The 100 best novels: #37 – Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe

Frederick Rolfe, who also styled himself "Baron Corvo" (and sometimes gave his full name as Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe), is one of the strangest fish in the exotic aquarium of Edwardian literature. His masterpiece, Hadrian the Seventh, is both a book of its epoch – orchidaceous, eccentric and weirdly obsessive, some would say mad – as well as being, in DH Lawrence's summary, "the book of a man-demon".

Rolfe (pronounced "roaf") was born in London in 1860, the son of a piano manufacturer. He grew up, a homosexual with paedophile instincts, in the hot-house cultural climate that nurtured many late-Victorian literary men, notably Oscar Wilde and the Aubrey Beardsley of The Yellow Book, as well as Edwardians such as HH Munro ("Saki") and Max Beerbohm.

For 10 years, Rolfe was a provincial schoolmaster and would-be Roman Catholic priest. His conversion to Rome in 1886 proved abortive and frustrating. His awkward personality and angry tongue blighted his adult life and led to his dismissal from the priesthood not once but twice. Thereafter, he drifted into a hand-to-mouth career as journalist, painter and photographer.

At the age of 40 he began to write seriously, living in near-penury for years while sustaining an eccentric lifestyle, wearing silver spectacles and glycerine gloves (in bed), while writing with a "magic" glass egg on his desk, and chain-smoking like a devil. Quarrelling with almost everyone, Rolfe ended up, in extremis, living on an open gondola in Venice, as he put it, "homeless and often starving... only keeping alive from fear of crabs and rats".

Hadrian the Seventh, Rolfe's first novel (sometimes attributed to the pseudonym Baron Corvo), is a "romance" that reflects its author's life and work. It tells the story of George Arthur Rose, a hack writer and minor priest, who, through bizarre but semi-plausible ecclesiastical vicissitudes, becomes elected Pope. "The previous English pontiff," he declares, "was Hadrian the Fourth. The present English pontiff is Hadrian the Seventh. It pleases us; and so, by Our own impulse, We command."

The new pope embarks on a programme of reform, but Hadrian's one-year reign comes to an end when he is assassinated by a pope-hating Scot, prefiguring the 1981 attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II.

The air of contrivance that permeates this entertaining fantasy extends to Rolfe's highly artificial vocabulary, which reminds me of Will Self's vivid verbal extravagance, in its use of words such as "snarp", "diaphotick", "noluntary", "tolutiloquent", "purrothrixine", "xanthine", and on the opening page "prooimion".

Rolfe's pope is as cussed, rococo and autodidactic as his author, praying in Greek, dabbling in astrology and smoking in office. He's described, at his death, as "an incomprehensible creature", and Rolfe concludes with a line that might be his own epitaph: "Pray for the repose of His soul. He was so tired."

Frederick Rolfe died suddenly in Venice on 25 October 1913.

A note on the text

Hadrian the Seventh was published in London by Chatto & Windus in 1904. (The first American edition appeared from Knopf in 1925.) The title page declared the book to be written by Fr. Rolfe, an abbreviation of the author's name that suggested he was a Roman Catholic priest.

This strange novel and even stranger author might have been forgotten but for the brilliant intervention of AJA Symons, whose "experiment in biography", Quest For Corvo (1934), helped to secure Rolfe's reputation. Corvo/Rolfe's severe creative paranoia was subsequently portrayed in The Unspeakable Skipton (1959), a novel by Pamela Hansford Johnson, and in 1968 in Peter Luke's hit stage play Hadrian VII, starring Alec McCowen. The theme of the starving writer finding authenticity in the forced asceticism of the garret is a sub-theme in this series. It also recurs in the work of George Orwell, notably in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, whose hero, Gordon Comstock, could have stepped from the pages of Rolfe's fiction, no questions asked.

Three more from Frederick Rolfe

Don Tarquinio (1905); The Weird of the Wanderer (1912); The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (published posthumously, 1934).
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