When you hate the hero (part II): ‘Hadrian the Seventh’ by Fr. Rolfe (1904)


“His Holiness has averted a schism,” said Orezzo to Moccolo.
“One has to admire even where one hardly approves.”
“And to hobble-after even when one cannot keep-up-with the pace.”
“Saint or madman?” Mundo repeated to Fiamma.
“One-third saint, one-sixth madman, one-sixth genius, one-sixth dreamer, one-sixth diplomatist –”
“No.  All George Arthur Rose plus Peter,’ Talacryn put in.  ‘He said as much Himself to me once”

To give some context to my thoughts about ‘Hadrian the Seventh’, as an undergraduate student I fell in love with the critic Roland Barthes.  Specifically, I fell in love with his essay ‘The Death of the Author.’  I’m a devoted reader who has no vocation to be a writer herself and it was wonderful to find an essay that put me centre stage.  Barthes’ basic premise was that the author does not have supreme authority over his or her own work; the details of an author’s life are not required for appreciating or finding meaning in their work.

I’m no longer a dogmatic undergraduate and, as this blog demonstrates, I’m always interested in the background of the authors I love (what would be the point of a Diverse Reading Challenge if I paid no attention to writers’ backgrounds or heritage?)  Still, I do think there is something wrong in a book that is appreciated because of who the author is rather than because of what they wrote.  My goodness, I struggled with ‘Hadrian the 7th.’  There are no descriptions of this book, no blurbs, no plot summaries, which don’t rely almost exclusively on the biography of the author.  I’d planned on trying to be original in my own review, but I think this is a book to defeat Barthes.

On the cover of my copy of ‘Hadrian the Seventh’, the author’s name is written as Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo).  You might be tempted to think Fr. a title; maybe Rolfe was a friar?  Certainly, other covers of the book show images of cardinals, popes and assorted clergy.  Fortunately, I had the blurb to help me out; it seems Fr. is short for Frederick, and was assumed to make Rolfe (pronounced Rofe) sound more like a man of the cloth.  I don’t want to spend too much on his name though, with the best Barthian intentions I think it’s hard to take a book seriously when the author thinks the pseudonym ‘Baron Corvo’ is the best way to attract readers.  As far as his biography goes, Rolfe felt he had a vocation for the Catholic church and the Catholic church was having none of it; he was never ordained as a priest and mostly survived by finding (then falling out with) various benefactors.  He died in 1913 in Venice, penniless and forsaken.

Rolfe portrait copy adjusted.png

Frederick William Serafino Austin Lewis Mary Rolfe
(Fun fact: three of these names were given him at birth, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to use all the others).

‘Hadrian the Seventh’ is the story of a man marked for greatness.  Rose (see what he did?) has a vocation, but has always been denied entry into the priesthood thanks to the evil machinations of his enemies.  The novel picks up at the moment when this all changes.  Rose receives two visitors who have come to make amends and finally ordain him.  Simultaneously, the Conclave in Rome has reached deadlock as they search to agree on a new Pope…

Basically, ‘Hadrian the Seventh’ presents the kind of wish-fulfilment narrative that makes the Mills and Boon formula look realistic and restrained.  Rose was born to be admired by all and is more than comfortable talking in the first person plural from the minute he is elected.  He announces his own new name with typical humility. ‘The present English pontiff is Hadrian the Seventh.  It pleases Us; and so, by Our own impulse, We command.’  Fortunately, everyone else is equally aware of his worth, at one point the Prepositor-General of the Jesuits is preparing to interrupt the Pope, but ‘Hadrian froze him with a glance of blazing supremacy.

‘Hadrian the Seventh’ is spectacularly unselfconscious in its adoration of the central character.  This would not have been a problem if I didn’t find said character so insufferable.  If I was willing to just assume that Rolfe and I would probably never have been friends anyway, I could just dismiss this as the work of a man I disliked, but I follow Barthes, and I really don’t want to judge a book by the personality of the writer.  On the other hand, without the humour from the delusions of grandeur that underlie the whole narrative, it’s very hard to see how this book has achieved classic status.  It’s published by NYRB!  It was number 37 in the Guardian’s ‘100 Best Novels’ list!  I found it a philosophically challenging read, and only a partly enjoyable one.  While there is fun to be had in the story and characters, the overall experience was like finding myself in a fictional world where David Brent and Alan Partridge really were charismatic, successful game-changers.  Everyone loves Hadrian within his own novel, and it was because of this that I’ve found this book one of my most confusing reads of 2016.  I want to recommend it, because I want to know what other readers make of it.  It should be approached with caution however, especially if you like realistic plots, objectivity or the literary theories of Roland Barthes.

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6 Responses to When you hate the hero (part II): ‘Hadrian the Seventh’ by Fr. Rolfe (1904)

  1. BookerTalk says:

    Not one for me since I’m a realist girl through and through

  2. Hmm, interesting. Not sure I’m industrious enough to go for your challenge though, Shoshi. I’m so aware of the ticking of time, and the plethora of wonderful books I may never get to read.

    Also, though I do believe the reader is an active participator, it is the relationship between reader and writer which intrigues, so I am interested in the forces, both individual psychology and cultural, shaping the writer. I’m always subconsciously at least, feeling for the writer behind their writing. What makes me read, or abandon, a book seems like ‘ Can I find a connection that makes me want to spend time with this person?’ It’s not about liking someone, it’s about finding some resonance, some aha! of recognition

    • I agree with the idea of the reader-book resonance and I love that aha! moment. For me, I try to find this with the book’s narrative or style rather than with the actual personality of the writer (partly because real life can be so disappointing after the wonders of great fiction!)

  3. philipcoggan says:

    Rolfe was a thoroughly unlikable man, one who never failed to bite any hand that attempted to feed him. The book achieved a cult following, but that following is undeserved – it’s an adjunct to the author, and would be forgotten if the author had not been so colourful a character. But, if you want to get deeper into these shallow waters, I suggest you look up Robert Scoble (not the famous one, another man of the same name), who seems to be the current world authority on this odious individual.

    • I’m pleased I’m not alone in finding this classic so shallow! I’ll follow up the Scoble recommendation, thank you, though probably after some other reading first as a palate cleanser.

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