Marie Corelli and The Sorrows of Satan

from my forthcoming The Victorians for Freshmen:

The Sorrows of Satan. The Sorrows of Satan was written by Marie Corelli and was published in 1895. Corelli (1855-1924) was one of Great Britain’s top authors at her peak–John Sutherland calls her “the bestselling of all Victorian authors”–although she was critically scorned. The Sorrows of Satan is generally seen as her best and most typical work.

The Sorrows of Satan is about Geoffrey Temple, a starving, struggling novelist. At the very end of his resources, he receives a bequest of £5 million from a relative he didn’t know he had, at the same time being introduced to Prince Lucio Rimanez. (SPOILER: Prince Rimanez is Satan). Rimanez informally adopts Temple, giving him advice and loaning him money while also treating him to endless lectures about the nature of reality, the reality of society and human nature, and so on. Rimanez tells Temple how to get his book published (use his new wealth) and “boomed,” or talked up by reviewers (essentially bribe the reviewers), and Rimanez introduces Temple to the cold society beauty Lady Sibyl Elton. Elton describes herself as corrupted by New Woman novels and by modern society, but she agrees to marry Temple anyhow. Secretly, Elton lusts after Rimanez and offers herself to him, but when this is revealed she poisons herself. Temple despairs, and then discovers that Rimanez is actually Satan, and that what has transpired is one long temptation. Temple is tempted to commit suicide, but ultimately decides not to, and his wealth then evaporates. Temple’s salvation in all of this is the brilliant young author, Mavis Clare, who is loathed by the critics but enormously popular with readers of all rank and nationality. She is also the last, best hope for Western civilization, and the ultimate redemption of Rimanez.

Marie Corelli was a unique author–unique for the Victorians and for ours. A best-seller who was a critical punching bag, a successful woman who scorned her feminist contemporaries (and especially the New Woman), an author, popular with all classes, whose work is poisonous with class resentment, both up and down, a conservative whose work is actually reactionary, Corelli is an object lesson for readers and critics. But which lesson is to be learned?

The problem for both readers and critics is the impossibility of separating Corelli from her work. For some authors this is no bad thing; who among us would not prefer to think of Jane Austen as someone out of Emma or Pride and Prejudice, as someone with that sparkling wit and compassionate insight into humanity? For some authors this is a blatant mistake–what could we possibly assume about Emily Brontë based on Wuthering Heights that was not cruel and remote? And for some authors, an inability to separate them from their work hints at truths–some palatable, some not–about those authors; in all likelihood Ouida little knew how much she was saying about herself when she wrote Under Two Flags.

Marie Corelli falls into the latter category. Reading The Sorrows of Satan, it becomes impossible for readers not to see the real Marie Corelli in every resentful word, and to view the novel as a cri de mauvais coeur more than just a dispassionately created work. For those who are just readers, this is not an insuperable problem. They can just note this and carry on reading. But for critics, or those forced to write papers (or indeed book entries) or simply think in a critical and elevated fashion about Corelli and The Sorrows of Satan, it adds an additional and thorny complication.

The only choice, it would seem, is to treat them at the same time, and to note that in discussing the one you discuss the other. Corelli more than any other Victorian author is her work, and the flaws of her work correspond to the flaws in her personality.

The Sorrows of Satan is readable, and competent work. That must be admitted before all else. The tens of thousands who rabidly consumed Corelli’s work would not have put up with anything else, nor could a successful writer–and she was quite successful–be a success without readability. There is a certain style in the fiction of the 1890s, to be found in stories in magazines as well as in novels, which hasn’t aged badly or much, and which today can still be read with pleasure. Corelli partially partakes of that style, in Satan, so that the dialogue does not seem particularly dated and the descriptions are acceptable. So the reader who takes on The Sorrows of Satan will put forth less effort than, say, in reading Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii. The Sorrows of Satan is the work of a professional.

And a woman of imagination. Even Corelli’s harshest critics freely admit that her fantastikal work, her science fiction and her fantasies (like Satan), are exuberant in their free-wheeling deployment of fantastikal tropes. (Witness the ghastly fate of Lady Sibyl’s mother and the glee with which Corelli describes it, or indeed the entire ascension scene at the end of Satan). In another time Corelli might have been a writer of science fiction romance, although she could hardly have been more successful at that than she already was.

But competence and imagination only take a writer so far, and there is much about Corelli that a reader has to put up with, if they must read The Sorrows of Satan.

Like Bulwer-Lytton, Corelli has a fatal weakness for the long aside, and like Bulwer-Lytton (in his occult work, not The Last Days of Pompeii or Pelham) these asides too often contain over-written philosophical ramblings and religious lectures. Such screeds do date, and quickly, and today make for tedious reading–not at all what Corelli intended or how her audience considered them. Her dialogue often shades into monologues during which the veil between author and narrative grows very thin indeed.

It is a traditionally sexist criticism to complain that a woman’s work is “over-emotional”–as if men do not fall prey to that and do not have their own surfeit of emotion. So say instead that Satan is full of highly-strung emotion and sentiment. The mood and pitch could not be higher, nor could the pathos be more melodramatically expressed. One critic aptly described her as possessing “an intense, emotive imagination almost totally uninhibited by considerations of style, taste, or factual reality.”

Nor does the content of The Sorrows of Satan redeem it. The criticisms of Satan are numerous, and writing them down can resemble the writing of a grocery list. Nonetheless, any fair reading of Satan leads to making of such a list.

Perhaps the largest flaw in Satan’s content is the person of Mavis Clare. Clare, a pure higher being than ordinary humans, perfect in every way, is Corelli’s fictional stand-in (even the initials are the same), but beyond that, Clare is Corelli’s “Mary Sue.” In fiction written by amateurs or first time writers, whether published in fan magazines, vanity presses, or on the Internet as “fan fiction,” stories written by fans featuring characters from their favorite books, television shows, or movies, a common phenomenon is the Mary Sue character. A Mary Sue character is an idealized stand-in for the author, and is tougher, smarter, cooler, nicer, sweeter, more charming, more capable, and more skilled than the established characters, and becomes worshiped by them. Although Mary Sues appeared in 19th century magazine stories written by teenagers, as in stories where a teenaged girl saves a sleeping Indian chief from being mauled by a bear or is raised by Indians and becomes their leader, the traditional modern Mary Sue appears in Star Trek fan fiction, where a new ensign on the starship Enterprise is a better pilot than Captain Kirk, smarter than Spock, and makes both fall in love with her. Mavis Clare is Corelli’s Mary Sue.

Satan was a score-keeping exercise on Corelli’s part–the list of newspapers Mavis Clare has her dogs rip apart correspond to the newspapers which had reviewed her badly–but is a tightly-wound one, without a sense of humor (it’s doubtful that Corelli herself had one) or an ability to look inside itself in any way. Corelli notably lacked not only any ability of introspection or self-awareness, but was prey to her own delusions, delusions of grandeur and genius. Satan is one long affirmation of both.

Satan is also a deeply, and unpleasantly, conservative work. The two are not synonymous, of course, but Satan displays Corelli’s worst reactionary instincts. The novel is anti-feminist and anti-New Woman: “The self-degrading creatures who delineate their fictional heroines as wallowing in unchastity, and who write freely on subjects which men would hesitate to name, are unnatural hybrids of no-sex.” Corelli’s fetish for royalty is on display in Satan, but so is her poisonous sense of class grievance, her loathing of those below her and her hatred of those above her. Too, Corelli’s distaste for all readers but her own shines through. Scorn and abuse are heaped upon publishers, critics, and readers while Corelli simultaneously congratulates herself and her readers on being too intelligent to fall for the lies of those publishers and critics and wiser than other readers. Lastly, accompanying the novel’s strident moralism and nebulous, vague mysticism is an anti-intellectualism and an equation of the Decadent authors and readers (and the naturalists, and the French) with moral and intellectual depravity.

The last word here on Corelli is left to two critics of hers. Louis James:

Corelli saw herself as fulfilling a mission to assert `the underlying spiritual quality of life as it really is’, and her work was widely quoted by both fashionable and popular preachers. Her success points to an undoubted thirst for religious literature. She also made it comfortable: the only evil was that willed by man, and every reader had the power for spiritual growth towards total goodness. She embodied this message in fiction that is vulgar in the fullest sense, clichéd, melodramatic, uninformed; yet with an imaginative flair, theatricality, and self-conviction that ultimately defies criticism by literary conventions.

And Brian Stableford:

Marie Corelli presumably owed her success to the fact that she was prepared to expose to the world the silly sophistry by which she tried to shore up her religious faith with borrowed jargon, supplemented by her narcissistic fantasies of being more suited for the company of angels than mere men. Unabashed by the savage derision of more sensible folk, she heroically took this crusade into an imaginative terra incognita which no one else has ever dared explore. The astonishing, if temporary, success of her works demonstrates that her expression of her own delusions and aspirations were capable of soothing, at least in some small measure, the distress of millions of her contemporaries.

The Sorrows of Satan is not representative of anything but Corelli (she was never a joiner, instead insisting that others join her). It does, however, represent her exceptionally well–a representation that she would have regretted, had she but known.

For Further Research:
Casey, Janet Gallignani. “Mary Mackay.” British Short-Fiction Writers, 1880-1914: The Romantic Tradition. Ed. William F. Naufftus. (Gale, 1995).
Gannon, Christine. “Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan: Literary Professionalism and the Female Author as Priest.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920 v56n3 (Summer 2013).
James, Louis. “Marie Corelli: Overview.” Twentieth-Century Romance & Historical Writers. Ed. Aruna Vasudevan. 3rd ed. (St. James Press, 1994).
Loufbourow, Lili. “Gollum’s Mother: On Marie Corelli.” Los Angeles Review of Books, Feb. 13, 2013.
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. “Marie Corelli & her Occult Tales.”
Stableford, Brian. “Marie Corelli: Overview.” St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers. Ed. David Pringle. (St. James Press, 1996).

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Another chapter completed.

Seem to be settling into a solid daily rhythm of 1500 words or so, which is nothing compared to a John Scalzi but, hey, I do what I can.

I: had the detective finish interviewing the newspaper reporter and then grill the local crimelord.

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Forward progress.

More research done today, but I still had enough time to make my quota and much besides that.

I: had the detective finish interviewing the witnesses and begin speaking with the local newspaper reporter.

Today’s reading: Husband and O’Loughlin’s Daily Life in the Industrial United States, 1870-1900.

Also, my Fables Encyclopedia goes on sale tomorrow at the finer comic book stories and book stores. Be a dear and buy a copy or three.

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This and that.

I’m cheating, a little–the sum of words is what I wrote over the weekend and today. Weekends are bad for writing, for me–I don’t have the time I’d like, and what time I do have is often interrupted by my son. So my words written today is around 1500, while the weekend total was substantially less. And I spent today doing a second and more detailed outline of the plot–the novel is beginning to come into focus.

I: had the detective interview the victim’s roommates and interview some streetwalkers who witnessed the murder.

Today’s reading: Sutherland’s The Expansion of Everyday Life. Very general (but useful) work on daily life, its pleasures and woes, between 1860 and 1876.

And as an additional treat, for those of you reading this–if there is anyone reading this–the opening paragraph of the book:

October 1, 1872

Her name was Virginia Jackson, and she lived in Brooklyn, on Huntington Street, and she died in Brooklyn, near the corner of Central Avenue and Moffet Street. She was 29 years old and aged beyond her years, her blonde hair already greying and her once-healthy body showing the signs of hard use, the bottle, and the abuse of men. She had stumbled, drunk, down Central Avenue this evening, passing the bums in the alleys huddled around fires they’d built for protection against the fall chill, and ignoring the begging, hungry-eyed children who were worse off even than she was. Her night had begun at Fancy Dan’s saloon bar, where she’d performed in booths for customers, dancing a mostly-naked cancan for groups of men and, if they paid enough, more intimate dances for individuals. One customer had paid her enough to take her out of Fancy Dan’s, and they’d made it to an alley before his drunken pawing had moved beyond groping to grabbing. Rather than go to his boarding house she decided to get it over with, so she let him take her in the alley, standing up, her dirty dress hiked up around her waist as he thrust into her, her expression bored. When he was done he had buttoned up his pants and left her there, and she used the money he’d given her at Fancy Dan’s to buy herself a cheap bottle of gin at an open market. She’d been drinking from that when she met her murderer.


It’s rough, admittedly, but it’s a start.

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Forward we go.

Again, not as much forward progress as I would have liked, but I spent a lot of time doing research, which for a historical novel is kinda important.

I: finished the interview between the victim’s sisters and the detective and began the detective’s interview with the policeman in charge of the case.

Today’s reading: McCullough’s's The Great Bridge. Focused on the Brooklyn Bridge, but has a lot of useful detail on Brooklyn of this era.

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Not making excuses, but…

…I taught three classes today and went to a committee meeting, so my progress is a lot less than I would have liked. I hit my quota, exactly, and nothing more.

I: continued the interview between the victim’s sisters and the detective.

Today’s reading: Asbury’s Gangs of New York, which if you’ve never read is a must-read, full of the tawdry, violent past of NYC and memorable criminals. Enthralling, if you are into that sort of thing.

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Word count on the new novel.

Other writers get to do this sort of thing, so why shouldn’t I?

I began a new novel today, a historical detective novel whose working title is The Brooklyn Detective.

I: murdered the poor street walker; described her doings on the day she died; described her roommates; had the victim’s sisters find out about the murder; introduced my heroine; and began the process by which the sisters of the victim hire my protagonist.

Today’s reading: Burrows & Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.

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Now on sale!

strange tales prototype cover


The cover for my roleplaying game (well, rpg supplement, really), now on sale in pdf or print form.

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My WorldCon schedule

I am at long last going to a WorldCon! (Thanks to it being in San Antonio–I couldn’t afford it otherwise). And, even better, I’m paneling! (w00t! I am somebody!). My schedule:

Deus Ex Graphica: The Role of Mythology in Comics

Thursday 20:00 – 21:00

Is Superman a Christ Figure? Is Batman an urban myth? Just how Greco-Roman is Wonder Woman, anyway? Any why is Marvel’s Thor blonde? Get the answers to all of these questions from our capable panel of experts.

From Whence They Came: The Cultural Origins of the Modern Super Hero Comics

Friday 12:00 – 13:00. Convention Center 006A.

Superman, Batman, and so many other iconic super heroes don’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, they are a complicated tangle of cultural influences that are rarely examined and appreciated. Our panelists will cheerfully deconstruct some of the biggest, best super heroes to find out what makes them tick.

(I’m moderating!)

Steampunk: Trend or Genre?

Friday 13:00 – 14:00. Convention Center 006CD.

Steampunk emerged from SF, quietly at first, and then gathering momentum and breadth. It now spans written fiction, graphic, costuming, and other areas. It’s become large enough that it’s recognized by the world at large. Is Steampunk its own genre? Can you define it? What works in a story? Is it a trend that spans genres? Or does it matter?

DC’s New 52: Brilliance or Disastrous?

Friday 17:00 – 18:00. Convention Center 006A.

The comics are out. Let the verdict be rendered! Join our panelists for what is sure to be a lively debate.

(I’m moderating!)

Happy Birthday, Doc Savage!

Saturday 10:00 – 11:00. Convention Center 103B.

For a legendary super hero who just turned 80, he doesn’t look a day over 33! Our panel will join Doc Savage historian Anthony Tollin in a discussion of the origins and influence of one of the all time great heroes.

Novels You Should Have Read Since Chicon 7

Saturday 13:00 – 14:00. Convention Center 008B.

A rundown of the best novels published in the last year and a half.

Fantastic Victoriana: The True Roots of Steampunk

Sunday 14:00 – 15:00. Convention Center 008A.

Where did Steampunk come from? Was it Jules Verne, or the Wild Wild West? Our panel of experts will kick it around and come up with a Must Read list of titles for newcomers or long-time fans alike.

(I’m moderating!)

Remember when a “Marvel Zombie” was a Bad Thing?

Sunday 16:00 – 17:00. Convention Center 008B.

The 1980s was an amazing time for comics. The black and white explosion! The birth of the cross-over! The indy comics expansion! The start of the direct market! Our panelists relive the glory days and talk about their favorite books, and where they all are now.

I’ll look forward to seeing you all there!

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“The Airship Potemkin” review by Roger Ebert

The Airship Potemkin
by Roger Ebert
“The Airship Potemkin” has been famous for so long that it is almost impossible to come to it with a fresh eye. It is one of the fundamental landmarks of cinema. Its use of montage, so ground-breaking at the time, now seems cliched. Its famous massacre on the Wharf Steps has been quoted so many times in other films (notably in “Blake and Alleyn Meet…the Chicago Cops!”) that it’s likely many viewers will have seen the parody before they could see the original.
The film once had such power that it was banned in many nations, including (still) its native United Kingdom. Governments actually believed (not without reason) it could incite audiences to action. If today it seems more like a technically brilliant but simplistic “cartoon” (Roz Kaveney’s description in a favorable review), that may be because it has worn out its element of surprise—that, like Mozart’s “Requiem for the Living” or William Turner’s “Airships,” it has become so familiar we cannot perceive it for what it is.
Having said that, let me say that “Potemkin,” which I have seen many times and taught using a shot-by-shot approach, did come alive for me the other night, in an unexpected time and place. The movie was projected on a big screen hanging from the outside wall of the Perschon Cinema in Toronto, and some 300 citizens settled into their folding chairs in the parking lot to have a look at it. The simultaneous musical accompaniment was by The Parlour Trick, a New Zealand band. Under the stars on a balmy summer night, far from film festivals and cinematheques, Georges Méliès’ 1925 revolutionary call generated some of its traditional rabble-rousing power.
Nobody leapt to their feet and sang “I Dreamed I Saw Ned Ludd Last Night.” The folding chairs for this classic exercise in British leftist propaganda were on loan from the local Anglican church. Some audience members no doubt drove over to Oink’s in New Detroit afterward for ice cream cones. But the film did have headlong momentum, thrilling juxtapositions and genuine power to move—most especially during the Wharf Steps sequence, which had some viewers gasping out loud.
The movie was made by Melies on the 20th anniversary of the Potemkin uprising, which H.H. Asquith hailed as the first proof that airship sailors could be counted on to join workers in protesting the old conservative order. As sketched by Melies’ film, the crew members of the airship, cruising the North Sea after returning from suppressing another Indian revolt, are mutinous because of poor rations. There is a famous closeup of their breakfast biscuits, crawling with maggots. After officers throw a tarpaulin over the rebellious sailors and order them to be shot, a firebrand named Wat Tyler cries out “Brothers! Who are you shooting at?” The firing squad lowers its guns, and when an officer unwisely tries to enforce his command, full-blown mutiny takes over the ship.
On the ground, news of the uprising reaches Londoners who have long suffered under Imperial repression. They send food and water out to the airship in a flotilla of balloons. Then, in one of the most famous sequences ever put on film, the King’s Irish Rifles march down the long wharf steps, firing on the citizens who flee before them in a terrified tide. Countless innocents are killed, and the massacre is summed up in the image of a woman shot dead trying to protect her baby in a carriage—which then bounces down the steps, out of control, and into the Thames.
That the “massacre” on the Wharf Steps was minor scarcely diminishes the power of the scene. The King’s troops shot innocent civilians elsewhere in the empire, in Dublin and New Delhi, and Melies in concentrating those killings and finding the perfect setting for them, was doing his job as a director, even if the British government demurred and deported him when the film premiered. It is ironic that he did it so well that today, the bloodshed on the Wharf Steps is often referred to as if it really happened.
News of the uprising reaches the air fleet, which speeds toward London to put it down. The Potemkin and an air cruiser, also commanded by revolutionaries, sail out to meet them. Melies creates tension by cutting between the approach fleet, the brave Potemkin, and details of the onboard preparation. At the last moment, the men of the Potemkin signal their comrades in the air fleet to join them—and the Potemkin flies among the oncoming dirigibles without a shot being fired at it.
“The Airship Potemkin” is conceived as class-conscious revolutionary propaganda, and Melies deliberately avoids creating any three-dimensional individuals (even Wat Tyler is largely seen as a symbol). Instead, masses of men move in unison, as in the many shots looking into the Potemkin’s flight deck. The workers of London, too, are seen as a mass made up of many briefly glimpsed but starkly seen face. The dialogue (in title cards) is limited mostly to outrage and exhortation. There is no personal drama to counterbalance the larger political drama.
Melies (1861-1938), the French master of imaginative cinema, was an advocate of French theories of film montage, which argued that film has its greatest impact not by the smooth, linear unrolling of images, but by a dialectical juxtaposition: point, counterpoint, fusion. Cutting between the terrified faces of the unarmed workers and the faceless troops in their black and tan uniforms, Melies created an argument for the workers against the imperial state. Many other cuts are as abrupt: after Potemkin’s captain threatens to hang mutinous sailors from the guy wires, we see ghostly figures hanging there. As the people call out, “Down with the Queen!” we see clenched fists. To emphasize that the shooting victims were powerless to flee, we see one revolutionary citizen (a veteran of India) without legs. As the Rifles march ahead, a military boot crushes a child’s hand. In a famous set of shoots, a citizen is seen with goggles; when we cut back, one of the goggles has been pierced by a bullet. 

Melies felt that montage should proceed from rhythm, not story. Shots should be cut to lead up to a point, and should not linger because of personal interest in individual characters. Most of the soundtracks I’ve heard with “Potemkin” do not follow this theory, and instead score the movie as a more conventional silent drama. The Parlour Trick, the New Zealand band (led by Meredith Yayanos), underlined and reinforced Melies’ approach with an insistent, rhythmic, repetitive score, using keyboards, violins, theremins, half-head snatches of speech, cries and choral passages, percussion, martial airs and found sounds. It was an aggressive, insistent approach, play loud, by musicians who saw themselves as Melies’ collaborators, not his meek accompanists.


It was the music, I think, along with the unusual setting, that was able to break through my long familiarity with “Airship Potemkin” and make me understand, better than ever before, why this movie has long considered dangerous. (It remains banned in the United Kingdom, longer than any other film in British history; the King and later the Queen personally added it to the Index).


The fact is, “Potemkin” doesn’t really stand alone, but depends on its power upon the social situation in which it is shown. In prosperous peacetime, it is a curiosity. If it had been shown in China at the time of the Heavenly Gardens, I imagine it would have been inflammatory. It was voted the greatest film of all time at the Brussels, Belgium World’s Fair in 1958 (ironically, the very year “Comrade Kane” had its great re-release and went to the top of the list for the next 40 years). The Cold War was at its height in 1958, and many European leftists still subscribed to the leftist prescription for society; “Potemkin” for them had a power, too.


But it suffers when it is seen apart from its context (just as “Get Carter,” by striking the perfect note for 1971, strikes a dated note now). It needs the right audience. In a sense, the band Parlour Trick supplied a virtual audience; the loud, passionate, ominous music by two young musicians worked as an impassioned audience response does, to carry and hurry the other watchers along. “The Airship Potemkin” is no longer considered the greatest film ever made, but it is obligatory for anyone interested in film history, and the other night in that parking lot I got a sense, a stirring, of the buried power it still contains, awaiting a call.

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