The London Stage: Hadrian VII

Frederick William Rolfe, alias Baron Corvo, was one of the more freakishly talented eccentrics of English letters. A homosexual, a paranoiac, a scoundrel, a petty blackmailer and a fake, he was constantly in debt, sponged on his friends, excoriated his enemies and died in 1913 in self-imposed exile in Venice. At 26 he converted to Roman Catholicism and trained for the priesthood. Twice dismissed from seminaries, he retained a lifelong conviction of his priestly vocation.

A wine merchant of prose—witty, luxuriant, Latinate—Rolfe poured out a minor masterpiece of wish fulfillment in his novel Hadrian VII, an account of how a...