A REVIEW OF STORIES TOTO TOLD ME BY BARON CORVO
Stories Toto Told Me by Frederick William Rolfe writing as Baron Corvo was published by John Lane at The Bodley Head, London in 1898.
by Bill Allen, December 1982
Straight after his expulsion froom Scots College, a Catholic Seminary in Rome, Frederick Rolfe, alias Baron Corvo, stayed with the elderly English Duchess Sforza-Cesarini in her country villa in the Abruzzi hills. Here in 1890, with his camera, he photographed many of the young boys of the neighbourhood. These boys served him, not only without question, but with adoration.
One boy he loved. His name was Toto Ephoros. The 'Toto' stories, published in John Lane's Yellow Book, established Rolfe as an author. Later, the collected Toto stories appeared under the title In His Own Image. (The Bodley Head Ltd., 1924) Although mainly fictional, they sensitively depict Rolfe's adoration of the lad, as well as give us a glimpse of Toto's character.
The first Toto story, not published during Rolfe's lifetime, was based on an incident in the life of the Duchess Sforza-Cesarini, when she had sent flannel shirts to Garibaldi's troops.
Toto, in it, was the gardener's son. He lived in a little cottage just outside the gates. He was nearly fifteen years old, a beautiful brown boy with long muscular limbs, hardy and strong, and the devoted slave of the house.
At eleven one night the watchers in the palace heard a shot fired, and a half hour later in walked Toto as "cool as a cellared melon".
"Yes, they fired at me," he said, "but I lay flat on the ground and said fifteen Hail Marys."
At two in the morning he went out for the last time. He never returned. The men were told to search for Toto. Another night passed slowly and painfully to the distracted mother. In the morning two Garibaldians desired an audience with the Princess. Toto was found. On the farther side of the palace was a deep gorge with a precipitous cliff forming the opposite boundary. On top of the cliff, within 100 metres of the palace, was a little ruined tower. At daybreak a soldier had seen a cloth fluttering in the window. With three or four of his comrades he ascended and found the entrance barricated by heavy stones. On moving these the tower lay open and there they found Toto, entirely naked. He had been caught by the Neapolitans, his bundles of shirts discovered and they had stripped every stitch from his beautiful body and blocked him up in the ruined tower. At the little window he had stood, one lithe soft arm against the wall and his dauntless brow leaned thereon. He rested on one foot, the other slender limb was advanced in his usual graceful pose. They thought he was alive when they found him for his attitude was nature itself, his grave bright eyes fixed with a soft yearning on his home, his sweet brave mouth firm-closed with a half smile. But he was frozen to death, in the magnificent prime of his youth. He had given his life in charity. They brought him in his naked beauty and laid him like a lily in his mother's arms.
And the Princess had to leave her castle: in her political naivete she had made the shirts out of red flannel.
In that story we can almost see Toto posing for Rolfe's camera. A reproduction of a nude photograph of Toto, taken by Rolfe in 1890, appears in Donald Weeks's biography Corvo (Michael Joseph, 1971), where there is also a photo of Toto's younger brother. But Rolfe made the mistake of killing off a hero about whom he wished to write many more stories.
In About One Way in Which Christians Love One Another, Toto says of himself that
During the night, after my father had seen me go to bed, I rose; and I left my shirt in the porch . . . and I wandered around quite naked and happy and free.
Here he tossed his arms and threw up his legs and wriggled all over in an indescribable manner.
It is interesting to compare this excerpt with a description, given by Rolfe to Masson Fox in a letter from Venice, of the Venetian boy hustler Amadeo Amadei:
He assured me that he knew incredible tricks for amusing his patrons. "First, Sir, see my person," he said. And the vivacious creature did all which follows in about 30 seconds of time. Not more. Moving, every inch of him, as swiftly and smoothly as a cat, he stood up . . . He rolled his coat into a pillow and put it on my end of the table, ripped down his trousers, stripped them down to his feet, and sat bare bottomed on the other end. He turned his shirt up right over his head, opened his arms wide and lay back along the little table with his shoulders on the pillow . . . and his beautiful throat and his rosy laughing face strained backward while his widely open arms were an invitation . . . He crossed his ankles, ground his thighs together with a gently rippling motion, writhed his groin and hips once or twice . . . laughing in my face as he made his offering of living flesh.
In his descriptions of Toto, Rolfe was fairly explicit. In one story he looks "divinely smart". In others he "undulated deliciously", or is called "a slim faun of the forest", or has brown skin "smooth as a peach", or "his calm eyes glittered like diamonds in the brown robe of his skin".
The stories, supposedly told by the sincere but credulous Christian-cum-pagan Toto, are mostly warm, humorous tales of angels, saints, the Eternal Father, "divils" and sinners, in which Rolfe appears as "dear Don Friderico" or "Excellenza". The boy slaves who serveCorvo "could have waited upon the caesars or the gods before them", as Donald Weeks puts it.
Harry Harland strongly suspected a "taint of homosexuality" in the tales. Just before their publication he wrote to Rolfe warning him that if he persisted in publishing the book as it was, he and all his friends would close their doors to the errant author.
Alfonso de Zulueta, in his review of the 1924 edition, said that "the second edition was bought up by a fanatical female who piously made of it a bonfire in her back garden".
Father Martindale, S.J. rightly said that "Toto has a quaint and humorous view of religion which is a product of his spontaneous and vital faith." He also said that the stories were "charming but also pervaded with homo-sexuality and I thought Rolfe was ego-centric and arrogant and could be cruel."
According to Donald Weeks, Toto appears in Rolfe's last novel, The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole (a punning title?). Weeks says that although the girl Zilda is partly based on Rolfe's boy Ermenegildo (Zildo) Vianello, "the character no doubt is but another fragment of the original Ideal: Toto."
My final offering from the Stories Toto Told Me shows Rolfe conforming to the anti-sexual mores of his time; but his fascination with boys threatens to break through at any moment. In A Caprice of Some Cherubim, Toto says:
When you have the happiness, Sir, to see the Padre Eterno sitting upon His throne, I can assure you that, at least, your eyes will be satisfied with the sight of . . . cherubini;and you will find their appearance quite beautiful and curious to look at. They have neither arms, nor bodies, nor legs, like the other angels. They are simply heads, like those of little boys.
Where their ears would normally be
they have wings shaped like those of a sand-piper, and as blue as the sky at day-dawn.
The cherubini ask the Padre Eterno to let them go to Earth to play with a little boy-devil.
Perched in the trees in the gardens of the Palazzo Sforza-Cesarini, in that city over the lake,
the cherubs wait while St. Michael asks Satan for a boy from hell.
The arch-fiend shook his chains with rage, because he was forced to obey, and caused a horrible little kakodaimon to flash into bodily shape from a puddle of moulten brimstone. If you looked at his face or body, you would have thought he was a boy of the age of 14 years.
The arch-fiend skewers his "divil" with his lance and brings him up to the cherubs. The lance causes the divil to
kick and struggle, just as I should, sir, if you whipped me naked with a whip of red-hot wires, instead of with the lilac twigs which you do use when I am black with crime. So they come into the Prince his garden; and, having released the little divil from his uncomfortable position, San Michele Arcangiolo -- who, because he commands the armies in heaven, is very fond of soldiers -- went down into the city to pass a half-hour inspecting the barracks.
The divil saw a fountain and jumped into it. But there was steam and hissing; the divil got out and leaped and howled. The cherubin laughed at him.
Sir . . . you see, one of the torments that the divils and the damned have to bear is to be disappointed alway; so, when the wretched little creature plunged into the cold water, the heat of hell-flame boiled it; and, instead of being cooled at all, the little divil took a very handsome scalding."
The divil asks them to listen to some stories, but
Suddenly, the cherubini found that they did not desire to play with this little divil any longer.
They returned to paradise.
When the Ave Maria rang, and this company of cherubini went on duty in the aureola, the Padre Eterno observed, from the expressions of their faces, that they had been insulted.
God enquired the reason. They replied that the little divil, with whom He had allowed them to play, had been "very rude". They had asked him
to show them funny tricks, and to tell them why he had a nasty black heart-shaped blotch dangling in the middle of his inside, and so forth; and that he had agreed to answer all this, if they would sit down on the grass round him; but they had been obliged to reply that they were not able to sit down, and the little divil had asked then why not; and they had answered politely that they had not the where-withal: and then the little divil jumped up from the ground, where he was lying with his legs a-straddling, and showed them that he could sit down, and had turned heels over head, and laughed and jumped and made a jibe and jeer of them, and had done many other disgusting tricks before them, which had caused them much offence; and so they were bored and came back to paradise . . . They begged pardon if they had seemed to prefer their own will this time. And the Padre Eterno smiled, and at that smile the light of heaven glowed like a rainbow . . .
The biographers expect us to believe that Rolfe looked at Toto and the six other boys he played with in the woods of the Arbruzzi hills but didn't romp with them sexually. Yet he took nude photos of them, camped out all night with them, wrote stories about them. Rolfe's biographers claim he had taken a vow of chastity for 20 years, so how could he have done otherwise? When, in Venice, Rolfe admitted to "touching" a boy, Donald Weeks suggests he was lying in order to extract money from Masson Fox! It is amazing the lengths to which literati will go in order to deny the consummation of boy-love.
Review originally published in Pan: a magazine about boy-love, XIV (Amsterdam, December 1982), pp. 22-24.
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