En busca del barón Corvo: the title on the book spine was both concise and mysterious enough for me to take the volume out of the shelf. Then, the back cover text would convince me of having found some kind of literary misfit, a cross between memoir, critical analysis, roman clef, biographical essay, and detective novel—a miracle performed by A.J.A. Symons. The copyright page would make clear that the original English title, The Quest for Corvo, had an alliterative ring to it that increased the appeal of the book. That was my introduction to the world of Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe (1860-1913), né Baron Corvo in his imagination.
In retrospect, one ascertains the network that ends up validating a meaningful discovery. The work of the Italian scholar Mario Praz was later on a confirmation of Baron Corvo’s prominence. He describes Rolfe in his La letteratura inglese as a “strange figure, an invert [invertito] and defrocked bohème” whose Hadrian the Seventh “had vented his vain desire for power and for revenge against his enemies” (278). In The Romantic Agony, Praz had written a similar capsule critique on The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole: “Round the Italian Renaissance there crystallized also the exotic aspirations of Frederick William Rolfe (Baron Corvo), author not only of the curious Chronicles of the House of Borgia (1901) but also of a novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (posthumously published in 1934), in which the peculiar sensibility of the writer finds an outlet” (475).
The Italian connection seems logical rather than fortuitous, given Rolfe’s love for the boot-shaped peninsula. In The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, Italy is the place where concord is possible, if only after many comings and goings. The main character, Nicholas Crabbe—who stands for Rolfe himself—, is a rancorous man in open rebellion against the Catholic Church. Chapter V is an exhaustive exercise in lashing out and self-vindication, by means of which the narrator intends to show the many virtues Crabbe claims to possess and the multiple injustices he’s suffered. It’s the portrait of someone who deserves better and is poised to get it, in spite of the schemes of many a malefactor. His honorability is rather uncommon: “It was quixotic, of course. But Nicholas Crabbe was of that complexion” (41-42).
The prior chapter introduced us to Falier Ermenegilda fu Bastian di Marin di Bastian di Marin. Long-winded though it may seem, that name embodies the noble ancestry of Zilda, the tomboyish girl who’d first be Crabbe’s devout servant and then his love interest. Nicholas rescued her from the ruins of a collapsed house in the earthquake-hit Calabrian coast. Zilda’s narrative makes clear that she’s the daughter, “through many generations, of the Doge of Venice and Dalmatia and Croatia, Hypatos and Protopedro and Protosebaste of Byzantion, Despot and Lord of A Quarter and Half of A Quarter of All the Roman Empire, who had a right to wear vermilion buskins” (25). The decline of Zilda’s family was due to political intrigue. These pages tell us a story of survival and grace, which don’t bow down to smugness, manoeuvring, or envy. In that sense, Rolfe gives us reasons to believe that Ermenegilda and Crabbe share the same traits, belong to the same lineage, beyond the facts of their biographies. They thus are incarnate pieces of a unique phenomenon and, in the end, of arresting love—“[h]alves, which had found each other, were joined and dissolved in each other as one” (298).
Zilda and Crabbe’s passion is complicated by the girl’s anatomy and manners: “She was a ‘sport,’ a freak of Nature who had made a very fine and noble sketch of a boy and failed to finish it” (46). The gender ambiguity of Zilda/Zildo, emphasized by Rolfe with the use of masculine pronouns when talking about her, is the core of their troubled relationship. Nicholas is aware of the literary background of his situation—for instance, the Shakespearean comedy of errors, the “Jacobean stage-craft” consisting in the use of boys disguised as girls. Yet such consciousness is of no help: this surrogate status reveals in Crabbe some sort of gay guilt. In the closing chapter, the mere assertion of a name, “Gilda!,” is enough to revert to a state of unmistakable bliss, after an anamnesis prompted by the sight of two punctures in the girl’s left arm—she’d donated blood to save Crabbe’s life.
Written in a Latinate English that reads like a macaronic version of Sir Thomas Browne and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Rolfe’s novel winds up as a baroque piece of concealment and discovery. The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole is, as A.J.A. Symons said, “an astonishing book, a characteristic product of its author’s genius” (xvi).
Praz, Mario. La letteratura inglese. Vol. II. Firenze e Milano: Sansoni/Edizioni Accademia, 1967.
---. The Romantic Agony. Trans. Angus Davidson. London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1951.
Rolfe, Frederick (Baron Corvo). The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.