RogerBW's Blog

Hadrian the Seventh, Frederick Rolfe 22 September 2021

1904 revenge-fiction. They laughed at George Arthur Rose at the seminary, but now he'll show them – he'll show them all!

So well yes. This is a profoundly strange book by rather a strange man. A failed candidate for the priesthood, denied his vocation by the machinations of the Roman Catholic system, is admitted after all… and becomes Pope… and sets the world to rights.

This is also a book quite devoid of sympathetic characters. Rolfe clearly thinks he has written Good People and Bad People, but one has met his Good People, particularly his self-insert Rose, the man who knows in his bones that he is cleverer and better than anybody else and has never thought to hide this opinion, then wonders why the world's hand is turned against him (which is the only possible reason for his lack of success).

But Rose as Hadrian has something Rolfe lacked throughout his life, the authority to make people pay attention to him, and of course that is all it takes for them to realise what a wonderful person he is and Right about everything. Unless they are Evil.

As the Kaiser approached Him, He took the imperial hand and shook it in the glad-to-see-you-but-keep-off English fashion. Spring-dumb-bells had given the Pope a grip like a vice and an arm like a steel piston-rod. The Emperor blinked once.

(Rolfe liked to style himself "Fr. Rolfe" in the hope people might mistake him for a priest; and "Baron Corvo" on the unevidenced claim of a late adoption by the Duchess Sforza Cesarini, who was safely dead by the time this came out. In his favour can be said that he apparently didn't prey on the children he instructed; he preferred older teenage boys.)

Socialists, of course, are Evil, and that means anyone in favour of anything less than absolute monarchy. (Kaiser Wilhelm II is definitely one of the good guys here.) Rolfe is full of the petty suburban jealousies of a man who just didn't get the breaks but it was always someone else's fault, and he excoriates everyone who didn't give Rose a chance – i.e. everyone.

They, the nations all were tumbling over one another in their eagerness to re-arrange themselves upon the pattern which He had devised for them.

Rolfe's writing style is oddly dry, perhaps a reaction to fin-de-siècle flourish and ornamentation; but he'd much rather use a obscure word that doesn't have quite the meaning he clearly wants than one that would be readily understood.

It's much more fun in the summary than in the 120,000 words.

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  1. Posted by J Michael Cule at 11:32am on 22 September 2021

    Is he capitalising himself?

    Because usually they only refer to God the Father or God the Son as 'He'.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 11:39am on 22 September 2021

    He capitalises Himself as Pope, though not as mere George Rose.

  3. Posted by Rand Brittain at 01:30am on 23 September 2021

    There's something that always gets to me when I look at a piece of writing from the early twentieth century and realize "wow, I've met this guy on the Internet dozens of times."

    I first got it when reading George Bernard Shaw's "The Perfect Wagnerite" and got to the bit where he announces that the fourth opera in the cycle is completely devoid of meaning and can be safely ignored, since it doesn't fit into his elaborate theory of how the Ring Cycle is about economics.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:45am on 23 September 2021

    People, eh? Have 'em all out and turn it over to the woodlice.

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