Life of Marie Corelli 1855 - 1899
Marie Corelli - Fact and Fancy.
by Teresa Ransom
Re-produced with kind permission of the author.
A girl called Mary Mills is believed to have been born in London on 1st May 1855. There seems to be no record of a birth certificate, but this was not mandatory at that time, and not uncommon if the child was illegitimate. Her mother, Mary Elizabeth Mills, (Ellen) was the mistress of Charles Mackay, author and poet, who was working as political and literary editor for the Illustrated London News. Mackay was, at that time, married to Rose Henrietta Vale, with whom he already had four children. Rose left him in 1843. Mary Mills was told Mackay was her stepfather.
From 1857-1859 Mackay travelled to America to lecture on, ‘Songs, National, Historical and Popular’ and report for the Illustrated London News. Mary Mills appears to have lived in London with her mother for the first six years of her life. When Mackay ‘s wife, Rose Henrietta Vale died in 1859, Mackay waited for a year of official mourning before marrying Ellen Mills. After the wedding the family lived at 18 Avenue Road, Regents Park, London, and Mary Mills became Minnie Mackay.
In February 1862 Mackay found a posting with The Times in New York to report on the American Civil War, and, as the job was to be a long one, he took with him his ‘dearly beloved wife and infant daughter.’ Later in his memoirs he writes of a visit to Three Rivers in Canada. ‘Mr Rousseau had been apprised of our coming and canoes and a scow were in readiness. My wife and daughter did not like the fragile look of the canoes, so the scow, in deference to their timidity, was chosen for our transit.’
Young Minnie was in America with her parents from early 1862 to the end of 1863, a fact she never acknowledged. At the end of 1863 Mackay returned to London for three months with Ellen and Minnie to settle them back in their home at 18 Avenue Road. He then went back to New York where he remained for another two years. His stint as reporter on The Times for the American Civil War was not a success. An opinionated and embittered journalist, Mackay felt that the South had every right to secede, even though he deplored slavery, and his attitude was resented by the Northerners in New York and irritated his employer.
Minnie from the age of eight to eleven lived with her mother in the country at Fern Dell, Box Hill near Dorking. An elderly governess visited three times a week from Dorking, while Mackay spent most of his time in London. Minnie wrote ‘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. Many books did I pore over with untiring patience learning all I could, and craving to be taught more. I was indeed a very lonely child – and for this reason I had found my best pleasure in books and music.’
Mackay realised Minnie needed a broader education than the governess could give her, and so, from 1866 – 1870, from the age of eleven to fifteen, she was sent to a Paris convent for a more inclusive schooling.
In the school holidays she visited Scotland with her father, or stayed with Mackay’s friend in London, the Countess Van der Vyver and her three daughters, one of whom, Bertha, became Minnie’s special friend. The Countess Van der Vyver was a beautiful woman who had been Lady in Waiting to Queen Eugenie at the court of Napoleon III in Paris and had known Charles Mackay for many years. While Minnie was at school in France she wrote a letter to her father .
Minnie ‘Could you give me a plot for a drama to write and work out for our private theatricals, a dreadful plot of Love and Murder? Mackay: Don’t know. Try me – with the offer of a thousand guineas! Or, say, £1000 for the Love, and £3000 for the Murder! Minnie: You mercenary individual! No, Papa, without any nonsense, do help me to concoct a drama. He must have helped for the drama was performed on 12 April 1871 in the Theatre Royal, Box Hill, more accurately known as, the School Room at Fern Dell. The note at the bottom of the elaborate programme read ‘NO CRITICS OR GREAT GENIUSES ADMITTED.’ Sixteen year old Minnie was asserting her authority.
In the 1871 census, Fern Dell Cottage was the home of Charles Mackay, fifty-six, his wife Ellen, forty-one, born in Madrid, Spain, Minnie, sixteen, a cook and a housemaid.
Mackay was now working as a freelance journalist, writing novels and poems, but his earnings were slight and with a household to support, money was scarce. Minnie was at home with no particular prospects. She played the piano reasonably well, had a pleasant singing voice, and was reading her way through Mackay’s extensive library. She wrote later that the library was ‘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.’ The contents of the library would have provided useful inspiration for some of her later novels.
Later in her life she said, ’I was kept very much at home and, owing to lack of companions of my own age, I found my chief delight in reading, though few modern books ever came my way and I was not allowed to look at a newspaper.’ She talks of the loneliness of her life at Fern Dell.
She decided to attempt some freelance writing for Blackwood’s Magazine and on 21 January 1874 submitted a poem ‘Sappho’, to Mr Blackwood, using the nom-de-plume Vivian Erle Clifford and inventing her past achievements as ‘a constant contributor to St James Magazine’ There was no answer.
Not one to give up easily, Minnie wrote again from the Van de Vyver’s address, The Laurels, Belsize Park. ‘I have written to both you and your uncle respecting my poem ‘Sappho’ and have received no answer. My father is surprised at the silence and so, I confess, am I. Please answer my request soon, it is so hard to be kept in suspense. Faithfully yours, Minnie Mackay.
This time she did get an answer in May 1874 – a rejection – but Minnie battled on. Not willing to concede defeat, Minnie asked Mr Blackwell to reconsider his decision. There was no reply.
She tried again on 22 August 1874. She hoped an article on ‘Music and Song’ would suit Mr Blackwood telling him she was ‘very well up in the subject, being perfectly at home with the classical composers as well as the modern ‘show’ ones and a most fervent admirer and student of Scottish music.’ The answer must have been favourable and the article was duly written and sent on 10 October 1874. There was no acknowledgement.
The next letter was decidedly miffed. On 20 October 1875; 'It is now more than a year since I wrote and sent for your approbation an article on 'Music' which has never been acknowledged by you in any way whatever. . . . I worked hard at it. . . . Why has it been disregarded – if it was unworthy of a place why not tell me so?'
On 23 November 1875; 'Dear Mr Blackwood I venture to write to you at my father’s suggestion to enquire of you whether your uncle is ill?. . .I wrote to him more than three weeks ago. . . and as I have received no answer I am afraid that perhaps ill health is interfering with his attention to correspondence. ' Again there was no reply.
Minnie’s mother Ellen was seriously ill, diagnosed with a ‘Malignant disease of the intestines’. She could no longer care for Mackay or 20 year old Minnie, and it was then that Bertha’s mother, the Countess van der Vyver, about to travel to America with her friend Colonel Fuller, suggested that Bertha stay behind and join the Mackay household, a suggestion which was warmly welcomed.
Ellen Mackay died on 2 February 1876 and is buried in Mickleham Churchyard. Her place in Minnie’s life is obscure. The census says she was born in Madrid, Spain. She cared for Minnie from her birth in 1855, perhaps as her mother, perhaps as her nurse. She married Mackay in 1861 when Minnie was six.
After Ellen’s death Minnie and Bertha took over the running of the house and would stay together for the rest of their lives.
Charles Mackay was the only earner in this household. He received a literary pension of £100 per annum granted in 1861 by Lord Palmerston, together with whatever income he earned from his writing, which varied from one year to the next. It was this which had driven Minnie to badger Mr Blackwood for a commission. Although she sang sweetly and played the piano, she realised it was not enough to earn a living.
Charles Mackay had four children by his first wife. The middle son, George Eric Mackay, had been summoned back to England from Italy in 1883, when his father had a heart attack. It was Bertha who thought he should be in England to help to care for his father, ‘We discussed the matter and agreed to risk it – not very wisely – for it only added new difficulties and many troubles and responsibilities to our lives.’ Eric was a feckless man with no occupation in life.
He thought he would first go on the stage, then he would be an opera singer, then a poet. When his father sent him to Italy, paying ten pounds a month for his musical education, he took no lessons and spent the money on amusement. Bertha had sent him an ample cheque for his travel home to see his father, but he arrived in England with no money. He then settled in the comfortable nest of Fern Dell, happily allowing the two women to wait on and support him.
He wrote to Minnie. ‘I am happier than I have been since boyhood, for I have a little sister again, and that little sister – the best and brightest in the world – does everything for me.’
Having attended a concert with Minnie, he thought he might like to learn the violin, and Minnie, although warning him he was a bit old to start learning at thirty, managed to get him an old Guarnerius violin from Chappell on the quarterly instalment system, which she dutifully paid off for him. She also, with the help of Bertha, paid for his violin lessons. However, their efforts were wasted, he never learnt to play more than a simple tune in single notes upon it.
In June 1883, Mackay had a severe stroke and their lives changed. Box Hill was quite isolated, and they were advised to move to London to be near good medical help. They first found lodgings in Earls Court Road, then a more permanent house at 47 Longridge Road, Kensington. The house was tall and thin, with a basement and an attic and very spacious.
It was now, in this new home, Minnie Mackay tried her new name and re-invented her history. On 25 May 1883 she wrote again to Blackwood’s Magazine, but this time changed her writing from a childish sprawl into neat copperplate; ‘Signorina Marie Corelli ventures to approach the learned editor of the renowned Blackwood’s Magazine; sincerely trusting she may be pardoned for her temerity in hoping that the accompanying little poems may be deemed worthy of acceptance and insertion in those long celebrated pages.’ Feeling a need to puff herself into someone more fascinating she went on; ‘Signorina Corelli is a Venetian, and the direct descendant (through a long line of ancestry) of the great Michael Angelo 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.’
She embroidered her past even more, going on to say she had already gained some recognition in French and English, she had contributed largely to many of the business journals, and had published a small volume of English poems. Also she had been highly commended by the late Lord Neaves. There was no response from Mr Blackwood.
Lack of money was becoming a real worry. Charles Mackay also began to press Blackwood’s Magazine for some work. Bertha reported, with some exasperation ‘He suggested a book on obscure and misinterpreted words in Shakespeare, and then as he grew older, instead of trying to write and produce those things by which he could earn an income, he devoted himself to studies which had very little interest for the majority. He devoted himself to etymology. We could not wean him from it, and so, as he was approaching seventy years of age, this dear old man laboured away; and as for us, we began to dread the future, and sometimes we were nearly in want.’
Minnie and Bertha both decided that if Minnie gave a piano concert to an invited audience this might lead to a career as a performer at social gatherings. There was a strong element of the theatrical in the presentation as Minnie reported; ‘I played- losing myself in mazes of melody and travelling harmoniously in and out of the different keys with that sense of perfect joy known only to those who can improvise with ease, . .’
After one such gathering a member of the audience recalled his impressions. He remembered ‘A dark curly haired young man who was introduced as Eric Mackay, and of a very small lady with pale blue eyes and fluffy fair hair, the adopted daughter of the house Miss Minnie Mackay. Miss Mackay was very frank and friendly, and confided to me that she was in the throes of making a momentous decision. She had to earn her living, and the question was whether to take up literary work or try and turn her musical powers to practical account. If the Signorina could not get an acceptance as an author she would try her skills as a pianist.’
Minnie now advertised herself as Signorina Marie Corelli, a name she adopted for the rest of her life. She tried musical improvisation wherein she undertook to compose, in the presence of her audience, no less than fifteen original pieces. ‘The uncharitable among her audience said she must have planned out her works beforehand, but those who know her are well aware that this is just what she cannot do. She thinks out her subject while at the piano. . . . her touch is brilliant and her execution marvellous.’ This is from Bertha’s rosy memoirs.
Marie found giving piano concerts was a considerable strain, so she decided to try singing instead, and gave a concert in Edinburgh. She had been taught singing at her French convent school, and her voice although pleasant, was not strong enough for her to become a professional singer. That seemed to leave only one option. She must become a writer! ‘I was desperate, and it was then I decided to write a romance. I had my own little room and my books and I suppose I was full of imagination. . . .And so I wrote with all the speed I could, and one day I thrilled with great joy for the book was done. Yes, but then to find someone to publish it. That was the problem, I scarcely knew how to begin. It was a struggle and I had some disappointments. Then I decided to try George Bentley. That was the turning point in my life.’
The contract with Bentley was drawn up on 5 September 1885, for a three volume novel to be called Lifted Up. When the book was published on 19 February 1886 it was renamed A Romance of Two Worlds but was long enough for only two volumes. She wrote ‘I must invent a name – and make it famous! Why not? Other people have done the same – I can but try – something tells me I may succeed. And then ---!
This was when little Minnie Mackay’s humdrum life changed. She was accepted, no longer as a thirty-one year-old spinster, living in genteel poverty, but with her new identity, Signorina Marie Corelli. By dropping her age, she became the beautiful young Italian writer, with a romantic and mysterious past.
The new Signorina Marie Corelli writing to her publisher George Bentley in 1885 told him, ’I am as I think I told you half Italian, half American. But I am very young at present, [she was thirty] and live principally in hope!’ She was encouraging Eric, who was idle, to submit some of his poems to George Bentley and she was quite happy to play with the truth on his behalf if she thought it might help. ‘I can tell you that Eric Mackay is a man of perhaps thirty-six years of age [he was fifty] with a remarkable fine head and handsome features, - he is no relation to the author Dr Charles Mackay nor of any other Mackays that I know’.
She managed to collect twelve of Eric’s poems, calling the book Love letters of a Violinist. She corrected the proofs, selected the binding and, when George Bentley rejected the idea, found another publisher Messrs Field & Teur. The sales of the book were slow, in spite of Marie, who gave it a glowing review in London Society under the pseudonym of W. Stanislas Leslie, but that was not enough. Then Eric gave away the copyright, as a gift, to the publishers of the ‘Canterbury Poets’ series. It earned him nothing.
Bentley had been brave enough to publish Marie’s A Romance of Two Worlds against the advice of his readers, and the book exceeded all his expectations. He wrote to Marie, ‘the book, as a story is bold, clever and extravagant; it is an effort of wild imagination. . . I think it will be considered by some as the production of a visionary. The work has the merit of originality.’
Marie created, as she did in many of her later books, a heroine who, like herself, was small, fair haired and blue eyed and who looked much younger than she really was. George Bentley wrote after he met her for the first time. ‘I am so glad to have seen you. I little expected to see so young a person as the authoress of works involving in their creation faculties which at your age are mostly not sufficiently developed for such works’. Marie, who was thirty-one, happily took advantage of the situation. She was used to being her father’s little girl, it was a role she had been brought up to play, for she was very small and looked the part. In one of her books she discussed this. ‘ You like my looks – many people do. Yet after all there’s nothing so deceptive as ones outward appearance. The reason for this is as soon as childhood has passed, we are always pretending to be what we are not – and thus, with constant practice from our youth up, we manage to make our physical frames complete disguises for our actual selves.' Descriptions of her at this time remark on her extreme youth, her vivacity and her lack of height. All her life she was called ‘the Little Lady,’ by her friends.
The success of A Romance of Two Worlds was the beginning of a new life. Marie set to work immediately on her next book Vendetta, whose narrator, Fabio Romani, declaims, ‘I who write this am a dead man’. He goes on to relate a blood curdling tale of love, vengeance and retribution. The story is so very different from her first book about the gentle dreams of twin souls, and their mystical journeys to distant planets. The World’s review of Vendetta mirrored the general critical reviews. ‘The book is pure and unadulterated melodrama; but it is cleverly constructed, well written and a decided thriller.’ Marie was delighted to tell Bentley the exciting news that the Prince of Wales had written to her asking for copies of The Romance of Two Worlds and Vendetta. ‘Will you give orders for the firm to send them to his Royal Highness at Marlborough House at once’ This was real acceptance at last.
Before Marie started her next book, Thelma, she needed a holiday. Leaving Bertha in charge of the household, she went to Tichnabruaich in Argyllshire, where she walked and climbed and went fishing on the loch. She wrote to Bertha, ‘I do not get tired here at all. I was climbing and rowing all day yesterday and was not a bit fatigued. I can pull the oars as well as ever, feathering the blade in true style. I wish you were here.’
When Marie returned from Scotland she was ready to get on with her next book. Her first two had already been reprinted, and because of their success this one was to have an increased payment of £100 on publication. The central character, Thelma, a name which Marie is thought to have invented, and which became very popular, is a poor but beautiful fisher girl who lives in Norway. The aristocratic Sir Philip Errington falls in love with her while on holiday in Norway, and marries her. When they return to London, Society is aghast that he has the temerity to introduce her to his friends. ‘I say it was not to be expected that he would outrage society by bringing that common wife of his to London, and expecting us to receive her!’ He takes her to a society party to introduce her, where Thelma because of her beauty and intelligence overwhelms the criticism, and is reluctantly accepted. Thelma finds the insincere life she now has to live so full of meanness and jealousy, that it is hard to accept, and she runs away back to Norway. Marie herself had encountered this kind of rejection by society and was very hurt by it. Her books were accepted, but she, with her illegitimate and rather mysterious beginnings was not. She wrote of her own experiences in Thelma, as she did in many of her books. However, the fame that Marie craved was now beginning to come her way. Thelma was immensely popular, and Marie had enough money for the first time in her life to pay the household bills and pay for holidays. She wrote to her father, ‘I feel that “Marie Corelli” will be quite rich, able to do all sorts of good things for her darlings. Bright days are coming, of that I am quite certain.’
Over the next few years Marie Corelli’s life changed from complete obscurity to popular success and fame. The gentle love story Thelma, in 1887, was followed by Ardath in 1889, a story of epic proportions. Raw passion is intertwined with sermons, the young poet Theos’ soul is sent to another planet and on return he finds he has travelled in time back to the ruins of Babylon. He witnesses a bacchanalian feast given by the high priestess, Lysia, to her entourage of beautiful young men. If they displease her they are forced to drink poison and die in slow agony. The sensual strength of the writing is unexpected. ‘Loosening the gorgeous mantle herself from its jewelled clasps, it fell slowly from her symmetrical form on the perfumed floor with a rustle as of falling leaves. . . . The pride and peril of a matchless loveliness was revealed in all its fatal seductiveness and invincible strength - the irresistible perfection of a woman’s beauty was displayed to bewilder the sight and rouse the reckless passions of man! With overtones of Sodom and Gomorrah the city is destroyed in an earthquake. Her readers loved the 600 pages of love, mysticism and passionate betrayal. Marie told Bertha that she attributed her good fortune to the simple fact that she always tried to write straight from her heart to the hearts of others, regardless of opinions and indifferent to results.
When they had first arrived in London, Eric shared their home, but it was an impossible arrangement. There was constant friction between Eric and his father, and Eric failed to understand that Marie must have complete peace between 10.00am and 2.00pm so she could write. Eventually Marie and Bertha found him a room at 154 Earl’s Court Road, for which they had to pay, but life became more peaceful. While Mackay was alive Bertha and Marie took separate holidays and wrote to each other daily while apart. On some of her holidays, Bertha went to Liege to stay with her mother’s sister, a religious and rather bigoted old lady, who insisted on going to at least 3 masses every morning and wanted Bertha to go with her. Marie missed her, ‘I do implore you to come home. Oh I do pray that you will come home next week – Your sorrowful wee one. Do, do come to oblige me.’ Bertha promised to return at once.
With the publication of Ardath Marie began to be accepted as a writer and a celebrity. She met many well- known actors and writers at parties including Oscar Wilde, who had read Romance of Two Worlds and told her ‘You certainly tell of marvellous things in a marvellous way’. Amongst others were Robert Browning, Rider Haggard, who had just published She, and the actor Wilson Barret who sent her tickets for the first night of Hamlet ,which she much enjoyed. George Bentley, her publisher, thought her a good talker, ‘In the first place, she says really what she means, and so you are dealing with a reality. In the next place she has strong likes and dislikes, and good reasons for either.’
With the passing of the Education Act in 1870, the newly opened Board Schools took away the monopoly from the church schools. When education became compulsory in 1876, a new army of readers was created ready for Marie’s sensational and romantic novels.
In May 1889 Marie sent a copy of Ardath to Mr Gladstone, ‘as dealing with the scientific and religious questions which agitate the minds of many in the present day.’ He called at Longridge Road, but finding Marie out left her a note. In July he called again and stayed for over two hours talking to Marie who reported he was ‘a wonderful conversationalist, so clear and eloquent and loves Italy and speaks Italian fluently;’ She was very flattered when he told her ‘Ardath is a magnificent conception, and I recognise in you a great power to move the masses and sway the thoughts of the people: it is a wonderful gift, and mind you use it well; but I don’t think for a moment you will abuse it. There is a magnetism in your pen which will influence many.’
In September Marie and Eric went to Switzerland with some old friends who lived at Fredley Farm, near Box Hill. They arrived at Chamonix where ‘the spell seizes you, the air inspires you, and you feel as though you could go anywhere and dare anything. They reached the Mer de Glace where they had to pull woollen socks over their boots to prevent slipping. ‘ Now imagine an ocean in storm, with high billows, and Fancy that God said “Stop! Be frozen as you are for ever and ever!” You have some faint idea of the scene. Billows of ice some a thousand feet thick - the colour is a brilliant sapphire blue, tinged here and there with green; these large ice waves are split in all manner of shapes, making deep crevasses and precipices of ice, so steep it makes some people dizzy.’ The holiday gave her new energy. She came home to find Bertha nursing an increasingly weaker Charles Mackay. He seldom left his bed and was becoming more confused. By November 1889 Marie was constantly by his bedside, only leaving his side to write. On Christmas Eve he died peacefully at home. Marie was prostrate with grief and kept to her bed for three weeks. Mackay was buried in Kensal Green on the 2 January1890.
After the funeral Marie met with his lawyers and discovered something about her past which upset her greatly. She wrote to George Bentley in January 1890, ‘I may truly say I have been in ignorance of my own history up to lately. Anyway I think it but fair to tell you that if you ever wish to know the history of my relationship to the dear old man who has gone, I will sincerely tell it to you, though to do so, will probably seem to cast an aspersion on the memory of him and of my dear, sweet beautiful Venetian mother; That is why I hold my peace, . . .’ There seems to be no record of what she discovered. Bertha took her to Eastbourne for a few days for a change of scenery. Gladstone sent her his condolences in February and she replied , ‘I have been in the greatest sorrow, having lost my beloved step-father, who was more to me than my father or indeed anyone in the world. I am now most truly, most sadly alone.’
In Mackay’s will, he left the whole estate to Marie, but nothing to Eric. Marie received £2,718/6s/9d which made her life much easier, though Eric’s penury meant he would remain dependant on ‘his little sister.’
After Ardath with its beautiful, savage, princess Lysia, Marie embarked on a dramatic morality tale Wormwood, A Drama of Paris. A tale describing the dangers of absinthe addiction to a young man, Gaston. In October 1889, before he died, Mackay had sent an article to Blackwood’s Magazine on ‘the unfortunate and crazy love of the French people, male and female for absinthe,’ and it seems likely that Marie used information from this his last article for her novel published in 1890. She paints a grim picture of absinthe addiction, ‘the action of absinthe can no more be opposed than the action of morphia. Once absorbed into the blood, a clamorous and constant irritation is kept up throughout the system.’ Some of Marie’s books, and this is one of them, are written in wide, colourful, melodramatic, sweeps. It captivated her readers.
Marie and Bertha went to Switzerland for a holiday, after the publication of Wormwood. Marie decided they would spend the winter at Clarens, near Montreux. She wanted a complete holiday and to show Bertha ‘the lovely land of the lakes and eternal snow’. It was not a success. The snow was truly eternal, the house damp, the heating inadequate, and Marie returned to England with chills - and blamed Bertha.
In April that year they received word that Bertha’s mother was seriously ill and might not live. From the time when Marie and Bertha met as children in Brighton, the Countess, whom Marie called Motherbird, had been a mother to both of them. Marie had spent much of her life with the Van der Vyvers in London, and now the Countess was dying. Bertha and Marie went to her house in Kensington, and nursed her until the end.
After she died they needed to get away. Marie, Bertha and Eric went to Stratford upon Avon, where they stayed at the Falcon Hotel for ten days. They enjoyed it so much that they determined to return for a longer stay, but Marie wanted to get home to finish her book.
England in 1892 was fascinated by table rapping and mediums. Spiritualism was in vogue, and Marie’s next book, The Soul of Lilith, concerned the possibilities of the life hereafter. ‘Never more than in this, our own period, did people search with such unabated feverish yearning into the things that seem supernatural;….It would seem that this world has grown too narrow for the aspirations of its inhabitants – and some of us instinctively feel that we are on the brink of strange discoveries.’
Marie remained fascinated by the mystery and influence of other worlds and alien beings. The Soul of Lilith, published in 1892, combined romance and mysticism and a field of semi-scientific writing in which Marie was becoming one of the leading popular writers. However the Pall Mall Gazette thought otherwise, ‘ It would be impossible in columns of extracts to convey any idea of the platitude-in-extravagance which pervades this book from end to end. If it were amusing one could forgive it; but there is something so rigid and mechanical in the whole thing that it doesn’t even raise a smile.’ Marie was understandably furious, and threatened action, but Bentley calmed her down. ‘Laugh at the review, and don’t notice it to any of your friends.’
It was patronising reviews of this sort that led to Marie into trouble. The Silver Domino was meant to be a collection of essays and poems published anonymously in riposte to her critics. It is thought that some of it was written by Eric, some by Henry Labouchere the editor of Truth, and some by Marie. Amongst other disasters the book mocked George Bentley, Marie’s publisher, who wrote to his son. ’I have seen her disloyalty, and so I leave it, and her.’
However before the book was published, Marie went away, leaving the MSS in the care of Labouchere to finish. Bertha was worried that Marie was heading for another bout of nervous exhaustion and so packed her off to Homberg where many of her friends were enjoying to season. There she caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, who invited her to dinner. In a letter to Bertha she wrote, ‘The dinner was delightful. I sat on the Prince’s left hand and Lady Sophia Macnamara on his right. He talked to me most of the time and was most attentive. He knew all my books and conversed about the different scenes in them; and then he remarked on the smallness of my hand! He took it in his own to look at it, and called the attention of everyone to it and said ‘Out of small things what wonders rise!’ While in Homberg Marie was recognised by the friends of the Prince of Wales as being a member of his circle and she loved it. She described all the parties and concerts and walks, to Bertha in her letters. ‘Homberg life is very frivolous and rather fatiguing, especially for me, as I am always in evidence and being pointed out to people;’
When Marie returned from Homberg in 1892 she found herself involved in a controversy largely caused by her misjudged actions. The Silver Domino had been published anonymously in her absence as a satire. It unkindly lampooned fellow writers, public figures and the press. There was much speculation in the press about the identity of the author. It is now thought to have been written by Marie in part, but then finished in her absence by Eric and Labouchere, the controversial editor of Truth magazine and a member of Parliament. Her own publisher, George Bentley, refused to publish it once he heard that Eric was involved.
Problems arose for Marie when the rumour became widespread that it was her doing, and many of her friends and acquaintances who had been mocked refused to talk to her. Instead of learning from this to contain her private and public criticisms, Eric encouraged her to speak out, which was to get her into more trouble in the future.
Marie’s next two books, Barabbas, followed by The Sorrows of Satan went back to her popular panoramic style. The first is a dramatic and emotional story of the crucifixion told through the eyes of the pardoned thief, who watches and records all the subsequent events. When it was published in October 1893 some saw it as a masterpiece and others as an attack on Christianity, but it was a pseudo romantic version of Christianity such as the public loved. The book by the end of 1894 was into its fourteenth edition, translated into over forty languages, and quoted from the pulpit.
In March 1894 Marie and Bertha went to the South of France for a much needed holiday. They discovered, staying in the same hotel, the critic Edmund Yates and his wife. He was one of Marie’s main critics and had written slashing reviews of her books. After dinner on the first night he sat next to her and they talked ‘in such a cheery way’ that Marie was completely charmed, and told Bertha later that she felt she had known him all her life. Yates told her ‘You are not in the least like what I fancied you might be. You don’t look a bit literary – how is that? You’ve taken us all in! We expected a massive, strong-minded female, with her hair divided flat on each side and a cameo in the middle of her forehead!’ Bertha became a firm friend to Mrs Yates and they decided to travel together to San Remo and then on to Genoa and Pisa where they parted. They met again on their return to London, and the Yates’s were looking for a house to buy so they could meet at weekends. But before that could happen, Yates had a massive heart attack at the theatre one night, and died the next morning. Marie was devastated. She wrote to Bertha, ‘I have indeed lost a friend for whom I cared very much – it seems so incredible, so cruelly sudden.’
The sales of Barabbas, published by her new publisher Methuen, seemed to Marie to be returning much higher returns than her early books. She wrote to Richard Bentley, George Bentley’s son, to query why this was. This led to an angry exchange between herself and her first publisher. Marie withdrew all her previous books from the firm as she had retained the copyright, and placed them with Methuen. The break was permanent.
The Sorrows of Satan published in August 1995 became one of Marie’s best-selling books. It was published by Methuen in one six-shilling-volume instead of the normal three-volume sets demanded by the major circulating libraries such as Mudies. Those libraries would then lend the set as three books, so increasing their income. This changed in the middle of 1894, when the circulating libraries announced that from the beginning of 1895 all new books were to be issued from the start in the cheaper one-volume format and would be available immediately to the general public through libraries and book-sellers. As the circulating libraries had no longer exclusive rights for new books, they decided to reduce their payments to the publisher, and demanded that no cheap editions would be issued for one year after publication. Now that payments depended entirely on the number of copies sold, publishers were keen to attract authors with wide popular appeal. To encourage this they were prepared to offer large advance royalty payments. The consequences for lesser known authors were dire, but for Marie Corelli, who was so popular, it meant a considerable rise in income.
The Sorrows of Satan was her first book released under this new scheme, and became one of the first of the ‘best-sellers’. Marie, tired of the sneers of critics, decided that she would not follow the accepted custom and send the critics free review copies. If the critics wanted to read it, they could buy it themselves. The Sorrows of Satan became the most popular book of the year with the initial sales being greater than of any previous novel written in English. Geoffrey Tempest the impoverished hero is a penniless writer, who comes under the influence of the famous Lucio Riminez, who corrupts him, showing him everything is possible if you have money. Everyone has their price and everyone and everything can be bought - except the famous novelist Mavis Clare, who like many of Marie’s heroines is small and fair-haired. The book is absorbingly written with the descriptions of heaven and hell and Geoffrey’s path of temptation and eventual redemption dramatically enacted. It was quoted in sermons by Father Ignatius who declared, ‘Let all our clergy have a copy of The Sorrows of Satan on their literary tables. . . . Why do the Press as a rule, stand aloof from our author and do all they can to hinder instead of help? . . . But our author stands out quite independent of the Press, quite independent of opinions. She forces people to read her books; she makes you listen, you cannot help yourself. In this sense she is a queen.’
In the summer of 1896 Marie was asked to turn the book into a play. She was busy writing The Mighty Atom and Eric suggested that a friend of his Captain Herbert Woodgate take charge of the adaptation and he in turn would ask Mr Paul Berton help him with the writing. Marie agreed, but only on the condition that ‘nothing was to be done respecting this play without my distinctly declared approval.’ The final version was read in Marie and Bertha’s presence to Mr Beerbohm Tree, who listened patiently for two hours, then told them ‘that the play as it stood was unactable’. Marie agreed and offered to rewrite parts of it, but the Syndicate rejected the offer. On 2 September 1896, an agreement had been made between Eric, Woodgate and Berton to form the Grosvenor Theatrical Syndicate who planned to produce the play at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Marie was unhappy but could do nothing as her agreement with Eric did not give her the right to veto.
Another version was written by Berton but Marie thought it even worse than the first. She went to Scotland with Bertha for three months hoping the matter would resolve itself, but while she was away the syndicate paid £500 into Marie’s bank for the rights. In December 1896 Marie and Bertha by were invited by Mr Berton to meet leading actors, Lewis Waller, Evelyn Millard and Rose Dupre. ‘At the close of the reading of the second act Miss Evelyn Millard and Mr Lewis Waller rose abruptly and left the reading, calling me outside to tell me with great vehemence that they could not on any account risk their reputations by acting in such a play. I was entirely of their opinion, and the whole incident gave me the greatest pain. The play had again been altered, . . . and I have only to say that each alteration makes it worse.’
She did her best to stop the play returned the £500, and refused to attend the rehearsals or the final production. She left London saying she would not return until February. ‘I cannot see anything ahead of the proposed production but disastrous failure.’ The play opened on 9th January, 1897 to reviews which condemned it as melodramatic and farcical. Copyright laws were only just beginning to be enforceable, and seldom covered any overseas productions. However, from now on Marie held a dramatic reading of each of her books soon after publication to register her performance copyright over them.
Marie had not had a good year. She felt unwell, complaining of headaches and severe stomach pains. She had been working too hard. In 1896 and 1897 she had written five books. The Mighty Atom, The Murder of Delicia, Cameos, Ziska, and The Strange Visitation. This was partly because Eric was bullying her for money. He mocked her, he belittled her writing and tried to come between her and Bertha. Mistakenly, she was still trying to help him, even, amazingly, proposing him for the next Poet Laureate. It seemed she was blind to the damage he was doing and had done. In The Murder of Delicia, there is a revealing passage describing Delicia’s relationship to her husband. ‘She was the hiving bee – he the luxurious drone that ate the honey. And it never occurred to him to consider the position as at all unnatural.’
By March of 1897 Marie was suffering from an internal complaint and, as they often did when in trouble, she and Bertha went on holiday to Scotland. Marie was in such pain she nearly fainted when she was sitting for her portrait, to be a gift for Bertha. She went see the doctor and was told that she needed an operation urgently. Surgery was still primitive, usually performed in the patients home, and as almost all doctors were men, many women would prefer to suffer rather than submit to internal surgery from a man. Marie was afraid that she would die, but fate intervened in the person of Dr Mary Scharlieb. Marie and Bertha had known Dr Scharlieb for nearly ten years, as she would often visit her musical cousins, the Birds, in Longridge Road for concerts. She was willing to perform the operation (almost certainly a hysterectomy) on Marie.
Doctor Scharlieb had done her early medical training in India before returning to London, after the death of her husband, and she was able to complete her training at The Royal Free Hospital, the first hospital in England to open its wards to women. In 1882 she became a Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery and in 1887 bravely opened her own rooms at 149 Harley Street. Women doctors were very rare and viewed with suspicion, so patients were often reluctant to attend their surgeries. She worked with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson at the new Hospital for women in Marylebone and reported the staff were excellent but because they were women, undertrained. She was later put in charge of the new Hospital for Women and specialised in abdominal and gynaecological surgery. So Marie was in good hands. The operation was performed with the assistance of Dr Frampton, on 29 December 1897. Afterwards Marie went to King’s Private Hotel in Brighton for a three month convalescence. Because she was outspoken and had no time for fools, the Press made up unpleasant stories against her, accusing her of self-aggrandisement.
On 23 March she wrote to the editor of The Literary World, ‘ I have been so dangerously ill, - having had to undergo a critical operation, - and the portals of the next world stood so close and open to me, that newspaper lies, and other mundane matters have rather ceased to move me. . . . I am leaving London for good and giving up my house there, - I shall probably settle in the country when I am quite in health again. London air is poisonous, - and the venom and spite and meanness does not purify it!.’ Dr Frampton who was looking after her while she was convalescing remarked, ‘she could not even own to illness without being accused of self-advertisement.’
While she was still convalescing in Woodhall Spa Marie received a telegram from Longridge Road stating Eric had developed septic pneumonia in the last week of May, and had died from heart failure on 2 June. His death certificate was signed by Dr Scharlieb and Frank Vyver, Bertha’s half-brother. On her way back to London Marie, who was still very weak, collapsed, and it was decided that she must be taken to Scotland by Bertha until she was stronger. They went to their favourite cottage at Killiecrankie. When they returned to London they found evidence that Eric had been systematically cheating her and blackening her name to the press and all her acquaintances. He had also been suggesting that he was the real author of her books. Marie wrote to her dear friend Coulson Kernahan: I am grateful to you my friend for the few but sincere words of sympathy you have given me. I can’t express to you quite how much I value them. . . .I had had worked for him and tried to persuade him to retrieve his wasted days; I thought he had done so – and was content still to work on for him, - but then – to find all was wasted! – to discover that the home I had tried to keep up was blackened by treachery – and to have to turn away from it forever -, - ah! – heap what the world will on me, no trouble can hurt me as that hurts, and will hurt always.
She had had enough. In 1899 Marie and Bertha moved to Stratford-upon-Avon to start a new life.
Charles Mackay, Forty Years Recollections of Life, Literature and Public Affairs from 1830-1870, Chapman & Hall, London,1877
Bertha Vyver, Memoirs of Marie Corelli, Alston Rivers, London, 1930
National Library of Scotland, Blackwood Papers.
Kent Carr, Marie Corelli. Manchester City News, 3 May 1924
Marie Corelli, A Romance of Two Worlds.
A Londoner’s Diary, Evening Standard, 22 April 1924
Marie Corelli, Innocent, Hodder & Stoughton.
London University of California Los Angeles, Papers of Marie Corelli.
T.E.G. Coates and R.S. Warren-Bell.
Marie Corelli, Hutchison.
Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan, Methuen.
Marie Corelli, Vendetta, Methuen.
Marie Corelli, Thelma, Methuen.
Marie Corelli, Ardath, Methuen.
British Library, Manuscript Department, Gladstone Papers.
Michael Sadlier, The Camel’s Back, XIX Essays, OUP.