She Outsold Dickens, So Why Don't We Know Her Name?

She Outsold Dickens, So Why Don't We Know Her Name?

Marie Corelli.

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Why you should care

Marie Corelli melded Victorian ideas of technology, melodrama and the occult into her novels, yet nobody reads her anymore.

Queen Victoria awaited her package. The grand matriarch of the era that bore her name was not one for frivolity, but she allowed herself a few pleasures. The parcel that her servant handed her was one of them: a copy of The Sorrows of Satan, the new book by her favorite author, Marie Corelli.

An enormously popular author in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Corelli has been all but forgotten by today’s literary canon. But for a few short decades, Corelli reigned supreme as the queen of popular literature.

Miss marie corelli and her pet dog

An illustration of Marie Corelli and her dog.

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The illegitimate child of Scottish poet and songwriter Charles Mackay and his servant Elizabeth Mills, Marie McKay rocketed above her humble beginnings, attaining superstar status in the burgeoning age of mass media under the pen name Marie Corelli. In the three decades that followed the publication of her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, in 1886, Corelli reigned as the world’s best-selling author, with at least 30 of her novels becoming global hits. Her works, which were a curious mix of occultism, romance, gothic mystery and Christian morality tale, far outsold those of contemporary rivals like Charles Dickens. She shattered all previous publishing records by selling 100,000 copies of her books per year. When Corelli made public appearances, thousands of fans would show up, often fighting to touch her gown as she made her way through the throngs.

Corelli’s work tapped into the fascinations of the day: electricity, spiritualism and theosophy. All of these topics converge in A Romance of Two Worlds, which tells the story of a young woman’s astral travels under the guidance of Heliobas, a mysterious being who teaches her about “human electricity.” The book also contains an explanation of Christ as electricity that compares God to the telegraph. After her readers started to actually devote themselves to a telegraphic Jesus, Corelli willingly assumed the role of guru, stating in 1896 that if she didn’t believe wholeheartedly in “The Electric Creed,” she wouldn’t have written it.

But while she was adored by the public (and the queen herself), Corelli was largely panned by critics. Reviews of her work could be savage, and many of her contemporary male authors despised her. When Mark Twain came to visit her in 1907, he later wrote that his time with her “was the most hateful my 72 years have even known.” Even today, Corelli’s popularity, according to literary scholar Simon James in the Journal of Victorian Culture, is often “explained away, by the supposed quiescence of [her] writing with the status quo, [the] success [of her books] the consequence of giving readers what they want.”

Some contemporary scholars, however, are a bit more forgiving, chalking some of her bad press up to misogyny. “While it’s true that her prose and plots can leave something to be desired, it’s also true that she’s been unfairly marginalized in literary history,” says Jill Galvan, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University who specializes in Victorian views of technology and the occult. “Her popularity itself was probably a problem at the time, given rising critical distinctions between ‘art’ and mass entertainment.”

Unlike many celebrities today, who invite fans into the most intimate aspects of their lives, Corelli strived to maintain an air of mystery around her personal life. She never married and lived for 40 years with her life companion, Bertha Vyver, to whom she left her entire estate upon her death, in 1924. Corelli never identified herself as a lesbian, but scholars have noted the frequent erotic descriptions of women in her novels.

The traditional views exhibited in her most successful works … became antiquated as genre- and convention-breaking female authors like Virginia Woolf rose to prominence.

Corelli carefully constructed her public persona as a grandiose eccentric, pulling stunts like buying an authentic Venetian gondola (complete with gondolier) in which to ride down the Avon River. She protected her image by fighting unauthorized photographers, even filing a lawsuit against some paparazzi for publishing unflattering photos of her. For this reason, the vast majority of surviving photographs show Corelli dressed in flowing robes and romantic period costumes, hair adorned with wildflowers.

While Corelli herself was a businesswoman, her female characters were often wide-eyed ingenues — beautiful and frail embodiments of Victorian ideals. Corelli’s romantic females stood in stark contrast to the emerging concept of the new woman. During the height of Corelli’s fame, the suffragist movement was in full swing, with women hitting the streets to demand the right to vote, attend college and hold jobs. The new woman, as opposed to the Victorian homemaker, was an entity independent of both the household and her husband. Corelli staunchly opposed the idea of the new woman, even publishing an anti-women’s suffrage pamphlet titled “Woman, or Suffragette.”

Portrait of marie corelli

Corelli was fiercely protective of her public image.

Source Getty Images

The traditional views exhibited in her most successful works, though popular at the height of her fame, quickly became antiquated as genre- and convention-breaking female authors like Virginia Woolf rose to prominence. This, combined with lackluster reviews and her dismissal as nothing more than a hit-maker, barred Corelli’s entrance into the canon of Victorian literature and her works have been largely forgotten.

Today, however, her novels are being revisited by scholars for Corelli’s unique take on femininity and gender at the turn of the 20th century. Though her characters adhered to Victorian ideals such as modesty, they — like their creator — were independent and smart, constantly asserting their worth beyond domesticity. In her 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan Corelli asked if women “should be kept in their places as men’s drudges or toys — as wives, mothers, nurses, cooks, menders of socks and shirts, and housekeepers generally?” By this definition, Corelli was certainly a woman with no interest in being kept in her place.

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