A Catholic Reject
He enrolled at St Mary's College, Oscott, near Birmingham. Within a year, however, he was rejected. He was told there was no “unanimous verdict of the superiors in favour of his vocation."
Within two years, however, he was in the Scots College in Rome. Again studying to be a priest.
After just four months the Rector told him to leave. He refused. The Rector relented.
Another four months. The Rector again told him to leave. He refused. The Rector relented. For one month.
This time the Rector did not relent. Nightfall while he was still in bed the college servants lifted him up, mattress, blanket and all and dumped him on the street outside the college.
Somehow there's always an oddball. And Frederick Rolfe is probably the biggest Catholic oddball there has ever been. And that includes Dame Edith Sitwell, Wilfred Scawen Blunt and What’s the name of that cookery writer?
School teacher. Photographer. Painter. Poet. Writer. Pederast. Pimp. Paranoiac. Failed priest. Obsessive. For all that, Rolfe or rather Frederick Austin, AW Riter, Al Siddik, Franz Wilhem V Bracht, Frederick of Venice, Uriele de Ricordi, Baron Corvo and Fr Rolfe deserve to be remembered.
Some say when he died they should have thrown away the mould. I reckon they should have thrown away the mould before he was born. For, give or take a couple of minutes, he was having a Turkish, mugging people off, causing nothing but trouble from the moment he glowered through his squinty little eyes to the moment he slammed them shut again. Both for himself and for others.
Even though he probably regretted it all his life, Rolfe was born on July 22 1860 at 61 Cheapside on the corner with Bow Lane in the City of London, which today is – Irony of glorious ironies – a bookshop. His father and his father before him made and built pianos. Rolfe, however, had no sooner taken his first breath than the business started heading south. Or, rather, west. They moved from Cheapside to Great Marlborough Street in the West End. His father got a job as a salesman. But he was to sales what Bach was to playing the electric guitar. Useless. As the family increased in numbers things just got worse and worse and worse.
So did Rolfe.
His brother, Herbert, maintained he was always eccentric from early youth. Eccentric! He was totally OTT. He started a life totally dedicated to nothing but pie-ing, annoying people big time. At fourteen he had a cross tattooed on his chest. He declared he had a ‘Divine gift’ to be a priest. He started saying the rosary practically non-stop. He read The Garden of the Soul, Bishop Richard Challoner’s spiritual hit of the 18th Century for Christians aspiring to better things, again and again and again. He also, he admitted later, started sitting or kneeling “alone in the dark before the Most Holy” saying “quietly and quickly, Dear Jesus be not to me a Judge but a Saviour sometimes hundreds of times until he gives me relief.”
Then suddenly the thought struck him.
“At twenty-five I suddenly realised that, if it was ‘priesthood' I was after, I was on the wrong road” he said. “The Church of England-As-By-Law-Established had nothing of the sort to offer me, for she had nothing to do with Peter and Peter had the key."
We have a lot to blame on Grantham, Lincolnshire. Isaac Newton. Mrs Thatcher. But maybe worst of all, it was where on January 3 1886 Rolfe crushed it or, rather, succeeded. He was received into the church by Father Parkinson. A Jesuit.
Before the end of the month he had been confirmed by Cardinal Manning in his private chapel at the Archbishop's Palace, Westminster. Or, at least that's what he told everyone.
Being ordained was not so easy. He enrolled at St Mary's College, Oscott, near Birmingham on October 29 1887 although he had already been calling himself Rev Fr Rolfe for many years. Within a year, however, he was out. He was told there was no “unanimous verdict of the superiors in favour of his vocation."
Rolfe went spare. Which, of course, proved the superiors' point of view.
Within two years, however, having published a number of poems including one somewhat suspiciously titled, Ballade of Boys Bathing, he was in the Scots College in Rome. Again studying to be a priest. But his stay there was to be even shorter.
After just four months the Rector told him to leave. He refused. The Rector relented. Another four months. The Rector again told him to leave. He refused. The Rector relented. One month. This time he did not relent. Nightfall May 3 1890 while Rolfe was still in bed the college servants lifted him up, mattress, blanket and all and deposited him on the street outside the college.
Rolfe was not only homeless, he was also penniless. So it continued for virtually the rest of his life. Whatever he attempted, he failed. Even his weird inadequate's would be autobiographical embarrassing, toe-curling, wish-fulfilling, fantasy novel Hadrian the Seventh, in which he imagined he has been appointed the first English Pope since Adrian IV to clean up the Catholic Church, disappeared without trace. No reviews. Nothing. The publishers, Chatto and Windus decided it wasn't even worthwhile publishing a cheap six-penny edition. Which, of course, Rolfe blamed on mysterious elements operating secretly within the Church. Especially when he discovered Chatto and Windus also published books by Archbishop Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, his one-time patron.
Read Hadrian the Seventh today, you can only wonder why they published it in the first place. Apart from a few odd phrases, there's no real plot, no colour, no twists and turns. It's just a totally improbable story of one man’s revenge. I can only imagine the publisher at the time was also a failed priest who also wanted to put the knife in or who felt that reading it would be a suitable penance for anyone guilty of the sin of presumption.
Rolfe was now firmly set on the downward path. He got involved in all kinds of nonsense, even the founding of a semi-monastic Order of Sanctissima Sophia. He wrote a string of unpublished books. Who hasn’t? He was involved in no end of fights, rows and failed court cases. He scrounged. Wherever he went he outstayed his welcome. Worst of all he never had any money. What money he did have he borrowed and never repaid. But it wasn't his fault. All the time he was obsessed with the fact the Catholic Church had nothing better to do than to hunt him down and destroy him.
In 1908 Rolfe was staying on the fourth floor of the Hotel Belle Vue et de Russie in Venice overlooking St Mark's with Richard Dawkin, Director of the British School of Archaeology in Athens. Originally the plan had been for Rolfe to repay Dawkin for the costs of the trip by taking and selling photographs wherever they went. But it all fell through. After a couple of weeks Dawkin left. Rolfe was on his own. He did what he always did in the circumstances. He continued to write, spend money he didn't have, scrounge and lose friends. He slept in the street, on boats, in empty houses, in borrowed flats. He lived on nothing
On March 8 1909 he wrote to Harry Pirie-Gordon, his only life-long friend who had bailed him out many times before, “I have not slept in a bed or changed my clothes for 15 nights.... In this fortnight I have had 5 lunches, 2 dinners, 3 breakfasts and 8 afternoon teas only. I have been 39 hours with nothing whatsoever to eat or drink.”
Pirie-Gordon told him to get a job.
“How can I get a job,” Rolfe replied, “in tatters and slippers and no pocket handkerchiefs?”
He contracted pneumonia. He was admitted to the local English hospital. He recovered. Somehow he managed to survive. He continued to write. Usually short stories. But was always paid far less than he thought he was worth. He bought himself a gondola. He took it out for a spin along the canals. He wrecked it. He couldn't afford to repair it.
On October 25 1913 he went out for dinner. A cheap dinner. The following day he was found dead in his room. He had collapsed and died of what the inquest said was "heart paralysis.' He was buried in the local cemetery.
Poor Frederick Austin, AW Riter, Al Siddik, Franz Wilhem V Bracht, Frederick of Venice, Uriele de Ricordi, Baron Corvo and Fr Rolfe. Throughout his life he had succeeded only in one thing: Rejection.