Ronald Firbank: 1886 – 1926
Arthur Annesley Ronald Firbank was a British author best known for his eight short novels. Inspired by Oscar Wilde his work is largely dialogue with references to religion, social climbing and sexuality. He lived with his parents at The Coopers, Hawkwood Lane, Chislehurst from 1887 until 1907.
Firbank’s parents were Thomas Firbank, MP and Harriette Jane Garrett. Thomas was knighted in 1902. Sir Thomas and Lady Harriette, along with Ronald's two brothers, are buried in ornate graves in St Nicholas Churchyard.
The Coopers is described in Firbank’s biography as being ‘about 100 acres and grander than their previous residence, Morden Lodge, Surrey. The Coopers was situated on a country road running east from Chislehurst past the old inn, The Tiger’s Head, and the Rectory Cottages, where it becomes Hawkwood Lane, known in Firbank’s time as Botany Bay Lane. The house itself, built in the eighteenth century, was backed against a brick wall which edged the lane; the front windows looked out over a gently sloping lawn planted with flowers, ancient cedars, and a tulip tree close by the house. The kitchen garden and stables were on opposite sides of the lawn with the stables to the east, and beyond was a park of fine trees’. The Firbank’s time in residence is commented on briefly in Webb’s History of Chislehurst. ‘Within, the rooms were numerous and well proportioned, with Adam mantels and wainscoting on the main floor’. Harriette referred to it as 'dear home' and once described it as 'looking a Paradise'.
It was here that Firbank grew up and seems to have acquired his love of natural beauty. His early works are full of references to tulips, roses and violets from the gardens at The Coopers, the birds in the trees and the trees themselves. The house itself was filled with antique furniture and Objects D’Art, Worcester tea sets and an ormolu clock.
Apparently the ice making machine failed to function and on another occasion a drunken butler attempted to serve dinner when he had 'had too much', so he was dismissed, but generally speaking the house was a source of grace and harmony. Once there was a question of whether to keep a matched pair of Chestnut horses, but when Daddy 'hired a brake for a week' the chestnuts looked too 'splendid' to let go.
The family consisted of the parents, and four children, Joseph junior, Arthur, Hubert and Heather, known amongst themselves as Daddy and Baba, Joey, Artie, Bertie and Baby, or Lassie, as Heather became known. The children gave tea parties, complete with written invitations to which each child replied. One survives from Joey to Artie, written at Chislehurst on tiny pink paper; it reads 'I shall like to come to our tea party if I am not playing cricket'.
Artie (Ronald) was a frail boy, when travelling in Egypt as a small boy he was'laid low with sunstroke' and was thereafter 'delicate'. He wrote his first novel ‘Lila’ when he was only 10. Also at ten he went away to school, Mortimer Vicarage School, in Berkshire. When he had leisure he simply read or wandered alone in the fields near the vicarage.
It seems that The Coopers was enlarged in their time, Heather wrote to Artie anticipating enjoying the new wing of the house 'It will be such fun when you come home arranging the Billiard Room'.
In May 1900 he went to Uppingham public school , for some reason he was absent a part of his first term, throughout the autumn term he had an 'unending head cold and harsh cough'. When he went home for Christmas he stayed there, never to return to school. Now and then he was allowed excursions in to London but was then sent to a private tutor in Buxton, Derbyshire. His mother wrote from Chislehurst early in May 1902 to complain of the wintry weather.
He returned to Chislehurst shortly before the date set for the coronation of Edward VII, June 26, 1902. The Firbanks were going to the Abbey for the great event and Baba wrote to her son: 'The dear old Canon has invested £25 worth of fireworks to let off near the Cockpit the evening of the 26th'. It was to be an unusually great day for the Firbanks and Chislehurst: 'Daddy was on the honours list and thereafter to be called Sir Thomas'. However these plans were all deferred until August 9th as the King had appendicitis!
Young Artie travelled abroad in 1903, returning to Chislehurst to make occasional trips to London for concerts and the theatre. In November 1904 ‘La Princesse aux Soleils’ was printed in a Parisian monthly, it was his first publication. But also in November, his elder brother Joey, died at Chislehurst, not yet aged 21. Ronald came to Chislehurst for the funeral but returned to Paris immediately afterwards. He returned home for Christmas and spent much of his time arranging for the firm Elkin Mathews, Vigo Street, London to publish his first book, Odette D’Antrevernes was published the following June.
He travelled in France and Spain only returning to The Coopers in August 1905. He took up his literary life in earnest. On December 6th he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Considering his home at Coopers was just a stone’s throw from the celebrated catholic church of St Mary’s, the initial resting place of the exiled Emperor of France, Napoleon III, it is not such a surprising move. The family would have been well aware of this centre of Catholic revival at the turn of the century.
The fortunes of the family went into reverse in 1907. Sir Thomas had lost his parliamentary seat in the Liberal landslide of 1906. Sir Thomas concealed the full seriousness of his financial position, but had to move from Coopers - “Dear Home” - to live in Tunbridge Wells.
Firbank went on to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, but left in 1909 without completing his degree. Openly gay and now a practicing Catholic, he made both frequent subjects of his fiction. He spent the first year of the war in London, his health precluding him from joining up. He chose to retreat to Oxford and it is here that he began writing for print. He announced that he would use his preferred name of Ronald, saying he had always hated the name Arthur. Living off his inheritance he continued to travel after the war, going as far afield as Egypt and Haiti.
His mother died in 1924 and he briefly returned to Chislehurst for the funeral. He died in Rome, May 21st 1926 of pneumonia. In a twist he could have written himself, he was mistakenly buried in a Protestant cemetery and then reinterred after the error was pointed out to the Vatican.
Largely ignored during his lifetime, his fame rose after 1945. His books describe a whimsical universe peopled with bizarre characters and are noted for their elegance and razor sharp wit. 'Valmouth' (1918) is probably his most celebrated work was made into a successful London musical in 1958. His other novels include 'Vainglory' (1915), 'The Flower Beneath the Foot' (1923), 'Prancing Nigger' (1924), 'The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli' (1926) and 'The Artificial Princess' (1934 after his death).
Postscript: His sister, Heather, lived until 1954. She had been a beauty, and adorned herself with exquisite clothes of a heather colour to complement her name. She bought her exquisite clothes from leading couturier houses but in 1921 her clothes were packed into trunks and put into storage, where they remained for the next 35 years. In 1960 the Victoria and Albert Museum acquired well over 100 items of her wardrobe and mounted an exhibition ‘Lady of Fashion’. The Museum is currently writing a book on the exhibition and has been in touch with The Society and Coopers to find out more.
Sources: Ronald Firbank. A Biography by Miriam J Benkovitz; Ronald Firbank A memoir by Ifan Kyrle Fletcher