his Irish-American millionaire father had sent him and his brother Vincent, later to achieve enduring fame as a fin de siecle poet and short story writer, to be schooled at St Mary's College at Oscott in England. The two brothers had spent a good deal of their time with the Oscott seminarian and part-time teacher Frederick Rolfe. Although he never saw the brothers again, Rolfe never forgot the prepossessing Percy, whom he decided to immortalise in his most famous book. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 7: The Constant Family
Frederick Rolfe was in the habit of exciting the sympathy of any new acquaintance by mentioning that he had been ostracised by his family. His story would usually be that his parents' strict Protestant sensibilities had been offended by his decision to become a Catholic. The Catholics who heard his story were moved to help him in any way they could, and even some Protestants were inclined to feel he had been treated harshly. The reality was entirely different. Rolfe grew up in a loving environment, and his parents were unfailingly supportive of him. Even after his death, his family defended him against public assaults upon his reputation. Uneasy at the prospect that he might be portrayed unsympathetically or with insufficient nuance, they did what they could to convince prospective biographers to produce balanced, unsensational accounts of his life. Robert Scoble's latest monograph in this series contains a considerable amount of new biographical detail on Rolfe's siblings. This is complemented by a table setting out the full genealogical details of his immediate family. A brace of previously unpublished letters is quoted at some length, to demonstrate that, insofar as there did occur temporary estrangements from his family, these were of Rolfe's own choosing and often resulted from their well-meaning attempts to help and advise him. A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 8: A Duchess and Her Past
When Frederick Rolfe was expelled from the Scots College in Rome in May 1890, he turned for help to the members of the Sforza Cesarini family, from whom he felt sure of a sympathetic hearing. The elderly Dowager Duchess Sforza Cesarini did not hesitate. She immediately invited him to spend the summer as her guest at the family's magnificent palazzo south of the city. The following six months in idyllic Genzano were crucially important to Rolfe's development as a writer, and gave him a lasting insight into Italian history and character. While his psychological wounds were being dressed, he was finding inspiration for the extraordinary books he was soon to write. This is the first biographical sketch ever written about the feisty duchess. It is only when we know the circumstances of her eventful life that we begin to understand why she felt such an immediate sympathy for Rolfe. Herself an Englishwoman, and like Rolfe a convert to Catholicism, she had been born illegitimately, and had faced an uncertain future before she met her future husband, a rich Italian aristocrat whose early life had been as checkered as her own. Together they played a not inconsiderable role in the fight for Italian unification, and the duchess's husband and son were both appointed to the Italian Senate. By the time she met Rolfe she was a rich and lonely old widow, with a history of standing up to the church authorities. OUT OF PRINT

Raven 9: A Genius for Inaccuracy
When in the early months of 1903 Frederick Rolfe decided to seek financial help from the Royal Literary Fund, he was unaware that the most influential of the Fund's committee members was determined to thwart him. Edmund Gosse was one of England's foremost men of letters, despite his reputation for literary criticism which was distinctly careless with the facts. At times his mistakes were so egregious that Henry James was moved to lament Gosse's 'genius for inaccuracy'. When Rolfe's case came before the committee, Gosse urged its rejection, embroidering his remarks with gratuitous exaggerations. He was a man used to getting his own way, and having come to the view that Rolfe was undeserving, he took his 'genius for inaccuracy' to the Committee table and ensured that Rolfe's long struggle against dire poverty would continue. The inside story of this cruel reverse is here told for the first time, using holograph letters newly discovered in several great libraries and in the archives of the Royal Literary Fund itself. A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 10: The Crab and the Moon
In late 1899 and well into 1900, Frederick Rolfe worked for most of every day in the great circular Reading Room at the British Museum, researching his book on the Borgia family. One of his fellow researchers was the Museum's recently-retired Keeper of Printed Books, Richard Garnett, also working on the Borgia. The two men had several conversations about their common interest in Renaissance Italy. Rolfe will have been intrigued to discover that, while in his public life Garnett had reached the very pinnacle of Victorian respectability, in his private moments he pursued an activity which was in technical breach of the law. He was an astrologer. For the first forty years of his life, Rolfe had little interest in astrology, but it is noticeable that the two novels on which he worked most strenuously after meeting Garnett, Hadrian the Seventh and Nicholas Crabbe, are studded with astrological references. Born under the sign of Cancer, the Crab, and 'ruled' by the Moon, Rolfe began to refer in his correspondence to his crab-like characteristics, and to find in astrology a fertile source of powerful symbolism. This latest addition to the Raven Series traces the trajectory of Rolfe's interest in astrology, and elucidates the many astrological references in his published work. It analyses Rolfe's own natal chart, showing how he would have been tempted to see in it a foreshadowing of his life's vicissitudes. A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 11: Cigars and Tree Carvings
Over the two decades of Frederick Rolfe's adult life prior to his embrace of writing as his profession, such salaries as he was able to earn came principally from teaching, first as an under-master in a succession of schools, and later as a tutor to private pupils. Rolfe was an intelligent man, with an absorbent mind and a surprising range of practical accomplishments. He was musically proficient, fond of the outdoors, and a watchful student of human behaviour. These attributes, combined with his inexhaustible resourcefulness in proposing and planning new entertainments and iconoclastic topics of conversation, made him a memorable teacher. This latest addition to the Raven Series traces the stories of three of Rolfe's pupils: Lawrence Grant, later to achieve a measure of fame as a Hollywood character actor; Malcolm Hay, who went on to contribute importantly to British intelligence in World War I; and Leo Schwarz, future pillar of the Catholic community and papal knight. Each of these three left a detailed account of their time with Rolfe, recalling happy memories of him, and from their fascinating stories an aspect of his personality emerges which has largely been missed by his biographers: his skill as a stimulating and confident teacher. A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 12: The Pedestrian Uncle
One of the more puzzling aspects of the way Frederick Rolfe related to others was his compulsion to embroider what he told them of the details of his life, hinting at his colourful antecedents and record of impressive accomplishment. The family into which he was born was in fact entirely respectable and worthy, but its very ordinariness seems to have dissatisfied him, and he constantly sought to represent his earlier life as having been more interesting and remarkable than it actually was. In his latest addition to the Raven Series, Robert Scoble reveals that Rolfe had an uncle who was an even more accomplished fantasist than he was. William Henry Patten Saunders had been married to Rolfe's Aunt Augusta, but by the time of Rolfe's childhood had embarrassed the family so irretrievably that his name was no longer mentioned among them. 'Captain' Patten Saunders, as he took to calling himself, was one of the most accomplished impostors of the Victorian era, convincing the newspapers that he was a renowned scholar, decorated soldier and champion athlete. These claims were ultimately exposed in the press as utterly bogus and fanciful, but the Captain was undeterred, moving seamlessly on to further preposterous impersonations. Successive biographers, unaware of Patten Saunders's existence, have missed his part in Frederick Rolfe's story. Like his uncle, Rolfe turned to fiction as a part answer to the wounding injustice of a scathing press exposure, and it is tempting to speculate that it was from the Captain's life story that young Frederick learnt the power of public relations and the advantages to be gained from exaggerating his accomplishments.  A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 13: The Family Business
A J A Symons, Frederick Rolfe's most influential biographer, had no interest whatsoever in music, and this accounts for his failure, in his book The Quest for Corvo, to acknowledge the role of music in Rolfe’s life. The fact was that, like all his siblings, Frederick Rolfe had grown up surrounded by music. His father James, the manager of the family piano business William Rolfe & Sons, lived above the company's office at 61 Cheapside, played the organ at St Mildred’s in Bread Street, and taught his first two sons, Frederick and Herbert, to play both the organ and the piano. When he was a young schoolmaster, Frederick trained boy choirs and performed in amateur concerts, and several of his students later recalled his proficiency in music. Over the course of the 1890s, however, he began to lose interest in playing the piano. He no longer had classes to teach or performances to give in public, and it is probable that he gave up practising with any regularity. Meanwhile, the family piano business had been in precipitate decline, and James Rolfe had been reduced to tuning pianos for a living. After his death in 1902, his son abandoned music altogether and made writing his overwhelming priority. He was proud of his family’s musical heritage, but it was not what he wished to be remembered for. A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 14: The Artist and the Scholar
It was Frederick Rolfe's good fortune to find himself invited to accompany the archaeologist Richard MacGillivray Dawkins in the summer of 1908 on a trip to Venice. Dawkins was intelligent, good-natured and equanimous, and it would have been a great advantage to Rolfe had he cultivated this new friendship in the conventional way. True to form, however, Rolfe squandered the opportunity, quarrelling with Dawkins and subjecting him over the next few years to a barrage of insulting letters. With the publication in 1934 of A J A Symons’s The Quest for Corvo, the more disreputable aspects of Rolfe’s life became public knowledge, and Dawkins came under pressure to explain his friendship with Rolfe and his bankrolling of their trip to Venice. This he did by emphasising Rolfe’s charming and unusual personality, hinting that he had had to terminate the friendship when he realised Rolfe’s propensity for unseemly behaviour. Subsequent commentators, including Rolfe’s several biographers, have reinforced this narrative. Rolfe has been portrayed as grasping and ungrateful, with Dawkins as his kindly and long-suffering victim. This telling of only half the story, with its homosexual subtext downplayed, does a disservice to Rolfe. In this penultimate addition to the Raven Series, Robert Scoble describes the trajectory of the short-lived friendship between Rolfe and Dawkins, a friendship unable to survive the incompatibility of their temperaments.  A FEW STILL AVAILABLE

Raven 15: The Spendid Olympian
In a letter from Venice to Charles Masson Fox, written in late 1909, Frederick Rolfe describes a casual conversation in the street with a seventeen-year-old youth on the staff of the Bucintoro Club. Rolfe has seen him working at the rowing club, but does not yet know his name, so refers to him in the letter as ‘the Corfiote Greek Jew.’ The young man pops up only a few more times in the correspondence, so previous scholars have taken no note of him. True to form, however, Rolfe has left us several clues which, when pieced together, identify his importunate young interlocutor as none other than Giorgio Cesana, who remains to this day Italy’s youngest-ever Olympic gold medallist. Born into a Levantine Sephardi Jewish family which had emigrated from Corfu around the time the island had been transferred from Britain to Greece, the boy had grown up in Venice's Ghetto district and at the age of thirteen been chosen to cox the Bucintoro's crews at the Olympic Games. Winner of three gold medals, Giorgio soon found that his celebrity was destined to fade, and although the Bucintoro initially gave him a job in some menial capacity, history gradually lost sight of him.  In this final essay in the Raven Series, Robert Scoble brings Giorgio Cesana back from obscurity. He describes a young man with an exuberant and playful personality, whose antics as Rolfe's assistant gondolier endeared him to one of the most original writers to have graced the canals of Venice, and ensured him a tiny but immortal place in the literary history of that enchanting city. A FEW STILL AVAILABLE


Nicolas McD said...

Fantastic achievement, my dear Calum.

For your next trick?


J said...

They certainly look fine, standing on the shelf together. Kudos to you and Mr Scoble!

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