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Romance, She Wrote

Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture • by Annette R. Federico • University Press of Virginia • 203 pp • $30.00

The career of the Victorian novelist Marie Corelli was, to use the current English argot, gob smacking. The author of such hot-blooded romances as The Sorrows of Satan (nowadays her best-known work) and The Mighty Atom (not, alas, the first fictional treatment of quantum mechanics, but a polemic against popular education) was, without doubt, the best best-seller writer of her century, in terms of both cash earned and copies sold. But she herself was always her finest work of fiction.

Corelli was born plain Minnie Mackay, the (probably) illegitimate daughter of a hack litterateur and his house servant. After a painfully deprived childhood, Miss Mackay metamorphosed into the chanteuse Rose Trevor (she had real musical gifts), and then into the full-blown literary butterfly Marie di Corelli (her literary gifts were more questionable). Her first novel was published when she was thirty-one--or seventeen by her own account. Corelli rode triumphantly on the new mass readership created by the 1870 universal education act. It helped that the three-volume "library" novel was replaced, in 1894, by the more affordable and portable six-shilling "single-decker." But Corelli was not merely the idol of suburbanites. Queen Victoria whiled away summers at Balmoral, and Gladstone the parliamentary recesses, reading Corelli's latest work. The Prince of Wales admired the little authoress, and she adored him, inserting His Royal Highness daringly into her romantic narratives.

With great shrewdness, the novelist manipulated her celebrity with "corrected" (that is, lavishly retouched) photographs, enshrining the ideal (or as she saw it, "true") mental image that the English public had of her. To be close to her soul mate Shakespeare, she took up residence in Stratford-upon-Avon, where on summer evenings, as Annette Federico records, she would glide down the river in a gondola, complete with an imported Vene tian gondolier. On a raised platform in her house, Mason Croft (now the University of Birmingham's Shakespeare Institute), she would perch--five feet nothing in her silk stockings--to receive visitors.

Although she did much good work on preserving Shakespearean monuments from Stratford's vandalizing town council, Corelli was not a loved neighbor. During World War I, her fellow citizens shopped her to the authorities on a trumped-up charge of food hoarding. Nor did the reviewers love her. Her fiction was invariably received with a chorus of male contempt. It may be that, like her novelist-heroine Mavis Clare in The Sorrows of Satan, Corelli trained her lapdogs to shred the papers that abused their mistress. It's an observable fact that she had a slip inserted into her later novels declaring that no review copies would be sent out. If the newspaper reptiles wanted her books, they could buy them like everyone else.

Corelli's personal life was, like her photographs, rigorously "correct." She cohabited (decently, all biographers agree) with a lifetime companion, Bertha Vyver. Late in life, she conceived a hopeless passion for the tenth-rate artist Arthur Severn, on which Federico has interesting new things to say. Corelli died in 1924, possibly from the effects of decades of overtight corseting.

Alas, bestsellerdom is the slipperiest of poles: At Corelli's earning peak, in the 1890s, publishers had lined up to offer five-figure advances, but seventeen years after her death her annual royalty checks amounted to a pitiful seventy-three pounds. Her surviving partner, Bertha, starved genteelly. Nowadays, Corelli is read only by those with a perverse taste for the absurd and by New Age nuts. Some twenty-seven of her works are currently available in the United States from Kessinger Books, a Montana-based firm that specializes in "Rare Esoterica and Masonic Reprints."

Corelli was not merely a romance novelist; her work veered sharply at times into the realm of the esoteric. Her first published novel, A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), proselytizes for the "Electric Creed" (don't ask) and features a magician (a "Great Electrician" in Corelli-speak) called Heliobas. It gets even more mystical. My favorite Corelli novel is Barabbas: A Dream of the World's Tragedy (1893). This melodrama centers on the Crucifixion and introduces a villainess named Judith Iscariot (sister of Judas). Corelli evidently thought that "Iscariot" was a surname, like Smith--or Mackay. Finally, her millenarian masterpiece, The Master Christian (1900), unashamedly directs a plea for peace to all the Christian churches of the world, "in the name of Christ," whose advocate the novelist took herself to be.

Until recently, the definitive work on Corelli was Brian Masters's Now Barabbas Was a Rotter: The Extraordinary Life of Marie Corelli (1978). Masters dispensed with Corelli's absurdities in a bluff, commonsensical style. Recently, a number of feminist literary critics have set out to upend Masters's sometimes patronizing interpretations. Teresa Ransom's The Mysterious Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers (Sutton, 1999) went so far as to present Corelli as a woman ahead of her time--a feminist avant la lettre. Commentators agreed that the feminist emphasis of the book was timely and that Corelli's bizarreries, as always, made merry reading. There was, however, one jarringly discordant review in the Spectator--from a furious Brian Masters. Masters's complaint was, bluntly, that Ransom had ripped him off. Although she does not mention him once in the text or index, Ransom appears to draw on Masters's (very impressive) discoveries and follow the trail he blazed through various libraries and private depositories. His anger at what appears a lamentable professional discourtesy is, in my view, justified.

Due to the peculiar rhythms of scholarly publishing, Annette Federico was unable to engage with Ransom's work--other than in a wistful footnote anticipating the future arrival of a book that, as it turns out, was published some months before her own. Masters will not, one feels, be inclined to rip into Federico as he did into Ransom: She scrupulously acknowledges that she draws heavily on his primary research. Indeed, her book is punctuated by the invocation of heavyweight authorities. Of her first chapter, "The Queen of Best-Sellers" (an unfortunate echo of Ransom's subtitle), Federico writes: "I use Roland Barthes's essay on the photographic image and the work of Marxist critics Guy Debord and Pierre Macherey to analyze Corelli's struggle to control her image at the moment of expanding consumerism, the development of mass media, and changing interpretations of the author."

Where Masters saw only "mirror, mirror on the wall" personal vanity, and Ransom inarticulate feminist aspiration, Federico demarcates a site for multiple high-critical genuflection. This binocularity--conjoining Corelli with a regiment of fashionable commentators from Nina Auerbach to Alex Zwerdling-- creates an odd flavor. The fiction is, by common judgment, irredeemable bosh and tosh. Why dignify it with theory? One might as well take a scalpel to a jellyfish. Nonetheless, as a phenomenon--an event in the history of literary celebrity--Corelli is undeniably significant. And indeed Federico deals with the "Victorian phenomenon called Marie Corelli" illuminatingly. The mutations and manipulations of her literary "stardom" are tracked; her contradictory relations with decadence, modernism, and feminism are teasingly uncovered.

Since she is essentially writing a critical biography (with a strong dash of Victorian cultural criticism), Federico can allow herself the luxury of extended analysis of what she takes to be the central texts. Most valuable for those who are tempted to investigate the Corelli oeuvre is Federico's lucid and sympathetic reading of The Sorrows of Satan (although, I confess, I find the suggestion of a homoerotic connection between two central characters as unconvincing as the author would have found it outrageous). It is worth flagging this as a useful point of entry since The Sorrows of Satan is, for the modern reader, the most available Corelli text.

The Idol of Suburbia presents Corelli's life and literary achievement in a new and--as Federico puts it--"friendly" light. What with this book, and Ransom's, it may be that posterity is at last being nice to Marie. I'll believe it when they change the name of Mason Croft to "The Shakespeare-Corelli Institute."

John Sutherland is a professor of English at University College, London. His latest book is Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennet? (Oxford, 1999).

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