An exotic bloom in the mould of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley, Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was an author who achieved little recognition in his short life but has since been reassessed as a leader of the Aesthetic Movement. Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank was born to privilege on Mayfair’s Clarges Street. His father was MP Sir Thomas Firbank. Aged ten he was sent to Uppingham and won a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge though he did not complete his degree. During his tenure at Trinity Hall, Firbank converted to Catholicism in 1907. His crises of religious faith may not be unconnected to his chronic alcoholism and homosexuality at a time when to be so was a criminal offence.
In his online biography Concerning the Eccentricities of Ronald Firbank, James J. Conway writes ‘A Bright Young Thing before his time, Firbank was born blushing. His associates never fail to mention his social awkwardness, particularly the incessant fluttering of hands (or compulsive washing of same) and they hysterical laughter which would periodically erupt leaving him incapable of completing an anecdote. Attempting to embolden himself with drink merely exacerbated the problem’. Openly gay, Firbank was an inspiration for Nancy Mitford’s character Cedric Hampton in Love in a Cold Climate (1949).
Suffering from delicate health for most of his life not aided by his addiction to cannabis and alcohol, Firbank was the very model of a wilting Aesthete. His eccentricity manifested itself at Cambridge where he was acquainted with Oscar Wilde’s son Vivyan Holland. Holland recalled seeing Firbank ‘incongruously dressed in the costume of sport. Confounded, Holland enquired what he had been doing and, learning that he had apparently been playing football, further enquired whether it was rugby or soccer. “Oh”, Firbank replied, “I don’t remember”’. The author was unsurprisingly rejected from the priesthood and spent his twenties and thirties drifting around Spain, Italy, the Middle East and North Africa living off his inheritance.
Firbank’s short novels and plays were mostly published posthumously and never performed. They are Baroque, surreal and absurd in the highest degree. His most famous novel, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) sees the eponymous prince of the church christening his dog in a cathedral service and dying of a heart attack chasing a choir boy round the altar. Prancing Nigger (1924) examines a socially ambitious black family in a fictional Caribbean republic (an amalgam of Cuba and Haiti) and satirises pretension and social climbing.
In The Flower Between the Foot (1923) Firbank invents a fictional Balkan country and concerns the machinations of the king, queen, court and clergy. Valmouth (1919) is set in a health resort on the West Coast of England where most of the inhabitants are over their hundredth birthday. Many of the characters are openly gay and as outrageous as Firbank himself. When he met the flamboyant, sinister artists’ muse the Marchese Luisa Casati, Firbank was said to have lain lilies at her feet and suggested they should embark immediately for America.
The author’s prose style displays a mastery for comic dialogue tinged with decadence comparable to Oscar Wilde. For example, one of his most famous aphorisms was ‘the world is disgracefully managed, one hardly knows to whom to complain’. Of one of his characters he writes ‘mentally, perhaps she was already three parts glass. So intense was her desire to set up a commemorative window to herself that, when it was erected, she believed she must live behind it, forever, a little ghost’. Of his rather overexcited, absurdist tendencies, he wrote ‘I adore italics, don’t you?’
Firbank died alone in a hotel room in Rome of lung disease aged forty and – in a muddle he would have appreciated – was mistakenly buried in a Protestant graveyard by his friend Gerald Berners (Nancy Mitford’s model for Lord Merlin). One could write-off Ronald Firbank as an inferior talent to Wilde’s – a literary gadfly – but for the devotees who resurrected his work in the 1940s. Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, E. M. Forster and W. H. Auden all expressed admiration for his thin opus as did Susan Sontag in her seminal 1964 essay Notes on Camp. The gay novelist Alan Hollinghurst references Firbank in his debut novel The Swimming Pool Library (1988).
Editions of Firbank’s Complete Short Stories and Complete Plays were not published until 1990 and 1991 respectively. His most famous play, The Princess Zoubaroff (1920) was rarely produced but did receive a radio performance by the great Dame Edith Evans in 1964. In it, Dame Edith recites a famous Firbank lament: ‘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’.