[Paleopsych] Violet Books: Marie Corelli's Occult Tales

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Marie Corelli's Occult Tales

[I read elsewhere that she was Queen Victoria's favorite novelist.]

Marie Corelli & her Occult Tales
by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      It is unfortunate that Marie was to no extent a supporter of the
      homosexual rights movement that counted bluestocking & ghost story
      writer [1]Vernon Lee & theorist Edward Carpenter in its legion.
      Indeed, in an essay for Lady's Realm she listed her "pet dislikes"
      & included "The 'new poet' who curls his hair with the tongs,"
      alluding to the dandies who flourished from the 1890s until the
      first world war (wherein many of these sissy poets died
      heroically), & "Women bicyclists & he-females generally," which may
      only mean she preferred her women matronly & soft, like Bertha. It
      could be interpreted as a typically closeted "protest too much"
      stance, or as a heartfelt belief that homosexuality should be, like
      her own, wholeheartedly discreet & gender-appropriate. She regarded
      it as unbecoming for gay men to curl their hair instead of pursuing
      athletics, as it was unbecoming for gay women to pursue physical
      exercise rather than curl their hair.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       See also [2]The Gothic & Supernatural Works of Marie Corelli: An
                 Alphabetical Bibliography of First Editions.

      Violet Books stocks first & early editions of Marie Corelli's
      works, as well as works by similar occult romancers, & books by
      many other lights of the Yellow Nineties. Check the on-line
      [3]Weird Fiction Catalog or take this short cut direct to [4]Marie
      Corelli Stock.


    1. http://www.violetbooks.com/REVIEWS/rockhill-vernonlee2.html
    2. http://violetbooks.com/corelli-bib.html
    3. http://violetbooks.com/CATALOGS/catalogfrontpage.html

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