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Ronald Firbank (Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank) Biography

(1886–1926), (Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank), Vainglory, Inclinations, Caprice, Valmouth, The Princess Zoubaroff, Santal

set society books prancing

British novelist, born in London. His grandfather was a Durham miner who made his fortune as a railway contractor, his father a Unionist MP who was knighted on the accession of Edward VII. His childhood was spent in Chislehurst, a town whose connections with the exiled Empress Eugenie may have fed his enduring fascination with both royalty and Catholicism. His first book, containing the two tales ‘Odette d'Antrevernes’ and ‘A Study in Temperament’, was published in 1905. At Cambridge (19069) he took no degree but was received into the Catholic Church and pursued an interest in Oscar Wilde that is evident throughout his work. The war years, spent in isolation in Oxford, saw the publication of Vainglory (1915), Inclinations (1916), and Caprice (1917); Valmouth followed in 1919 and his play The Princess Zoubaroff in 1920 (first performed in 1951). Dandyish, frail, heavy-drinking, and intensely shy, he found it hard to readjust to society, and in 1919 for the sake of his health he resumed his pre-war nomadism in southern Europe, North Africa, and the Caribbean. After Santal (1921) came the three major novels of his maturity–like all his work, they are meditations on baffled aspiration and desire: The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923), set in an imaginary Vienna, combines an account of the youthful disappointments of a saint with a tart picture of English literary society in the run-up to a royal wedding; in Prancing Nigger (UK title Sorrow in Sunlight, 1924), set on a Caribbean island, Firbank's negroism finds its most concentrated expression in the sorry adventures of the Mouth family when, driven by Mrs Mouth's social ambitions, they move from the village to the city; in Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926), the moral and theological unorthodoxy of a great Spanish churchman leads to his exile and death. On his own death in Rome, Firbank left fragments of a novel, The New Rythum (1962), set in New York. From the early The Artificial Princess (posthumously published in 1934) on, his highly idiosyncratic work represents a radical and lonely experiment in form and technique: his books tend to an extreme brevity, his approach to plot is oblique and subversive, his construction seemingly fragmentary, though subject to a firm if baroque discipline. His manner is at once satirical and lyric, absurd and cryptically concentrated. It went largely unappreciated in his lifetime (he paid for the publication of all his books until Prancing Nigger made his name in the USA), but was to be a decisive influence on writers of the generation of Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, and W. H. Auden.

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