Monday, January 31, 2011

Our Number One Favorite Fake Priest

Father Arthur Scott seems like a charming rogue, doesn't he? But he's not our favorite fake priest. Not really.

So. Who is? Well, there are a lot of choices, both in life and in fiction.

There's "Father O'Shea," the missionary to China played by Humphrey Bogart in The Left Hand of God. He's really a downed airman, hiding from the bad guys -- at least until a pretty young nurse catches his eye. Great movie.

Yet we confess an even deeper partiality for the mysterious abbe who dismounts from his horse in Chapter 26 of The Count of Monte Cristo. In all the world of pulp adventure, there are very few books as dear to our hearts as Monte Cristo, in part because the book has a surprisingly powerful theological subtext, and in part because Dumas rocks. The guy just rocks. The idea image of poor revenge-bent Edmond Dantes disguising himself in a soutane and biretta as he prepares to play God with the lives of his enemies gives us a perverse and unholy thrill.

But El Numero Uno, in our book, is not a fictional character at all, except in the sense that virtually nothing he ever said about himself was true. He was a flesh-and-blood man, and a curious third-tier novelist, but he was also a man so possessed by his own inner demons that his life -- as well as his writing -- became simultaneously a sin and a confession.

We mean, of course, Baron Corvo.

Frederick Rolfe (1860-1913) was a failure by any reasonable standard. He taught school for a while, and they fired him; he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest, but was repeatedly blocked by any bishop or theological college with the least bit of sense. He wasn't even much good as a beggar -- one of his more lurid literary remains is a series of semi-pornographic letters, intended to entice a wealthy benefactor into supporting his life in Venice. They failed.

His biography is a long series of firings, evictions, inept confidence games and virulent recriminations. Rolfe was a master of the poison pen, or at any rate he would have been if his endless attacks had ever actually harmed anybody. In truth, he was so disreputable a character that we imagine a letter to the Times calling you a villain, with his name below it, probably bought you a round of drinks at the club.

As a writer, Rolfe -- who signed himself by any number of names, most famously "Fr. Rolfe" -- get it? -- was part of that crazy fin-de-siecle crowd. You know: Oscar Wilde, J.K. Huysmans, the Yellow Book and all that. He wasn't the most distinguished, by any means. But his stories and novels were published, which is something. After his death, they began to attract collectors and readers. (The tendency to make cultic objects of "forgotten" gay writers probably didn't hurt). Over the years, he has come to be seen as a significant, if not especially important, Modernist. Think of the Sitwells, or somebody on that order. The story has been told by A.J.A. Symons and then, as more information came to light, by Cecil Woolf and Brocard Sewell. Rolfe, and especially his vengeance-seeking toxicity, is claimed as an inspiration by the occasional oddball, like Alexander Theroux. (Who, for the record, is a far more interesting writer than his more famous brother Paul.).

Rolfe -- or Corvo; he claimed that the title was legally his, after he was adopted by an Italian duchess -- liked to be photographed in clerical attire, even though he wasn't a cleric. His most famous book is Hadrian the Seventh, about an obscure Englishman who has been rejected in his aspirations to the priesthood, but who is nonethless made pope. (Papal trivium: the actual Hadrian IV was Nicholas Breakspear, the only English pope). The idea is every Anglophone presbyter's occasional fantasy -- come on, admit it. Who hasn't started a sentence with, "When they make me pope," smiling wrily at the very thought? (We've caught Zulhlsdorf doing it at least once recently, but we're not even sure he's smiling wrily.) It became a stage play in the 1960s, and apparently did okay.

We at the Egg have skimmed Hadrian from time to time, but never read it through. It is slow going, and copies are hard to come by. You can read it online here, but we can't imagine reading it online. The book requires long hours on a train, or a week of savage rains beating against your remote cottage on a cliff overlooking the ocean. And somebody sitting quietly nearby who will enjoy the funniest parts, when you read them aloud.

Rolfe wound up in Venice, living in poverty and squalor, friendless, and dying very young. His story is sad, and no less sad because he seems to have inflicted every wound upon himself. But at the same time, his story is funny too, if you are the sort of person who likes to walk through an old graveyard and laugh at the cleverest inscriptions. And who doesn't?

So, sure, that forger is neat, and the fictional characters are cool. But until somebody more tragicomically grandiose comes along, we'll call Fr. Rolfe our very favorite fake priest.

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