Growing up in the shadow of Oscar Wilde’s dreadful downfall, Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) showed a peculiar kind of bravery in celebrating the dainty aesthete, both in his life and in his short, breezy novels such as Valmouth (1919) and Concerning The Eccentricities Of Cardinal Pirelli (1926).
Firbank started studying at Cambridge at 19-years-old, converted to Catholicism at 21, and quit the university without a degree at 23. He was drawn to the High Church’s pageantry and ceremony, and went to Rome to take holy orders, only to be rejected. Living off the family wealth amassed by his grandfather, he traveled for his poor health to the warmer, more sensual climates of Italy, Spain, North Africa, the Middle East.
Back home, he added glitter and glamour to London’s cafe society. He had no intention of butching it up or joining the army when WW I broke out. Instead, he wrote sparkling, charming novels with slight plots that are simply bubbles on which to float his witty jabs at polite society. They are bravely filled with various gay characters and queer situations. So, of course, much of his work was unpublished or widely shunned by the critical establishment his era.
He was noted for the incessant fluttering of his hands and the hysterical laughter which would periodically erupt, leaving him incapable of completing an anecdote. Drinking merely exacerbated the problem.
The theme in Firbank’s life and writing is a sense of never quite belonging. He was born into wealth, but it was only two generations old and socially suspect. His delicate health led him to constantly seek out warmer places to visit, and his friends knew of his comings and goings largely from notices in The London Times. As a Catholic convert, he had a crazy love-hate relationship with The Church.
His gayness gave Firbank the perfect place to observe the rituals of his social circle as well as its hostility to outsiders. The plots and the dialogue of his novels now seem as precious and overstuffed as a Victorian salon, but Firbank was also remarkably forward-looking and unabashedly queer.
Firbank was conundrum, filled eccentricities and surprises, including his love of playing sports. While at Cambridge, Oscar Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland wrote about seeing the effete Firbank incongruously dressed ”in the costume of sport”. Confounded, Holland inquired what he had been doing, and learning that Firbank had apparently been playing football, further asked whether it was rugby or soccer. Firbank replied: ‘‘Oh… I don’t remember”.
His lifestyle and his work came to be known as ”Firbankian”. He dressed in lounge suits with a bowler hat, carrying a cane and gloves. He painted his fingernails crimson, and on his long fingers he wore many rings. He teased his fine dark hair into a high pomander. He kept a palm plant in his flat and employed a gardener to come in twice a day to water it.
Firbank was a regular at London’s Café Royal, the literary haunt of many famous writers. He was so adverse of eating that for lunch he would only have Champagne and flower petals and an occasional single grape. The guests at his table would often include painter Augustus John, Aldous Huxley, Alfred Douglas, and Dylan Thomas.
He was in Rome when he left this world in 1926, dying alone in a hotel room. He was just 40-years-old, taken by alcoholism and lung disease. After his passing, those that championed him included: E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, W.H. Auden, Joe Orton, Susan Sontag, and the late, great Bob Smith.
Firbank was an outsider to the end; having no inkling of his Catholic conversion, the authorities had him buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.