Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) was one of the most extravagant writers of early twentieth century English literature. During his career he produced several novels – including Valmouth (1919), Prancing Nigger (1924) and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) – in which Catholicism leads the reader towards absurd chimerical verbal jousting in a “camp” style.
A Cambridge undergraduate between 1906 and 1909, Firbank was influenced in his attitude towards religion by decadent authors, living the spiritual dimension of existence with the typical fin de siècle affectation. However, while he was at the university, thanks to the meeting with Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson he decided to convert to Catholicism. It is possible that it was the latter who introduced the young dandy to the writings of J. K. Huysmans who had a great influence on his style. Like Baron Corvo, Firbank’s relationship with the Church was, until the end of his days, anything but simple, a continuous oscillation between hate and love. Moreover, even in his best works, parodies, outrageous expressions and vulgarities coexist with a sincere fascination for religion and its rituals.
Firbank was an avant-garde author. By shaking off the literary vestments of the late nineteenth century, he set the tone for a new way of understanding writing. The decadent taste for Art Deco gave impetus to a delirious stream of consciousness that characterised his style. His characters are reduced to grotesque masks, while the plot gradually disappears behind a welter of allusions. The novels, all quite short, succeed in the provocative intent of continually distracting the reader’s attention, away from the general picture and towards the frame. The delicacy of the prose, the chic aftertaste of the adjective, the delightful conversations of the protagonists and their incurable futility contribute to the fleshing out of fascinating works, not easy to read, but which at least have the merit of revealing that background of vanitas vanitatum that overshadows earthly existence.
Behind the apparent lightness, Firbank’s stories hide a profound criticism of modernity. For the first time the esthete realizes that beyond the luminous appearances there is a void that nothing can fill. Man is fundamentally alone; without God he is reduced to a puppet engaged in playing his part in a perennial alternation of comedy and tragedy: «We all sin without distinction and cover our sins with chiffon and diamonds». This intuition was revived years later by Evelyn Waugh, one of Firbank’s greatest admirers (Firbank perhaps inspired him, at least in part, for the character of Anthony Blanche, the homosexual dandy who makes his appearance in Brideshead Revisited).
Traces of Firbank’s style and attitude towards religion are also found in other Catholic writers such as Canon John Gray – especially in the novel Park – and Alice Thomas Ellis, known for her pungent irony.
Ronald Firbank, although few remember him today, played a not-so-secondary role in British Catholic literature. Perhaps he did not produce unforgettable novels, and he certainly never wrote orthodox ones; but his prose was nevertheless an inspiration for many.
Sources: B. BROPHY, Prancing Novelist, Macmillan, London, 1973; M. BENKOVITZ, Ronald Firbank, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1970.