Hadrian the Seventh, by Fr. Rolfe (‘Baron Corvo’). Chatto & Windus, 15s.
From Labour Review, Volume 5, No. 1, February–March 1960, pages 15-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Ted Crawford & D. Walters for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL) in 2009.
The republication of Hadrian the Seventh, which was first published in 1904, cannot be without interest to the student of labour history. Baron Corvo’s unusual work has long been accepted by literary critics to be of a largely autobiographical character, although it embodies his aspirations as well as his achievements. But it has not been recognised that in this story of the priest who becomes the first English Pope of Rome since Hadrian VI, there is to be found an interesting appreciation of the Labour Party in its early years, and an account of several Socialist and Labour leaders who were known personally to the author. A.J.A. Symons in his Quest for Corvo which was an attempt to tell the story of Corvo’s life, failed entirely to follow up the evidence of his hero’s Socialist and labour associations, although he discovered that in 1893 Corvo had come into contact with H.H. Champion at Aberdeen.
Champion differed from Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald and others who were to become leaders of the Labour Party in his strong antipathy to Liberalism. At the beginning of the 1890’s, however, both he and Hardie had the object of founding an ‘Independent Labour Party’, and when it was founded in 1893 Champion contested Hardie’s control of the new organization. Having stood as Independent Labour candidate for Aberdeen in 1892, where he unsuccessfully opposed James Bryce, Champion retained his link with the city with which he had family connections. He was running a small weekly paper called the Aberdeen Standard, and he added Corvo to its journalistic staff. An article by Corvo on ‘The Architecture of Aberdeen’ (not listed in Mr. Cecil Woolf’s recent Corvo bibliography) appeared in the issue of November 30. Early in 1894, however, the association ended when Champion, having been driven out of the I.L.P. by Hardie and his colleagues, and being in poor health, decided to emigrate to Australia, where he remained until his death.
In Hadrian the Seventh, published a decade later, Champion and others appear under recognisable pseudonyms, and it is clear that Corvo sympathises with Champion’s criticisms of the Liberal tendencies of the founders of the Labour Representation Committee. Indeed, the L.R.C. appears in the novel as the ‘Liblab Federation’—an interesting description at a time when Ramsay MacDonald was just concluding his secret agreements for electoral purposes with the Liberal Chief Whip. Corvo lists its newspaper organs as the Salpinx and Reynards’, in which we may readily perceive the Clarion and Reynolds’. The editor of the former, Robert Blatchford, is thinly disguised as ‘Comrade Matchwood’; and Champion himself appears under the pseudonym of ‘Dymoke’—a name which is understood when it is remembered that Dymoke is the family name of the holders of the hereditary title of ‘King’s Champion and Standard-Bearer of England’. It is significant that in the novel the hero ‘Rose’ (i.e., Corvo himself) is attacked by various labour leaders as an associate of ‘Dymoke’, and ‘Dymoke’ himself is flatteringly described as —
The only capable fighting man ever possessed by socialism … spunged upon for 15 years by socialistic cadgers, sucked dry, ruined, and cast out, a victim of socialistic jealousy and treachery. In the plans laid for a Social Revolution, towards the end of the 19th century, that man had been named commander-in-chief.
This reminds us of Champion’s part in the Social-Democratic Federation in the 1880’s, when he was regarded as the potential military leader of the expected insurrection. In the novel, a Scottish labour leader boasts:
Don’t someone remember I was the one that stopped the traitor’s letters, and gave information of his treachery? If it hadna been for me he would have bought the bally show with his Tory gold.
Here is a reference to the struggle between Hardie and Champion inside the I.L.P. in 1893, when Champion was under heavy suspicion of working for the Conservative Party, and when letters of his were intercepted and used as evidence against him in the final process of his elimination from the movement. The labour leader cannot be identified, however, as Keir Hardie himself, but seems to be an amalgam of several Scottish leaders of the time, including one who had a temporary job on the Aberdeen Standard, which incidentally appears under the pseudonym of Social Standard.
A good many more identifications could be made, but enough has been said to show that one side of Corvo’s career has been completely neglected by the biographers and by the literary critics, whose minds appear capable of comprehending only a part of their legitimate subject matter.
Last updated on 4 October 2009