The Mysterious Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers 
by Teresa Ransom.
Sutton, 247 pp., £25, June 1999, 0 7509 1570 6
Show More
Show More

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.

The Prince introduces his protégé into the high life of rakes, cuckolds, suicidal gamblers, bartered brides and dinner guests who toss their hostesses in tablecloths the better to see their legs. Everybody has a price. The hard-up Earl of Elton charges two thousand guineas a year to board a young American heiress, who is waiting for the sick and debauched countess to die so that she may assume the title. As Lucio points out, the Earl also has a ravishingly beautiful daughter, Lady Sybil, who like all daughters of the aristocracy is up for sale. The tiresome Tempest, however, still hankers to have his rejected novel published, so the Prince instructs him how to get it ‘boomed’. It must first be advertised as dealing with ‘one of the most delicate and burning questions of the time’, to give the impression, whether merited or not, that it is improper, or at least uncluttered by sublimities. A corrupt publisher, the Devil’s own, offers not only to have the book boosted by a well-known agency which, for £40, will ensure the insertion of any non-libellous paragraph in four hundred newspapers, but also to have a ‘leaderette’ published, for a hundred guineas, in eight hundred newspapers in Britain and America. It is an offer Tempest cannot refuse, but he is taken aback when told ‘You understand, I suppose, that I shall only issue 250 copies at first?’ All these will be given away, on publication day, in the proper quarters, thus enabling the publisher to claim a first-edition sell-out. Next, 250 copies will be sent, on sale or return, to provincial booksellers, justifying a claim that a second edition has been exhausted; then there will be an announcement of an imminent third edition, and so on. On the author’s behalf the Devil personally passes a draft for £500 to his creature McWhing, who controls a clique of leading critics. This is not a bribe, explains the Devil, laughing heartily, but a contribution to help sundry ‘poor but proud’ literary men whose names are known to McWhing alone. The result? After ten ‘editions’, despite all the Devil’s efforts, the book is a flop.

What galls Tempest is that a successful woman novelist, Mavis Clare (note the initials), is selling books by the tens of thousands – books which earn only sneers from the critics. This gracious, elegant woman, with ‘a child’s heart and a child’s faith’, but also ‘a thinker’s brain and an angel’s soul’, is more than a match for any publisher. Such is her radiant virtue that Prince Lucio is abashed in her presence. Tempest braces himself to read one of her books and is so angered by its excellence that he slates it in an anonymous review.

So much for the Republic of Letters. Urged on by Prince Lucio, Tempest ‘buys’ and weds Lady Sybil. A grossly lavish wedding feast is laid on by the Prince himself. His gift to the bride, a curiously personal one, is a bejewelled serpent girdle which flashes fire as she walks. Worse, he bestows on the bride a deeply unsettling kiss. Here we seem to have entered Hilaire Belloc territory:

The Devil, having nothing else to do,
Went off to tempt My Lady Poltagrue.
My Lady, tempted by a private whim,
To his extreme annoyance, tempted him.

All too soon, My Lady Sybil sneaks from the marriage bed to throw herself at the feet of the Devil ... Cut, and fast forward to her suicide note, which is long enough to fill more than three pages of this magazine. It expresses her ill-tempered disillusion with society and the influences, mainly literary, which have led her astray. She rejoices that Shelley, with his loose views and silly falsetto voice, was drowned young. Her real venom is kept for the satyr-songster Swinburne, whom she quotes at length, for teaching her to look on Christ as ‘carrion crucified’. The one book which briefly arrested her degeneration was by Mavis Clare. The manuscript ends: ‘Oh God, have mercy! ... I know WHO claims my worship now, and drags me into yonder rolling world of flame! ... his name is —’. The page ends in a blot.

The shattered widower joins Prince Lucio aboard his electrically propelled yacht bound for the unknown and at last he realises the identity of his host. In a tormented outburst, Satan invites sympathy for an angel excluded from Heaven until ‘Man of his own will releases and redeems’ him. Terrified by a bad conscience and wild, unnatural landscapes, Tempest vows to serve only God in future. This is the news Heaven has been waiting for. A silver voice calls down ‘Arise, Lucifer, Son of the Morning! One soul rejects thee – one hour of joy is granted thee! Hence and arise!’ In a ‘sublime Luminance’ Lucifer soars from the demon bark, an angel escorted by angels, ‘the glory round his brows resembling meteor-fires in an Arctic midnight’. That does not end the story. The Devil is only away for sixty minutes. Enough to say that his next evil design is —.

Obviously it was not for the catty caricature of the literary life that The Sorrows of Satan was relished by millions. These were readers who had not yet lost their ancient faith, bemused though they might be by talk of spiritualism, transmigration of souls, reincarnation, long-life elixirs and, not least, Corelli’s own home-grown metaphysics. Though she attacked the churches with some vigour, she was plainly on the side of God and all his works. Were not her words read out in the pulpits? Her readers were happy to see the too-liberated New Woman excoriated, along with the prurient novels which led Lady Sybil into damnation; if there was eroticism in her novels it lay well below the surface. Along with a fine fervour she had a strong imagination and could drive the narrative irresistibly along, however half-baked the plot. What did it matter if she wrote ‘at the top of her voice’, or was ungrammatical and long-winded? Her flock were like the platoon who were ready to follow their gallant officer everywhere, if only to find out what he would do next. It was easy for them to forgive her for portraying herself as a walking radiance, ‘the keeper of the lilies of purity and peace’ (Corelli denied that Mavis Clare was a self-portrait, but not a soul believed her). Her readers, or most of them, had stayed with her even when her Barabbas, which preceded The Sorrows of Satan, had played near-blasphemous games with the events of Calvary (the tale as told by the pardoned thief was that Judas had himself been betrayed by his hitherto unknown sister Judith, who stitched him up in a lovers’ plot with Caiaphas). But it was a tale told in purple, with panache. To read Barabbas now, Teresa Ransom writes, ‘is like watching a huge Technicolor epic unroll. It is full of wide panoramas, strong passions, love and betrayal.’ Which fills one with keen regret at not having seen D.W. Griffith’s 1926 film of The Sorrous of Satan, with the arch-seducer Adolphe Menjou and the arch-vamp Theda Bara.

Among the faults for which Marie Corelli was mocked by the critics was her lack of discrimination. In some ways she resembled ‘Mad Madge’, the Duchess of Newcastle of Pepys’s day, a literary fantasist who was not above putting herself into her scripts. A Victorian editor said that the Duchess’s exuberant fancy was ‘ruined by deficient culture, by literary dissipation and the absence of ... Concatenation and the Sense of Proportion. She thought without system and set down everything she thought.’ Forster should have advised Corelli ‘Only concatenate.’ Her scatter-gun approach is all too evident in The Sorrows of Satan, in which, while railing at major wickedness, she finds time to snipe at the sale of shilling photographs of society beauties, ‘the tomboy tennis-players and giantesses of the era – the unnatural strutting embryos of a new sex which will be neither male nor female’ (perhaps she had something there), the rage for cutting down trees and the shame of Millais, who allowed his ‘Bubbles’ painting to be used for advertising soap, thus excluding himself from the company of Art’s immortals. Not without difficulty Millais persuaded her to omit this passage from later editions, on the grounds that he did not paint the picture specifically for Pear’s. Corelli’s regard for fairness and accuracy was never high. Occasionally she defends a statement with a footnote like ‘Said to me by one of the “lady leaders” of “smart” society’, or simply, with airy defiance, ‘A fact’. She has a slippery, catch-as-catch-can grip on the scientific wonders of the day: in her first book, The Romance of Two Worlds, electricity is promoted as part of a link-up with God. Elsewhere she is all for etheric vibrations which bring souls into close harmony. Fond of slapping capital letters on abstractions, she invites her readers to peer ‘beyond the veil of the Seeming Real’ or to ponder what goes on between ‘the upper and lower levels of the Incomprehensible yet Absolute’.

Brian Masters’s biography of Corelli, Now Barobbas Was a Rotter (1978), left some painful bruises. Teresa Ransom, author of a life of Fanny Trollope, sits in the mercy seat, judicious and knowledgeable, but aware that she has a bit of a holy terror on her hands. Like every other literary biographer she has trawled the American archives from sea to shining sea. It is hard to know why she worries away so determinedly at the mystery surrounding the novelist’s birth. Whether the songwriter Charles Mackay was her step-father or her father surely matters little. Illegitimacy, if it existed, was obviously something to be concealed and Minnie Mackay was not to be blamed for inventing an exotic ancestry. Elinor Glyn, her fellow practitioner, who wrote the steamy Three Weeks, did the same. Both women prepared themselves for their chosen career by voracious and omnivorous reading, which is probably the best apprenticeship. As an aspiring juvenile, Corelli was the plague of magazine editors, overdoing the ‘little girl’ approach. Physically, she was very conscious of her little girl appearance and much preferred to be photographed standing at the top of steps with her long train in front of her, to mask her lack of inches.

Having achieved some affluence, Corelli took up residence in Stratford-upon-Avon, where she played the Lady Bountiful. Her charitable instincts were strong; and when Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée), who at one time kept forty horses, fell on evil times in Florence, Corelli reached out to help her, but was rejected. In her vigorous attempts to preserve Stratford’s architectural inheritance, the diminutive battleaxe split the town into warring factions. Awarded one farthing in damages in a court case, she went to some trouble to collect the coin. In a flamboyant moment worthy of Ouida, she imported from Venice a gondola, complete with gondolier, in which she floated on the Avon. Her companion on this craft, as throughout her life, was Bertha van der Vyver, a sensible-sounding minor poet ‘who provided stability and love and managed the household while Marie wrote.’ Not until she was in her fifties did Corelli fall seriously for a man, who happened to be another woman’s husband and a flirt; the etheric vibrations were all one-sided.

Not all her books breathed religiosity. Wormwood exposed the horrors of absin the-drinking in Paris; Holy Orders was a warning against drink in general, especially adulterated beer. Satan made a return appearance in The Devil’s Motor, a bizarre attack on automobilism. Shortly after it was published the car-hater bought her first car, a Daimler.

In World War One Corelli appealed to women to send their sons to the Front, but unlike Baroness Orczy, creator of the Scarlet Pimpernel, she did not demand that mothers sign a pledge never to be seen in public with a male shirker. Along with Winston Churchill and Horatio Bottomley she wrote rousing articles for the new Sunday Pictorial. It paid £100-plus, but she waived the fee.

The winter of 1918 saw Corelli fined £50 for a breach of the sumptuary laws. Ransom is ready to go along with her plea that the sugar she was accused of hoarding, though irregularly obtained, was for making a large quantity of jam, which she would probably have given away, and that the prosecution was instigated by her enemies. According to the press, she threw a fine tantrum on conviction, prophesying the immediate fall of Lloyd George and revolution within a week. She was luckier than the scapegoated celebrity of World War Two, Ivor Novello, who was gaoled for a month for fiddling petrol for his Rolls-Royce.

In those late months of World War One it looked as though Prince Lucio might be the evil genius behind the Hidden Hand, that more-than-sinister conspiracy which, in popular belief, was out to frustrate Allied victory. Dr Ellis Powell wrote in the National Review that whoever had created such politico-socio-economic chaos had done so ‘with all the skill hitherto attributed to a single Practitioner, and he with ages of experience in deluding mankind into damnation’. Others had smelled sulphur in the air. A public with its already heated imagination topped up by the disclosures in the Pemberton-Billing case of a Black Book containing the names of 47,000 British perverts, all presumed to be disloyal, was ready to believe anything. What a glorious subject it would have made for Marie Corelli.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences