Tag Archives: Rhoda Broughton

Marie Corelli: ‘the idol of suburbia’

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 as ‘Lily’ – Shakespeare Homeplace Trust

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:

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The Remarkable Rhoda Broughton

Some of the more peripheral characters in Wilde’s Women are so colourful and pioneering that, although their links to Oscar Wilde were tenuous, I was determined to include them. One was the remarkable Rhoda Broughton, who never took to Wilde, nor he to her.

Rhoda-Broughton

Although Rhoda Broughton was born in North Wales, her Irish roots stretched deep. Her late mother, Jane Bennett had grown up at 18 Merrion Square. In 1856, the Bennett parents let their home to Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and his wife, Susanna, Jane’s sister. Le Fanu was well acquainted with William and Jane Wilde, who lived a few doors up. After Suzanna fell into despair and died in mysterious circumstances that were never discussed, Rhoda remained close to her uncle, who encouraged her literary ambitions. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1867, as Rhoda struggled through a tedious novel, ‘the spirit moved her to write’. She tossed her dreary book aside and scribbled furiously for six weeks, producing Not Wisely but Too Well, the lurid tale of young Kate Chester, who stops just short of an adulterous affair with the self-regarding Dare Stamer; it was rumoured to be semi-autobiographical.

Le Fanu serialised it in the Dublin University Magazine, which he edited at the time, and persuaded Rhoda to send it to publisher George Bentley & Sons; Bentley turned it down after his editorial reader Geraldine Jewsbury declared it: ‘The most thoroughly sensual tale I have read in English for a long time’. This was exactly what readers wanted. When Not Wisely but Too Well was brought out by the more audacious Tinsley Brothers, it became the first in a string of hugely controversial bestsellers. Three years later, when the circulating libraries lifted their ban on her books, Rhoda’s popularity soared. Yet, she published anonymously until 1872, and most readers assumed she was a man. One unwitting reviewer for the Athenaeum declared:

That the author is not a young woman, but a man, who, in the present story, shows himself destitute of refinement of thought or feeling and ignorant of all that women either are or ought to be, is evident on every page.

Exuberant and ferociously independent, with a well-deserved reputation as a waspish wit, Rhoda divided opinion. Oscar’s friend James Rennell Rodd observed that she had ‘a great heart but acaustic tongue’.  Among her supporters were Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who shared her apparently irrational dislike of Oscar. The Reverend Charles Dodgson, known to us as Lewis Carroll, refused to attend a dinner with her as he ‘greatly disapproved’ of her novels. Anthony Trollope admired her, but despaired at how she ‘made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say’.

They throw themselves at men’s heads, and when they are not accepted only think how they may throw themselves again. Miss Broughton is still so young that I hope she may live to overcome her fault in this direction.

Rhoda insisted she was merely responding to market forces: ‘since the public like it hot and strong, I am not the person to disoblige them’, she declared.

It’s difficult to fathom the animosity that crackled between Oscar and Rhoda as they had much in common: both were blessed with witty and persuasive personalities; both eschewed the narrowly proscribed gender roles imposed by a judgmental Victorian society; and both courted controversy by tackling taboos in their writing. Besides, Oscar was not easily intimidated by anyone. Whatever the reason, he stopped inviting Rhoda to tea and she took this exclusion to heart. Her good friend Ethel Arnold, niece of Matthew and a pioneering journalist in her own right, claimed Rhoda was referring to Oscar when she carped:

I can’t forget those early years of my life, when those from whom I had every right and reason to expect kindness and hospitality showed me nothing but cold incivility. I resent it still, and I shall resent it until my dying day.

Oscar was reportedly furious when Rhoda caricatured him in Second Thoughts as, ‘long pale poet’ Francis Chaloner, who carries a, ‘lotus lily in one pale hand’. Leaving no room for doubt, she furnished Chaloner’s room with a great white lily in a large blue vase that stood alongside easels supporting, ‘various pictures in different stages of finish’. It seems she barely knew him, since she made Chaloner egotistical and humourless. Oscar was understandably wary and novelist Margaret Woods, a mutual friend, recalled:

The last time I met Oscar Wilde was at a private view of the Royal Academy; he then said that he had lately come across Rhoda Broughton and found her tongue as bitter as ever.

He took his revenge by reviewing Broughton’s Betty’s Visions for the Pall Mall Gazette in October 1886: ‘No one can ever say of her that she has tried to separate flippancy from fiction’, he wrote, ‘whatever harsh criticisms may be passed on the construction of her sentences, she at least possesses that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin’. He closed by declaring: ‘In Philistia lies Miss Broughton’s true sphere and to Philistia she should return’.

Of course, he may have simply disliked her novel, but his words give an insight into how, for all his apparent poise, Oscar was rattled by those who showed him disdain; he could certainly harbor a grudge.

A full description of Wilde’s Women can be found here and the most recent review from The Independent is here.

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