|Born||Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank
17 January 1886
|Died||21 May 1926
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli
Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank (17 January 1886 – 21 May 1926) was an innovative British novelist. His eight short novels, partly inspired by the London aesthetes of the 1890s, especially Oscar Wilde, consist largely of dialogue, with references to religion, social-climbing, and sexuality.
Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank was born in Britain on 17 January 1886, at Clarges Street in London, the son of MP Sir Thomas Firbank and Lady Harriet Jane (nee Garrett). He had an older brother, Joseph Sydney (born 1884), and a younger brother, Hubert Somerset (born 1887), and sister, Heather (born 1888). At the age of ten he went briefly to Uppingham School (September 1900 to April 1901) and then on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He converted to Catholicism in 1907. In 1909 he left Cambridge without taking a degree.
Living off his inheritance, he travelled around Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa. Openly gay, chronically shy, and an enthusiastic consumer of alcohol and cannabis, he died of lung disease in Rome, aged 40.
Firbank published his first story, "Odette d'Antrevernes", in 1905, before going up to Cambridge. He then produced a series of novels, from The Artificial Princess (written in 1915, published posthumously in 1934) and Vainglory (1915, his longest work) to Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926, also posthumous).
Inclinations (1916) is set mainly in Greece, where the fifteen-year-old Mabel Collins is travelling with her chaperone, Miss O'Brookomore. Mabel elopes with an Italian conte, but the plot is of minor importance and the interest, as with all Firbank's work, lies in the dialogue. His next novel Caprice followed in 1917.
Valmouth (1918) is based on the lives of various people in a health resort on the West Coast of England; most of the inhabitants are centenarians, and some are older ("the last time I went to the play...was with Charles the Second and Louise de Querouaille, to see Betterton play Shylock"). The inconsequential plot is concerned with the attempts of two elderly ladies, Mrs Hurstpierpoint and Mrs Thoroughfare, to marry off the heir to Hare-Hatch House, Captain Dick Thoroughfare. Captain Thoroughfare, who is engaged to a black woman, Niri-Esther, is loved frantically by Thetis Tooke, a farmer's daughter, but prefers his 'chum', Jack Whorwood, to both of them. Meanwhile Mrs Yajñavalkya, a black masseuse, manages an alliance between the centenarian Lady Parvula de Panzoust and David Tooke, Thetis's brother. A musical comedy of 1958 by Sandy Wilson gave the novel some popularity in the 1960s, and has been revived several times and recorded on CD.
This was followed by a story, "Santal" (1921), that describes an Arab boy's search for God. In his next novel, The Flower Beneath The Foot (1923), the setting is an imaginary country somewhere in the Balkans. The characters include the King and Queen, sundry high-born ladies about the Court, and the usual attendant chorus of priests and nuns.
Sorrow in Sunlight (1924), renamed Prancing Nigger at the suggestion of the American publisher but first published in Britain under the author's original title, was especially successful in America. It is set in a Caribbean republic (compounded of Cuba and Haiti). A socially ambitious black family move from their rural home to the capital, and the story is concerned with their attempts, which prove mainly abortive, to 'get into society'.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) begins with the Cardinal christening a dog in his cathedral ('And thus being cleansed and purified, I do call thee "Crack"!') and ends with His Eminence dying of a heart attack while chasing, naked, a choirboy around the aisles.
Firbank's play The Princess Zoubaroff (1920) has been compared to William Congreve, but is rarely produced. Dame Edith Evans, perhaps the greatest British actress of her time, played the title part in a radio production in 1964. The dialogue is highly characteristic: for example, Princess Zoubaroff says: "I am always disappointed with mountains. There are no mountains in the world as high as I would wish... They irritate me invariably. I should like to shake Switzerland."
Firbank's Complete Short Stories were published in a single volume in 1990 edited by Steven Moore, and his Complete Plays in 1991 in a volume containing The Princess Zoubaroff, "The Mauve Tower" and "A Disciple from the Country".
Ronald Firbank left among his manuscripts the first few characteristic chapters of a novel set in New York, The New Rythum (sic), published in 1962 after a sale of many of his manuscripts and letters.
Critical reception 
His novels have been championed by many English novelists including E. M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, Alan Hollinghurst and Simon Raven. The poet W. H. Auden praised him highly in a radio broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in June 1961 (the text of the broadcast was published in The Listener of 8 June 1961). Susan Sontag named his novels as part of "the canon of camp" in her 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'".
Steven Moore records Firbank's critical reception up to 1995 in his Ronald Firbank: An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Materials (Dalkey Archive Press, 1996).
Firbank's published works 
Early publications 
- 'An Early Flemish Painter', in The Academy; 73 (28 September 1903), p. 948 (about Jan Gossaert).
- 'La Princesse Aux Soleils Romance Parlee ...(Trad. de l'anglais par l'auteur)', in Les Essais. Revue Mensuelle; II (November 1904), pp. 78-80.
- "Harmonie ... (trad. de l'anglais par l'auteur)", in Les Essais. Revue Mensuelle; II (February 1905), pp. 305-06.
- "Souvenir D'Automne. A Poem In Prose". Supplement to The King and His Navy and Army; 21 (2 December 1905).
- Odette d'Antrevernes And A Study in Temperament (stories, 1905).
- Odette D'Antevernes (1905) [separate large-paper edition].
- "The Wavering Disciple. A Fantasia", in Granta; 20 (1906 November 24), pp. 110-11 and 20 (5 December 1906), pp. 130-32.
- "A Study In Opal", in Granta; 21 (2 November 1907).
Major works 
- Vainglory ... With a Frontispiece by Felicien Rops (novel, 1915)
- Inclinations ... With two Drawings by Albert Rutherston (Rothenstein) (novel, 1916)
- Caprice ... With a Frontispiece by Augustus John (novel, 1917)
- 'Fantasia For Orchestra In F Sharp Minor', in Art and Letters; II N.S. (1919 Spring), p.64-79 [Draft of a chapter of Valmouth (1919)]
- Valmouth - A Romantic Novel ... With A Frontispiece By Augustus John (novel, 1919)
- The Princess Zoubaroff - A Comedy ... With Frontispiece and Decoration by Michel Sevier (play, 1920)
- "Santal" (story, 1921)
- The Flower Beneath The Foot - Being a Record of the Early Life of St. Laura De Nazianzi and the Times in which She Lived ... With a Decoration By C.R.W. Nevinson and Portraits by Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis (novel, 1923)
- 'A Broken Orchid (From Sorrow in Sunlight)', in The Reviewer; 4 (1923 October), p.15-19
- Sorrow in Sunlight (published in the U.S.A. as Prancing Nigger; novel, 1924)
- Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (novel, 1926)
Posthumous publications 
- The Artificial Princess ... With an Introduction by Sir Coleridge Kennard (novel, 1934) [written c. 1915].
- "Lady Appledore's Mesalliance", in Cornhill Magazine; 172 (story, summer 1962), pp. 399-425 [written c. 1908].
- The New Rythum And Other Pieces (novel fragment, 1962) [incl. extracts from The Mauve Tower (play written c. 1904), A Disciple From The Country (play), "The Widow's Love" and "A Tragedy in Green"].
- The Wind & The Roses ...Introduction by Miriam J. Benkovitz, privately printed (poem, 1966)
- Ronald Firbank Far Away ... Note by Miriam J. Benkovitz (1966) [written 1904].
- Ronald Firbank - When Widows Love & A Tragedy in Green ...Introduced by Edward Martin Potoker (1980).
Further reading 
- Ronald Firbank - A Memoir By Ifan Kyrle Fletcher With Personal Reminiscences By Lord Berners, V. B. Holland, Augustus John R.A., And Osbert Sitwell ... (1930)
- An essay in Osbert Sitwell, Noble Essences (1950)
- Jocelyn Brooke, Ronald Firbank (1951)
- M. J. Benkovitz, Ronald Firbank - A Biography (1969)
- J. D. Merritt, Ronald Firbank (1969) [Twayne's English Authors Series]
- E. M. Potoker, Ronald Firbank (1970)
- Brigid Brophy, Prancing Novelist - A Defence Of Fiction In The Form Of A Critical Biography In Praise Of Ronald Firbank (1973)
- Ronald Firbank - Memoirs and Critiques, ed. Mervyn Horder (1977). Incorporates I. K. Fletcher's "Memoir" (1930).
- M. J. Benkovitz, A Bibliography Of Ronald Firbank - Second Edition (1982)
- S. Moore, Ronald Firbank - An Annotated Bibliography of Secondary Materials, 1905-1995 (1996)
- Derek Parker, The Man with Red Nails: Ronald Firbank, in Books and Company (1999)
- Alan Hollinghurst, "The shy, steely Ronald Firbank" (revision of the third of the 2006 Lord Northcliffe Lectures given at University College, London, October 2006), in The Times Literary Supplement (2006 November).
- M. J. Benkovitz, Ronald Firbank A Biography (1969), p.11-13
- I. Kyrle Fletcher, Ronald Firbank A Memoir (1930)
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Ronald Firbank|
- Ronald Firbank on glbtq.com
- Ronald Firbank at Find a Grave
- TLS review at http://tls.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,25338-2454703,00.html
- Sorrow in Sunlight text at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0700911.txt