A FORGOTTEN BEST-SELLER: MARIE CORELLI’S THE SORROWS OF SATAN (1895)

Whether you’re interested in Victorian Literature, Gothic fiction or the material aspects of Literature (i.e. the market), Marie Corelli’s name is sure to surface in your reading. I’m interested in these three issues and so, sooner or later, I was bound to read her best-selling novel The Sorrows of Satan (1895).

Corelli (née Minnie Mackay) is a footnote in the history books of English Literature for, although an amazingly successful writer in her own lifetime (or at least between the 1880s and the 1910s), her melodramatic, pre-New Age fiction went out of fashion as one of those quaint things the turn of the century produced. Reading her is, then, an exercise in literary archaeology but also a good starting point to consider whether when we teach a period or wish to learn about it we do well to be satisfied with what has survived from it firmly. After all, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) used to be a relic not unlike Corelli’s contemporary Sorrows (well, I exaggerate, as Dracula has never been out of print).

I’ve devoured The Sorrows of Satan. That’s easy to explain: the main character, Prince Lucio (= Satan) is described from his first appearance as a most handsome man and the author devotes many, many lines to mentioning his beauty (that this is done by the other main male character, George Tempest, adds a singular queer frisson to the text –yes, Marie was gay). What annoyed me as usual in this case is that the description of so much beauty is too vague and being a child of the cinema era I need a face to focus on –yet I feel none of the current British actors (for I had to cast a British actor) is handsome enough. Um.

This Lucio is a composite of Milton’s Satan, Byron’s Romantic heroes, dear Heathcliff and even Oscar Wilde. Like Sherlock Holmes, he is also an in-yer-face misogynist (nice, coming from a woman author…). Funnily, quite unlike Milton’s tough devil, he is seeking redemption. I always suspected Satan was God’s undercover agent rather than his opponent and Corelli confirms this: Satan’s sorrow comes from his disgust at the human race –all those he tempts fall, causing him thus to be still barred from heaven. He seeks, thus, believers that resist him since the prayers he asks from them for his own lost soul accrue towards his redemption.

The one believer who does resist him is the author’s delegate in the text, a popular writer called Mavis Clare (yes, same initials as Marie Corelli). Being a non-believer myself this is what I have enjoyed most from the text: the author’s candid views on what constitutes a successful novelist, for they explain much about the state of the late Victorian literary market. Tempest happens to be a writer of literary ambitions who finds himself plucked out of his dismal garret by millions pouring on him out of the blue (actually out of hell). Having had his ‘masterpiece’ rejected when poor he decides to finance its publication and marketing campaign (led by Lucio) when rich. The failure to truly interest the reading public galls him and, so, he pans Mavis’s last novel out of envy. She understands that the anonymous review is his and, quite sweetly, teaches him a crucial lesson about how to become a best-selling author: you need to be above all honest, never pretentious.

That the author has the cheek to put herself in the text as an example of how a successful woman novelist should work and live is very irritating and quite spoils the pleasure in Lucio’s exploits. Yet I could not help thinking how ‘useful’ this novel is to explain the split into different levels which the British novel went through at the end of the 19th century. A character even mentions that this is because “now” everyone has a compulsory education (thanks to a law passed in 1870).

Do I recommend you to read this wonderful piece of trash? Yes, if you care to learn about late Victorian fiction beyond what the men were writing –Stevenson, Wilde, Conan Doyle, Stoker… – always bearing in mind that Marie Corelli is much closer to Ouida than to George Eliot. Then we can talk… and maybe find me help the perfect face for ultra-handsome Lucio.

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