A Novel Life:  The Marie Corelli Collection

by

Kathleen Whalen

Tourists stopped to stare when Marie Corelli stepped from her rose-covered house in Straford-on-Avon to stroll to the river for a ride in her gondola.  They were anxious to catch a glimpse of the small, yet flamboyant woman whose best-selling novels held the British reading public in their thrall. Corelli was arguably the most popular novelist in England at the end of the nineteenth century, and certainly the most highly-paid.  She was the favorite author of Queen Victoria, admired by Gladstone, and she counted the principal of St. Andrews University, Sir James Donaldson, as a close friend.  Her most popular novel, The Sorrows of Satan, broke all previous sales records when it was issued in 1895.  Her name was on everyone’s lips; even her critics would have acknowledged that her reputation seemed assured.  Yet not a century after her death, few even recognize her name, much less the titles of some of her most popular books: Thelma, Barabbas, and The Soul of Lilith.

The Library’s Marie Corelli Collection includes over 200 letters, cards, and photographs spanning from 1886 to shortly before her death in 1924.  Her letters give a vivid picture of this controversial woman whose life, as well as her literature, defines the contradictions of Victorian society.

Marie Corelli’s own story is as compelling as the narrative in any of her novels.  Born in 1855, Mary Mackay was the illegitimate child of Charles Mackay, a popular journalist, and Mary Elizabeth Mills, probably one of his servants. Although Mackay married her mother when Marie was ten, Corelli remained unaware that he was her father until shortly after his death.  Mackay was obviously uncomfortable with the relationship; in the correspondence of his friends and acquaintances, Mary is never acknowledged as his daughter, his stepdaughter, or even his niece.  Perhaps driven by her beloved “stepfather’s” discomfort, plain Minnie Mackay took the earliest opportunity of constructing for herself a more attractive persona.

While in her late twenties, Minnie transformed herself into “Marie Corelli,” the child of her mother and an (unnamed) Italian Count and, for good measure, took ten years off her life at the same time.  In 1892 she wrote to an admirer, “Though I am the ‘golden-haired beauty’ you were pleased to call me, I am not the daughter of Charles Mackay and never was, but simply his adopted daughter, adopted under peculiar and extremely painful circumstances which I am not bound to enter into . . . . When I was 21 I was made acquainted with my history, and of course when I entered on a literary career I took my own name Marie Corelli.  I am of Italian extraction, and am no relation whatever to the Mackay family.”

In order to cultivate this persona, Marie shrouded herself in mystery, rarely allowing her photograph to be taken and depicting herself as the girlish “golden-haired Italian beauty” long after she had become a stout middle-aged lady.  Often considered the model for E. F. Benson’s “Lucia,” Corelli’s girlish persona wore thin over the years.  Yet like Lucia, her affectations and pomposity were balanced by an equal measure of generosity and enthusiasm.

Her books contain an undercurrent of passion unusual in the novels of the day, and this as much as their popular mix of romance, moralizing, and mystical “science” (Corelli was enthralled with the idea of a mystical electricity which connected all life) accounted for their widespread popularity. Simplistic characters and hyperbolic clichés came to life under her pen, while her fantastic plots in which the pure of heart struggled with modern-day corruption struck a chord with her Victorian readers.

But Corelli was as reviled by the critics as she was loved by her readers, and for every friend she had an even more fervent enemy.  Her enemies were outspoken in their dislike; she was frequently pilloried in the press.  But she gave as good as she got, frequently bashing critics and newspaper editors in the pages of her books.  She refused to send The Sorrows of Satan out for review, stating to her publisher:  “I do not write in a ladylike or effeminate way, and for that they hate me . . . now that I know how criticism is done, I care not a jot for it.”

Although Corelli’s sentimentality and melodrama began to look overblown as the twentieth century continued, her renown remained. In her later years she gained a new popularity and legitimacy on the lecture circuit speaking on everything from the evils of Women’s Suffrage (Corelli was convinced that women should exercise moral superiority rather than political clout) to Lord Byron.  Bryn Mawr Professor Samuel Chew spoke of “the famous novelist” with admiration in his book Byron in England, published in 1924, the year of her death.

After her death, Corelli faded into obscurity, her work forgotten. But recently Corelli’s role in nineteenth-century British fiction has begun to be re-examined. While she will never be considered a great novelist, several recent articles suggest that she played an important role as a bridge between Victorian and Modern Literature.  In 1996 Oxford University Press included The Sorrows of Satan in their Oxford Popular Fiction series.  If Marie Corelli’s fiction reflects the complexity of the times in which she lived, her own life does so even more vividly.

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