Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE CORVO CULT by Robert Scoble

Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled (for a time) "Baron Corvo," lived from 1860 to 1913 and published a  handful of unusual books that did not sell well but which found some fervid devotees. Aspects of his life and experiences frequently tower over his literary work. And over the years there have been three full-length biographies concentrating more on the man than on his writings--the first being A.J.A. Symons's The Quest for Corvo (1934), an "experiment in biography" (as its subtitle states) which is more a detective-story quest for information than a straightforward biography.  This first biography was followed by Donald Weeks's Corvo: Saint or Madman? (1971) and Miriam J. Benkovitz's Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo (1977). Last year, Strange Attractor Press published Robert Scoble's Raven: The Turbulent World of Baron Corvo (2013), which is not a full biography but a collection of fifteen essays on various aspects of Corvo's life.

Now, also from Strange Attractor Press, comes Robert Scoble's The Corvo Cult: The History of an Obsession (2014), which tells the story of Rolfe and his followers from the very beginning to the present. A wonderful volume that fills in the blanks and backgrounds of the earliest Corvines to those of the present day. These people include Hugh Benson, the publishers John Lane and Grant Richards, all three biographers, as well as significant associates such as publisher and bibliographer Cecil Woolf, Brocard Sewell, and many others.  It wouldn't have occurred to me beforehand that this was a book we need, but very quickly after I started reading it I realized how wonderfully it pulls together all the threads of previous interest in Corvo, and puts them in a fascinating context.  I'd call it a thoroughly brilliant book, save for some serious missteps at the beginning of the final chapter, "The Anatomy of a Cult," which attempts to generalize about literary cults and reputations. (Scoble is excellent with details, but not with erratically defined generalizations.)

Basically this book is the history of a small elite literary fandom. I expect we'll see more books like this in the future.


  1. I enjoyed Scoble's recent Corvine contribution. I have to admit I find it both funny and frustrating that those who seem to write about Corvo appear more interested in the writer than his work. Based on this book, it seems the same could be said about Rolfe's collectors as well. It would really be nice to read a critical analysis of his work. Scoble, for example, suggests that Rolfe might be less decadent and more (pre) modernist in style, but doesn't really delve into it in either of his books. Anyway, thanks for posting your thoughts!

  2. In Rolfe's case, it seems to be rather more difficult than usual to separate the life from the work, but I agree that there should be more focus on the writing because too much criticism of Rolfe seems to reflect an uncritical acceptance of "the biographical fallacy".
    Nevertheless, Scoble's book is very readable and much fun even if it is sometimes repetitious and reads like a collection of essays rather than a coherent project.

  3. Rolfe's writing is, more often than not, a mirror of his life and relationships. Biographies of Rolfe are essential to understanding his fiction, as almost all of his characters are firmly based upon an actual person in his life. I first tried to tackle his work without this background information, "Hadrian the Seventh", I think. It was a slog to say the least. After reading all I could about his life, Rolfe's fiction was not only more comprehensible, but much more enjoyable. In terms of Corvine biographies, I think that Miriam Benkovitz's work is superior. "The Quest for Corvo" is fantastic and tantalizing, but far less revealing. Sadly, Donald Weeks seemed unable to fully separate himself from his obsession for the sake of articulation.