The Sorrows of Marie Corelli

Have you ever heard of Marie Corelli? At one point she was England’s bestselling author. I’m currently reading her bestseller The Sorrows of Satan (1895) and despite sympathy with theories of cultural degeneration that smack of Max Nordau, it’s a delightful read.

I’ve previously read Wormwood and A Romance of Two Worlds and from these works I can tell you that Corelli is a sensationalist writer with plots that combine the supernatural works of Bram Stoker with the shocking scandal of Mary Elizabeth Braddon. She adds her own distaste for Aestheticism, effeminate men, women, the New Woman (who she does not even categorize as a woman!), and of course her own literary critics.
The Sorrows of Satan is Corelli’s opportunity to lambast all of these groups and to celebrate her own assumed genius with the figure of Mavis Clare.
I highly recommend this novel. There is a great edition published by Valancourt Books right now so check out the link to their website to the right for more information. Oxford World’s Classics used to have an edition but it has sadly gone the way of Marie Corelli’s fame. She was a success in her time that I can only compare to the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code Phenomenon of more recent times. Add to that success an ego that made her characterise herself as both a timeless beauty and the Shakespeare of her own times and you have a force to be reckoned with.
Sadly she was also a wretched character in many ways. Corelli condemned the New Woman and the Suffragette movement (apparently she thought women incapable of handling the vote?). She also cooperated with the British Government who complied a list of “German Spies” that numbered 23,000 names at one point. The names that she and others submitted were artists, immigrants (often jews) and homosexuals. Yes, a good Social Darwinist, she, like many of her fellow Brits and Europeans at the time, thought homosexuality was a disease one could catch from the Germans. Philip Hoare provides a good account of this horrid situation in his book Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand which I highly recommend.
With that in mind, I think Corelli’s novel’s are even more important as historical artifacts of late-Victorian and Edwardian popular culture with a surreal dose of xenophobia that will intrigue the modern reader.

Happy reading this weekend!

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