Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty-First Century
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First collection of original, unpublished, critical essays on Marie Corelli as a book

With the purpose of introducing Marie Corelli to a new generation of readers and of reconsidering her works for generations familiar with them, Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty-First Century demonstrates how provocative the author was as a public figure and how controversial and paradoxical were the views about womanhood and the supernatural pitched in her novels. This collection of original essays focuses on three major battles that engaged Corelli: her personal and public contentions, her mercurial constructions of gender and resistance to the New Woman modality and her untenable reconciliation of science with the supernatural. Corelli was often fighting several fronts at the same time; she rarely was not at war with someone including herself.

Introduction, Brenda Ayres and Sarah E. Maier; 1. Stratford-upon-Avon’s ‘Great Little Lady’, Nick Leigh Birch; 2. From ‘Girl Alone’ to ‘Genius’: Corelli’s Transforming Epistolary Rhetoric, Colleen Morrissey; 3. Marie Corelli, the Public Sphere and Public Opinion, Julia Kuehn; 4. ‘The Muses Are Women; So Are the Fates’: Corelli’s Literary Masquerade(s), Sarah E. Maier; 5. The Devil & Miss Corelli: Re-gendering the Diabolical and the Redemptive in ‘The Sorrows of Satan’, Julianne Smith; 6. Muscular Christianity Unbound: Masculinity in ‘Ardath’, Gareth Hadyk-DeLodder; 7. Over Her (Un)dead Body: Gender Politics, Mediumship and Feminist Spiritual Theology in the Works of Marie Corelli, Carol Margaret Davison; 8. ‘The Story of a Dead Self’: The Theosophical Novels of Marie Corelli, Brenda Ayres; 9. ‘Something Vile in the Composition’: Marie Corelli’s ‘Ziska’, Decadent Portraiture and the New Woman, Angie Blumberg; Index.



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Date de parution 30 avril 2019
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781783089451
Langue English
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Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty-First Century
Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty-First Century
Edited by
Brenda Ayres and Sarah E. Maier
Anthem Press
An imprint of Wimbledon Publishing Company
This edition first published in UK and USA 2019
75–76 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8HA, UK
or PO Box 9779, London SW19 7ZG, UK
244 Madison Ave #116, New York, NY 10016, USA
© 2019 Brenda Ayres and Sarah E. Maier editorial matter and selection;
individual chapters © individual contributors
The moral right of the authors has been asserted.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means
(electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
British Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78308-943-7 (Hbk)
ISBN-10: 1-78308-943-1 (Hbk)
This title is also available as an e-book.
Dedicated to our dads,
Charles L. Ayres (1926–2018)
Patrick F. X. Maier, the best Gido ever
List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations


Brenda Ayres and Sarah E. Maier
Chapter 1.
Stratford-Upon-Avon’s “Great Little Lady”

Nick Leigh Birch
Chapter 2.
From “Girl Alone” to “Genius”: Corelli’s Transforming Epistolary Rhetoric

Colleen Morrissey
Chapter 3.
Marie Corelli, the Public Sphere and Public Opinion

Julia Kuehn
Chapter 4.
“The Muses Are Women; So Are the Fates”: Corelli’s Literary Masquerade(s)

Sarah E. Maier
Chapter 5.
The Devil & Miss Corelli: Re-gendering the Diabolical and the Redemptive in The Sorrows of Satan

Julianne Smith
Chapter 6.
Muscular Christianity Unbound: Masculinity in Ardath

Gareth Hadyk-DeLodder
Chapter 7.
Over Her (Un)dead Body: Gender Politics, Mediumship and Feminist Spiritual Theology in the Works of Marie Corelli

Carol Margaret Davison
Chapter 8.
“The Story of a Dead Self”: The Theosophical Novels of Marie Corelli

Brenda Ayres
Chapter 9.
“Something Vile in the Composition”: Marie Corelli’s Ziska , Decadent Portraiture and the New Woman

Angie Blumberg
List of Contributors
1.1 Portrait of Marie Corelli
1.2 Study at Mason Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon
1.3 Mason Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon
1.4 The back of Mason Croft, Stratford-upon-Avon
1.5 Church Street, Stratford-upon-Avon
1.6 Marie Corelli on a yacht
1.7 Marie Corelli at a fête
1.8 Marie Corelli Memorial, Stratford-upon-Avon
CHRONOLOGY 1855 Corelli born Mary “Minnie” Mackay on May 1, likely the natural child of Dr. Charles Mackay (a journalist) and Elizabeth Mary Mills. 1861 Mackay marries Mills. 1862–63 Mackay goes to America to work as a reporter. 1866–70 Corelli attends convent school in Paris or Italy. 1870 Family moves to Fern Dell, Box Hills, Surrey; George Meredith is a neighbor. 1874 Submits poem and article to Blackwood’s , which are rejected. She decides to become a professional singer and pianist. 1875 Bertha Vyver comes to live with the Mackays. 1876 February, Mrs. Mackay dies. 1885 Sends five sonnets to Blackwood’s , which are rejected. Stepbrother Eric comes to live with the family. George Bentley publishes her article in Temple Bar in July. Corelli sends A Romance of Two Worlds to Bentley. 1886 A Romance of Two Worlds published in February by Bentley, and Vendetta!; or, The Story of One Forgotten published later that year. 1887 Thelma ; meets Oscar Wilde who admires her work. 1889 Ardath published; William Gladstone (former prime minister) admires her work and visits her. Dr. Mackay dies in December. 1890 Wormwood: A Drama of Paris published in October. A church that bases its doctrines on A Romance of Two Worlds is founded in America. A town in Colorado is named after her. 1891 Queen Victoria requests that all her books be sent to her. 1892 The Soul of Lilith; The Silver Domino; or Side Whispers, Social & Literary . Prince of Wales invites her to a private dinner. Scandal over Silver Domino and split with Bentley. 1893 Barabbas, A Dream of the World’s Tragedy published by Methuen. 1895 The Sorrows of Satan; Cameos: Short Stories; Sorrows bestseller . Corelli refuses to send any more books to reviewers. 1896 The Mighty Atom and The Murder of Delicia published. 1897 Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul ; has a hysterectomy, insisting upon a female surgeon. 1898 The Song of Miriam & Other Stories; The Modern Marriage Market ; Eric dies. 1900 Boy, Jane and The Master-Christian published. 1901 Corelli and Vyver move into Mason Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon. Corelli invited to attend Edward VII’s coronation. 1902 Temporal Power: A Study in Supremacy . 1903 Controversy about Carnegie free library in Shakespearean home. 1904 God’s Good Man and The Strange Visitation of Josiah McNasson: A Ghost Story published. 1905 Free Opinions Freely Expressed published. 1906 Treasure of Heaven published. Altered photograph. Falls in love with married Arthur Severn. 1907 Delicia & Other Stories published. 1908 Holy Orders, the Tragedy of a Quiet Life published. 1911 Life Everlasting published. 1914 Innocent: Her Fancy and His Fact ; heavily involved in war effort. Ends relationship with Severn. 1915 Vendetta and Wormwood adapted to film. 1916 Temporal Power adapted to film by G. B. Samuelson. 1917 Holy Orders made into film by I. B. Davidson. 1918 The Young Diana published; Thelma made for film by Fox; The Love of Long Ago, and Other Stories . Charged for hoarding food. 1919 God’s Good Man made for film by Stoll. 1921 The Secret Power published; Innocent made into film by Stoll. 1922 Thelma made into film again; The Young Diana made into film by Paramount. 1923 Love and the Philosopher published. 1924 April 21, Corelli dies. 1925 Open Confession to a Man from a Woman published. 1926 The Sorrows of Satan adapted for film by Paramount. 1942 Bertha Vyver dies.
ABBREVIATIONS Ardath Ardath; The Story of a Dead Self Barabbas Barabbas: A Dream of the World’s Tragedy Boy Boy; A Sketch Cameos Cameos; Short Stories Diana The Young Diana: An Experiment of the Future FO Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct Lilith The Soul of Lilith MA The Mighty Atom MC The Master-Christian Murder The Murder of Delicia OC Open Confession to a Man from a Woman Romance A Romance of Two Worlds: A Novel SD The Silver Domino, or, Side Whispers, Social and Literary Sorrows The Sorrows of Satan Thelma Thelma: A Society Novel TP Temporal Power; a Study in Supremacy Treasure The Treasure of Heaven: A Romance of Riches Vendetta Vendetta: The Story of One Forgotten WE Is All Well with England? Wormwood Wormwood: A Drama of Paris WS Woman—or Suffragette? WW My Wonderful Wife! A Study in Smoke Ziska Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul
Brenda Ayres and Sarah E. Maier
Once upon a time, Marie Corelli was the most popular, and bestselling, writer in the world. In England she was just as well known as Charles Dickens, according to one of her biographers, George Bullock (117). 1 Another biographer claimed that while Queen Victoria was alive, Corelli was the “second most famous Englishwoman in the world” (Masters 6). More than half of her 30 novels sold over 100,000 copies each year (Casey 163), a record that outpaces Hall Caine’s annual sales of 45,000, Mrs. Humphry Ward’s 35,000 and H. G. Wells’ 15,000 (Masters 6). Her sales exceeded those of Rudyard Kipling’s, Arthur Conan Doyle’s and H. G. Wells’ combined (Casey 163). So popular were her books and her mystique, one cynic complained about the “Corelli Cult” (Stuart-Young 680). Women flocked to her and actually “fought over each other to get near her and tried to kiss the hem of her dress” (Masters 7). In the United States a new church was formed to practice the “Electric Creed” described in A Romance of Two Worlds , 2 and a town in Colorado was called Corelli City (94).
“Marie Corelli” began her life as Mary Mills; with no existing birth certificate, she is believed to have been born on May 1, 1855, in London to Mary Elizabeth (Ellen) Mills, the mistress of Charles Mackay (Ransom 11; Federico, Idol 4). Author, poet and literary editor for the Illustrated London News , Mackay was a married man (to Rose Henrietta Vale) and father of four other children. Little Mary Mills was told he was her stepfather—his absence from her life was constant until the death of his wife and the marriage of her biological parents in 1861, at which point she becomes Mary Mackay but is known as “Minnie” (Ransom 11; Federico, Idol 7).
Living in the country at Fern Dell of Box Hill was a challenge for the young girl. No formal education was available other than the accomplishments provided by a governess, but Minnie seemed to yearn for knowledge because, as she said, “I instinctively did all I could to make myself a personality to be reckoned with. For this reason I devoured books whatever their qualities, and fed my brains with the thoughts of dead men” (quoted in Vyver 20) all the while the many “books I did pore over with untiring patience learning all I could, and craving to be taught more. I was indeed a very lonely child,” so “for this reason I had found my best pleasure in books and music” (29). Unlimited possibilities were available in an “olla-podrida of random things, good, bad and indifferent—there were ‘standard’ histories and classics, poets, novelists, and dramatists; there were many volumes of old forgotten essays, and political ‘squibs.’ Voltaire jostled with Plutarch, and Shakespeare with The Tatler and Rambler— and a large number of dictionaries, old and new lumbered the shelves” (19). Although Minnie was able to attend a convent school in Paris, her later work demonstrated the impact her early readings would have on her own multifaceted writing.
Between 1874 and 1886 Minnie made her first attempts to publish; she sent a poem, “Sappho,” to Mr. Blackwood at Blackwood’s Magazine under the first of her pseudonyms, “Vivian Erle Clifford,” and with the first of her personal histories as “a constant contributor to St James Magazine”; masked or not, there was no answer to her inquiry the first time, nor the second time when she framed her address as The Laurels, Belsize Park, the actual address of the Van der Vyvers (Blackwood Papers, MS 4322). Minnie continued to try her hand until she was drawn back to her insistent circumstances: her mother was gravely ill with a “malignant disease of the intestine.” 3
The loneliness Minnie had spoken of was soon to end. Introduced years earlier to Bertha, one of the daughters of the Countess Van der Vyver, Minnie could not even now know that the two women would spend the rest of their lives together. Bertha joined the family and cared for Minnie, and her mother, until Ellen Mackay’s death on February 2, 1876, but then she never left (Ransom 22). Throughout the rest of their lives until Minnie’s death, the two women were constant life companions. Trials of patience were caused by the return from Italy of her half-brother, George Eric Mackay, when their father had a stroke in 1883. The two women “discussed the matter and agreed to risk it—not very wisely—for it only added new difficulties and many troubles” (quoted in Vyver 146) to their lives because Eric had no profession, no ambition and no interest in helping to support the household. Through early attempts at making a living with piano concerts of musical improvisation to her first attempts at becoming a writer, Minnie and Bertha stood fast together (Ransom 23–24).
Once the women realized Minnie’s best chance was to write, she said, “I was desperate, and it was then I decided to a romance […]. And so I wrote with all the speed I could, and one day I thrilled with great joy for the book was done” (Ransom 28) and sent on to George Bentley. The contract for the triple-decker novel A Romance of Two Worlds was signed on September 5, 1885, and published on February 18, 1886. Savvy of the desire of the public for a dash of exoticism, she invents another pseudonym, the youthful “Signorina Marie Corelli,” 4 which was ultimately shortened to the nom de plume from behind which Minnie—now Marie Corelli—would make her reputation and her fortune. At the height of her popularity, her books were in vogue with the royals. After reading Romance borrowed from the dowager duchess of Roxburghe, Queen Victoria requested that she receive a copy of all future works by Corelli (Rappaport 103); further, the queen telegrammed Corelli her appreciation for Romance (Adcock 60). Corelli’s books were acclaimed by the empress of Austria, the last empress of Russia (Alexandra), Princess Louise of Holland (Waller 804), the queen of Romania (Lawrence 24), Empress Frederick of Germany, the king and queen of Italy and later King Edward (Adcock 60). The empress of Austria asked for the novelist’s portrait and had her secretary write to Corelli: “Your books have afforded Her Majesty many hours of happiness and rest. She not only admires your talent and style of writing, but also the poetical imagination with which your works overflow” (quoted in Adcock 60). Corelli was the only novelist invited to attend the coronation of Edward VII (Bullock 103–4) and the first woman permitted to lecture at the Royal Society of Literature (143).
Corelli’s fame extended internationally. By 1909 there were over 600 translations of her books (Adcock 60) including German, Dutch, Sweden, Spanish, Norwegian, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Polish, Romanian, Czech, Russian, Estonian, Thai, Hindi, Urdu and Marathi (Kuehn, Glorious 13). The novel was “translated into every known language, even into Persian and Hindustani, and the thinkers and philosophers of the East [held] her in high honour as one who [was] inspired with the truths of the divine” (Stead, “Marie” 41).
Corelli became a favorite with the Russians when a translator of the 1902 edition of Dracula credited her as the author instead of Bram Stoker. The 1904 Russian edition listed Bram Stoker as the author but a librarian in St. Petersburg penciled in that “Bram Stoker” was a pseudonym for Marie Corelli (Berni 45–58). To this day no one knows how the confusion came about and if Corelli ever heard about it; however, in comparing Dracula with Corelli’s novels, one will find similarities, particularly in her belief that the soul never dies and comes back to inhabit other bodies, both human and nonhuman. In addition, the relationship between Mina Harker and Lucy Westenra is consonant with Corelli’s belief in same-sex soul mates. Finally, the way Dracula controls Mina mirrors the control that Santoris has over the nameless narrator in Corelli’s The Life Everlasting . Simone Berni has noted that in “Stoker’s time, the most famous and appreciated ‘gothic’ author, at least as far as English language was concerned, was a woman, Mary Mackay, mostly known as Marie Corelli” (47); indeed, one must wonder if Stoker had read Corelli and was inspired by her to create his gothic novels.
Corelli definitely influenced numerous authors in their writing and was credited for it. R. Brandon Kershner identified where and how James Joyce emulated her style in his Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake . 5 The short story writer V. S. Pritchett listed Corelli as one of the novelists whose work he read as a young man (Baldwin 5), even though he would later say that her political opinions about education, libraries and the “common people” were extremely offensive to him (Pritchett 201–2). In a letter to a friend, George Orwell admitted that he had read Thelma and decided that Corelli was not “so absolutely bad.” 6 Oscar Wilde told Corelli that he had read Romance more than once and commented directly to her that “You certainly tell of marvellous things in a marvellous way” (quoted in Vyver 59), while Alfred, Lord Tennyson praised Ardath as “a remarkable work, and a truly powerful creation.” 7 Corelli biographer Annette Federico has noted several other writers who referred to her works, such as Betty Smith (in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn ), William Stuart Scott and Willa Cather ( Idol 9). Mulk Raj Anand and Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, two novelists in British India, also acknowledged Corelli’s effect on their writing careers (Bhattacharya, “Reception” 221–23).
One reason for her renown was that Corelli was a provocateur; in fact, her obituary in the Evening Standard of April 21, 1924, hailed her as having been “the greatest literary ‘protester’” (quoted in Vyver 81). Her protests were diverse and controversial in subject. They were blatant, often acerbic and always sincerely passionate about the issues she championed. Queenie Leavis once said that Corelli “resolutely tackles them, and, on the other hand, so absurdly out of proportion is the energy expended to the object that aroused it (for instance, in Marie Corelli’s novels, female smoking and low-cut gowns)” (66). Applauding her zeal and especially “her wholesale contempt for ‘brainless aristocrats’ and ‘wealthy noodles,’” the Dundee Advertiser commended The Sorrows of Satan as

probably the most outspoken book ever presented to the British public […] There are very few fads, foibles, faults, and vices of modern society that the author has not “shown up” […] Nothing has escaped her denunciations, from mercenary marriages to gourmandising bishops. But the worship of money, the “New Woman,” and the vile fiction of recent years come in for her heaviest attacks. 8
She was indomitable, adroit and ardent in wielding her pen that was kept as sharp as any two-edged sword. Corelli campaigned against alcohol as well as drug abuse and urged temperance. In 1890 she published Wormwood, a Drama of Paris , in which she depicted the horrors of chemical addiction particularly with absinthe. In 1900 she published Boy about the abuse a child suffered because of drunken parents, and eight years later published Holy Orders , which attacked the evils of drinking fostered by evil brewers and laid the blame on lax church leaders. Biographer Brian Masters credited Wormwood with swaying Switzerland to pass strict legislation about alcohol consumption, and France to bring the use of absinthe under control in 1909 (108).
Corelli denounced the political suffragists and the bicycled, banged and bloomered New Woman for their lack of femininity until she changed her mind about them much later in life. Her criticism often took the form of diatribes and sermons that ran for pages in some of her novels, but none so much as in My Wonderful Wife ! 9 Its long-suffering, downcast, disillusioned, emasculated husband bemoans that his wife is “aping the manners, customs, and slang parlance of men” (30). Corelli uses him as a mouthpiece to say to the nation: “believe me, no good can come of this throwing down of the barriers between the sexes; no advantage can possibly accrue to a great nation like ours from allowing the women to deliberately sacrifice their delicacy and reserve, and the men to resign their ancient code of chivalry and reverence!” (30). “When women voluntarily resign her position as the silent monitors and models of grace and purity,” Corelli further warns, “down will go all pillars of society” and England will become as “barbaric” as other countries (38–39).
Even though Corelli was much in the public limelight and led multiple public and political campaigns, she insisted that all other women should not take an active role in public affairs and/or politics. She felt that women could and should use their feminine influence to persuade men to stay to the straight (or biblically, the strait) and narrow when making, following and enforcing laws for the country. Her perspective was that women were the moral guardians of England. If they were to engage directly in business and politics and imitate men in those arenas, then they would become like men who “even at their best, have vile animal passions, low desires, and vulgar vices” (30). Giving the vote to women would destroy the only remaining bastion of morality in England: the feminine woman.
These sentiments pervaded numerous pamphlets, tracts and articles that she published. In 1907 she wrote a pamphlet for the Anti-Suffrage League titled “Woman or—Suffragette?” and an article for Harper’s Bazaar titled “Man’s War Against Woman.” She satirized those suffragettes as “men-women” that were masculine in their dress, smoking, career choice, behavior and abandonment of domestic duties at the hearth. Even though she often preached that women should suffer in silence, submitting themselves to the men in their lives and not compete with men in the work force or in the political sphere, time and time again her novels conveyed male treachery and women who remained within their domestic sphere as constantly being betrayed, abused and destroyed. Not one of her books lacks a maligned woman. Corelli herself was constantly beset by vicious men of the press and male leaders in her town of Stratford who impugned her writing, her personality and above all, her physical appearance. She was barely four feet tall with a normal torso but short legs, and often dressed as if she were a young girl even when she was in her fifties; unfortunately, and unfairly, both factors were often lampooned (Federico, Idol 6; Bullock 32 and 209; Bigland 226; Rappaport 104). Her own brother, Eric, professionally exploited her and robbed her of money, as well as publicly ridiculed her, despite her consistent efforts to buoy his floundering literary career (Ransom 48 and 88–89). In her novels, Corelli retaliated; Temporal Power takes on hostile male critics as do The Sorrows of Satan and The Master-Christian in which she regards them as a patriarchal group threatened by the genius of a woman. In 1919, after years of learning about women who were physically and psychologically abused by patriarchal tyrants in their life, the latter being part of her own experience, and after discovering what women were truly capable of doing during the First World War when the men were at war, she wrote a tract titled Is All Well with England? which recanted her earlier position on women’s suffrage and launched her fervid support for the vote for women.
Above all and consistently throughout her life and her canon, Corelli was disturbed about the spiritual condition of her day. Her books often censured the Church, especially priests, Protestant clergy and hypocritical religious people, 10 because, like many of her readers, she agreed that loss of faith and the lack of Christian leadership were at the bottom of all that was wrong with the modern world. Julia Kuehn has defined Corelli’s “moralizing ambition” as “to counteract the agnostic tendencies of the time” (20). Her evangelistic zeal and effect are evident in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel The Hero in which he limns a scene at a tea party with Corelli as the main topic of discussion. Mr. Dryland has just lent Mary a copy of The Master-Christian , remarking that Corelli is “the only really great novelist we have in England now.” A “man of taste and authority, so that his literary judgements could always be relied upon,” he says, “I’m wasting my time when I read most novels, but I never feel that with Marie Corelli.” A vicar at the party pays Corelli a high compliment in suggesting “No one would think she was a woman.” He later advises every Christian to read Barabbas because “it gives an entirely new view of Christ. It puts the incidents of the Gospel in a way that one had never dreamed.” Mary concurs and credits the book for making her “feel so much better and nobler and more truly Christian.” They collectively deplore how the newspapers “sneer” at her, but then the tea drinkers put her in good company with other persecuted writers like Keats, Shelley and Shakespeare. Mary’s mother does not agree that Corelli has genius and considers her “vulgar and blasphemous,” but then Mary says that she has always been shocked by her mother’s “illiterate gaucherie” (97–100).
The sweeping changes endemic of modernity engendered major concerns for Corelli and her readers. The deplorable conditions throughout the nineteenth century that had resulted from the loss of a country life to one of radical urbanization and industrialization epitomized what was negative about the modern world 11 ; however, Corelli learned firsthand that British country living was no rustic Elysium. For the last 25 years of her life while residing in Shakespeare’s town, she was treated with derision, persecuted and libeled by the citizens of Stratford. At one time several townspeople reported her to the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for riding in a cart with “big Bertha” 12 pulled by two little ponies (quoted in Masters 175). One of the most acrimonious battles in Stratford was fought over tearing down five cottages next to Shakespeare’s birthplace to build a library with funds donated by Andrew Carnegie. Corelli argued that the Shakespearean cottages were integral to the preservation of Henley Street as a historical and sacred site in honor of the great bard and was thus a national heritage. Regardless of the controversy at hand, Corelli’s detractors attacked her instead of debating the issues. A member of the clergy, for example, scoffed at Mason Croft, her house, calling it “an Earl’s Court tea kiosk,” as he flouted Corelli’s illegitimate birth and low education (quoted in Ransom 128).
Undeterred, Corelli continued to combat the deterioration of ethics, morality and faith that she saw all about her at the fin de siècle . Besides laced with astringent satire, her stories often sought to transport her readers out of what she perceived to be a degenerate, temporal and materialistic world, into exotic, timeless and spiritual realms that could transform their behavior and perspectives while yet still in their physical lives. She affirmed the value of faith in all her novels, but the most dramatic declaration of the assurance she had of the spiritual is found in her theosophical novels, and they fed a generation or two of readers who desperately needed to believe in a power greater than themselves.
With the purpose of introducing Marie Corelli to a new generation of readers and of reconsidering her works for those generations familiar with them, Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty-First Century demonstrates how provocative Corelli was as a public figure and how controversial and paradoxical were the views about womanhood and the supernatural pitched in her novels. This collection of original essays focuses on three major battles that engaged Corelli: her personal and public contentions (primarily Chapters 1 through 3 ), her mercurial constructions of gender and resistance to the New Woman modality (primarily Chapters 4 through 8 ) and her untenable reconciliation of science with the supernatural ( Chapter 9 and 10). Corelli was often fighting several fronts at the same time; she rarely was not at war with someone including herself.
The first three chapters foreground the writer rather than Corelli’s work. Corelli was quite contentious and seemed to be deployed in multiple skirmishes throughout her writing career. The first chapter has been written by Nick Leigh Birch who, as the curator of Mason Croft, Corelli’s home in Stratford-upon-Avon, offers unique details and stories about Corelli from the perceptions documented and passed down from the local townspeople. Corelli first visited Stratford in 1890 to pay homage to the town’s great bard. She returned in 1899 at the height of her fame and soon let the town know that she had decided to stay for good. Local residents did not know what to make of her; those who met her were often disarmed by her charm, but she soon developed a reputation for unwelcomed meddling in the town’s affairs. Corelli felt that her immense success and huge readership qualified her to comment on any issue worthy of her attention; more often than not, she spoke for the ordinary man and woman in the street but challenged old established hierarchies and those unused to being exposed to public opinion. Birch’s chapter recounts the last 25 years of Corelli’s life in Stratford, when she was dedicated to defending Shakespeare’s heritage and working to preserve the town’s ancient buildings.
George Bentley did not think of her as heroic or noble. As Colleen Morrissey has learned from Corelli’s early-career correspondence (1885–94) with her first publisher, Bentley found her to be an extremely petulant and difficult woman. In fact, he asserted that she was the “most unladylike” of any woman of his business experience (Masters 147; Ransom 73–74). For ten years she wrote Bentley several times every week. They reflect Corelli’s morphing rhetoric from girlish, affected ignorance to canny invective against Bentley when she was convinced that he undervalued her and her work. Morrissey tracks the rhetorical maneuvers of an isolated female author battling to carve out a name for herself. What Corelli does in her novels—trying by any means necessary, including protesting against New Woman ideas, to achieve what she saw as her artistic birthright—is graphically illustrated in her letters to Bentley. In addition to expressing vexation over Bentley’s brush-offs concerning advertising and reviews, Corelli, by turns, begs for and demands Bentley’s approbation of her work as an artist, which she never received despite her mounting sales figures. On one of these excoriating letters, Bentley simply scrawled one word: “ Gall .” 13 This correspondence reveals the transformation of a female writer’s gendered rhetorical approach to her publisher: from protestations of ignorance and pleas for protection to passionate demands for what she saw as her due as a savvy, money-making author. The Corelli–Bentley correspondence provides an essential insight into how this record-breaking female author attempted to influence and manipulate a man who had a great deal of personal and professional power over her. The drastic changes in her rhetoric—from innocent naiveté to righteous indignation to wounded martyrdom—show the uniquely perverse position in which Corelli found herself.
For anyone interested in Corelli, besides the splendid biographies on her, Julia Kuehn’s Glorious Vulgarity: Marie Corelli’s Feminine Sublime in Popular Context (2004) is a must read. Kuehn’s chapter for this volume situates Corelli within scholarly debates about the value of “public opinion.” These debates—via their origins in Locke, Bentham and others, and their most eloquent criticism in the Habermasian public sphere—have encountered a resurgence of interest in light of recent political events across the globe and the role the (social) media and the public have played in the representation, misrepresentation and manipulation of discourse. The nineteenth century was no stranger to the power of the people and of discourse. Corelli had an uncommonly good intuition concerning what the public wanted and needed and how she could use or reject the various communication channels available to her for her own mission and success. As her idol Shakespeare had said: Public opinion is “the mistress of effect.” 14 The image that emerges from Corelli’s fictional and nonfictional writings on this topic is complex. Corelli knew her audience to be a consuming, thinking public, a thinking public but also a feeling, national public for her to tap into, which transcended conventional distinctions of class, gender and even race. This chapter scrutinizes Corelli’s theoretical essays, specifically her “Little Talk about Literature” and the collections The Silver Domino and Free Opinions Freely Expressed . Kuehn is interested in these discourses on the mass reading public or “the Great British Public”; reviewers and reviewing; the literary marketplace with publishers; and magazines and newspapers. She deduces from Corelli how a successful author both responds to and creates public opinion. Meta-discourses on “the public” and examples of literary failure and success drawn from Ardath , The Sorrows of Satan , The Murder of Delicia and Innocent are also central to this discussion.
Regardless of what other, or even essential or central, theme that waged war in any of her novels, and despite Corelli’s earlier vehement resistance to women in politics including the vote, and despite her own proclivity to hyperfemininity, 15 every novel has at least one if not several strong women who rescue the weak, lost, anxious, deceived, persecuted or simply misguided. Most of Corelli’s men represent the pathetic “Modern” who “must acknowledge God’s presence yet again in the atheistic contemporary English world” (Kuehn, Glorious 15). In the moral and spiritual spheres, women reign supreme. They are so superior that they can reach out from their “other worlds” to redeem men and other Moderns. Not always comfortable with the independence and rebellion of the New Woman, Corelli nonetheless was certainly an advocate for the advancement of power structures for women at the end of the century.
Corelli’s paradoxical, complicated treatment of gender has inspired the next four chapters. Sarah E. Maier, the coeditor of this volume, explores the novelist’s complex positions on gender dynamics in “‘The Muses Are Women; So Are the Fates’: Corelli’s Literary Masquerade(s).” In the Westminster Review of 1906, J. M. Stuart-Young denounced England’s bestselling novelist and dismissed her novels as inconsequential with the claim that they were “only on degenerate subjects that hysterical people can make effect” (691). Constantly and consistently vilified by the press for her perceived “vulgarity, sensationalism, self-aggrandizement, inflated imagination, lack of restraint, and above all, an incurably commonplace mind” (Felski, Gender 116), Corelli was derided for being unattractive, bizarrely behaved, arrogant and untalented, while critics condescendingly dismissed her as a popular novelist rather than consider her a serious literary talent. Chapter 4 examines My Wonderful Wife!, Woman or Suffragette?, The Silver Domino and Wormwood to demonstrate how Corelli’s several complex performances in the masque of society reflect the multiple concerns of women at the fin de siècle . Maier’s argument addresses how Corelli’s various masks—as anti-suffragette, Silver Domino and Counter-Decadent—may be read as aggressive, subversive positions during the battle of the sexes with which to challenge the conventional understandings, and underestimations, of woman as well as woman writer.
Julianne Smith is familiar with Marie Corelli’s vitriol against the New Woman. Corelli’s reading public, literary critics notwithstanding, found her anti–New Woman stance congenial, and they famously voted with their pocketbooks to make The Sorrows of Satan a phenomenal publishing event. Within just a few months of its publication, it was already in its 36th edition and was being acted out in six different plays throughout England (Stead 41). Smith’s chapter argues that Corelli, working from traditional literary models of the Christian plan of salvation (set out by Milton et al.), reframes gender roles in The Sorrows of Satan and that the male players are rendered impotent within the larger female salvation drama. In Corelli’s scheme, Satan—that ultimate evil power who has from the Renaissance been figured as “the ape of God”—is not really satanic; it is the New Woman who embodies the real threat and her ominous presence signals a range of fears about gender, sexuality and, in the reshaping of womanhood that attempts to ape God’s power to create, evolution. Corelli employs the traditional male characters as decoys and their traditional bids for power and success as red herrings, for the novel may be read as really about the simultaneous fear of and desire for female power despite its harangue of New Woman thinking. In Sybil Elton, Corelli creates a New Woman figure who displaces the threat of Satan himself. Sybil threatens to re-create woman in an unrecognizable form—to be the “ape of God”—for late Victorians. In Mavis Clare, Corelli conceives of the woman author who attempts to occupy the redemptive space of the divine, ultimately a space that is not only inhospitable but uninhabitable. Though her intention may have been to expose New Woman villainy, Corelli fails to fully achieve this goal. Corelli is caught between an old narrative about women and an emerging one. She aspires in Mavis Clare to live in a prelapsarian world that promises a “true” woman a kind of divine immortality; however, she lives in quite another world where new ideas and gender ambiguities confront her with a more alienated and complex reality.
Gareth Hadyk-DeLodder’s chapter is not so concerned about the spiritual as it is with the popular movement of Kingsley’s Muscular Christianity, a theme he finds prevalent in Ardath , Corelli’s novel that was published to widespread popularity almost 40 years after Charles Kingsley’s Hypatia: or New Foes with an Old Face (1853) and bears a remarkable similarity to Kingsley’s novel in its treatment of the Muscular Christian. A closer examination of masculinity in Ardath , however, reveals many cracks in its rigid construction. The epistemological gaps betray an underlying tension concerning men’s adherence to the widely popular standard, one that was shaped by entangled social, imperial and sexual discourses. These anxieties raise several questions as to why Corelli simultaneously challenged some of Muscular Christianity’s fundamental tenets even as she worked so assiduously to emulate Hypatia ’s depiction of manhood. In responding to these questions, this chapter explores some of the fault lines between the two novels’ visions of “manhood,” paying attention to how Corelli revises Kingsley’s masculine formula and the societal implications of her new model of masculinity. Chapter 6 considers some of the important theoretical constructions of Victorian masculinity as a frame for a closer examination of Corelli’s understanding and depiction of masculinity in transition. This analysis is paired with attendant questions of gender performance and degeneration in her novel, including atavistic fears that concerned many of her readers toward the end of the century. Ultimately, Hadyk-DeLodder deciphers how Corelli’s teleological approach to manhood is splintered not just in Ardath , but in many of her other works. The division, along with its suggestions of repression, signals a complexity in Corelli’s depiction of masculinity that escaped her contemporary reviewers as well as subsequent critical studies.
In the next chapter, Carol Margaret Davison—one of the coeditors of a special issue of Women’s Writing that features Corelli—undertakes a gender -focused thanatological examination of a cross-section of Corelli’s Gothic -suffused Christian/spiritualist romances, including Wormwood , The Murder of Delicia and Ziska . Davison’s objective is to consider the nature and strategies of Corelli’s one-woman revolution in the Gothic romance novel at the fin de siècle , a process that involves laying bare a heretofore unrecognized and unexamined feminist/feminine spiritualist theology and poetics in Corelli’s oeuvre within which women are positioned as Blavatskyesque, divinely inspired mediums/hierophants, lovers and artists in their own right who are highly critical of secular materialism as it was becoming socially and culturally manifested. To this end, Corelli embraces a decidedly anti-Enlightenment sensibility that counters the drive to silence and forget the dead (Westover 7), “to distance corpses from the living” (de Baecque 10) and to remove “death from everyday experience” (Andrew Miller 33). In text after text, as Nickianne Moody has intimated (“Moody” 201–2), Corelli assumes the figurative role of a spiritual medium advocating for an open channel between the past and present, the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The chapter delineates how Corelli’s new fin-de-siècle Gothic romance, one grounded in a Gothic necropoetics and necropolitics preoccupied with the afterlife and various female figures of death and undeath—including corpses, ghosts, faeries and mummies—grappled with pressing contemporary concerns about gender roles, relations, women’s rights and the New Woman Question. In the process of examining Corelli’s cunning manipulation of thanatological motifs and imagery, the chapter will respond to such misguided comments as the one advanced by Federico that Wormwood is “the very flower of decadence” and “completely dependent on decadent tropes” (72, 73).
In addition to gender identity and morality, a common theme in Corelli’s novels is that the spirit world is knowable and accessible. Father Ignatius, a Church of England Benedictine monk, praised Corelli’s novels for doing more to restore and increase people’s faith than “the archbishops and the bishops and the convocations put together” (Lyne 9). Anne Stiles, in her analysis of Young Diana , with its marriage of science and spirituality, asserts that the reason for its success is that it gives “world-weary readers” “spiritual solace and renewed vigor.” It “reconciles scientific materialism with the imaginative spirituality” (156). The same can be said of all of Corelli’s novels that render “other worlds” as realistic and traversable. Her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds , published in 1886, introduced Corelli to the world as a writer of the supernatural, and, as such, was welcomed by thousands of readers who were similarly intrigued with spiritual realms. Brenda Ayres, author of several articles on Corelli and coeditor of this volume, theorizes in Chapter 8 why Corelli’s theosophical novels were so popular and transformative, given that they iterated Victorian values and virtues and proselytized for Christianity in a hyper-materialistic, anti-spiritual, pro-scientific age. When the literary trend was realism, Ayres asks why Corelli’s novels were so appealing when they were often melodramatic, sentimental and rife with the supernatural. What was she and her readers seeking in novels that reached into the mystery religions of the ancient world? Ayres’ chapter addresses these questions through a study of Ardath; The Story of a Dead Self , Thelma: A Society Novel , A Romance of Two Worlds : A Novel and Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul .
The last chapter, by Angie Blumberg uncovers how Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul merges the discourses of archeology, Decadence and the Woman Question, and resurrects ancient femininity at the fin de siècle to establish a genealogy and justification for the New Woman. Exploring the archeological aesthetic that pervades the novel and perceiving the portrait of Ziska created by the Decadent artist Armand Gervase as an archeological object, the chapter demonstrates how Corelli advocates for female emancipation through subversions of modern male art. Though Corelli’s works often appear ambivalent about the figure of the New Woman and though they are generally categorized as popular romance and thus segregated from novels more explicitly engaged with the politics of the Woman Question, Ziska represents an example of how these debates were framed in terms of ancient femininity. Early in Ziska , the Egyptologist Dr. Dean describes the beauty of the Princess Ziska— a reincarnated Egyptian harem dancer plotting vengeance on her reincarnated lover/murderer—remarking that “there is something vile in the composition of Madame la Princesse, and it responds to something equally vile in ourselves” (71). The “something vile” in Ziska positions her almost as a stand-in for a Decadent Aesthetic, one that is captured in Gervase’s portrait in which he unwittingly depicts Ziska’s death long ago at the hands of his former self. This chapter reads the portrait as both an archeological artifact evincing in its layers of paint the mysteries of the past and as a Decadent art object. Blumberg contextualizes the portrait alongside relevant archeological phenomena—particularly the Fayum mummy portrait craze of the 1880s—and other fictional fin-de-siècle portraits by Oscar Wilde and Vernon Lee. In the portrait of Ziska, Corelli exposes and undermines the misogyny of the male artist/female subject relationship in ways that recall New Woman advocate Sarah Grand’s “The Undefinable” (1894). Addressing Ziska ’s amalgamation of archeology, Decadent portraiture and feminist rhetoric, this chapter asks us to reconsider Corelli’s distinct approach to the Woman Question through major discourses of the 1890s.
Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty-First Century reconsiders the life, themes and popularity of a woman whose books continue to sell. The contributors to this volume have not been interested in the quality of her writing or whether her books are reflective of high or low culture, nor have they attempted to reconcile the pathographic or hagiographic responses to her, not in her time or since or now. Instead, their intentions have been to identify the battles that Corelli fought simultaneously on several fronts as a writer in championing the needs of a public that responded with zeal, gratitude and shillings. So Corelli often contradicted herself. Whitman could do it and everyone thought him perfectly wonderful. Bullock wrote, “To the end of her life she remained a bundle of contradictions, and there are innumerable obstacles in the way of any who seek to place her in a category” (56). This volume has not endeavored to resolve paradoxes about her or to put her into a neat literary niche but to invite critical discernment and discovery into those paradoxical moments. George Bullock once said that an effort to do so would be futile: “To the end of her life she remained a bundle of contradictions and there are innumerable obstacles in the way of any who seek to place her in a category” (56). We would agree, especially since we appreciate that she was not a writer created by and confined within the time in which she lived. Of course, a study of Corelli does help in understanding the historical underpinnings of the passing of the Victorians and the Edwardians. As John Lucas realized in 1970, Corelli’s books “clearly reflect opinions, wishes, likes and dislikes of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. If you want to know what the man on the Clapham omnibus thought of life during those years, Marie Corelli’s books will help to tell you” (283). Several decades later, Ransom said something similar: “It may be a different voice from us today, but as a mirror or her time, she reflects the concerns of the generation for whom she wrote” (223). These scholars are right; however, we—the writers of this study—contend that her voice, rhetoric, melodrama and hyperbole may be even stranger to us than they were to the Victorians and Edwardians, but the paradoxes, anxieties and conflicts of her own time are even more pronounced in our current times, which may account for why we continue to read Corelli, why we urge that more scholarly attention be paid to her and why we welcome Corelli to the twenty-first century.

1 Bullock wrote Marie Corelli: The Life and Death of a Best-Seller in 1940, but earlier, in 1902, the Era Magazine reported that at the annual meeting of Chapman and Hall, someone said that Dickens was enjoying more popularity than Caine or Marie Corelli (Smith 732). Such a statement could not be true in light of sales reports. The reporter further speculated that had Dickens known that he was being compared to Caine or Corelli, he “would probably turn over in his grave” (732).
2 Brenda Ayres explains in detail Corelli’s concoction of the Electric Creed in Chapter 8 of this volume.
3 Ransom 22. In a note to manuscript to Brenda Ayres on July 11, 2018, Teresa Ransom wrote, “I have a certified copy of the death certificate (No. 227) from the General Register Office, Registration District: Dorking. It states that she died February 2, 1876, age 52, wife of Charles Mackay. Cause of death: malignant disease of the intestine.”
4 She writes to the editor of Blackwood’s yet another “history” of her life, this time as “a Venetian, and the direct descendant (through a long line of ancestry) of the great Michael Angela Corelli [ sic ], the famous composer and also on another side of the family from one of the Doges of Venice—but she has been partly educated in France and partly in England” who had “published a small volume of English poems” (Blackwood Papers, MS 4422, May 25, 1883).
5 See Chapter 3 in Kershner: “Joyce and Marie Corelli,” 50–57. Kershner claims that Joyce read Sorrows of Satan and Ziska in 1905 (53).
6 In a letter to Brenda Salkeld, #55, dated July 27, 1934 (Orwell 138).
7 In a review, William Thomas Stead quotes from a letter that was quoted by Mrs. Thomas Kelly, who interviewed Corelli for the January 1898 issue of the Lady’s Realm (41). It is curious, though, that Bertha Vyver, in Memoirs of Marie Corelli , quotes the very letter from Tennyson but does not include his opinion that Ardath was a “remarkable work” (81).
8 Quoted in an advertisement for Sorrows in The Athenaeum (37).
9 Sarah E. Maier explores My Wonderful Wife! in Chapter 4 of this volume.
10 The most moving of these is The Master-Christian , in which she contrasts a true Christian in all his purity, innocence and humility against everyone around him including other church leaders and the lowly in society. Another powerful commentary on the state of Christianity is found in Barabbas .
11 In particular, see Jane about a spinster who suddenly realizes wealth, leaves the country for London and cannot tolerate its corruption. She returns to the country. In Thelma , a young ingénue from Norway becomes a bride and then is taken to London where she is nearly destroyed by the immoral, conniving influences of the upper echelon in which she has been immersed.
12 Bertha Vyver was Corelli’s lifelong companion.
13 See Letters to George Bentley, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, September 5, 1890.
14 See Shakespeare’s Othello i.3. Throughout the web, Shakespeare is often misquoted as having said that opinion is the “mistress of success.”
15 Ayres wrote: “Corelli herself cultivated a hyper-feminine persona. Her first pseudonym, Rose Trevor, was feminine. She dressed in lacy, ruffly outfits with flowers in the girdle and in her hari, and she usually acted and spoke with demure sweetness” (“Under” 182).
Chapter 1
Nick Leigh Birch
Marie Corelli visited Stratford-upon-Avon in 1890, accompanied by her half-brother Eric Mackay and her companion Bertha Vyver. Stratford-upon-Avon, with its Tudor buildings, riverside setting and celebrated heritage, was a picturesque destination for the self-confessed devotee of William Shakespeare. Marie was gratified to find that the success of her first four novels, A Romance of Two Worlds , Vendetta , Thelma and Ardath , had preceded her into the provinces, and the little market town was pleased to host the aspiring and ambitious author. During their ten-day stay, they paid homage to Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity church, signed the visitors’ book at the birthplace in Henley Street and went boating on the river Avon. Marie evidently had fond memories of the visit, for nine years later, when her doctor Mary Scharlieb urged her to escape London for a couple of years to rest and recuperate in the country, she chose the sleepy home of Shakespeare as an ideal retreat for a “literary” personage like herself. 1
In the spring of 1899 Marie and Bertha rented Halls Croft, the fine seventeenth-century, half-timbered home of Susanna Shakespeare which, at the time, was privately owned. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported on May 19: “So Marie Corelli has taken a house in Stratford and intends to live and write here. Now good Stratford people don’t make too much fuss of your resident authoress when she settles down. The poor lady has been very ill and cannot be quite strong yet. So don’t dodge round her dwelling and try to peep through her curtains” (“Things” 8).
The townspeople and visitors alike couldn’t help but be curious about Stratford’s famous new resident. With sales of around 100,000 copies a year (Masters 6) earning her an income in excess of £1,800 (Waller 772), or £1.8million in today’s terms, 2 Marie Corelli was the world’s most successful living author and a Victorian celebrity. Even those who had not read one of her books certainly knew who she was. Stratford society was small and parochial, and everyone was eager to meet the visiting celebrity. Marie rapidly became involved with the social life of the town; she was invited to attend important meetings, be the guest of honor at public functions, open fêtes and give prizes. She delighted in the attention and generously gave both her time and money to many local events, clubs and good causes. Marie was enjoying her new life in Stratford and the respect accorded to her by the people in the town, so she and Bertha decided to stay. They offered to purchase Halls Croft from the owner Mrs. Croker, but she was unwilling to sell. While looking for a permanent home in the town, they moved a short distance down the road, renting Avon Croft in September of 1899. 3
Marie resumed her literary career, writing the short novella Jane in early 1900 and publishing Boy in June and her first full-length novel in over three years, The Master-Christian , in August. It sold 160,000 copies in two years (Masters 165) and reconfirmed her ascendancy as a bestselling novelist of the first rank (Keating, “Haunted” 424).
In the summer of 1900, barely a year after Marie had arrived in Stratford, she offered to host a luncheon at Avon Croft for the Whitefriars Club, a select gentleman’s literary society visiting from London. The successful event confirmed her status in the town and was duly reported by the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald on June 29 in an article entitled “Miss Marie Corelli’s Garden Party”:

A more charming hostess than Miss Marie Corelli it would be difficult to find, and many people who had not previously met her, and who, perhaps by reason of her fame as a novelist, had expected to see a learned looking lady of severe and elderly aspect, must have been considerably surprised to be welcomed by so dainty and youthful a figure. (Davis 2)
The writer of the article about Marie’s Garden Party for the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald was Annie Davis (Ransom 106), the daughter of a local boat-hirer who taught typing and shorthand at the Technical College. Annie was a bright young girl attempting to make her own way in a small provincial town, and after reading her well-written and thorough article in the local paper, Marie sent for her. Evidently, she found Annie likable and efficient, for she engaged her as a secretary to answer her increasingly burdensome correspondence and to type from manuscript her forthcoming novels. 4
In 1901 Marie and Bertha moved from Avon Croft to Mason Croft, an imposing though rather dilapidated eighteenth-century townhouse. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald had reported on October 5, 1900, her intention to remain permanently in Stratford:

This is an announcement that we make with a great deal of pleasure, inasmuch as Stratford cannot afford to lose one who has filled the role of Lady Bountiful so admirably. During the comparatively brief time she has been among us, Miss Corelli has identified herself with everything that tends to make the social life of the town bright and pleasant, and she has also shown unstinted generosity in her contributions to our charitable institutions, in developing patriotic feeling, in encouraging manly sports, in infusing into the hearts of our youthful population, by charming entertainments, a gladness and joy few of them had previously experienced. She has also encouraged, by the offer of handsome prizes, a laudable emulation in literary effort […] A lady who has done so much for the town, who by her kindly acts, has made herself so justly popular, cannot well be spared, and it is with pleasure that we make the announcement that Miss Corelli has taken Mason’s Croft, a house of considerable antiquity, and intends to move her lares and penates from London to her Stratford home. (“Local” 8)
Stratford was charmed by the “Great Little Lady” 5 who had condescended to settle in the town, and the two women were equally delighted at the reception they had received from the townsfolk. Marie looked forward to a promising future in this rural idyll.
In May of 1901 Marie received a return invitation from the Whitefriars Club to speak at their annual Ladies Banquet at the Cecil Hotel in London. Replying to a toast that was proposed to the “Sovran Woman,” she surprised the illustrious fraternity with her eloquent views on modern woman and her place in society. An extract from her handwritten speech reads:

For long centuries of tradition and history in all countries, [man] has been accustomed to make his own laws for his own convenience, and those laws have kept woman in a subordinate position, as more or less a drudge or a toy. He finds it difficult to understand now that with better education woman has better aims, and instead of cringing at his feet she wishes to walk at his side, the free companion of his thoughts, the inspirer of all good things, and defender of his honour, and his most faithful friend on this side of heaven. Surely this is what women in the truest sense of womanhood means when she clamours for her rights. She wants the right to help in the work of the world, the right to have a voice in the affairs of life and society in which she is obliged to take so great a part, the right to suggest ways out of difficulty, to bring light out of darkness, and, above all, the right to inspire and encourage man to his noblest efforts by her steadfast and cheerful example. 6
Her speech made a deep impression. Winston Churchill, at the time Chairman of the Whitefriars Club and a member of Parliament, wrote to her: “I often look back at the time I had the pleasure of sitting beside you at the Whitefriars’ dinner, and listening to a speech the rhetorical excellence of which almost disarmed my opposition to Female Suffrage” (quoted in Ransom 106). Marie showed that she could not be “paragraphed” by the critics simply as the author of popular melodramas. She held a developed sense of social justice and high moral principles that guided and suffused her writing. The characters in her books may have been uncomplicated stereotypes that expressed her polarized view of society and its institutions, but in a time of change and cultural crisis, her huge readership was eager for the messages contained in her novels. Marie was writing not merely to entertain her readers but also to uplift them and offer hope in a time of rapid social change.
Marie discovered she had a gift for public speaking and embarked on a series of extraordinarily popular talks and lectures for which she never accepted a fee (Masters 209). She was honored to be asked to give a speech to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh in 1901 entitled “The Vanishing Gift” concerning the fading of imagination. Soon afterward she was invited to be the first woman to lecture to The Royal Society of Literature. She went on to address a meeting of The Scottish Society of Literature and Art in Glasgow on “The Sign of the Times,” and to The Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester on “A Little Talk on Literature.” The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported on a speech she had given on January 23, 1903, in Birmingham: “For a woman to entertain an audience for over an hour with a lecture on Literature is itself a remarkable feat, when it is added that the address was delivered in clear liquid tones, with emphasis and expression, with true oratorial grace, and with scarcely a reference to notes, then it becomes more remarkable—and is perhaps unique” (quoted in Ransom 119). The venues sold out quickly, so eager were people to see Marie Corelli and hear what she had to say. At a talk in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at the City Hall in Leeds, over 4,000 people attended (Ransom 112).While the large audiences may have been a reflection of her tremendous popularity, Marie was a compelling orator who delighted and enthralled listeners. She was equally thrilled by the experience and reveled in the opportunity to disseminate her doctrine directly to the eager thronging masses (Waller 806). She would go on to publish a collection of her speeches, including previously published articles and essays on society, the press, faith, education, money, beauty, happiness and many other subjects in a book entitled Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct in 1905 .
The growing success of her novels encouraged Marie to engage A. P. Watt, one of the first literary agents, to handle her affairs with publishers. Watt wrote a dedication in the front of a specially bound copy of Free Opinions Freely Expressed presented to Marie on the occasion of her 50th birthday on May 1. He inscribed: “To Miss Marie Corelli on her birthday, in sincere admiration of her genius, her public spirit, and her efforts on behalf of the poor and needy, and him that hath no helper; from her friend, A P Watt.” 7
Watt’s sentiment is illustrative of how many of her readers perceived the woman and her work. Marie was not simply the author of a string of entertaining books; she had established her own voice and a style that attempted to answer not only the complex questions of the age, but also the needs of her immense readership. She conquered the reading world with her pen, despite the protestations of her critics. Marie recognized the power of the written word. She commented:

It remains, even in these days, the greatest power for good or evil in the world. With the little instrument which rests so lightly in the hand, whole nations can be moved. It is nothing to look at, generally speaking it is a mere bit of wood with a nib at the end of it—but when poised between thumb and finger, it becomes a living thing—it moves with the pulsations of a loving heart and thinking brain, and writes down, almost unconsciously, the thoughts that live, the words that burn. ( FO 293)
In Stratford the news of Marie’s decision to make it her permanent home was greeted with some trepidation by the merchants and businessmen that ran the town. Marie was unmarried, wealthy, independent and very popular. She was also opinionated and unafraid to communicate her feelings to the press. She considered herself to be “naturally qualified” to comment on local and national issues she deemed worthy of her attention. She frequently appeared ignorant of local sensitivities, but her concerns were usually well founded and consistent with the sentiments of the general public. Furthermore, Marie spoke for the ordinary man and woman who had no voice, and she willingly challenged the old established hierarchy that was unused to being held accountable to growing “public opinion.”
Marie was soon labeled an eccentric, and she certainly lived up to expectations. In 1902 she purchased a pair of Shetland ponies named Puck and Ariel, along with a miniature carriage, and every day Marie and Bertha would be driven around Stratford-upon-Avon making their calls and stopping for purchases from the local shops. In 1905 a Venetian gondola appeared on the river complete with gondolier. 8 Marie called the gondola The Dream and put it in the care of Annie Davis’ father who owned the boat hire station located in Southern Lane behind the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald on May 19 reported: “The attractions on our river have been added to by the launching of a fully equipped gondola by Miss Marie Corelli. This Lady never does thing by halves” (“Local” 5). Marie wrote in a letter to A. H. Bullen 9 : “No doubt you’ve heard that Stratford has been thrown into convulsions by the appearance of my gondola on the Avon under the management of a swart and muscle bound gondolier. Venice and the Merchant were never so keenly brought home to these yokels before” (quoted in Masters 212). She used the gondola regularly, but unfortunately the Venetian gondolier did not last long. Marie summarily dismissed him after he had brandished a knife during a drunken altercation in the well-known Black Swan public house by the river. He was replaced by her gardener, Ernest Chandler, who appears rowing the gondola in many old photographs of the period.
These frivolities gave Marie genuine pleasure, yet her detractors would claim they revealed a conspicuous and shameless desire for self-advertisement that pervaded everything she did. She certainly attempted to cajole and manipulate the press when it suited her, and because she made excellent copy, they were occasionally complicit, but if they exposed her to ridicule, she would explode with indignation. In 1903 an enterprising Mr. Wall of Stratford produced a set of five painted picture postcards of Marie, including one in her gondola and another in the little pony-drawn carriage. 10 The postcards were simple and inoffensive caricatures; nevertheless, Marie was incandescent with rage. She threatened the local outlets stocking the cards in Stratford-upon-Avon and issued proceedings against Mr. Wall. Her case that the postcards were libelous was dismissed, although her intimidation of the shopkeepers succeeded in removing them from sale.
In 1902 Marie became embroiled in the first of many controversies in the town. She stirred up sentiment against a memorial to Helen Faucit that was proposed to be sited opposite Shakespeare’s bust in the chancel of Holy Trinity church. Faucit was a famous Shakespearean actress who had played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing , which opened the Shakespeare Memorial theatre on April 23, 1879. But the actress was neither from Stratford nor buried at the church, and Marie objected to what she considered to be a secular memorial so close to the poet’s grave, particularly as Faucit’s husband, Sir Theodore Martin, had already donated a green marble pulpit in her memory.
Letters in the local and national press soon made it clear that public opinion was on Marie’s side. The outcry compelled Sir Theodore Martin and the vicar of Holy Trinity to concede and the plan for the relief was abandoned. 11 Marie defended her objections in the Daily Mail on November 5: “Had there been a male representative of the literary craft in Stratford I should have left the matter to him. But there was not. So I raised what my critics kindly called a ‘shriek.’ However, I myself have always regarded a shriek as being more satisfactory than a snuffle” (quoted in Ransom 109). The Birmingham Post , among other newspapers, congratulated her:

Miss Corelli deserves our hearty thanks for courageously and promptly protesting against this proposed “second” Faucit Memorial being erected in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church Stratford -upon-Avon. The charges of “shrieking,” self-advertising, notoriety hunting, and such like ill-mannered and ungallant impertinences have fallen flat, and died a natural death. We are all willing to give credit for good intentions, honour and truthfulness to the actors of this drama. (109)
Marie had used her fame to get the issue into the national press, emerged triumphant and was applauded for her efforts. She would take on the mantle of self-appointed protector of Shakespeare in Stratford, but this, the first of her notorious interventions in local affairs, would bring her enmity and cause lasting damage to her reputation in her adopted hometown.
In 1902 Archibald Flower, then mayor of Stratford, wrote to Andrew Carnegie asking if he would support an application by the town for a grant to erect a new free library. Carnegie declared that he would consider it an honor, and plans were prepared. The preferred site was in Henley Street, between Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Technical School where three cottages and a shop were to be demolished. Both Archibald Flower and his father, Edgar Flower, chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, stated the buildings were of little merit, but letters appeared in the press protesting against their destruction.
Marie initially resisted getting directly involved. Various members of the Flower’s family played a significant role in the town; the land on which the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built had been donated by Edgar’s late brother Charles, who had also funded virtually the entire cost of its construction. 12 The Flower’s money had come from the family brewing business, and Flowers Ale was quite literally on everyone’s lips. The Flowers were the leaders of the market town’s merchants who ran the town’s affairs, their names recurring in the lists of town councilors, trustees of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and governors of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
Administering Shakespeare’s legacy in Stratford was a local rather than a national affair in the early 1900s, but Marie complained to a friend: “The fact is that these priceless remains of Shakespeare ought to be governed by men of intellect and culture, not brewers and tradesmen who really care nothing at all about the great Poet’s sacred fame” (Masters 185). She was not alone in this opinion. When the plans for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre were first proposed in 1877, the national Daily Telegraph announced:

They have no mandate to speak in the name of the public or to invest with the attribute of a national undertaking a little mutual admiration club whose object is to endow Stratford-upon-Avon with a spic and span new Elizabethan building […] to be half-theatre and half mechanics institute […] [The] Governors and Council are respectable nobodies. (quoted in Ransom 98)
Marie thought the plans for the new library were misguided because they would be destroying an authentic part of Henley Street’s fabric, which had survived since Shakespeare’s time; however, if she went to the press, she would put herself in direct confrontation with the Flowers and the rest of the town’s leading figures. On February 9, 1903, after agitating behind the scenes, she decided to write to the Morning Post : “Sir, Several people and lovers of Shakespeare have asked me to say a word in public protest against the further pulling down and modernising of this unique old town by the erection of a brand-new ‘Carnegie Free Library’ next to Shakespeare’s birthplace”(“Spoliation” 69). Three days later her old friend, the acclaimed actress Ellen Terry, wrote to the press in support. Vanity Fair commented: “Miss Ellen Terry’s and Miss Marie Corelli’s action in drawing attention to the vandalisms which are about to be committed in Stratford-on-Avon should be met with the active support of everyone who is interested in Shakespeare’s town” (quoted in Ransom 122). Archibald Flower replied in the papers stating that the cottages had already been bought and donated to the town by Carnegie for the site of the new library, and that while there were some old timbers in one of the cottages, they were all in a hopeless state of decay and would be pulled down as planned. Unfortunately for the library’s promoters, Marie discovered that one of the cottages, Birch’s china shop, dated from 1563, and that the other two were nearly as old, with timber frames behind later brick facades. What was more, the deeds to prove the age of the cottages were in the possession of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, but no one had bothered to consult the archives, or expected anyone to object to the old cottage’s demolition.
Marie wrote:

I have steadily maintained, and still maintain, that to destroy or alter genuine old houses of Shakespeare’s time for the sake of erecting any modern thing whatever, is nothing less than a National Scandal, and a grave discredit to all those wilfully concerned in it. That such destruction was fully intended, and that such alteration is now in progress, can be proved by the plain truth of all the circumstances. ( Plain Truth 46)
The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings weighed in to support Marie, and the Birthplace Trust committee led by Edgar Flower was forced to modify its plans. The two cottages nearest the birthplace were saved from demolition. 13 The new Carnegie library was still built, but part of Birch’s china shop was saved and incorporated into the new building. Marie’s intervention had exposed what appeared to be an unaccountable oligarchy supposedly entrusted with the town’s and nation’s heritage, which had acted without a thorough examination of the situation. While she felt vindicated, it caused bitter resentment toward her in the town, publicly exposing those persons concerned as being arrogant and inept.
Marie was drawn back into the controversy when Fred Winter, one of the governors of the Technical School, wrote to the local paper claiming that some time before the application to Carnegie, Marie herself had asked the price of a piece of land adjoining the Technical School, 14 allegedly for the purpose of a library. He said that she had been in favor of a library in Henley Street when it would have been a “Corelli” rather than a “Carnegie” library (quoted in Ransom 130). The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald printed the letter with a provocative commentary and copied it to all the national papers.
The insinuation was enough for Marie to bring a libel action against Winter and The Stratford Herald to protect her reputation. The case was heard at the Birmingham courts on December 16, 1903. During the trial, it was alleged that Winter, in collusion with the editor of The Stratford Herald , had between them contrived the attack on Marie in an attempt to discredit her. The judge was inclined in his summing up to agree, and the jury’s verdict also went in her favor, though she was awarded only a paltry farthing in damages. Marie’s pyrrhic victory alienated her further from those in power and authority in Stratford, and they would have nothing more to do with the woman. Her dreams of a quiet and contented retreat in the town of Shakespeare’s birth looked futile.
Marie had thought her fame and wealth would make her welcome in Stratford. When she lived in London, her celebrity status as the author of the latest bestselling novel may have gained her entry to the fashionable salons, but she was tolerated as a curiosity; she knew she would never be allowed to join the echelons of the elite. In Stratford Marie lavished her time, energy and money on the town assuming she would be readily accepted by provincial polite society as their uncrowned queen. Sadly, her willingness to be outspoken and court public controversy would deny her the part she dearly wished to play and the happiness she yearned for. Stratford’s townsfolk appeared unprepared to accept a woman who ignored proscribed patterns of established behavior. Marie was a woman who disregarded convention and propriety, confounding and disorientating her audience. Her critics reacted with shock and outrage at her brazen attacks on the seat of male supremacy, and the impudence and “immodesty” with which she, they judged, had conducted herself. Marie’s admirers, particularly those of her own sex, were equally astonished but perhaps sensed the undercurrents of the times and the shifting patterns in gender politics. They applauded her audaciousness, and many idolized her as the prophet of a new order to come.
In the summer of 1905 Marie was a guest onboard the impressive steam yacht Erin that belonged to Sir Thomas Lipton, the well-known entrepreneur and serial contender for the America’s Cup awarded in the prestigious millionaires’ yacht race. 15 Among the other guests was a friend of Marie’s, Lady Byron, and Edward Morris, an American business associate of Lipton’s who had been educated at Harvard. Marie told Morris about an old Elizabethan house she had recently bought in Stratford in order to stop it from being demolished or “modernized.” The fine timber-framed townhouse was built in 1596 for Thomas Rodgers, whose daughter was the mother of John Harvard who would immigrate to America and found the university that bears his name. Morris agreed to share the funding of the restoration of the building as a symbol of mutual friendship between the nations.
At a grand reopening ceremony in 1909, the American Ambassador Whitelaw Reid made a tribute to Marie’s efforts: “Marie Corelli has exercised her own taste and simply removed all modernities, and allowed the house to show itself as it is and as it was in the days when John Harvard saw it as a child” (quoted in Ransom 168). Following a sumptuous lunch for all the guests at Mason Croft, the house was put in trust for Harvard University. Today the property, known as Harvard House, is cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and it remains not only the most original house of its period in the town, but also a tribute to Marie Corelli’s determination to preserve and restore old buildings in Stratford.
The saving of Harvard House is the most obvious example of Marie’s participation in a growing movement concerned with conservation. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was established in 1877, and The National Trust formed in 1895, but their aims were by no means widely recognized or acknowledged. Marie may have had a nostalgic rose-tinted view of the past and been resistant to change, but her actions, coincident with the emerging concerns for heritage, helped start a dialogue in the wider population.
Her own views on the conservation of heritage, buildings and setting can be found in The Avon Star , a curious booklet published at the height of the Stratford Carnegie Library controversy. The booklet, subtitled A Literary Manual for The Stratford-upon-Avon Season of 1903 , refers to the short season at the Memorial Theatre given by Frank Benson’s company of London. As well as covering the plays being performed, the booklet contains a miscellany of articles about Stratford, Shakespeare and the goings-on in the town, including an account of what was called the “Spoliation of Henley Street.” In the first article entitled “Murmurings on the Avon,” Marie writes:

For example, if the half-timbered houses down the principal street were uncovered from their modern paint and stucco, it would be one of the most perfect old English thoroughfares in existence. And there are plenty of devotees who would visit it and stay in it for the sake of its beauty alone. If, instead of pulling down their old houses, people would renovate and carefully restore them, they would find it well worth their while, even financially speaking. (4)
She backed up her entreaties with money, paying the property owners to restore the facades of their buildings in order to reveal the ancient timber frames. In 1903 she gave A. J. Stanley, who had printed The Avon Star , £200 (about £20,000 today) for work on the front of his photography and printshop. In 1910 she gave £60 (the equivalent of £6,000 today) to Fred Winter, with whom she had been in court seven years earlier, to remove the render from his drapery premises. The same year she also bought a vacant plot of land in Stratford, known as The Firs, to prevent it from being built on and gave it to the town. The land is a still an open green space in the town today. Marie’s interventions had a very real and lasting effect on the development of Stratford and cemented her legacy as an important conservationist of the town’s architectural heritage.
Marie had 11novels to her name before moving to Stratford-upon-Avon. In the early years of the 1900s, she continued working on her legacy as a literary sensation. After the publication of Boy, Jane and The Master-Christian in 1900, she released Temporal Power in 1902, described by W. T. Stead in his Review of Reviews as “a tract for the guidance of a King” (41). Marie had been the only author invited to attend King Edward VII’s coronation on August 9, a mere three weeks before Temporal Power was published. Methuen paid Marie a £5,000 advance (about £500,000 today) and printed a huge first edition of 120,000 copies (Coates & Bell 247).
God’s Good Man was her next book published in 1904. The story takes place in a thinly disguised fictional version of Stratford-upon-Avon called Riversford. Among the town’s various uncultured inhabitants, the Reverend Putwood Leveson receives particular vilification. The character is based on Rev. Harvey Bloom, the rector of a small hamlet outside Stratford. Marie had met Reverend Bloom when he was teaching at the boy’s school, Trinity College, next door to Mason Croft. She was delighted by Reverend Bloom’s young daughter Ursula, who had shown an interest in becoming an author herself. Marie invited her frequently to visit and encouraged her to write. During a luncheon at Mason Croft, Ursula casually asked Marie if she was divorced (Ransom 113). Marie and Bertha were stunned and appalled. The imputation of being divorced would exclude a person from High Society and attendance at any royal functions, and the rumor could have seriously damaged Corelli’s reputation and livelihood. At the age of ten Ursula may not have fully understood the significance of the word, but it appears certain that she had overheard her parents speculating about Marie’s status, as well as disparaging her abilities as an author. Marie wrote to Bloom:

I will not dwell on the infinite pain it is to me, to find that my name has been so falsely and cruelly mishandled in your house; that is a matter for my solicitors; but the most pitiful experience that I have ever known is to think that such a very young child like Ursula, should be stuffed with such calumnies and falsehoods, against one, who honestly sought to be her friend and yours. (quoted in Ransom 114; emphases in the original)
Despite Bloom’s remorse and attempts at mollification, Marie broke off relations and consulted her lawyers. It is not surprising, given her ambiguous parentage and the hard work building her career, that Marie overreacted, dragging the scandal into the papers rather than burying it with Bloom’s apology.
Image was important to Marie, and the frontispiece of The Treasure of Heaven published in 1906 contains a rare photograph, the first authorized portrait of Marie Corelli, with a copy of her signature underneath (Masters 218). While it may be commonplace now to include a photograph of the author, at the time it was virtually unheard of. Why, asked the critics, would anyone be interested in what the author looked like, but the image captivated the imagination of Marie’s readers. They identified the author with the pretty heroines that frequented her novels, exemplified by Marie’s audacious self-insertion as Mavis Clare 16 in The Sorrows of Satan 1895. Marie’s careful crafting of an idealized image of herself would be enduring and idolized by her ardent fans.
In reality Marie was surprisingly diminutive in stature. She loved to wear delicate dresses in pale hues adorned with a knot of fresh flowers giving the impression, on which she was happy to play, that she was still a young girl.

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