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Frederick Rolfe (Baron Corvo): Hadrian The Seventh

Frederick Rolfe was brought up as an Anglican but, in his mid-twenties, he converted to Roman Catholicism. He felt that he had a vocation and trained for ordination as a priest but was thrown out of college for his strange behaviour and his attacks on his fellow students. He went to Rome and tried again but with the same result and for the same reasons. He took up painting and when that did not work, he took up writing and made his living as a writer. In all of this the hero of this novel, George Arthur Rose, is identical to his creator. We first meet Rose as he is struggling to make a living as a writer, living alone with his cat. He receives an unexpected visit – from the cardinal and a bishop. The cardinal has come to apologise for the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of the church. Rose makes him squirm a bit and then exacts his price – a formal written apology and monetary compensation (as he has large debts). The cardinal readily agrees. It is clear to us that all of this is entirely improbable and, of course, based on Rolfe’s own wishful thinking.

But this only the beginning. The cardinal appoints Rose as his personal chaplain. Given the cantankerous, arrogant and often aggressive stance Rose has taken, this would seem at best foolhardy and more likely incredibly dangerous for the cardinal. We next meet the cardinal and Rose at the conclave to elect a new pope, as the old one has died. It should be remembered that, during Rolfe’s lifetime, all popes since the 14th century had been Italian. Accordingly, there are five likely candidates, all Italian, who garner votes, but none of them gains the necessary two thirds of the votes. One does come very close but when it is revealed that he has voted for himself, something which is completely unacceptable, he loses his votes. Votes go back and forth but no-one comes close to a two thirds majority. As a result, a conciliation commission is set up, consisting of nine cardinals, whose task is to find a compromise candidate. They decide to look beyond the usual group of cardinals but still cannot find a candidate they can agree on, till the US cardinal mentions the story of Rose. The Portuguese cardinal responds that, because of the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of the Church, he should be nominated to the papacy (or paparchy, as the cardinal calls it). The others agree. We (and Rose) do not learn of this till later as Rose is suddenly approached while sitting waiting and told he has been voted as pope and asking him if he accepts. It takes him only a minute or two to do so.

Rose takes to his new role like a duck to water. It seems clear that, though he states he never expected such a thing, he has, in fact, prepared for it, by having a strategy for what he will do as pope. He immediately continues in his usual way, upsetting people, doing things his way and not following the rules. He starts off by having a wall knocked down so he can appear on a balcony to be proclaimed as pope, follows up by having the papal coronation the next day (there is usually a period allowed to invite guests, make arrangements and so on) and then decides he will walk to St John Lateran (as pope he is also bishop of Rome and St John Lateran is the cathedral church of the bishop of Rome), causing his security staff considerable concern. He then proceeds to attack the English Catholics and plans to make considerable change to how they operate. He will continue to make numerous changes, large and small, contrary to normal papal practice. Much of his approach, at least initially, is to make the Church less worldly, which includes giving up territorial aspirations (at that time the Vatican owned a chunk of what is now Italy) and to sell of much of the Vatican’s treasures. Inevitably these leads him into conflict with some of the cardinals, though many do seem to support him. However, he does seem to manage to win over world leaders, though not easily, and will even take it upon himself to effectively redraw the map of the world. However, his main problem appear to be people from his pre-papal life who reappear and threaten him.

This book could have been quite funny but Rolfe takes it all very seriously and it does seem as though he is laying out a plan for what he might do and what might happen to him, were he to become pope. He obviously feels that he should have been made pope and that he alone, in the person of Hadrian, could solve the problems of the Catholic Church. As a result, we get a fascinating account of what is an utter conceit. Rolfe writes well, even though parts of the novel are verbose and long-winded, as he goes into some detail in many of his plans. The discussions of Catholic dogma might leave some people cold but it remains a unique novel that is well worthwhile reading.

Publishing history

First published by Chatto & Windus in 1904