Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Most Corvine Book...?

I have been reminded recently that normal people, without the same compulsive interest in the novelist Frederick Rolfe, have no good reason to know, to what the term Corvine refers. In short, Frederick Rolfe was given, or took for himself, depending on who you ask, the title Baron Corvo and very definitely took for himself the personal totem of a Raven or Corvus Corax in Latin: hence the term Corvine is given to those who have become obsessed interested by his life and work. Why Corvines and not Rolfeans? - apart from the complete infelicity of the latter upon the ear - I suggest that Rolfe has often been the subject of posthumous attack and ridicule and much of that was hung on the hook of the supposedly spurious nature of the Barony he claimed: to call oneself a Corvine perhaps began as a gesture of support against detractors...

So I am drawn to wonder, is this the most Corvine book of all time? This is the dedication copy of The Quest for Corvo by A. J. A. Symons, himself one of the very first Corvines. Despite its many failings, The Quest for Corvo was the book that catapulted Rolfe into public awareness in the 1930s and its subtitle 'An Experiment in Biography' was given because of the documentary style of the narrative. It told the story of Symons's detective-work to find the man behind the exotic and in some cases outrageous writings that he had been handed by the equally exotic and outrageous Maundy Gregory in a London Gentleman's club.

Symons dedicated the book, in print, to Shane Leslie. This was largely because Leslie was the first person to publish a short biographical sketch of Rolfe and had, himself been thinking of writing the first full-length biography. Symons with his industry and obsession very quickly overpowered him in the research stakes and a classic battle of the biographers was averted when Leslie wisely, if not entirely happily, stepped aside. The effusive inscription in Symons's best calligraphic hand in this copy perhaps reflects a little of this history being put to bed on the publication of Symons's masterpiece.

So, having inscribed the book and given it to Leslie , the dedicatee of course puts his own ex-libris plate in it and his smaller label thus:

"Ex libris
This volume that you borrowed, bought or took
Is mine while I am living;
But dead I mind not giving
My blessing to the keeper of my book.

For about thirty years it remained quietly among the books of Shane Leslie's extensive library until in 1966, like an Olympic torch, it was passed once more, again to an appropriate bearer. According to a letter laid into the book, Leslie now passed the book to the legendary collector Donald Weeks, perhaps the most obsessive of all Corvines and also a biographer of Rolfe. In the letter Leslie describes this as the "no. one Quest for Corvo" and whilst he is fulsome in his praise for Weeks's collection, calling it "peerless" (which was certainly true at the time), there is also no question that this was a straightforward gift - it is clear that Leslie expects to be paid a sum of money for it.

We have heard before about Donald Weeks's collection on this blog and I don't intend to rehash the whole story again of how the collection was nearly lost, then part lost and then found again. Suffice it to say that after passing through a number of different hands after Weeks's death, this busy little copy of the book has now found its rest, tucked peacefully into the holdings of the Brotherton Library in Leeds alongside so much other Corvine material.

1 comment:

J said...

Are there normal people reading this blog? Who let them in?

Who links to my website?