RONALD FIRBANK, though he seems to us so very much a child of his own period, might also, paradoxically, be described as a man born out of his time. Apart from a fragment of juvenilia, all his books appeared between -the years 1915 and 1926 (The Artificial Princess was published posthumously in 1934, but was probably written in about 1914.) and one tends to think of them — along with Eliot's Prudrock and Huxley's Antic Hay — as typical products of the nineteen-twenties; yet Firbank's true affinities were with the fin de siecle, the epoch of Wilde, Beardsley and The Yellow Book. Had he, in fact, been born a decade or so earlier, he would almost certainly not have written the kind of novels he did, and quite possibly would have produced nothing memorable at all, for his work owes its unique quality to a kind of literary cross-breeding: his innate ninetyishness is, as it were, hybridised with the more cynical and disillusioned spirit of a later age. He himself remained a good old-fashioned aesthete, his approach to life and literature was deliberately precious and artificial; but the chronological gap which separated him from the nineties enabled him to view the 'Mauve Decade' with a certain detachment, and to appreciate its more comical aspects; he possessed, moreover, a pronounced faculty for self-mockery, and was quite capable of laughing at his own preciosity.
In his lifetime and for some years after his death Firbank's work appealed only to a select few; solemn critics were apt to dismiss him as an intellectual playboy, a purveyor of frivolous trifles, though even as early as 1929 such eminent fellow-writers as E. M. Forster, Osbert Sitwell and Arthur Waley had recognized his claim to be judged — despite his apparent triviality — as a serious literary artist( The first collected edition, published in 1929, contained introductory essays by Osbert Sitwell and Arthur Waley; E. M. Forster's essay on Firbank, dated the same year, appears in Abinger Harvest.).
During the second world war, and for some years after it, his books were all but unobtainable; in 1949, however, Messrs. Duckworth issued five of the novels in one volume, following it up with further reprints, and Firbank began to be rediscovered by a younger generation. His only published play, The Princess Zoubaroff, received its first performance, and one of his best novels, Valmouth, was dramatized, in a musical version, by Sandy Wilson. Firbank, in fact, more than thirty years after his death, had achieved a celebrity which, denied him in his lifetime, could hardly have been foreseen even by his warmest admirers, and must have greatly surprised those of his surviving contemporaries who had failed to recognize, behind the frivolous facade, a writer of enduring merit.
Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank was born in London in 1886, of rich upper-middle-class parents; his grandfather, Joseph Firbank, had started life as a Durham miner, but later amassed a large fortune as a railway contractor. Ronald was a delicate child, and was educated, for the most part, by private tutors. With some idea of studying for the diplomatic service, he spent some time at Tours and Madrid, and in 1906 went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He sat for no examinations, and left the University after two and a half years, without a degree. Perhaps the most noteworthy event of his time at Cambridge was his reception into the Roman Catholic church, though his Catholicism might be described, perhaps, as 'pratiquant' rather than 'croyant': the appeal of the Church, in fact, was for Firbank more aesthetic than theological, and in his later novels he adopts an attitude of affectionate mockery towards the hierarchy.
The project of a diplomatic career was soon abandoned, probably owing to Firbank's delicate health; for the same reason, much of his life was spent abroad, in Italy, France, North Africa and the West Indies. He was an enthusiastic traveller, and his taste for exotic scenes is reflected in his books; he was also fond of smart society, though his social activities were apt to be inhibited by an extreme and paralysing shyness. His first book had been published in 1905, before he went up to Cambridge; thereafter he was to produce nothing more for ten years, but from 1915 onwards his novels appeared at approximately the rate of one a year. With the approach of middle-age, his health gradually declined, the process being hastened, no doubt, by heavy drinking and a highly irregular mode of life, he died at Rome in 1926, four months before his fortieth birthday.