Opinions on the 1909-1910 series of letters Frederick Rolfe, ‘Baron’ Corvo, wrote in Venice range from A. J. A. Symons’ celebrated branding of them as hair-raisingly unprintable, their author prevented only by lack of funds from ‘enjoying an existence compared with which Nero’s was innocent, praiseworthy, and unexciting’ (The Quest for Corvo, Folio Society edition, 1952, p. 13) to Pamela Hansford Johnson’s calmer verdict that ‘there really is something splendid, almost mythological, about their ramping sexuality . . . so extremely wholehearted . . . If one must read this kind of thing, Rolfe is incomparably better at it than Henry Miller. And there are a few passages of descriptive splendour as fine as any in The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole, where the physical beauty of Venice is expressed as no one else ever did it, before Rolfe or after him’ (Introduction to New Quests for Corvo, ed. Cecil Woolf and Brocard Sewell, Icon Books edition, 1965, p. 8). Whether the chronicle is entirely invented, or, if wish-fulfilment, if fantasy, having a basis in actuality, is debatable; what is beyond dispute is that it was written with amongst its intentions that of arousing sexual feeling in the recipient by offers to procure for him adolescent boys erotically, sometimes lovingly, described – and in the hope of making money thereby. Almost comically, were it not so tragic, there are at the same time appeals to the correspondent for help, financial and other, in stirring the senses: ‘I must try to touch those senses of smell and touch and taste in my next. I could do it, I know, in a minute if I could refresh my own memory once or twice. Please. Please. Please.’ (End of Letter 8, December 28, 1909)
According to Cecil Woolf (Introduction to Baron Corvo: Venice Letters, Cecil & Amelia Woolf, 1974, p. 10) the recipient, Charles Masson Fox, was of mercantile Quaker background. He had been a pupil at Sherborne, and in due course became senior partner in his father’s timber firm, also serving on the board of a shipping agency. For several years he was Swedish and Russian Vice-Consul in Falmouth, his home town. He had paederastic proclivities and belonged to the homosexual circle that included the Falmouth painter Henry Tuke, then of European reputation, and the poetaster-schoolmaster John Gambril Nicolson, author of, among other works, Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades, and Lyrics (Elliot Stock, 1892)1, and A Chaplet of Southernwood, A Garland of Ladslove (1911), and the novel The Romance of a Choir-Boy (1916), all published by F. E. Murray. Louis Wilkinson (the novelist and essay-writer ‘Louis Marlow’), friend of the Powys family and acquaintance of Corvo in Venice, speaks of Fox’s daring display of ‘courage in bringing an action for blackmail against a woman who demanded money from him with threats that if he did not pay, she would make it known that he had seduced her son’ (cited Woolf, op. cit., p. 11). Although he won his case, the adverse publicity, at a time when the identity of the prosecutor in a blackmail case was not treated as confidential, damaged his career. From the photograph of him with the Falmouth Boys’ Football Team – chess was another interest – in Timothy d’Arch Smith’s Love in Earnest: Some Notes on the Lives and Writings of English ‘Uranian’ Poets from 1889 to 1930 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), reproduced in enlarged detail by Miriam Benkovitz, Frederick Rolfe: Baron Corvo (Hamish Hamilton, 1977), moustachioed leer topped by a flat cap, he was of unprepossessing appearance, though according to Woolf his manner could be quietly impressive. Still a Quaker, still in Falmouth, he died in 1935, unmarried.
The letters contain references to another apparent paederast, Cockerton, sometimes called Cocker or Cock, who seems to be an American friend of Fox’s (and of another dubious character, Eduardo Bolck, who was one of Corvo’s fellow members of the Bucintoro Rowing Club). If it was he who is mentioned in one of the letters as having stayed at the Grand Hotel, he was probably moneyed. Woolf says he ‘has not yet been further identified’ (op. cit., p. 76, Note 2).
There is reason to believe, however, that he may have figured in one of the causes célèbres of the century: the Russell-Scott case.
The marriage of Mabel Scott to Lord Russell, a brilliant and isolated young man, had not been happy. Egged on by her mother, the extravagant, improvident Lady Scott, she left him and in 1891 brought a suit for judicial separation, alleging his intimacy with one of his male friends to be homosexual. Her own counsel apologized in open court for these allegations, but Lady Scott repeated them in an interview in The Hawk (1892). Next, Lady Russell sought restitution of conjugal rights, claiming that she now knew her husband to be ‘pure and innocent’. Stung (perhaps by this description?), he cross-petitioned, and was himself granted judicial separation on the grounds that her charges had been malicious and amounted to cruelty. Lady Scott, playing a double game, wrote conciliatorily to the Earl while simultaneously having him shadowed by numerous detectives. Mother and daughter continued to spread derogatory rumours; Russell’s suit for libel was successful and bailiffs had to be put into the Scott household to recover costs. Vengeful as Lady Macbeth (‘We have now enough evidence to hang any ordinary man, but it is not enough for us’), Lady Scott discovered the whereabouts of three men whom we will call X,Y and Z and who had been members of his yachting crew. She bought Z out of his regiment in India and transplanted him to England, where he with X and Y signed a highly defamatory statement which she circulated to the Lords, the Commons, Army officers and any gentlemen prepared to read who had not already crossed the Channel. With the Wilde case fresh, if that is the word, in the public nostrils, Russell prosecuted her and her hired associates for criminal libel. Marshall Hall appeared on behalf of our X, Y and Z; but Z, the chief defence witness, who had fallen ill, died. After prolonged histrionics and hysteria all round, the inevitable verdict of ‘Guilty’ was given (‘Countess Russell uttered a loud shriek, audible even outside the court’).
Lady Scott and her daughter seem to have been very tedious women, but their chief defect in the eyes of Edward Marjoribanks, upon whose Famous Trials of Marshall Hall (Penguin edition, 1950) I draw is apparently their willingness to talk about things decent women did not know. (‘Never had dirty linen been washed in public at such length and so thoroughly.’) As late as 1977, a Belgian graduate told me that her professor considered Beardsley’s work, on which she proposed to write a thesis, unsuitable for the female sex to study; and the Russell-Scott action took place in an age when a lady not only did not initiate but did not move.
As for the defence witnesses, Z, the army officer, was one Kast; Y was an otherwise unknown Aylott; X – was a Cockerton.
1. The pun in the title of Oscar Wilde’s last play The Importance of Being Earnest (probably begun, it is now believed, in 1893) may have been in part cliquish: ‘Of Boys’ Names’, in Nicholson’s first volume, written by him for his first love, surname unknown to us, avows that ‘’Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame.’