Growing up in the shadow of Oscar Wilde‘s dreadful downfall, Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (1886 – 1926) showed a special sort of bravery in celebrating the elegant 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. His life as well as his art showed a sense of never quite belonging.
He was born rich, but the family wealth was only two generations old and socially suspect. His delicate health led him to constantly seek out warmer weather. Living off the family money amassed by his grandfather, he traveled to more sensual climates of Italy, Spain, North Africa, the Middle East.
He was also a Catholic convert, like gay writers Everlyn Waugh in the next generation and Frederick Rolfe in the previous. In fact, he was accepted into the Church by Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, who enjoyed affairs with Rolfe and Firbank. Firbank, like Rolfe, was drawn to the High Church’s pageantry and ceremony, and he went to Rome to take holy orders, only to be rejected.
Back home, he added glitter and glamour to London society. He had no intention of butching it up or joining the army when World War I broke out. Instead, he wrote sparkling, charming novels with slight plots that are simply bonbons to swallow his witty stabs 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 So, of course, much of his work was unpublished or widely shunned by the critical establishment of his era.
Firbank possessed a privileged vantage point to observe the rituals of his social circle as well as its hostility to outsiders. Although his plots and dialogue can occasionally seem precious and overstuffed, Firbank provides passages in Valmouth which record fragments of friends’ conversations out of context, plus his regular introductions of characters who were gay or lesbian or otherwise.
Valmouth centers on the activities of various people in a health resort on the West Coast of England; most of the inhabitants are centenarians, and some are improbably older. The plot, such as it is, is about the attempts of two elderly ladies, Mrs. Hurstpierpoint and Mrs. Thoroughfare, to marry off the heir to Hare-Hatch House, Dick Thoroughfare, who is engaged to a black woman, Niri-Esther, and is loved frantically by Thetis Tooke, a farmer’s daughter, but Thoroughfare prefers his chum, Jack Whorwood, to both of them. Mrs. Yajnavalkya, a black masseuse, manages an alliance between the centenarian Lady Parvula de Panzoust and David Tooke, Thetis’s brother. There is a musical by Sandy Wilson based on this novel. It has several revived several time with cast albums available.
His books are filled with kings, masseuses, nuns and queer Cardinals; his novels are, in fact, blueprints for what we now call “camp”.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli begins with the Cardinal christening a dog in his cathedral and ends with His Eminence dying of a heart attack while chasing, naked, a choirboy around the aisles.
Firbank 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. His gayness gave Firbank the perfect place to observe his social circle as well as its hostility to outsiders.
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 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 seemed to have stepped out of drawing by Aubrey Beardsley.
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 the great 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, Waugh, W.H. Auden, Joe Orton, Susan Sontag, and the late, great Bob Smith. Sontag named his novels as constituting part of “the canon of camp” in her 1964 essay Notes On Camp.
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.
From Caprice (1917):
“Although there were moments even still in the grey glint of morning when the room had the agitated, stricken appearance of a person who had changed his creed a thousand times, sighed, stretched himself, turned a complete somersault, sat up, smiled, lay down, turned up his toes and died of doubts. But this aspect was reserved exclusively for the housemaids and the translucent threads of dawn.”