Cosmopolitan travel writer, biographer, novelist and memoirist
Wednesday 25 August 2004
The writer Anthony Rhodes was one of the last of England's gentleman scholars. Cosmopolitan and perfectly mannered, he worshipped Italy and the culture of the Renaissance. Modernity was distasteful. As an exemplar of English prose the most recent work that he recommended was George Gissing's
By the Ionian Sea (1901); Virginia Woolf's novels he considered "peculiar" even 50 years after their publication; Ted Hughes' recent renditions of Ovid's
Metamorphoses seemed pointless given the existence of Dryden's superb translation first published in 1717.
Anthony Richard Ewart Rhodes, writer and translator: born Plymouth, Devon 24 September 1916; married 1944 Elizabeth Ashkenazi (marriage dissolved 1952), 1956 Rosaleen Forbes (died 1993); died London 23 August 2004.
The writer Anthony Rhodes was one of the last of England's gentleman scholars. Cosmopolitan and perfectly mannered, he worshipped Italy and the culture of the Renaissance. Modernity was distasteful. As an exemplar of English prose the most recent work that he recommended was George Gissing's By the Ionian Sea (1901); Virginia Woolf's novels he considered "peculiar" even 50 years after their publication; Ted Hughes' recent renditions of Ovid's Metamorphoses seemed pointless given the existence of Dryden's superb translation first published in 1717.
But it was just this old-fashionedness that made Rhodes typical of so many of his generation. Nor did it impair his ability to write successful travel books, biographies, novels and a war memoir that is a classic of Second World War literature.
Sword of Bone (1942) relates his experiences as a sapper in the 3rd Division of the British Expeditionary Force under the command of General Montgomery during the "phoney war" and the German breakthrough to Dunkirk. Neither reportage nor an epic adventure, the account conveys not so much the drama of the affair as its manifestations of human folly. Its "wry humour", wrote a reviewer in The New Yorker, gives the book its special quality. "The Oxford manner forbids indictment, but the sting is there." A defining historical moment Dunkirk certainly was. But, according to Rhodes, it felt quite different at the time.
Some looked upon it as an Olympian experience, while others considered it a violent brawl. Many were indifferent: some I know would just as soon have been reading a book under a tree.
Rhodes was born in Plymouth in 1916, and attended Rugby and the Royal Military Academy (Woolwich), from which he was sent to study Mechanical Sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge. He then entered the Royal Engineers to please his father, a colonel in the Indian Army.
When Sword of Bone became an international bestseller, Rhodes decided to write more books and study literature. So he left the Army in 1946 and entered the University of Geneva, where he later became a lecturer in English literature. He returned to England in 1952 to teach romance languages at Eton College.
Compared to Evelyn Waugh's works of the same genre, Rhodes' best novels manifest less spleen and a deeper, Balzacian sense of the pathos of the comédie humaine. The Uniform (1949) mocks the pomposity of the Nazis he had met in Munich before the war. A Ball in Venice (1953) uses the corruption of Venetian high society as a backdrop for the semi-autobiographical story of a young Englishman caught up in a comic struggle between an American millionairess (shades of Peggy Guggenheim), an art critic and the Communist mayor over the fate of a palazzo on the Grand Canal.
The Prophet's Carpet (1961) is a more sombre novel in which the efforts of a certain Mr Sanderson to commercialise the imaginary Balkan state of "Blagoland" conflict with the British consul's determination to respect the inhabitants' culture and Islamic faith.
Rhodes was also a poet and a travel writer and it was in the latter domain that Peter Quennell placed him on a level with Alexander Kinglake, Charles Doughty and Norman Douglas. "He is," wrote Quennell in 1987, "one of those imaginative yet learned travellers who deserve a special place in the history of English prose".
In A Sabine Journey (1952), Rhodes describes the traditions and daily life of central Italy as he experienced them during his perambulation with a donkey from Terni to Rome in 1950 to celebrate the Catholic Holy Year in Bernini's magnificent square before St Peter's. His wanderings along the Dalmatian coast and through the inland regions of the Balkans resulted in more travel books and a much later work, Art Treasures of Eastern Europe (1972).
By now Rhodes had married for the second time. He seldom spoke of his first wife, whom he met during a lecture tour in Canada. But he loved to talk about his second wife, Rosaleen Forbes, whom he married in 1956 and whose death in 1993 cast such a black shadow over his final years. This beautiful, strong-willed woman had in the war worked for General Edward Spears in Damascus, driven ambulances across Africa and earned the Croix de Guerre. She and Rhodes soon became prominent in London's literary scene and Rose Macaulay, Arthur Koestler, the Sitwells and other literary figures flocked to their crowded parties in Lower Belgrave Street.
It was under his wife's influence that Rhodes decided to write something similar to Sword of Bone, involving personal involvement in a great drama. He therefore dashed to Budapest in 1956 when news broke that the Hungarians were struggling to drive the Russians from their country.
Soon after entering the city at the wheel of a lorry loaded with potatoes he was adopted by the revolutionaries, who returned his sympathetic interest by presenting him with a remarkable souvenir - an ear from a recently toppled statue of the despised Stalin. Besides probable reports to the British intelligence service, Rhodes wrote influential articles on the crisis for the Daily Telegraph and an eye-witness account, A Journey to Budapest (1956). Later, he wrote more articles after visits to Romania, Poland, Bulgaria and the former Czechoslovakia.
Dictatorship and worldly power repelled but also fascinated Rhodes. His biography of the 19th-century Italian writer and proto-Fascist Gabriele d'Annunzio, The Poet as Superman, was published in 1960. This was followed by Louis Renault (1969), a biography of the great French car manufacturer, who collaborated with Hitler in the Second World War.
He also translated several books including the memoirs of the former Moroccan monarch King Hassan, with whom he and his wife became friends. "Your Queen is so lucky," the monarch moaned during one of their many visits to Rabat. "She has only to reign, while I, as ruler, must labour 18 hours a day for my people." The King relied for 17 years on Rhodes's advice on cultural matters and insisted on his company during state visits to the United States and Saudi Arabia and game-hunting expeditions to Kenya.
In the 1970s Rhodes became intensely interested in the relation between religion and temporal authority. The result was his trilogy The Power of Rome in the Twentieth Century. The second volume, The Vatican in the Age of the Dictators (1973), concerns the fraught years between 1922 and 1945. Using British, Italian and German primary sources and newly opened files in the Vatican archives, Rhodes discovered important evidence invalidating allegations that Pius XII could have done more to protect the Jews from Nazi persecution.
Having embarked on his research as an open-minded Anglican, he became so impressed by what he learned that he converted to Catholicism in 1992. "The universal aptness of the Roman Church for all conditions of men and nations well befits her claim to divine origin," he wrote. "And here is her strength - not in the vaudeville of her services and the politics of her princes."
He was invested with the insignia of a Knight Commander of St Gregory and ended his days attended by the Daughters of the Cross and their devoted staff.
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