As Women’s History Month comes to a close I’m posting an excerpt from Wilde’s Women that describes the remarkable and hugely successful Victorian novelist Marie Corelli. It is difficult for us to imagine how significant she was nowadays, since she has fallen out of fashion, but at the height of her popularity, she was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. There is a website dedicated to her with a great deal more information. Here is my short profile from Wilde’s Women:
Marie Corelli’s origins are shrouded in mystery. Born in London on or around 1 May 1855, a date she rarely admitted to, she was almost certainly the daughter of Elizabeth Mills, lover and later second wife of the journalist Charles Mackay, who was believed to be Corelli’s father. Known affectionately as Minnie, she reinvented herself as Marie di Corelli in order to earn a paltry living giving piano recitals in private homes.
Corelli’s first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, was published in February 1886. It struck a chord and, as a result, a second novel, Vendetta, appeared later that year. By June 1887, Corelli had published a third, Thelma, to great acclaim. Ellen Terry, who lived six doors down from her on Longridge Road, Kensington, adored her books. Lillie Langtry asked if she might dramatise them. Oscar Wilde would have sympathised to hear that she had been snubbed by Rhoda Broughton, who she had been particularly keen to meet.
At the height of her popularity, Marie Corelli was the best selling and most highly paid author in England. According to novelist and poet Arthur St. John Adcock, ‘many of her most enthusiastic admirers are men of the professional classes – doctors, barristers, lawyers, writers, men of education and intelligence’.[i] Her mystical, melodramatic novels were admired by Gladstone and Tennyson, and Queen Victoria had them sent to Balmoral as soon as they appeared.
Yet,Corelli attracted the scorn of critics; Grant Allen in the Spectator called her:
…a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, & was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities & prejudices she gave a glamorous setting.
This didn’t dampen her popularity and she was described with great accuracy as ‘the idol of suburbia – the favorite of the common multitude’.[ii]
Wilde started out as a fan.On one occasion, heassured Corelli that he had ‘read the book [A Romance of Two Worlds] over again,’ adding, ‘you certainly tell of marvelous things in marvelous ways’. He advised her to ignore her detractors, writing: ‘Such a lot of talking-about-you does more good than an infinite number of reviews’.[iii]She appears to have heeded his counsel since, in the foreword to The Sorrows of Satan, she wrote:
No copies of this book are sent out for review. Members of the Press will therefore obtain it (should they wish to do so) in the usual way with the rest of the reading public – i.e. through the Booksellers and Libraries.[iv]
Although she was so pioneering and resourceful herself, Corelli was not a feminist. In her novels, she celebrated the frailty of women, and she opposed the extension of voting rights. Yet Wilde persuaded her to write a speculative article on ‘Shakespeare’s Mother’ for The Woman’s World. He admired her success, but would hardly have wished to emulate her style, which he grew to dislike. Years later, when a prison warder in Reading Jail asked him his opinion of Corelli, he replied: ‘Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be here’.[v]
They had fallen out by then and she lampooned him mercilessly in The Silver Domino, or Side Whispers, Social and Literary, which was published anonymously in 1892, characterizing him as a lumbering elephant who was guided through life by a dainty fairy, a thinly disguised Constance Wilde. Corelli dismissed Constance as ‘a charming little Radical,’ but she found her compelling; she considered her ‘one of the prettiest things alive’ and ‘infinitely more interesting than the Elephant himself’.
Marie Corelli never married. She never discussed her sexuality but would appear to have been attracted to women; she wrote ambiguous love poems and co-habited happily for decades with her companion Bertha Vyver, who referred to her as ‘beloved wee pet’. When she died, on 21 April 1924, crowds gathered outside her home.
[i] Arthur St. John Adcock ‘Marie Corelli: A Record and an Appreciation’, TheBookman, 36, no. 212, 1909, pp.59-60
[ii] In a flattering profile included in ‘Chronicle & Comment’, The Bookman, July 1909, reproduced in The Bookman Volume XXIX, March 1909 – August 1909 (New York, Dodd, Mead & Co., 1909), p.461
[iii] Brian Masters, Now Barabbas was a Rotter (London, H. Hamilton, 1978), p.74
[iv] Reproduced in The Bookman, Volume XXIX, p.465
[v]Complete Letters, p.905n2
Read more about remarkable Victorian women in Wilde’s Women: