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. https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/gollums-mother-on-marie-corelli
Salmonson, Jessica Amanda. “Marie Corelli & her Occult Tales.” http://www.violetbooks.com/corelli.html
Stableford, Brian. “Marie Corelli: Overview.” St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers. Ed. David Pringle. (St. James Press, 1996).

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