Frederick Rolfe

British writer, photographer and historian (1860-1913)

Frederick William Rolfe (22 July 1860 – 25 October 1913) was an English novelist, short-story writer, eccentric, and would-be Roman Catholic priest. He preferred to be known either as Father Rolfe or as Baron Corvo.


  • It's all nonsense to say that the Fifteenth Century can't possibly speak to the Twentieth, because it is the Fifteenth and not the Twentieth, and because those two Centuries haven't got a Common Denominator. They have. It's Human Nature.
    • Don Tarquinio (1905; repr. London: Chatto and Windus, 1941), Prologue, p. x

Quotations are cited from the Penguin Modern Classics edition (Harmondsworth, 1963).

  • Brisk and prompt to war, soft and not in the least able to resist calamity, fickle in catching at schemes, and always striving after novelties – French characteristics remained unaltered twenty centuries after Julius Caesar made a note of them for all time.
    • Prooimion, p. 58
  • He took the imperial hand and shook it in the glad-to-see-you-but-keep-off English fashion.
    • Ch. 13, p. 223
  • An appeal to a goodness which is not in him is, to a vain and sensitive soul, a stinging insult.
    • Ch. 19, p. 296
  • That cold white candent voice which was more caustic than silver nitrate and more thrilling than a scream.
    • Ch. 22, p. 335
  • Most people have only half developed their single personalities. That a man should split his into four and more; and should develop each separately and perfectly, was so abnormal that many normals failed to understand it.
    • Ch. 22, p. 343
  • Pray for the repose of His soul. He was so tired.
    • Ch. 24, p. 360


  • He seems to have been a serpent of serpents in the bosom of all the nineties. That in itself endears him to one.
    • D. H. Lawrence, in Adelphi (December 1925); cited from Michael Herbert (ed.) Selected Critical Writings (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) p. 200.
  • Rolfe's vice was spiritual more than it was carnal: it might be said that he was a pander and a swindler, because he cared for nothing but his faith. He would be a priest or nothing, so nothing it had to be…If he could not have Heaven, he would have Hell, and the last footprints seem to point unmistakably towards the Inferno.
    • Graham Greene "Frederick Rolfe: Edwardian Inferno" (1934); cited from Collected Essays (New York: The Viking Press, 1969) p. 175
  • I have…read it with a good deal of amusement and enjoyment. The latter is due, I suppose, entirely to the subject – for everyone likes to imagine what a man could do if he were a dictator or Pope, or Caliph; the amusement is mainly at the author's expence. The style is one of the most preposterous I have ever read, and I doubt if I ever saw so much pedantry combined with so much ignorance.
    • C. S. Lewis, letter to Arthur Greeves dated October 1, 1934, cited from W. H. Lewis (ed.) The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004) vol. 2, p. 143
  • He was a confidence-man, pauper, tutor, blackmailer, paedophile, translator – and author of seven novels and a number of short stories. Rolfe was a trickster whose failed life stank to himself as to the few friends whom he had and betrayed. But he was a fascinating figure: a bore, but also a pseudo-Borgian freak whose vindictiveness and paranoia have deservedly become legendary.
  • He wrote with great care, and with a sharpness, vivacity, and variety of epithet that give immediate and continuing pleasure, but he was not in any serious sense a novelist or even a writer of fiction. His emotionally injured self is the sole character of his fictions, with everybody else seen through the haze of his paranoia, like figures in a fun-fair mirror.
    • Julian Symons, in the Times Literary Supplement, January 3, 1975.
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