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Frederick Rolfe's Last Novel: An Unpublished Fragment Andrew Eburne St. Catherine's College, Oxford WHEN FREDERICK ROLFE completed the text of The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole as we know it in March 1910, he began the long process of rewriting both that novel and his two historical romances, The Weird of the Wanderer and Hubert's Arthur. The writing of the fifth and sixth versions οι Desire occupied Rolfe up to January 1911; the sixth version of The Weird was sent to William Rider in December 1911, to be published twelve months later; the ninth version of Hubert's Arthur occupied the autumn of 1911. As even this, briefest of accounts indicates, the return to his MSS was for Rolfe a near-compulsive occupation, and the occasion of considerable labour. He was less fond of writing than of re-writing: he admitted in Desire that "[hie was not a born creator"; he preferred to think of himself as a historian rather than as a novelist.1 These inclinations, and the labour they involved, help to explain the dearth of new writing on Rolfe's part between the completion of Desire in 1910 and his death in October 1913. Only two, incomplete, pieces of fiction have survived from this period: Amico di Sandro, begun in 1910 and first published by G. F. Sims privately in 1950; and a later fragment, dating from 1912, which is given the alternative titles in Rolfe's notebook of The Freeing of the Soul or The Seven Degrees. In this article I provide the first published text of this fragment, Rolfe's last fiction. The Freeing of the Soul or The Seven Degrees exists as the first five pages of a large MS book in Rolfe's hand, now part of the Bodleian Library's Walpole Collection (MS Walpole ell). There is a second, identical, MS book of notes in Rolfe's hand (MS Walpole c.13). The fragment's existence was first noted in Miriam Benkovitz's Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo (1977), which provides a brief account of the piece, without a title, and with half-a-dozen quotations in which the central 485 ELT 38:4 1995 characters' names are misspelt.2 The fragment itself is untitled, but the accompanying notebook provides two titles on its opening page, The Freeing of the Soul and The Seven Degrees, with a Latin equivalent for the former and a Greek for the latter. There is no indication of which title Rolfe might eventually have preferred, if any: in the case of Nicholas Crabbe, for example, Rolfe in 1906 appears to create a new title, The One and the Many, and henceforth used the two titles indifferently to refer to the same book or to two separate books. The Freeing of the Soul precedes The Seven Degrees on the opening page of c. 13, and I use only The Freeing of the Soul henceforth. Rolfe's c.13 notebook records a remark made by "Checchin" to Rolfe, "(i jan 1912 on our walk to the end of the Diga, Venice.)," and this provides the only explicit evidence for the dating of the fragment. I think we can take it the fragment was begun after that date. Establishing a date for the cessation of Rolfe's work is less simple. The first cheque sent by the Rev. Justus Stephen Serjeant to Rolfe arrived in the last days of March 1912: it was the first considerable sum of money Rolfe had received since his eviction from the Hotel Belle Vue in January 1911.3 Rolfe's productivity as a writer was always acutely linked to his financial condition, if not entirely driven by it. That Rolfe began Amico di Sandro in the summer of 1910, for example—still recuperating from near-fatal illness, and having completed the first four drafts of Desire at an almost incredible speed—can be explained by the fact that Rolfe was destitute as he had not been since his stay in the Holywell workhouse, eleven years previously. His necessity is reflected in the form he adopted for the new book: a fictional life of Botticelli, no doubt derived from Charles Reade's portrait...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 485-491
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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