Friday, 23 April 2010

The Quest for Corvo

Another of my tasks this Spring Term is to give a presentation lasting twenty minutes or so on a biography-topic. I arrived late for the first group session of the term, by which time the only two topics in the short list of options not already taken were Corvo or Freud and Biography. Unhesitatingly I chose the former, leaving the last latecomer to draw the short straw. She, actually, didn't appear to be too put out: in fact, she seemed to quite relish the prospect, but then she's a talented lady.

The Quest for Corvo is the biography by A.J.A. Symons of the unusual Frederick Rolfe, the self-styled Baron Corvo. I read it a very long time ago and remembered only that he was an utter misfit in society, someone who had been dismissed from seminary where he was studying to become a Roman Catholic priest and had then lived a penurious life as an author, picking quarrels with practically everyone with whom he came into contact. I also dimly remembered seeing a dramatised version of it, or rather that part of it which deals with the novel in which an obscure parish priest is unexpectedly elected pope as Hadrian the Seventh.

Years later my memory was jogged when I was reading a splendid science fiction novel, A Case of Conscience, in which a Jesuit biologist working on a planet in another galaxy … I won't reveal any more of the ingenious and riveting plot, suffice to say that he is led by what he finds there to fall into the Manichaean heresy (the belief that Satan, as well as God, can create) and is summoned to Rome to be interviewed and excommunicated by the pope himself, Hadrian the Eighth.

All of this was far from my mind when I went from Gwytherin to Holywell in Flintshire to visit St Winifred's Well, a site of pilgrimage for hundreds of years which boosts itself as The Lourdes of Wales. How the spring which feeds the well came into existence I will not repeat here, for the legend will be related very shortly on my new website,

After looking at the fourteenth century Perpendicular building over the spring itself and watching two pilgrims in the water on a chill spring day circling the pool outside the requisite three times and fully immersing themselves thrice, I went into the small two-roomed museum. There was nothing of significant interest in the outer room but the inner room was riveting. On each of the three walls hung a couple of banners of the kind displayed in religious processions. On the mantelpiece rested a picture frame containing four photos, two of processions in what looked like Victorian times, one of a priest and the last of three laymen in profile.

One of the banners depicted the martyrdom of St Winifred: in none of the books about her that I have inspected had I seen it reproduced. "All these", said the volunteer custodian, "were painted by Corvo, and each contains somewhere within it is the picture of a crow," adding helpfully "because crow is the translation of the Italian corvo." Pointing to the last photo she said "That's him, on the left." I beheld a man in his early middle age, smoking a curved-stem pipe and staring fixedly at something out of sight. And pointing at the priest she said "And that is Father Beauclerk, who befriended him. He arrived here virtually destitute, and the Father took him up, gave him £60 a year to live on, plus £10 for clothing, and gave him £10 for each banner. But Corvo quarrelled with him; demanded more money; wrote to the Bishop; poor Father Beauclerk was removed from the parish and posted abroad."

She read some text in the museum guide. "After he left, Corvo wrote a story about his stay in Santo Pozzo [=holy well] in the province of Selce [=flint] which he describes as 'a squalid enough village in a desolate province. All the men were sots; and all the women, lewd'." My experience of the town – as opposed to the shrine – is based solely upon my visit earlier to the Red Lion in the High Street. This was without doubt the worst pub I have been into in years: three hand pumps at the bar, but with the labels reversed because they no longer stocked real ale; nobody talking at the bar, but men sitting round on hard chairs set against the walls, morosely drinking lager; two peroxided women, displaying more flesh than is seemly for their age; scruffy linoleum, and even (I probably imagined) the long-lingering smell of cheap cigarettes.

All of this provided me with a stimulating background to my Corvo about whom I started to read when I returned to Buckingham.

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