The Sorrows of Satan, by Marie Corelli (1895)

I know, I haven’t done any sort of lengthy book review for a while; – mostly because, when I finish a book – perhaps I’ve enjoyed or perhaps I haven’t, but to be honest there doesn’t strike me as all that much I feel particularly inclined to communicate about it. I don’t need to demonstrate my understanding (if any), or show how it fits in (or doesn’t) with such and such a theory, or practice, or temporal sequence. – Anyway, I haven’t finished this book yet – but it did strike me there were a few things I could say about it.

No doubt you’re all familiar with Marie Corelli’s life and work – if not, read up on it on Wikipedia. If you seriously can’t be bothered with that, the important things to note are:

  • She flourished around the turn of the c19th/c20th.
  • She was English, despite her name.
  • Her sales were greater than the combined sales of HG Wells, Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling.
  • Both Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria were fans of her work.
  • She was critically hated.

On this latter point, Wikipedia gives some nice quotes:

A woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, and was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities and prejudices she gave a glamorous setting*.

[She combines] the imagination of a Poe with the style of an Ouida and the mentality of a nursemaid.

So I guess some justification is in order if I’m going to give the novel a rating of 8 in my odd classification system. – Well, I offer two excuses: firstly, it’s undoubtably well-written (this was back in the time when bestselling writers could actually write well – i.e. before the 1970s); no one ever seems to have questioned her talent at putting one sentence after another in a pleasurable manner (I find her a relief in this respect from Georges Eliot and Meredith whom I’ve tried and failed to read in the last year); and secondly, if she is some sort of regressive conservative religiously-inspired egomaniac and perpetually upholder of everything for which we like to look down upon the Victorian age, I couldn’t help being fascinated by every page.

Interestingly (perhaps) for a book so utterly opposed in its values (both artistic and social) to modernism, it was my very interest in things modernist before modernism that led me Corelli’s way; – though perhaps she is better characterised as post-modernist before post-modernism, since the particular crime she was accused of was meta-fiction: – she included herself – the author – in The Sorrows of Satan, albeit under the guise of the wonderful novelistic genius Mavis Clare, a “character”. – Not that, I think, in the end she is really guilty of meta-fiction: – it depends how you’d like to define it: – if meta-fiction is, strictly, fiction about the nature of fiction, or at least about the nature of writing fiction; then no, I don’t think it is meta-fiction, or it is something which only at times borders on it. – No, this isn’t literature about literature as such, but literature about the literary world – and as we all know (at least if we’ve been reading Obooki’s Obloquy a lot) there’s very, very little connection between literature and the literary world (by which I mean, in both my own terms and that of this book) fundamentally what we call criticism.

Marie Corelli’s basic position in this book is this: the literary world is entirely populated by people (i.e. critics) who don’t know the first thing about literature; it’s just a club run by a small number of reasonably talentless people who publish and extol each other’s works and constantly seek to do down anyone of any particular talent (i.e. Marie Corelli); and it is this which has brought about the current fashion for that kind of realist book which is undermining society. (Modernist bloggers might like to note this very sharp distinction between Victorian ideals and realism; it might help them put into context the last 30 years of the c19th).

So, a defence of Victorian idealism against realism, eh? – An attack on the moral relativism of Victorian literature? – But of course, the Devil always had the best lines (or something… – and there’s apparently a lot of Paradise Lost tangled up in all this): – the whole first 300 pages (don’t worry: it’s only 400 pages in total) is a marvellous picture of the complete moral bankruptcy and hypocrisy of Victorian society (every 10 pages it’s mentioned that God is dead), perhaps best exemplified by the character of Lady Sibyl (an impoverished aristocrat who in effect sells herself in marriage to our hero like a common prostitute), whose vision of the world is quixotically influenced by the New Woman genre of novels she’s always reading, so that she conceives of relations between man and woman as (à la Zola, for instance) two animals that want to fuck one another under a hypocritical veneer of civilisation.

Anyway, there’s lots of other things too. For instance, I think Wilde’s interest is probably the Huysmans-like fin-de-siècle decadence on display: – the character Prince Rimânez at least (who is in fact the Devil) has a giant golden moth he keeps in a casket which he discovered inside the embalmed body of an Egyptian pharaoh, and such like. – And as for Corelli’s  egotistical portrait of herself, I can’t help feeling the introducer to my edition (who is curiously little positive about Corelli’s merits anyway) is wrong to suggest she portrays herself as “saint-like”, and does so without a sense of humour. She doesn’t portray herself as “saint-like”; she portrays herself as an angel – hence the fact that she’s constantly surrounded by a flock of doves and the hero keeps thinking he can see a halo over her head – and the whole concept of this is deeply enmeshed into the ideology of the book, which is constantly humorous and bitterly satirical.

*This first quote is by Grant Allen and should be taken with a pinch of salt: Allen was a big man in the very New Woman genre Corelli spends a good deal of her time attacking in The Sorrows of Satan. He was hardly a dispassionate critic [ed. but surely all critics are dispassionate!].


2 thoughts on “The Sorrows of Satan, by Marie Corelli (1895)

  1. Henry Miller, who had little in common with Corelli’s belief system, speaks very highly of her in The Books in My Life.

  2. Yes, well then: Oscar Wilde, Queen Victoria and Henry Miller. Strange bedfellows!

    I found a quote from Miller:

    If there is a revival of her work be assured that she will be as much reviled & condemned now as she was in her lifetime. Marie Corelli makes of you either an addict or a sworn enemy.

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