Marie Corelli & her Occult Tales

by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

Marie CorelliTime was, Marie Corelli was the most widely read author England possessed. Journalistic slurs against her talents & person rarely harmed sales, & usually increased them, so that the press additionally castigated her public for its bad taste. Perhaps, instead, the public should have been commended for not falling for the press's self-congratulating maltreatment of an author who couldn't have been all that bad or they would have ignored her altogether.

She was quick to feel slighted but just as quick to assume herself cherished. Many did cherish her, of course, for her delightful traits were easy to embrace by many who actually visited her, as opposed to slandering journalists who judged her from afar. Arthur H. Lawrence, who met with Marie & Bertha on multiple occasions to craft an 1898 interview for The Strand thought her "sweetness itself," & was disarmed by her "veracity, the personal charm & sincerity, the real feminine grace of her every movement."

Among those who took delight in her friendship we may count Sir Henry Irving, Lily Langtree, Ellen Terry, Sarah Bernhardt, Beerbohm Tree, Alice Meynall, George Meredith, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Frank Harris, Robert Hichens, Alfred Noyes, Algernon Swinburne & his companion Theodore Watts, & those inveterate ghost story writing brothers A. C. Benson & R. H. ("Hugh") Benson. Gladstone, eager to see for himself who it was that "could write so courageously & well," thought it not untoward to visit her unannounced. Lord Randolph Churchill likewise stood among her champions, while Winston Churchill sent her a note regarding her oratory powers, after she had debated in opposition to him at the White Friars Club. Queen Victoria collected her books, as did King Edward VII & Queen Alexandra. She was well liked by the Prince of Wales (afterwards King George V) & Marie long boasted of her invitation to dine with him. Royals of many other nations admitted interest in her works.

She did have an unfortunate ability to alienate, at times, even those who valued her. Hugh Benson loved to hang out at Mason Croft, often bringing a boyfriend with whom to sport throughout her five-acres of gardens. Yet writing of her much later, he had plainly accumulated some ill will along the way. He had been an Anglican priest but converted to Catholicism. Though there were a few who found Marie "wisely tolerant of all creeds," she was in general offensively anti-Catholic.

As for those who disliked her at first sight, she was never far from providing new fodder to enhance their reasons to be churlish. Those whom she regarded as enemies, apart from critics as a class, included Hall Caine who tripped himself up lying to her; Grant Allen who called her, in The Spectator, "a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, & was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities & prejudices she gave a glamorous setting;" James Agate who represented her as combining "the imagination of a Poe with the style of a Ouida & the mentality of a nursemaid;" & the spiteful & horrid Edmund Gosse who made evil jests at her expense. There was usually something specific underlying Marie's sense of outrage, & she always felt she had sound enough cause; only, in most cases, anyone else would have saved their energies for more important battles. For instance, her grudge against Hall Caine began before her career was off the ground. He had been first-reader of A Romance of Two Worlds when this, her first novel, was submitted for publication. He rejected it out of hand. When George Bentley saw the negative report, he instinctively suspected commercial possibilities, & wrote Marie to get the manuscript back. When Caine eventually met Marie, she had become something of a leading light, so he lyingly claimed to have been her advocate with Bentley. Had she been a more political animal, she would have permitted him his lie, & gained by his belated support. Instead, she castigated him in public & private forums, solidifying a long-term mutual enmity.

Marie was homosexual. It must be said as bluntly as that because of the poor way in which gay & lesbian history has been reported, & the commonality, in the past, of biographers' efforts to submerge & deny this history. She ofttimes affected to be an actual man-hater, having avowed "such hatred & disgust for the male portion of our species that if a man only touches her by accident she feels a sense of outrage for days." A wag noted that Beethoven was the only man she could have loved," because he has the advantage of being dead."

Thus inspired to write the love poem "To a Vision," she speaks of sexual desire as secretive, with gentle footsteps approaching "in the darkness of the night," bringing dewy kisses, flowery fragrance, & caressing hands — all without any gender reference except for a closing allusion to a motherly breast. An earlier poem, woven into A Romance of Two Worlds speaks of the bitterness of her beloved's queenly disdain, concluding with the dramatic "I love thee! I dare to love thee!"

The "thee" she dared to love was Bertha Vyver, who had known Marie from youth, & was witness to every success & heartbreak of Marie's career. They began to live together in 1878 when Ber was 24 & Marie a year younger. To Bertha, Marie was always "the wee one" or "my wee pet," later "the world's wee author." Despite their mutual plumpness, Ber thought of her wee one as a small angelic child who needed constant affection. Marie called Bertha "Mamasita" in the early days at Fern Dell, then at Longridge Road, Kensington, & forever afterward she was "my darling Ber" & "dearest Ber," whom Reverend William Stuart Scott described as "a big comfortable cushion Marie could lay her head upon." Scott, who knew both women exceedingly well, is the only commentator to state frankly, & uncritically, that their love was "surely in the Damon & Pythias, the David & Jonathan class."

Marie was sometimes faulted for her opinions on marriage, for the question "why did she never marry?" was often addressed in her wonderfully inimical style. Yet if one looks between the lines, her seeming castigation of the typical heterosexual marriage can be seen to uphold her own lifelong liaison as sacred. She said, "Marriage is not the Church, the ritual, the blessing of clergymen, or the ratifying & approving presence of one's friends & relations. Nothing can make marriage an absolutely sacred thing except the great love."

It is unfortunate that Marie was to no extent a supporter of the homosexual rights movement that counted bluestocking & ghost story writer Vernon Lee & theorist Edward Carpenter in its legion. Indeed, in an essay for Lady's Realm she listed her "pet dislikes" & included "The 'new poet' who curls his hair with the tongs," alluding to the dandies who flourished from the 1890s until the first world war (wherein many of these sissy poets died heroically), & "Women bicyclists & he-females generally," which may only mean she preferred her women matronly & soft, like Bertha. It could be interpreted as a typically closeted "protest too much" stance, or as a heartfelt belief that homosexuality should be, like her own, wholeheartedly discreet & gender-appropriate. She regarded it as unbecoming for gay men to curl their hair instead of pursuing athletics, as it was unbecoming for gay women to pursue physical exercise rather than curl their hair.

Marie & "darling Ber" purchased Mason Croft, a rundown Tudor mansion, restoring it to its former glory. In their music studio Marie hired built a fireplace with a large stone over the mantle into which was engraved Bertha Vyver's & her own initials elaborately intertwined. It was a pure expression of their love. It could not have been any more obvious a proud confession if they had carved their initials in a heart on a tree in Kensington Park. Yet Eileen Bigland in Marie Corelli: The Woman & the Legend goes out of her way to deny that the love between Marie & Bertha was even real, let alone erotic, while yet implying a much more alarming romantic attraction between Marie & her brother Eric. For this charge there is no sensible basis beyond a spiteful jest perpetrated by Edmund Gosse, who hated Marie for having an ego as inflated as his own.

Marie's TowerThere remains to this day no serious book-length study of her works, as opposed to biographies mostly with a condemnatory tone. Writing out her manuscripts by hand, frequently from the little tower amidst her gardens, she intended to leave the world something of genuine if eerie beauty. A very few critics, notably Rebecca West & Leonard Woolf, have defended her work for its own sake. Henry Miller called her work "extraordinary," "captivating," & regarded her an author of "tremendous courage & imagination," pleading for a serious reassessment of her imaginative storytelling prowess: "She had a gift for portraiture, scenic descriptions, wonderful characterizations & an ability to hold the reader in perpetual suspense. Though it is customary to speak of her contemptuously & derisively, I myself find her work to be always fascinating & gripping."

In that Theosophic era when people of reasonable education & social standing believed the damnedest things, when the smallest town held Psychical Research Society meetings or boasted a Swedenborgian church chapter, Corelli's occult novels adhered to no popular system. She had her own wacky ideas & stuck to them, which was probably to the good, since we thereby gain access to her own fancies & do not have to suffer the promulgation of soon-to-be-outmoded movements & fantastical religious fads. Corelli's novels were genuinely eccentric even within that eccentric atmosphere. Theosophic romancers were a dime a dozen in those days, but not a half-dozen possessed Corelli's peculiar fascination. She is the only author of her type, after Bulwer Lytton, who retains anything resembling a broad modern audience.

Her style & philosophy were alike Decadent & florid, though in some regards the moral strictures in her books are in direct opposition to the moral deconstructions of High Decadence in the Yellow Nineties. Marie would take uplifting theories of the Soul -- as sentimentally twaddlish as any theosophical love story -- then add ingredients that were brutally cynical & heretical even within the context of occult belief, let alone the Christian context she so boldly revised. Her revisionary fantasy of the Crucifixion, Barabbas, sufficiently alarmed her publisher, Mr. Bentley, that he rejected it with the excuse, "I fear the effect on the public mind." Marie quite rightly took the book to a new publisher & Barabbas became one of her largest international successes, the first of a trilogy that reformed the whole history of Christianity, & of the devil, to suit her own phantasmagorical faith.

In The Sorrows of Satan, the first sequel to Barabbas, there is an underlying mystical strength to her glorification of Satan as a misunderstood adventurer in the modern world. Sorrows broke all previous records in Britain's publishing history, making her England's best selling author up to that time. The story bothered critics even more than their usual wont, for many felt Corelli expended too much sympathy for the fiend. The Master-Christian was the capper of the trilogy. Its portrait of the Baby Jesus as a time-travelling street urchin disappointed in the Victorian world is a more successful book than the premise immediately implies, humorous without losing the mysterious quality that contemporary readers of Sorrows of Satan were assuredly seeking.

At her best, the oddness & passion of her works made her, like William Beckford of Vathek fame, a thoroughly original writer. Her weirdest & most baroque novel, Ardath, was called by George Bentley "a magnificent dream," & was a major influence on Lord Dunsany's imaginary-world vignettes. The hero, in love with a supernal angel but not yet worthy of union with her, travels back in time 7,000 years to a sweepingly fantastic world, undergoing transformative adventures. It was immediately compared to Vathek, a keystone of arabesque fantasy. Corelli herself liked Ardath more than most of her books, but admitted it sold fewer copies, & Mr. Bentley said he thought it might have been above the heads of the public.

Hardly less baroque was her premiere novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, to which Ardath serves as a sequel. The story featured dream-magic, mesmerism, many & varied opium-induced occult powers. The world-weary & emotionally crumbling heroine, electrically rejuvenated by the Chaldean master Heliobas, sets out on a quest for the meaning of life, resulting in a cosmic journey by means of astral projection with an angelic guide, embodying a trip to utopian Saturn, to technologically bizarre Jupiter, & to the center of the universe, the place of creation, where God dwells in electrical form. Combining weird science & spiritualism, it was probably the most influential occult novel from that period, after H. Rider Haggard's She.

The Soul of Lilith concluded the "Heliobas trilogy" that began with A Romance of Two Worlds & Ardath. It is a good reprise of the Faust theme, with elements of Pygmalion (if not Frankenstein) as the sorcerer binds the soul of a dying girl to her body, obtaining thereby a female familiar with whom he cannot help, despite prohibitive warnings from the great & wise Heliobas, falling in love.

Corelli had been hung with the sobriquet "the female Haggard," & it is probably true that young women (predominantly) sought out her novels to achieve much the same sort of thrill boys sought in King Solomon's Mine. It is an intriguing coincidence that Rider Haggard, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur T. Quiller-Couch, Arthur Conan Doyle & Marie Corelli all had their first successes on or near Victoria's jubilee, 1887, & were uniformly fantasists. Marie was most especially fond of Haggard's novels. She incorporated Rider's favorite theme — the "Lost Race"motif — into one of her later romances, The Secret Power, in the form of a hidden city of immortals discovered by the intrepid heroine in the Egyptian desert; while bits of Ziska parallel the reincarnation romances of Allan Quatermain & She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Marie periodically sent letters to Rider, hoping he would one day visit her at Mason Croft, while he, for his part, upon reading Ardath, told her her "imaginative gifts were rare indeed."

Her other romances hold varying degrees of interest. Her first publisher, Mr. Bentley, compared her second novel Vendetta! to Bulwer Lytton, the greatest of the Victorian occult romancers; & George Augustus Sala praised its narrative strength & brutal gothicism, depicting a premature burial in cholera-ridden Naples of 1884, with a gut-wrenching climax of revenge. Wormwood, like Vendetta!, is gothic rather than supernatural, though spiced with drug-induced visions. As a Temperance novel, Wormwood slandered absinthe-drinking bohemian circles in Paris. It roused Temperance leaders throughout Europe, resulting in particularly harsh anti-drinking laws in Switzerland.

Among her best fantasies is the novella Ziska, a fine tale of erotic horrors, transmigration of the soul, & reincarnations from ancient Egypt, with a breathtaking climax in a secret underground chamber of a pyramid. She developed the theme of eternal youth in a weird scientific femme fatale adventure, the comparatively scarce The Young Diana, reworking themes from Frankenstein when youth regeneration results in monstrous, soulless immortality. The Life Everlasting is another tale of immortality, visions, & numerous reincarnations. Marie regarded it as a continuation of A Romance of Two Worlds, extending her occult theories of electricity to radium & radioactivity. Marie often threw elements of science fiction into the mix, notably in Romance of Two Worlds, The Young Diana and The Secret Power. Much as it became proverbial that Jules Verne predicted actual future inventions, it was felt by many that A Romance of Two Worlds foretold wireless telegraphy & X-rays; & in the early days of television, even with Corelli some years dead but well remembered, the "telly" became known in Cockney slang as "the Marie" because it seemed the ultimate proof that her imagination had indeed been prophetic.

Her plot lines in the novels were so convoluted they required considerable length to unfold. But in some of her short stories she strives for a degree of restraint. "The Lady with the Carnations," the best of several supernatural stories included in Cameos, is a perfect ghost story devoid of the author's usual excesses. Among her heretically religious fantasies, "The Devil's Motor," which Brian Stableford called "feverishly eccentric," can still charm the reader. It was included in A Christmas Greeting, an elegantly bound, rather scarce collection of Marie's poems, essays, stories, & even a song. Some years later "Motor" was reissued separately as a slim, forty-five-page, attractively illustrated gift-book, in an edition of 5,000 copies, & today very rare. "The Ghost in the Sedan-Chair," one of several other fantasies in A Christmas Greeting, is a lighthearted holiday ghost story.

Another Christmas novelette was issued as a small, marvelously illustrated book, The Strange Visitation of Josiah McNason, initially as a special 1904 Christmas supplement to The Strand Magazine. It is quite imaginative if the reader can overlook the fact that it is too close an imitation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Delicia & Other Stories reprinted "The Ghost in the Sedan-Chair" plus added a new allegory, "The Despised Angel." Her final collection was The Love of Long Ago, containing, among other supernatural pieces, one of her best short stories, "The Sculpture's Angel." With its mystic sculptor & atmosphere of decaying Bohemian elegance, this is an ideal example of the Decadent weird tale both in style & theme, & almost serves as a coda to A Romance of Two Worlds which has a mystic painter rather than sculptor.

On April 21, 1924, Marie Corelli died. She'd had a sudden presentiment that the end was near, & asked her nurse to send for Bertha. It was late; the nurse did not believe Marie was so near death's door as that, & demurred of waking anyone. Bertha lamented: "Marie would not be consoled. Sitting upright in her chair all night, she implored, with tears in her eyes, that I might be sent for; but the nurse, not realising how close was our sympathy, would not humour her. Next morning she passed away without again seeing me or feeling the touch of my hand."

Marie in Gondola

Bertha died some while later, in 1942, & was buried alongside her "beloved wee pet," Marie Corelli, in the Stratford cemetery on the Evesham Road. Mason Croft, for all Bertha's heroic efforts to preserve the shrine Marie had wanted, had insufficient funds for such a purpose, & was sold. Vulturish antique dealers, & sincere readers seeking some small memento of the author, crowded before an auctioneer. Marie's adored pony-cart, which she had often ridden into town, went to a theatrical producer for use in a London pantomime. Her gondola, "The Dream," fetched 57 guineas.

Henry Miller, noting several of Marie Corelli's novels remained in print in modern editions, suspected there would one day be a fullblown resurgence of interest in her books. He noted, "If there is a revival of her work be assured that she will be as much reviled & condemned now as she was in her lifetime. Marie Corelli makes of you either an addict or a sworn enemy." I would hazard only that any serious library or core collection of supernatural literature should include at least A Romance of Two Worlds, Ardath, The Soul of Lilith, The Sorrows of Satan, Ziska, & her short stories. These taken together represent Marie Corelli sufficiently, & at her best.


Excerpted from a monograph that will serve as an introduction to a forthcoming limited edition of Corelli's collected supernatural short stories, Dark Angels, Pale Ghosts. The illustration of Marie in her gondola is a detail from a post card distributed without her permission to tourists who lurked about Mason Croft.

See also:
The Gothic & Supernatural Works of Marie Corelli:
An Alphabetical Bibliography of First Editions.





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