'Chance Romances' With Evidence : The (Mis)treatment of the Holden Letters in the Biographies of Frederick Rolfe


MIKEŠ Michal

Year of publication 2020
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description Frederick Rolfe is by his three biographers—A.J.A. Symons, Donald Weeks, and Miriam Benkovitz—accused, respectively, of distorting truth, mixing reality with fancy, and imposing his illusions on his environment. This presentation inverts such claims by revealing how Rolfe’s biographers (mis)treated evidence based on the underlying image of the subject they strove to portray. This will be demonstrated through letters between John Holden and A.J.A. Symons that cover a key episode in Rolfe’s life. Each of the biographies presents and interprets the Holden letters with a varying degree of distortion that ranges from omissions and misinterpretations to rewriting or inventing whole passages of these letters, such as the account of Rolfe’s ‘chance romances’, a phrase that, even though imagined by Symons, is assimilated in both of Rolfe’s subsequent biographies. It becomes apparent that the biographers have shaped the Holden letters, or question the credibility of previously published information, to the degree that favors their own personal points of view on Rolfe, whether it is that of a literary detective investigating the decline of the author of Hadrian the Seventh (Symonds), an enamored collector defending his possessions (Weeks), or an explorer of the reality behind the obscure myth of Baron Corvo (Benkovitz). Based on this analysis, it is argued that these biographies should be read as an auto/biographical account of the relationship that the biographers formed with Rolfe to properly understand what they say about Rolfe’s life per se.
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