Book review: Hadrian the Seventh

I recently finished an interesting book: Hadrian the Seventh by Frederick Rolfe. What makes it interesting isn’t that it’s great, but rather how it’s not.

To start with, it is a well constructed book; the pacing is good and there are not so many longueurs that detract from that pacing. I didn’t find the invented words that distracting and the language was generally enjoyable to read.

What makes it a bad book is that the content is largely an exercise in score-settling and wish-fulfillment on the part of the author. The writer, as succinctly described by his Wikipedia page, was a failed Catholic priest. He also had, which is clear from reading this book, serious grievances against particular people and the general organisation that is the Catholic Church. I’m sure his contemporaries knew exactly who was the target of the occasional screeds that scrawl through the book.

What’s more, he clearly believed with all his heart, like so many modern internet cranks do, that if only he was in power everything would be much better and everybody would know their place. Which is a nonsense, but wishful thinking does tend to lean towards nonsense.

With hindsight, his solutions to the world’s problems are hilariously wrong. Generally, his thought was that democracies are a terrible idea. Instead, we should rely on kings and autocrats to rule the world and control the populace with an iron fist.

Anybody with a modicum of understanding about the two World Wars that killed so many millions in the 20th century will tell you that this sort of imperialist, top-down thinking is exactly what led to such slaughter. But Rolfe was only reflecting what so many people believed at the turn of the century. Despite presenting himself as the radical thinker who, if only he had the power, could achieve world peace, his philosophy puts him squarely in the same box as the establishment of the time.

For a modern, left-leaning reader, it is also stupidly one-eyed about the “evils” of socialism. They are presented as boogey-men who only wish to take what they haven’t earned; filthy, unwashed, ignoramuses who have never and will never be exposed to high society due to their lack of culture and morals. As well as being astonishingly wrong, it completely ignores the justifiable anger that drove the movement due to how industrial workers were often treated as less than human by their so-called betters. Such demonisation is pointlessly polarising and actively unhelpful to boot.

On top of all this, it has a queasy attitude towards the two sexes. Women are largely absent from the book bar one antagonist who is obsessed our protagonist. Meanwhile there are a number of thrusting young men that are slavered over with a disturbingly paternalistic lens. There is one particularly bizarre scene where our erstwhile Pope gets a massage from one of these nubile men while he hands out a monetary gift to keep the young man in perpetuity. With just a little imagination, it’s easy to see how this viewpoint would have resulted in the despicable sexual abuse acts that were eventually publicised at the end of the century.

Taken holistically, if such thinking was in any way common amongst the Catholic Church, it explains how the Church lost a large part of its moral authority during the 20th century. The whole book is a paean to the establishment and to a world order that was fast-unravelling. Completely ignoring the ills of the industrial age and the needs of the large majority of people who filled their churches week after week was a terrible strategy.

It is a fascinating book because of all these flaws. As such, I’d recommend it as a great read for anybody who wishes to get a snapshot of Church establishment thinking at the turn of the 19th century.

As an aside, I found this book because it was one of the more recent publications on Standard Ebooks and the summary tickled my fancy. Their presentations of books, well-known and otherwise, is superb: 5⭐.