- The Mysterious Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers by Teresa Ransom
Sutton, 247 pp, £25.00, June 1999, ISBN 0 7509 1570 6
One of the least predictable roles played by the Devil in popular literature was that of literary adviser and agent in Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan, the outstanding bestseller of 1895. This singular book was a product of the publishing revolution which saw the death of the three-volume novel, beloved of the circulating libraries, and its replacement by a single, six-shilling volume which a new mass readership, avid for sensation, was ready to snap up on sight. It was also the book in which, on the author’s instructions, a notice was inserted: NO COPIES OF THIS BOOK ARE SENT OUT FOR REVIEW. Miss Corelli had suffered enough from the critics, that Devil’s crew, and if they wanted to read the book they could buy it (supposedly, her Yorkshire terrier was trained to tear up such hostile reviews as reached her). As a tract showing how Lucifer manipulated the literary establishment, The Sorrows of Satan might have enjoyed only a limited appeal, but it was also a passionate denunciation, as by a scatty Savonarola, of all society’s vices, flagitious or trumpery, the whole enriched by fiery apocalyptic visions.
Today we hear much about Captain Corelli and his mandolin, but a century ago the name Corelli meant only the former Minnie Mackay, author of uplifting ‘spiritual’ romances which engrossed not only the female masses but the crowned heads of Europe. Her books jostled with those of Ouida, Elinor Glyn, Hall Caine and Ethel M. Dell, a greatly envied band whose latest novels, with luck, commanded entire frontpage advertisements in the Daily Mail. Like Shakespeare and Burns, Marie Corelli had her own tear-off calendar, with a new thought for each day. Gladstone called on her. In Colorado a city was named after her. By the 1920s, her books were right out of fashion, though the names of Mavis and Thelma, popularised by her heroines, lingered on. She has not lacked biographers. The latest to bring her to book, Teresa Ransom, is at pains to probe the mystery about her parentage.
First, it is worth revisiting The Sorrows of Satan, which was reprinted as recently as last year.[*] Miss Corelli, who welcomed the newly educated Board School generation to her bosom, would not have been in the least surprised to see her work reprinted a hundred years later as an Oxford World’s Classic, and described as ‘an influential Fin-de-Siècle text’. She might have been surprised to find her text sprinkled with asterisks, leading to the elucidation of words like ‘queer’, ‘sprite’, ‘swagger’, ‘mêlée’, ‘la mode’, ‘déjeuner’ and ‘fallen lady’, terms which the Board School readers took in their stride, along with all those Biblical references.
The narrator of The Sorrows of Satan, Geoffrey Tempest, is a self-pitying failed novelist who receives by the same post the news that he has been left five million pounds and a friendly self-introduction from a mysterious Prince Lucio Rimânez. When the superbly poised Prince arrives, the lights go out in Tempest’s apartment (‘God’s elements crashed a menace’). The Prince’s carriage is drawn by twin sable horses and dogs snarl at him on sight, but Tempest is desperately slow to recognise the Prince of Darkness, even when Lucio explains ‘my kingdom is a large one’ and jokes that he has ‘something of the devil in him’. As a sort of executive toy he has a perforated crystal box from which, at whim, he frees a glittering winged beetle to fly around the room. It came from the cleavage of an unwound female mummy and contains the soul of a princess who died more than four thousand years ago. Tempest finds it merely irritating.
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[*] Edited by Peter Keating (Oxford,426 pp., £5.99, 019 2833243).