Life of Marie Corelli 1899 - 1924

Stratford-upon-Avon’s “Great Little Lady”
by Nick Leigh Birch
Reproduced with permission from Anthem Press Reinventing Marie Corelli for the Twenty First Century, Chapter 1. 2019.
Marie Corelli visited Stratford-upon-Avon in 1890 accompanied by her half-brother Eric Mackay and her companion Bertha Vyver. Stratford-upon-Avon, with its Tudor buildings, riverside setting and celebrated heritage, was a picturesque destination for the self-confessed devotee of William Shakespeare. Marie was gratified to find that the success of her first four novels, The Romance of Two Worlds, Vendetta, Thelma and Ardath, had preceded her into the provinces, and the little market town was pleased to host the aspiring and ambitious author. During their ten-day stay, they paid homage to Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity church, signed the visitors’ book at the birthplace in Henley Street and went boating on the river Avon.
Marie evidently had fond memories of the visit, for nine years later, when her doctor Mary Scharlieb urged her to escape London for a couple of years to rest and recuperate in the country, she chose the sleepy home of Shakespeare as an ideal retreat for a “literary” personage like herself. 
[Note: Interestingly Corelli had used Stratford and its locality for scenes in two of her novels before 1899. In Thelma, published in 1887, Bruce Errington’s manor is close to Stratford-upon-Avon. In The Sorrows of Satan, Mavis Clare lives at Bishop’s Hampton, or the real Hampton Lucy a few miles east of the town. Geoffrey Tempest buys Lord Elton’s old house, Willowesmere Court, identifiable as the Elizabethan mansion at Charlecote Park.]
In the spring of 1899 Marie and Bertha rented Halls Croft, the fine seventeenth-century, half-timbered home of Susanna Shakespeare which, at the time, was privately owned. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported on May 19: ‘So Marie Corelli has taken a house in Stratford and intends to live and write here. Now good Stratford people don’t make too much fuss of your resident authoress when she settles down. The poor lady has been very ill and cannot be quite strong yet. So don’t dodge round her dwelling and try to peep through her curtains’.

The townspeople and visitors alike couldn’t help but be curious about Stratford’s famous new resident. With sales of around 100,000 copies a year earning her an income in excess of £1,800, or £1.8 million in today’s terms, Marie Corelli was the world’s most successful living author and a Victorian celebrity. Even those who had not read one of her books certainly knew who she was. Stratford society was small and parochial, and everyone was eager to meet the visiting celebrity. Marie rapidly became involved with the social life of the town; she was invited to attend important meetings, be the guest of honour at public functions, open fêtes and give prizes. She delighted in the attention and generously gave both her time and money to many local events, clubs and good causes. 

Marie was enjoying her new life in Stratford and the respect accorded to her by the people in the town, so Marie and Bertha decided to stay. They offered to purchase Halls Croft from the owner Mrs. Croker, but she was unwilling to sell. While looking for a permanent home in the town, they moved a short distance down the road, renting Avon Croft in September of 1899.  
[Note: Now known as the Dower House on the corner of Southern Lane, and not too be confused with the adjacent property called Avon Croft.]
Marie resumed her literary career, writing the short novella Jane in early 1900, publishing Boy in June, and her first full-length novel in over three years, The Master-Christian, in August. It sold 160,000 copies in two years and reconfirmed her ascendancy as a bestselling novelist of the first rank.
In the summer of 1900, barely a year after Marie had arrived in Stratford, she offered to host a luncheon at Avon Croft for the Whitefriars Club, a select gentleman’s literary society visiting from London. The successful event confirmed her status in the town and was duly reported by the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald on June 29 in an article entitled Miss Marie Corelli’s Garden Party: ‘A more charming hostess than Miss Marie Corelli it would be difficult to find, and many people who had not previously met her, and who, perhaps by reason of her fame as a novelist, had expected to see a learned looking lady of severe and elderly aspect, must have been considerably surprised to be welcomed by so dainty and youthful a figure’.
The writer of the article about Marie’s Garden Party for the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald was Annie Davis, the daughter of a local boat-hirer who taught typing and shorthand at the Technical College. Annie was a bright young girl attempting to make her own way in a small provincial town, and after reading her well-written and thorough article in the local paper, Marie sent for her. Evidently she found Annie likeable and efficient, for she engaged her as a secretary to answer her increasingly burdensome correspondence and to type from manuscript her forthcoming novels.  
[Note: Corelli’s first secretary, a Miss Douglas, who had worked for her since 1898, left her employ in 1900 to get married.]
In 1901 Marie and Bertha moved from Avon Croft to Mason’s Croft, an imposing though rather dilapidated eighteenth-century townhouse. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald had reported on October 5, 1900 her intention to remain permanently in Stratford: ‘This is an announcement that we make with a great deal of pleasure, inasmuch as Stratford cannot afford to lose one who has filled the role of Lady Bountiful so admirably. During the comparatively brief time she has been among us, Miss Corelli has identified herself with everything that tends to make the social life of the town bright and pleasant, and she has also shown unstinted generosity in her contributions to our charitable institutions, in developing patriotic feeling, in encouraging manly sports, in infusing into the hearts of our youthful population, by charming entertainments, a gladness and joy few of them had previously experienced. She has also encouraged, by the offer of handsome prizes, a laudable emulation in literary effort, … A lady who has done so much for the town, who by her kindly acts, has made herself so justly popular, cannot well be spared, and it is with pleasure that we make the announcement that Miss Corelli has taken Mason’s Croft, a house of considerable antiquity, and intends to move her lares and penates from London to her Stratford home.’ Stratford was charmed by the ‘Great Little Lady’ who had condescended to settle in the town, and the two women were equally delighted at the reception they had received from the townsfolk. Marie looked forward to a promising future in this rural idyll.  
[Note: Corelli was referred to as ‘The Great Little Lady’ by Arthur Bridges, her stalwart and trustworthy butler who remained at Mason Croft until after Bertha’s death in 1941.]
In May of 1901 Marie received a return invitation from the Whitefriars Club to speak at their annual Ladies Banquet at the Cecil Hotel in London. Replying to a toast that was proposed to ‘Sovran Woman,’ she surprised the illustrious fraternity with her eloquent views on modern woman and her place in society. An extract from her hand-written speech reads:
‘For long centuries of tradition and history in all countries, [Man] has been accustomed to make his own laws for his own convenience, and those laws have kept woman in a subordinate position, as more or less a drudge or a toy. He finds it difficult to understand now that with better education woman has better aims, and instead of cringing at his feet she wishes to walk at his side, the free companion of his thoughts, the inspirer of all good things, and defender of his honour, and his most faithful friend on this side of heaven. Surely this is what women in the truest sense of womanhood means when she clamours for her rights. She wants the right to help in the work of the world, the right to have a voice in the affairs of life and society in which she is obliged to take so great a part, the right to suggest ways out of difficulty, to bring light out of darkness, and, above all, the right to inspire and encourage man to his noblest efforts by her steadfast and cheerful example.’
Her speech made a deep impression. Winston Churchill, at the time Chairman of the Whitefriars Club and a Member of Parliament, wrote to her saying: ‘I often look back at the time I had the pleasure of sitting beside you at the Whitefriars’ dinner, and listening to a speech the rhetorical excellence of which almost disarmed my opposition to Female Suffrage’. Marie showed that she could not be “paragraphed” by the critics simply as the author of popular melodramas. She held a developed sense of social justice and high moral principles that guided and suffused her writing. The characters in her books may have been uncomplicated stereotypes that expressed her polarised view of society and its institutions, but in a time of change and cultural crisis, her huge readership was eager for the messages contained in her novels. Marie was writing not merely to entertain her readers but also to uplift them and offer hope in a time of rapid social change.
Marie discovered she had a gift for public speaking and embarked on a series of extraordinarily popular talks and lectures for which she never accepted a fee. She was honoured to be asked to give a speech to the Philosophical Society of Edinburgh in 1901 entitled ‘The Vanishing Gift’ concerning the fading of imagination. Soon afterward she was invited to be the first woman to lecture to The Royal Society of Literature. She went on to address a meeting of The Scottish Society of Literature and Art in Glasgow on ‘The Sign of the Times’ and to The Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, ‘A Little Talk on Literature.’ The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported on a speech she had given on January 23, 1903 in Birmingham: ‘For a woman to entertain an audience for over an hour with a lecture on Literature is itself a remarkable feat, when it is added that the address was delivered in clear liquid tones, with emphasis and expression, with true oratorial grace, and with scarcely a reference to notes, then it becomes more remarkable and is perhaps unique’. 
The venues sold out quickly, so eager were people to see Marie Corelli and hear what she had to say. At a talk in aid of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution at the City Hall in Leeds, over 4,000 people attended. While the large audiences may have been a reflection of her tremendous popularity, Marie was a compelling orator who delighted and enthralled listeners. She was equally thrilled by the experience and revelled in the opportunity to disseminate her doctrine directly to the eager thronging masses. She would go on to publish a collection of her speeches, including previously published articles and essays on society, the press, faith, education, money, beauty, happiness and many other subjects in a book entitled Free Opinions Freely Expressed on Certain Phases of Modern Social Life and Conduct in 1905.

The growing success of her novels encouraged Marie to engage A. P. Watt, one of the first literary agents, to handle her affairs with publishers. Watt wrote a dedication in the front of a specially bound copy of Free Opinions Freely Expressed presented to Marie on the occasion of her 50th birthday on May 1. Watt inscribed: ‘To Miss Marie Corelli on her birthday, in sincere admiration of her genius, her public spirit, and her efforts on behalf of the poor and needy, and him that hath no helper; from her friend, A P Watt’. Watt’s sentiment is illustrative of how many of her readers perceived the woman and her work. Marie was not simply the author of a string of entertaining books; she had established her own voice and a style that attempted to answer not only the complex questions of the age, but also the needs of her immense readership. She conquered the reading world with her pen, despite the protestations of her critics. Marie recognised the power of the written word. She commented in Free Opinions Freely Expressed in 1905: It remains, even in these days, the greatest power for good or evil in the world. With the little instrument which rests so lightly in the hand, whole nations can be moved. It is nothing to look at, generally speaking it is a mere bit of wood with a nib at the end of it—but when poised between thumb and finger, it becomes a living thing—it moves with the pulsations of a loving heart and thinking brain, and writes down, almost unconsciously, the thoughts that live, the words that burn’.
In Stratford the news of Marie’s decision to make it her permanent home was greeted with some trepidation by the clique of merchants and businessmen that ran the town. Marie was unmarried, wealthy, independent and very popular. She was also opinionated and unafraid to communicate her feelings to the Press. She considered herself to be naturally qualified to comment on local and national issues she deemed worthy of her attention. She frequently appeared ignorant of local sensitivities, but her concerns were usually well founded and consistent with the sentiments of the general public. Furthermore Marie spoke for the ordinary man and woman who had no voice, and she willingly challenged the old established hierarchy that was unused to being held accountable to growing public opinion.
Marie was soon labelled an eccentric, and she certainly lived up to expectations. In 1902 she purchased a pair of Shetland ponies named Puck and Ariel, along with a miniature carriage, and every day Marie and Bertha would be driven around Stratford-upon-Avon making their calls and stopping for purchases from the local shops. In 1905 a Venetian gondola appeared on the river complete with gondolier. Marie called the gondola ‘The Dream’ and put it in the care of Annie Davis’ father who owned the boat hire station located in Southern Lane behind the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.
[Note: The gondola was built in Venice in 1904 by Giuseppe Casal e Figli and shipped to London for an Italian Fair at Earls Court put on by London Exhibitions Ltd. Marie bought it at auction after the fair closed. It is unique in that it is the only three-quarter-size Venetian gondola in existence.]
The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald on May 19 reported: ‘The attractions on our river have been added to by the launching of a fully equipped gondola by Miss Marie Corelli. This Lady never does thing by halves’. Marie wrote in a letter to A. H. Bullen, ‘No doubt you’ve heard that Stratford has been thrown into convulsions by the appearance of my gondola on the Avon under the management of a swart and muscle bound gondolier. Venice and the Merchant were never so keenly brought home to these yokels before’. She used the gondola regularly, but unfortunately the Venetian gondolier did not last long. Marie summarily dismissed him after he had brandished a knife during a drunken altercation in the well-known Black Swan public house by the river. He was replaced by her gardener, Ernest Chandler, who appears rowing the gondola in many old photographs of the period.  
[Note: A. H. Bullen, the renowned specialist in fine printing, established the Shakespeare Head Press at 21 Chapel Street in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1904.]
These frivolities gave Marie genuine pleasure, yet her detractors would claim they revealed a conspicuous and shameless desire for self-advertisement that pervaded everything she did. She certainly attempted to cajole and manipulate the press when it suited her, and because she made excellent copy, they were occasionally complicit, but if they exposed her to ridicule, she would explode with indignation. In 1903 an enterprising Mr. Wall of Stratford produced a set of five painted picture postcards of Marie; one of her in the gondola, in her little pony-drawn carriage, feeding her ponies, with her pet terrier Czar and presenting prizes at the Boat Club. The postcards were simple and inoffensive caricatures; nevertheless, Marie was incandescent with rage. She threatened the local outlets stocking the cards in Stratford-upon-Avon and issued proceedings against Mr. Wall. Her case that the postcards were libellous was dismissed, although her intimidation of the shopkeepers succeeded in removing them from sale.
In 1902 Marie became embroiled in the first of many controversies in the town. She stirred up sentiment against a memorial to Helen Faucit that was proposed to be sited opposite Shakespeare’s bust in the chancel of Holy Trinity church. Faucit was a famous Shakespearean actress who had played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, which opened the Shakespeare Memorial theatre on April 23, 1879. But the actress was neither from Stratford nor buried at the church, and Marie objected to what she considered to be a secular memorial so close to the poet’s grave, particularly as Faucit’s husband, Sir Theodore Martin, had already donated a green marble pulpit in her memory.
Letters in the local and national press soon made it clear that public opinion was on Marie’s side. The outcry compelled Sir Theodore Martin and the vicar of Holy Trinity to concede and the plan for the relief was abandoned. Marie defended her objections in the Daily Mail on November 5: ‘Had there been a male representative of the literary craft in Stratford I should have left the matter to him. but there was not. So I raised what my critics kindly called a “shriek.” However, I myself have always regarded a shriek as being more satisfactory than a snuffle’. The Birmingham Post, among other newspapers, congratulated her: ‘Miss Corelli deserves our hearty thanks for courageously and promptly protesting against this proposed “second” Faucit Memorial being erected in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church Stratford-upon-Avon. The charges of “shrieking,” self-advertising, notoriety hunting, and such like ill-mannered and ungallant impertinences have fallen flat, and died a natural death. We are all willing to give credit for good intentions, honour and truthfulness to the actors of this drama’. 
Marie had used her fame to get the issue into the national press, emerged triumphant and had been applauded for her efforts. She would take on the mantle of self-appointed protector of Shakespeare in Stratford, but this, the first of her notorious interventions in local affairs, would bring her enmity and cause lasting damage to her reputation in her adopted home town. 
[Note: The stone relief, a fine memorial to Faucit, was re-sited rather ignominiously in the back stairwell of the old Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Art Gallery where it remains somewhat forgotten today.]
In 1902 Archibald Flower, then mayor of Stratford, wrote to Andrew Carnegie asking if he would support an application by the town for a grant to erect a new free library. Carnegie declared that he would consider it an honour, and plans were prepared. The preferred site was in Henley Street, between Shakespeare’s Birthplace and the Technical School where three cottages and a shop were to be demolished. Both Archibald Flower and his father, Edgar Flower, chairman of the Trustees of Shakespeare’s Birthplace, stated the buildings were of little merit, but letters appeared in the press protesting against their destruction.
Marie initially resisted getting directly involved. Various members of the Flower’s family played a significant role in the town; the land on which the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was built had been donated by Edgar’s late brother Charles, who had also funded virtually the entire cost of its construction. 
[Note: Corelli had called on Charles Flower and his wife Sarah during her visit to Stratford in 1890. They lived at Avonbank, an elegant Victorian villa built on the banks of the river Avon close to Holy Trinity church. The Flowers read Ardath after Corelli’s visit and Sarah wrote that she found it ‘a most disagreeable and disreputable book’. The Flowers gifted the house and gardens to the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1906. The house was demolished in 1953, but the gardens remain an open riverside park.]
The Flower’s money had come from the family brewing business, and Flowers Ale was quite literally on everyone’s lips. The Flowers were the leaders of the market town’s merchants who ran the town’s affairs, their names recurring in the lists of Town Councillors, Trustees of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and Governors of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Administering Shakespeare’s legacy in Stratford was a local rather than a national affair in the early 1900’s, but Marie complained to a friend: ‘The fact is that these priceless remains of Shakespeare ought to be governed by men of intellect and culture, not brewers and tradesmen who really care nothing at all about the great Poet’s sacred fame’. She was not alone in this opinion. When the plans for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre were first proposed in 1877,  the national Daily Telegraph announced: ‘They have no mandate to speak in the name of the public or to invest with the attribute of a national undertaking a little mutual admiration club whose object is to endow Stratford-upon-Avon with a spic and span new Elizabethan building […] to be half-theatre and half mechanics institute […]. [The] Governors and Council are respectable nobodies [….] It is an insult to the memory of Shakespeare’.
Marie thought the plans for the new library were misguided because they would be destroying an authentic part of Henley Street’s fabric which had survived since Shakespeare’s time, however, if she went to the press, she would put herself in direct confrontation with the Flowers and the rest of the town’s leading figures. On February 9 1903, after agitating behind the scenes, she decided to write to the Morning Post: ‘Sir, Several people and lovers of Shakespeare have asked me to say a word in public protest against the further pulling down and modernising of this unique old town by the erection of a brand-new “Carnegie Free Library” next to Shakespeare’s birthplace’. Three days later her old friend, the acclaimed actress, Ellen Terry, wrote to the press in support. Vanity Fair commented: ‘Miss Ellen Terry’s and Miss Marie Corelli’s action in drawing attention to the vandalisms which are about to be committed in Stratford-on-Avon should be met with the active support of everyone who is interested in Shakespeare’s town’. 
Archibald Flower replied in the papers stating that the cottages had already been bought and donated to the town by Carnegie for the site of the new library, and that while there were some old timbers in one of the cottages they were all in a hopeless state of decay and would be pulled down as planned. Unfortunately for the library’s promoters, Marie discovered that one of the cottages, Birch’s china shop, dated from 1563, and that the other two were nearly as old, with timber frames behind later brick facades. What was more, the deeds to prove the age of the cottages were in the possession of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, but no one had bothered to consult the archives, or expected anyone to object to the old cottage’s demolition.
Marie wrote: ‘I have steadily maintained, and still maintain, that to destroy or alter genuine old houses of Shakespeare’s time for the sake of erecting any modern thing whatever, is nothing less than a National Scandal, and a grave discredit to all those wilfully concerned in it. That such destruction was fully intended, and that such alteration is now in progress, can be proved by the plain truth of all the circumstances’. The Society for the Protection of Ancient buildings weighed in to support Marie and the Birthplace Trust committee led by Edgar Flower were forced to modify their plans. The two cottages nearest the Birthplace were saved from demolition and are still owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, now containing the gift shop for visitors to Shakespeare’s Birthplace. The new Carnegie library was still built, but part of Birch’s china shop was saved and incorporated into the new building.
Marie’s intervention had exposed what appeared to be an unaccountable oligarchy supposedly entrusted with the town’s and nation’s heritage, which had acted without a thorough examination of the situation. While she felt vindicated, it caused bitter resentment toward her in the town, publicly exposing those persons concerned as being arrogant and inept.
Marie was drawn back into the controversy when Fred Winter, one of the governors of the Technical School, wrote to the local paper claiming that some time before the application to Carnegie, Marie herself had asked the price of a piece of land adjoining the Technical School, allegedly for the purpose of a library. He said that she had been in favour of a library in Henley Street when it would have been a “‘Corelli”‘ rather than a “Carnegie” library. The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald printed the letter with a provocative commentary and copied it to all the national papers.
The insinuation was enough for Marie to bring a libel action against Winter and The Stratford Herald to protect her reputation. The case was heard at the Birmingham courts on December 16, 1903. During the trial, it was alleged that Winter, in collusion with the editor of The Stratford Herald, had between them contrived the attack on Marie in an attempt to discredit her. The judge was inclined in his summing up to agree, and the jury’s verdict also went in her favour, though she was awarded only a paltry farthing in damages. Marie’s pyrrhic victory alienated her further from those in power and authority in Stratford, and they would have nothing more to do with the woman. Her dreams of a quiet and contented retreat in the town of Shakespeare’s birth looked futile. 
[Note: The full name of the technical school, which opened in 1900, was the School of Science, Art & Practical Technical Instruction. It is of inerest that Annie Davis had worked at the Technical School teaching shorthand, and Corelli made numerous donations of furniture, books and funds. The building was later absorbed into the library, but part of it has recently been converted into the town’s Registry Office.]
Marie had thought her fame and wealth would make her welcome in Stratford. When she lived in London, her celebrity status as the author of the latest bestselling novel may have gained her entry to the fashionable salons, but she was tolerated as a curiosity; she knew she would never be allowed to join the echelons of the elite. In Stratford Marie lavished her time, energy and money on the town assuming she would be readily accepted by provincial polite society as their uncrowned queen. Sadly her willingness to be outspoken and court public controversy would deny her the part she dearly wished to play and the happiness she yearned for. Stratford’s townsfolk appeared unprepared to accept a woman who ignored proscribed patterns of established behaviour. Marie was a woman who disregarded convention and propriety, confounding and disorientating her audience. Her critics reacted with shock and outrage at her brazen attacks on the seat of male supremacy, and the impudence and “immodesty” with which she they judged she conducted herself. Marie’s admirers, particularly those of her own sex, were equally astonished but perhaps sensed the undercurrents of the times and the shifting patterns in gender politics. They applauded her audaciousness, and many idolised her as the prophet of a new order to come.
In the summer of 1905 Marie was a guest onboard the impressive steam yacht Erin, that belonged to Sir Thomas Lipton, the well-known entrepreneur and serial contender for the prestigious millionaires yacht race, the America’s Cup. Among the other guests was a friend of Marie’s, Lady Byron and Edward Morris, an American business associate of Lipton’s who had been educated at Harvard.
[Note: Corelli loved boating and yachting. In an interview printed in London Opinion January 7 1905 she admits to what she might do if she had millions: ‘Well, yes, there is one thing I would do for my one pleasure, I would buy myself a fine steam-yacht, and with a few friends, would make a tour round the coast of Spain, through the Mediterranean and the Greek Archipelago; in fact, I would do the whole pilgrimage of Byron’s Childe Harold.’
Marie told Morris about an old Elizabethan house she had recently bought in Stratford in order to stop it being demolished or ‘modernized.’ The fine timber-framed townhouse was built in 1596 for Thomas Rodgers, whose daughter became the mother of John Harvard who would immigrate to America and found the university that bears his name. Morris agreed to share funding the restoration of the building as a symbol of mutual friendship between the nations. At a grand reopening ceremony in 1909, the American Ambassador Whitelaw Reid made tribute to Marie’s efforts: ‘Marie Corelli has exercised her own taste and simply removed all modernities, and allowed the house to show itself as it is and as it was in the days when John Harvard saw it as a child’. Following a sumptuous lunch for the all the guests at Mason Croft, the house was put in Trust for Harvard University. Today the property, known as Harvard House, is cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and it remains not only the most original house of its period in the town, but also a tribute to Marie Corelli’s determination to preserve and restore old buildings in Stratford.
The saving of Harvard House is the most obvious example of Marie’s participation in a growing movement concerned with conservation. The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings was established in 1877, and The National Trust formed in 1895, but their aims were by no means widely recognised or acknowledged. Marie may have had a nostalgic rose-tinted view of the past and been resistant to change, but her actions, coincident with the emerging concerns for heritage, helped start a dialogue in the wider population.
Her own views on the conservation of heritage, buildings and setting can be found in The Avon Star, a curious booklet published at the height of the Stratford Carnegie Library controversy. The booklet, subtitled A Literary Manual for The Stratford-upon-Avon Season of 1903, refers to the short season at the Memorial Theatre given by Frank Benson’s company of London. As well as covering the plays being performed, the booklet contains a miscellany of articles about Stratford, Shakespeare and the goings-on in the town, including an account of what was called the ‘Spoliation of Henley Street.’ In the first article entitled ‘Murmurings on the Avon,’ Marie writes: ‘For example, if the half-timbered houses down the principal street were uncovered from their modern paint and stucco, it would be one of the most perfect old English thoroughfares in existence. and there are plenty of devotees who would visit it and stay in it for the sake of its beauty alone. If, instead of pulling down their old houses, people would renovate and carefully restore them, they would find it well worth their while, even financially speaking’. She backed up her entreaties with money, paying the property owners to restore the facades of their buildings in order to reveal the ancient timber frames. In 1903 she gave A. J. Stanley, who had printed The Avon Star, £200, about £20,000 today, for work to the front of his photography and printshop. In 1910 she gave £60, or the equivalent of £6,000, to Fred Winter, with whom she had been in court with seven years earlier, to remove the render from his drapery premises. In 1910 she also bought a vacant plot of land in Stratford, known as The Firs, to prevent it being built on and gave it to the town. The land is a still an open green space in the town today. Marie’s interventions had a very real and lasting effect on the development of Stratford and cemented her legacy as an important conservationist of the town’s architectural heritage.
Marie had eleven novels to her name before moving to Stratford-upon-Avon, and in the early years of the 1900s she continued working on her legacy as a literary sensation. After the publication of Boy, Jane, and The Master-Christian in 1900, she went on to release Temporal Power in 1902, described by W. T. Stead in his Review of Reviews as ‘a tract for the guidance of a King’. Marie had been the only author invited to attend King Edward VII’s coronation on August 9, a mere three weeks before Temporal Power was published. Methuen paid Marie a £5,000 advance, about £500,000 today, and printed a huge first edition of 120,000 copies.
God’s Good Man was her next book published in 1904. The story takes place in a thinly disguised fictional version of Stratford-upon-Avon called Riversford. Among the town’s various uncultured inhabitants, the Rev. Putwood Leveson receives particular vilification. The character is based on Rev. Harvey Bloom, the rector of a small hamlet outside Stratford. Marie had met Rev. Bloom when he was teaching at the boy’s school, Trinity College, next door to Mason Croft. She was delighted by Rev. Bloom’s young daughter Ursula, who had shown an interest in becoming an author herself. Marie invited her frequently to visit and encouraged her to write. During a luncheon at Mason Croft, Ursula casually asked Marie if she was divorced. Marie and Bertha were stunned and appalled. The imputation of being divorced would exclude you from High Society and attendance at any royal functions, and the rumour could seriously have damaged Corelli’s reputation and livelihood. At the age of ten Ursula may not have fully understood the significance of the word, but it appears certain that she had overheard her parents speculating about Marie’s status, as well as disparaging her abilities as an author. Marie wrote to Bloom: ‘I will not dwell on the infinite pain it is to me, to find that my name has been so falsely and cruelly mishandled in your house; that is a matter for my solicitors; but the most pitiful experience that I have ever known is to think that such a very young child like Ursula, should be stuffed with such calumnies and falsehoods, against one, who honestly sought to be her friend and yours’. Despite Bloom’s’ remorse and attempts at mollification, Marie broke off relations and consulted her lawyers. It is not surprising, given her ambiguous parentage, and the hard work building her career that Marie overreacted, dragging the scandal into the papers rather than burying it with Bloom’s apology.
Image was important to Marie, and the frontispiece of The Treasure of Heaven published in 1906 contains a rare photograph, the first authorised portrait of Marie Corelli, with a copy of her signature underneath. While it may be commonplace now to include a photograph of the author, at the time it was virtually unheard of, why, asked the critics, would anyone be interested in what the author looked like, but the image captivated the imagination of Marie’s readers. They identified the author with the pretty heroines that frequented her novels, exemplified by Marie’s audacious self-insertion as Mavis Clare in The Sorrows of Satan 1895. Marie’s careful crafting of an idealised image of herself would be enduring and idolised by her ardent fans. 
[Note: Corelli put a thinly disguised version of herself in the novel as a pivotal character called Mavis Clare, an attractive young author with light brown hair and blue eyes who lives in a village outside Stratford-upon-Avon. Like Corelli, Mavis Clare’s novels are denounced by the critics but bought in their thousands by the author’s large following of readers.]
In reality Marie was surprisingly diminutive in stature. She loved to wear delicate dresses in pale hues adorned with a knot of fresh flowers giving the impression, on which she was happy to play, that she was still a young girl. In person it was said that Marie was a bright and animated conversationalist with a quick disarming smile that rapidly put people at their ease. She was an eager and interested listener, in the habit of putting her hand on people’s arm’s as they conversed, and she was reported to have had a sweet modulated voice without trace of accent. She was 51 in 1906, although she usually admitted to 10 years less. With advancing years she would become increasingly plump, frumpy and old-fashioned, but in the early 1900s she had considerable charm, an engaging personality and of course her immense notoriety.
Marie and her companion Bertha were assiduous and generous hosts. They had gone to great pains to improve and embellish Mason Croft to make it a comfortable home and a pleasant retreat for their guests. The house itself was filled with a cluttered and eclectic mix of old furniture, objets d’art, instruments, books and paintings typical of the time. They added a large ‘winter garden,’ or conservatory, across the back of the house in which to sit and entertain, and the pretty garden included a romantic two-story folly where Corelli would often retire to write.  [Note; Mason Croft at that time comprised a morning room, ante-drawing room, dining room, study, library, with the winter garden across part of the rear of the house, plus kitchen, scullery and pantry downstairs. Upstairs were five bedrooms, three bathrooms and attic rooms. The staff included the butler Arthur Bridges, two maids, a cook, two gardeners and a house boy. The principal layout of the house and many of its original features remain. The old winter garden fell into disrepair and was replaced by a modern glazed garden room, but the charming gazebo still stands in the garden behind the house.]
The two women cultivated the company of interesting and educated folk, and took advantage of actors, artists and musicians who were visiting or performing in the town. Star of the stage Ellen Terry was a regular, as was the actor Halliwell Hobbes, who was born in Stratford. Mason Croft’s visitors book includes the autographs of Clara Butt, Johannes Wolf, E. F. Benson, Sir Philip Burne-Jones, Thomas Lipton, David Lloyd George, Edmund Gosse, W. B. Yeats and Henry Labouchère. Mark Twain, who had been invited up from Oxford in 1907, was infuriated when Corelli dragged him publicly around the sights, but most visitors to her home were captivated by the geniality and friendliness of Stratford’s ‘Great Little Lady.’ E. T. Reed, the cartoonist for Punch, scribbled a little cartoon of himself in the visitors’ book, scowling before coming to Mason Croft and smiling after his visit. Others added a note; ‘Leaving with the recollection of a most fascinating personality in my hostess’; ‘A delightful and most cheery week spent in this most delightful house with me dearest friend, Marie’.
One name that recurs in the visitors’ book is that of the dilettante painter Arthur Severn. Severn was married to John Ruskin’s niece Joan, and it was on a visit to Brantwood, Ruskin’s old house and then the Severn’s home on Lake Coniston during the summer of 1906, that Marie and Bertha had met the couple. The four became immediate friends, and the Severns were invited regularly to Mason’s Croft. But Marie’s feelings for Severn slowly developed from friendship into an embarrassing and obsessive crush. Intending to help promote Severn’s work, Marie engaged him to paint some plates for a reissue of her short book The Devil’s Motor. It was a vanity project, but she went so far as to set up a studio for him in the capacious music room which she had annexed from the defunct Trinity College next door.  [Note: Trinity College school closed in 1908. Corelli joined the school’s assembly room to her house, remodelling it as a large “music room” for receptions and functions. The room is still in use as part of the Shakespeare Institute. It contains a stone fireplace carved with the entwined initials of MC and BV. The old school’s playing fields at the rear of Trinity College were turned into a meadow for her ponies. This unique green space in the centre of the town is in use again as a playing field.]
Marie was naive and immature when it came to relationships with the opposite sex. Severn toyed with her emotions, allowing Marie to fantasise over love that was unattainable and that he was ultimately unwilling to give. Joan Severn knew of Arthur’s flirtations with women but ignored them as harmless. Bertha Vyver, Marie’s dedicated and long-suffering companion, resigned herself to be a bystander to the inexorable outcome. The book commission for The Devil’s Motor dragged on and was eventually published in 1910, but the affair with Arthur Severn inevitably found its way into Marie’s work. In 1911 Marie wrote The Life Everlasting in which the heroine is invited sailing on the West coast of Scotland and falls in love with Rafel Santoris, the owner of a yacht that is propelled by an inexplicable and silent power. The novel was inspired by Marie’s sailing holiday around the Western Isles on Arthur Severn’s schooner Asterope, and its heroine and Santoris are unabashedly idealized forms of Marie and Severn. Unlike the novel’s lovers, the real Marie and Severn’s relationship would deteriorate into one of spiteful taunts and petty squabbles. It was not until after Marie’s death with the publication of Open Confessions to a Man from a Woman in 1925 that her embitterment was laid bare.
During the First World War, Marie lost two people who were very close to her. In 1914 Annie Davis, her ‘faithful scribe’, resigned from her service after Marie withdrew the gondola from the care of Annie’s father and put it in the hands of her gardener Ernest Chandler. Ernest had been rowing the gondola since 1904, after the original gondolier had been sent home. Marie was sometimes oblivious to the affronts she caused to others, and she would forfeit Annie’s help and close friendship by refusing to concede to the slight. Sadly, in 1915 Chandler was killed fighting in the trenches of France. Consequently, the gondola would lay abandoned and forlorn, locked-away at Mason Croft for the remainder of Marie’s life.  [Note: The gondola was sold at auction with the contents of Mason Croft in 1943. It went through various hands before joining a collections of boats kept for hire as film props. It was tracked down, purchased, restored and returned to the river in 2010 by the town’s local boathouse, and is now available for hire.]
The war permitted Marie to reassume her self-appointed role as the voice of the ordinary people, and this time the whole country was behind her. It had been three years since she had written her last book The Life Everlasting in 1911. She joined the war effort with patriotic fervour doing what she did best. She wrote numerous articles, letters, poems and short stories for periodicals and newspapers to raise money and rouse the spirits of the nation. Marie later collected and published many of these writings together as My Little Bit in 1919.
It is unfortunate that Marie’s genuine efforts on behalf of the country were marred by a minor infraction of the laws governing food rationing in 1918. She received a fine of £50 for sugar hoarding from the local Stratford magistrates, including her old enemy Fred Winter, an act which appears to have been motivated by petty retribution. The conviction was reported in newspapers across the country with accusations of hypocrisy. Marie was deeply hurt by the outcome of the affair, the damaging publicity and what appeared to be the vengefulness of certain persons in Stratford.
Marie’s feelings for Stratford and its people are revealed in a letter she wrote to Archibald Flower: ‘I do not think I have shown any lack of practical interest in Stratford, or want of feeling for its people, though I have long ceased to care for it with the enthusiasm which formerly moved me. For, when I first came here I had an “ideal” of it, which has been too rudely shattered to be build up again. It was no doubt stupid of me to have such an “ideal” yet it was a very innocent and unselfish one […]. I bear no grudge or hatred against you or those who have tried in their poor little way to make my residence here intolerable, - an unworthy effort which has only failed because my life’s interests are worldwide and are not centred in the little town I once loved!’
Marie’s last two novels, The Young Diana published in 1918, and The Secret Power in 1921, both contain women who renounce the society they inhabit and spurn the opportunity for love. In The Young Diana, the forlorn and dowdy Diana May is transformed by Dr. Dimitrius into an ageless beauty who abjures the opposite sex. Similarly, Morgana Royal in The Secret Power designs an astonishing airship powered by a mysterious power and escapes her world and the men who crave her for a secret city inhabited by higher beings. The books are tinged with a sense of bitterness and regret, emblematic of the antagonism Marie experienced in Stratford, of her lamentable relationship with Arthur Severn and the realisation that the contentment she so earnestly craved for in the twilight of her life would elude her.
Marie’s remaining years were quiet. She mended relations with many people in the town, but she was increasingly ignored, in part due to the fact that her books and her views were largely out of step with post-First World War society. On April 21, 1924 she died at home of heart failure. The town turned out for her funeral in the rain three days later, although Bertha Vyver was too distraught to attend. Marie was buried in the cemetery on the edge of the town. A memorial was placed upon her grave surmounted by a fine white marble angel ordered by Bertha from Italy and erected in July of 1924. The angel stands with eyes cast down and one arm raised pointing up to the heavens. 
[Note: The very fine Carrara marble sculpture of an angel was toppled and broken by vandals in 2012. A local campaign had the statue fully repaired, cleaned and replaced on the grave in 2017.]
 Sir Sidney Lee, Life Trustee of the Birthplace Trust and Shakespeare scholar, wrote in The Times of London on May 24, 1924: ‘However one accounts for Miss Marie Corelli’s literary fame, no one who knew her can fail to recognise that her death removes from social life an outstanding personality, in which independence of mind, strength of will, and combativeness of spirit mingled with a genuine zeal for good causes […]. At Stratford-upon-Avon, where she resided for the past quarter of a century, she had a number of devoted friends. But with most of her neighbours, especially those in positions of local authority; she carried on a constant feud, and she often spoke and wrote of them with a biting scorn […]. By her influence or at her own cost, many old buildings in the town were preserved when they were threatened with rebuilding on modern lines. She was keen to protect from the invasion of the builder, picturesque open spaces on the boundaries of the town […]. Her standard of the theatrical interpretation of Shakespeare was high, and she frequently denounced what she regarded as histrionic deficiencies on the local stage […]. As a trustee of the Shakespeare’s Birthplace, I, crossed swords with her and incurred for an extended period her displeasure. But looking back from the distance of time on the old polemic, I acknowledge that, in spite of, or perhaps because of, her strong language, her intervention had the effect of modifying at a crucial point the original plan of demolition in a manner which has proved of real benefit to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust […]. In course of time the breach between us healed […] of late she often wrote to me in her old vein about fears which proposals to modernise Stratford excited in her. Her last letter was an appeal to oppose the local scheme for widening Clopton Bridge […]. At a meeting with the Prince of Wales last year, I was impressed by her charming frankness of manner and her ease of conversation, which bore witness to her social aptitude.’
After Marie’s death Bertha Vyver inherited the right to live at Mason Croft for the rest of her life supported by the income from Marie’s estate. With the help of the retained servants they devotedly dusted the furniture, changed the flowers and kept the house exactly as it was when Marie was alive. Bertha lived on for another seventeen years, but would struggle to keep the house going on the slowly dwindling proceeds of Marie’s royalties. The crisis came following Bertha’s death in 1941.  Marie’s will decreed that the estate was to ‘become a Trust for the promotion of Science, Literature and Music among the people of Stratford-upon-Avon […] and the land to be used as a breathing space for the health of the town’. It went on to say that the Trust should maintain in perpetuity Mason Croft, ‘for the benefit of distinguished visitors from overseas’. Unfortunately Marie’s estate did not have sufficient income to meet its own expenses, and the will was declared void as a significant part was applied to the benefit of foreigners. The trustees were under pressure to release the empty property for the war effort, and reluctantly they were forced to put the contents of the whole house up for auction in 1943. The estate was finally wound up after Mason Croft was bought by Birmingham University in 1951. With Marie having no living heirs or relatives, the net amount of £10,579 15s 2d was paid into the coffers of the government exchequer.  
[Note: The royalties in 1940 were a mere £73 (Masters 286), equivalent to around £3,500 in 2018. Methuen’s records of Corelli’s royalties were destroyed during the Second World War making an accurate assessment of her income difficult. What happened to her considerable wealth remains somewhat obscure, but she was famously generous to good causes and a poor investor. Her estate still had considerable assets when Bertha died but was auctioned-off, sold and dispersed at knock-down prices.]
For many years Marie Corelli was quietly forgotten in the town that she had once called home, and old volumes of her novels found in secondhand bookshops were regarded as objects of curiosity. Renewed academic interest in her work has begun to reclaim her reputation, inviting a more thorough and discerning study of the author and the context of her life.
In 1885 at the age of 30, frustrated by her past and despairing for the future, Minnie Mackay reinvented herself as the mysterious Miss Marie Corelli. She forged a new career in a world dominated by men, acquiring wealth, position, and inspiring others of her sex. Her ascendancy shocked and enraged the critics, unable and unwilling to accept that her novels were redefining and democratising the late Victorian bestseller. She excited debate and was scorned for being an insufferable troublemaker, but she fearlessly campaigned against injustice and for social and gender equality. In Stratford-upon-Avon, Marie’s grandiloquent reign exasperated the local burghers, but the tangible benefits of her influence and intervention are indisputable. Belatedly the town is beginning to recognise the legacy of this remarkable woman; The Shakespeare Institute, now ensconced in Mason Croft, bears a plaque marking it as Marie’s old home, the angel that stands guard over her grave has been refurbished and even Marie’s Venetian gondola has returned once more to the soft-flowing Avon.  Popular opinion had dismissed Marie Corelli as the writer of worthless bizarre novels and relegated her to the fantasy world of her fiction. While her extraordinary life and work is full of paradoxes, the author and the woman deserves her rightful place in our cultural and literary history.

Ransom, The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli, Sutton, 1999.
Masters, Now Barabbas Was a Rotter Hamish Hamilton, 1978.
Waller, Writer, Readers, & Reputations Oxford University Press, 2008. 
Marie Corelli, Free Opinions Freely Expressed, Constable, 1905, private collection, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Marie Corelli, The Plain Truth of the Stratford-upon-Avon Controversy, Methuen, 1903. 
Marie Corelli, The Avon Star, Stanley, 1903. 
Coates & Bell, Marie Corelli Hutchinson 1903. 
Ellis, The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Winchester Publications, 1948. 
Marie Corelli, manuscript speech and letters, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. 
Mason Croft visitors book, 1902-1937, private collection, Stratford-upon-Avon. 
Stratford-upon-Avon Herald, Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.