Hadrian the Seventh

Frederick Rolfe

Picador 1978 [1904]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003 https://dannyreviews.com/
Spurned by the Catholic Church but refusing to deny his Vocation, George Arthur Rose is a penniless writer in cheap London digs. He is first reconciled with the Church, then, through the vagaries of curial politics, elevated to the papacy as Hadrian VII. From that position he confounds the Vatican bureaucracy, directs European politics, and settles old debts. But then some low-life acquaintances from his former life come to Rome with the intention of blackmailing him...

The protagonist's situation at the beginning of Hadrian the Seventh reflects that of Frederick Rolfe ('Baron Corvo') himself — he was a Catholic convert who failed to gain admission to the priesthood — and much of the novel is clearly wish-fulfillment. It gives Rolfe a chance to indulge himself with diatribes on politics, national character and religion, and to settle scores with institutions and individuals, in an eccentric mix of reactionary authoritarianism, fawning on royalty, and English nationalism. And Hadrian's defense of his life as George Arthur is surely Rolfe's defense of his own.

This may sound like a terrible recipe for a novel, but the result has a curious charm. There's not much action in Hadrian the Seventh, but it rarely drags. And Rolfe is a brilliant sculptor of words, with a style that is all his own. The result may be an Edwardian curiosity, but it's one that's worth checking out.

December 2003

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%T Hadrian the Seventh
%A Rolfe, Frederick
%I Picador
%D 1978 [1904]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0330254030
%P 317pp