A.J.A. Symons, Book review., Books, Catholicism, Children, Christianity, Frederick Baron Corvo, Frederick Rolfe, Homosexuality, Italy, Jesuits, Paedophilia, Pagans, Salvation, Stories Toto Told Me, The Quest for Corvo, The Short Story
[Tychy is nothing if not a writer and reviewer of short stories: this website to date features about eighty short stories, of varying ambitions and success; and numerous reviews of either individual stories or complete volumes by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.F. Benson, and Laird Barron. “Short Story Review,” a series devoted exclusively to volumes of short stories, consolidates this website’s longstanding and ongoing critical appreciation of short fiction.]
It was a more innocent, or else a more diabolical age. In 1890, whilst holidaying in the hills south of Rome, Frederick Rolfe would enlist a comely sixteen year old boy named Teodoro Ephoros as his manservant. Stories Toto Told Me purportedly results from this meeting of two minds, with the servant’s repertoire of peasant stories being immortalised in his master’s gorgeously ornate prose. The collection is infused alike with fresh country air and the perfumes of the decadent Yellow Book, where some of these tales were first published in 1895. But in his prefaces and narrative framing, Rolfe would openly describe his infatuation with Toto and several other pubescent boys, one as young as fourteen. Rolfe’s contemporaries were horrified by his homosexuality; today he would be probably prosecuted for paedophilia.
Readers of Stories Toto Told Me may often wonder uneasily whether they are looking at ephebes through the eyes of an ephebophile, or children through the eyes of a paedophile. Yet Stories Toto Told Me cannot be kicked down to hell just like that. For one thing, Rolfe’s appreciation of boys is certainly intense, but it remains aesthetic rather than sexual, bearing no qualitative difference to that occasionally found within the fiction of Henry James. Moreover, in beating a path for gay fiction through flamboyant experimental prose Rolfe would almost certainly influence the pioneering novels of Ronald Firbank and anticipate Jean Genet’s free-flowing Our Lady of the Flowers (1943). Toto is a suitably messianic figure to place at the head of a new church of gay writing. A son of heaven without the guilt and sacrifice of Adam and Jesus, he represents a clean break.
Rolfe wanted to be known as Baron Corvo [Raven], but he was not a real baron and he was more of a sparrow than a raven. Born to a family of Cheapside piano manufacturers, Rolfe squandered his middle-class education on a succession of hare-brained artistic ventures. Although comparable to his contemporary Arthur Machen in the degree to which his genius was hampered by poverty, Rolfe was a fantasist, and he was ultimately ruined by his fake-aristocratic refusal to support himself by way of a bourgeois profession.
This was a period in capitalism or literature when extravagant figures capered into writing. Algernon Blackwood, Aleister Crowley and Harry Price have dazzled biographers with their picaresque lives; Rolfe’s was just as eventful if altogether less fabulous. With his bogus title and ropey classical education, Rolfe was variously interned in a workhouse and employed in Venice as a gondolier. Despite an 1898 expose of his character in the Aberdeen Free Press, and a disastrous lawsuit which saw him humiliated in the witness stand, Rolfe was nonetheless sustained into his fifties by an apparently inexhaustible string of benefactors. Almost all of them would be rewarded with deranged suspicion and histrionic abuse.
The question of Rolfe’s sanity is not one which has been satisfactorily determined by his most dedicated biographers. The twist to Rolfe’s character, and the riddle for us, is this: he seemed plausibly a brilliant writer, which persuaded many wealthy benefactors to give their money to a maniac, but deep beneath his mania he was implausibly a brilliant writer. DH Lawrence puzzled over a similar contradiction in his 1925 review of Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh: “It is all so amazing, that a man with such insight and fineness, on the one hand, should be so helpless and just purely ridiculous, when it comes to actualities.”
Rolfe must have been tortured by the remoteness between beauty and actualities during the composition of Stories Toto Told Me. His memories of Italy must have sliced through him like knives. A later writer, Evelyn Waugh, would claim that his similarly lavish masterpiece Brideshead Revisited was written partly as a mental escape from WW2’s rationing. This is nothing on Rolfe, who according to his biographer Donald Weeks may have scrawled the first of his Toto stories on toilet paper whilst he was sheltering homeless in a London public lavatory. Katherine Lyon Mix reports that when trying to sell his stories at the Yellow Book headquarters, Rolfe “left fleas in an upholstered chair on his first visit.”
Rolfe was a talented photographer, and perhaps if he had achieved financial independence, Toto would have been only photographed and his stories would have remained untold. Rolfe does not seem to have shown a comparable interest in literature and it is unclear whether he was familiar with the writings of such apparent influences as Oscar Wilde. Stories Toto Told Me must have exasperated its earliest readers, who had to rely on their own deduction (rather than the glossary provided within modern editions) to realise that Il Santissimo Salvatore is Jesus Christ and Sangiambattista John the Baptist. Although Rolfe was desperate for money, it did not occur to him to write for the masses.
When describing the Garden of Eden, Rolfe had no conceivable means of returning to Italy and his subject must have seemed greatly more than a metaphor. Modern readers, on the other hand, may cast Rolfe as the serpent in the garden. In Italy, he could buy the company of pubescent boys and apparently roam off unsupervised with them. Rolfe’s biographers have failed to detect anything untoward in his Italian adventures, and there are obvious dangers to assuming that a man who enjoys the company of children is intrinsically sinister. Only in his final years do we find Rolfe trying to tempt a potential benefactor to Venice with the promise of “untried” boys. Pondering his friend’s predilection for fourteen year olds, Rolfe counters that “a soft little body is all very well to lie in one’s arms all night: but it cannot give me furious joys.” Rolfe’s biographer Miriam J Benkovitz warns that “these are begging letters and as such accounts not of real adventures but of imagined ones.” Bill Allen, writing in 1982 for the somewhat yucky Paedo Alert News, is incredulous:
The biographers expect us to believe that Rolfe looked at Toto and the six other boys he played with in the woods of the Arbruzzi hills but didn’t romp with them sexually. Yet he took nude photos of them, camped out all night with them, wrote stories about them. Rolfe’s biographers claim he had taken a vow of chastity for 20 years, so how could he have done otherwise?… It is amazing the lengths to which literati will go in order to deny the consummation of boy-love.
One is hesitant to cite a self-professed “paedophile” as an authority, but Allen’s cynicism has some bearing upon one of the most celebrated accounts of Rolfe’s life, AJA Symons’ The Quest for Corvo (1934). Christopher Sykes has deemed this “without any exaggeration… one of the biographical masterpieces of our time,” whilst Joseph Epstein has judged it to be “biography in the form of a detective story.” I am not so sure.
In the “Epitaph” to his biography, Symons writes that “The starting point of his complex character is that he was sexually abnormal.” Yet this is far from the starting point of Symons’ biography. In describing a sinister and eccentric character, Symons assumes that we will eventually cotton on that Rolfe is gay. What makes this reticence so costly is that Symons is hunting for several lost manuscripts which Rolfe is reported to have left in the hands of unidentified creditors. Symons corresponds with Rolfe’s relatives and estranged benefactors, but he refuses to identify or approach the young men whom Rolfe had taken for his companions (partly because Rolfe’s remaining family would not have cooperated with Symons had his research proceeded down this path). Symons unwittingly reflects the attitude of a sexual predator: these boys are worthless objects, rather than subjects with valuable opinions and information.
Happily for Symons what he calls the “homosexual underworld” relinquishes its secrets. At the extraordinary ending to his “quest,” he is contacted by the political intriguer Maundy Gregory, who Symons insinuates, with reference to Gregory’s “expression of worldliness far beyond mere literary curiosity,” is a connoisseur of exotic pleasures. A glamorous mixture of fairy godmother and mafia don, Gregory possesses the means to recover Rolfe’s lost manuscripts. His “agents” are dispatched to the ends of the Earth; he airily pronounces that “with money one can do anything.” But unlike Symons, he has surely got to the boys.
Does Stories Toto Told Me constitute a precursor of the epistolary pimping which Rolfe would practise years later as a ruined man in Venice? Does it draw the reader’s imagination into something resembling a literary paedophile ring? I would like to argue that the murky origins of Stories Toto Told Me do nothing to impinge upon its beauty and virtue. There is no trace of manure beneath the fragrance of the rose.
The text before me is the only one to hand: the 1969 Collins edition of Stories Toto Told Me, which contains Christopher Sykes’ unchronological arrangement of selected tales from the 1898 original and the far longer 1901 sequel In His Own Image. I cannot gauge whether Sykes has achieved a just reflection of the whole, but he demonstrates the breadth of a narrative which can encompass both a startlingly realistic sense of the relationship between Rolfe and Toto, and the lovely escapism of Toto’s storytelling.
Rolfe seems to wink at the reader in the scene when Toto is anxious to disguise his betrothed as a boy so that “people will not talk.” Yet like a cosmopolitan with a British passport up his sleeve, Rolfe will surprise us with his formal heterosexual credentials. He refers to the time “since Claudia, my Augusta, died – died – Domeniddio! You know what voice of lark You coveted for Your quire – and robbed from me.” This “one dead heart” has been alone warm enough to ever melt the “impenetrable mail of ice about me,” whilst Toto is merely accorded those moments when “very rarely… I speak long and late at night [and] the ice wears thin.” Yet Rolfe’s loss will bring him sneakily closer to Toto, who is himself a widower by the end of the volume.
What we learn of Toto’s brothers and young bride will never acquire the status of a plot, but from the insights into his character we gain a vivid sense of Toto as both a reality and an ideal. Toto is in his innocence as wise as a priest. Rolfe is only the master of their campsite, and he is otherwise helpless before Toto’s goodness.
We may grow impatient with Toto’s fervour for nudism, but even this is wholly virtuous. For Toto, it is perfectly normal to hide in a tree and watch a priest undressing below. There is something mildly snake-like to the picture of Toto “lying, with my soul, along the branch of a tree,” but here the traditional imagery of the watching serpent is in fact inverted. Far from being an innocent like Adam, the naked priest is too experienced, mortifying his flesh with a “wire chain.” The slithery Toto, on the other hand, remains innocently carefree. He likewise chronicles how a Jesuit martyr overcame his horror of naked boys. In being reconciled with the naked Saint Sebastian, Saint Luigi reattains the innocence which had preceded the Fall.
It is incidental to Toto’s goodness that he is a tyrant and a sadomasochist, who “flays” his young comrades whenever they demonstrate their ignorance of his own arcane superstitions. Toto can switch from cherubim to imp, revealing a petulant temper and his glaring “witch’s head,” but Rolfe does not regard this as cruelty which needs to be rebuked. Indeed, when Rolfe finally does intervene, we may suspect that Toto has been merely copying his master’s behaviour: “I made him kneel at my feet; and I took his throat in my two hands.” Sadomasochism is just another flavour of innocence; something which is found amongst boys in a state of nature. The sadomasochistic appears unexpectedly in the otherwise gentle comedy “About the Miraculous Fritter.” Perhaps if the hero did not end up lying “prostrate on his face” and “howling” in front of the entire convent, this would not be a story told to and retold by Baron Corvo.
We may smirk at Saint Peter’s “strict rule which prevented either idiots or imbeciles from entering paradise.” It seems to exclude all Christians. If there is an unfamiliar quality to Toto’s virtue, it is only because he remains uncontaminated by modern morality. The designated sinners within his parables are the Jesuits, who stray through replacing simplistic morality with their own pointless discipline and fussiness. One ingenious allegory explains how the Jesuits came to affix fig leaves “in their shamless modesty… for statues and things.” That is, the things of statues. The Jesuits’ greed for generous “legacies” is more typically sinful, harking back to the pre-Reformation decadence.
Yet this is a religion where rules do not count for much. The “heresy of Fra Serafico” turns out to have its basis in Divine carelessness. The two stories about the bandits Lo Scojattolo and La Lodola affirm the doctrine of Divine grace, but their redemption ultimately comes about through chance and after some patent rule bending. La Lodolo only gets into heaven after Saint Joseph interrupts God whilst He is in the middle of pronouncing His judgement. The bandit owes his salvation to corruption; the bureaucracy of grace is put aside once Joseph has demanded a “personal favour.”
Perhaps it is not that Toto is so liberal that his Christianity can accommodate paganism, but that paganism is the source of his liberality. His storytelling scratches away the idea of purgatory to find the classical metamorphosis myths underneath. His God is the apparition of Jove and his heaven the ghostly semblance of Mount Olympus. Paganism is two steps away from childishness and Toto’s heaven is on occasion like the headquarters of a regiment of toy soldiers, with the angels “saluting” each other and inspecting their weapons. The vision of the Madonna stepping out of a chapel fresco reflects the childlike fantasy that pictures can watch you.
Toto’s heaven often resembles a sort of school. It is like a schoolboy’s effort to imagine heaven. We are invited to chuckle affectionately at its great characters as if they were pompous, eccentric teachers. St Cassian of Imola (himself the patron saint of teachers) is glimpsed with his halo absent-mindedly “cocked awry.” It is curious to encounter such a peaceful institution within Rolfe’s fiction because his most acclaimed novel, Hadrian the Seventh, dwells upon the bullying which he had experienced at the Scots College in Rome.
Toto does not understand or mind that his careless descriptions of sacred things can rob them of dignity. In one story, Saint Peter tells Saint Paul “to get out the way and let Him shut the gate, in case that some improper souls should sneak in.” Although presumably omniscient, Toto’s God is adamant that “He would give no encouragement to sneaks and tell-tale-tits.” When Saint Peter’s mother is pulled out of hell clinging to the top of an onion, the anguish of damnation is unexpectedly transformed into a textbook slapstick routine. “Why Cats and Dogs Always Litigate” gets away with cheekily portraying the Virgin Mary and Satan as a quarrelling cat and dog. Toto’s chronology also leaves much to be desired, or else it is characteristically miraculous to find Christ at Sodom.
If Toto renders icons in caricature, this cannot be feasibly censured. His tomfoolery leads back to an innocence which is at once the source of his profound devotion to God. An allegory of Toto’s storytelling can be extracted from his tale of Padre Dotto Vagheggino. The Padre’s nightly vision of Saint Venantius is actually that of two trickster saints who alternate on each successive occasion. The Padre commissions a painting of his vision, but he ends up repeatedly requesting corrections to the image. The crisscrossed saint(s) soon resembles a “monster,” but this image is not a blasphemy. God Himself has authorised the trick as part of a heavenly plan to puncture the Padre’s pride. The ostensible sacrilege eventually induces the Padre to establish “a holy place” for thousands of worshippers. Toto’s irreverence may similarly pave the way to reverence.
Toto is now lost to history and no biographer has sought to recover any further information about this wondrous storyteller. He would have been in his late forties, no doubt a fat farmer, when Mussolini marched on Rome. Rolfe’s relationship with this boy may have been abusive; he may have quarrelled with him as he seems to have done with everybody else. Since Rolfe would be estranged from almost every other benefactor, it seems unlikely that he could have been reconciled with God. Yet Toto would come to serve him as an acceptable intermediary, combining Divine authority with the freedoms of youth. In Toto, the abominable puzzle of Rolfe’s life would be for once solved:
He swore that I was without spot or stain of sin, devoid even of a blemish, that I always had been so, that I always should be so, because I could not help myself; the decoration of the earth with such a monster being obviously a part of the Divine Plan…