Marie Corelli

Born in 1855, Marie Corelli was christened Mary (Millie) Mackay, daughter of Charles Mackay, a Scottish poet, song writer and one time editor of the Illustrated London News. She was the illegitimate offspring of Charles and his servant, Elizabeth Mills, whom he later married. Charles also had a son, George, by his first marriage, who became Marie’s guardian upon her father’s death. At the age of eleven Mary was sent to a Parisian convent to train in music, or so she said, as, partly to avoid the stigma of illegitimacy, she had a habit of inventing her background. She returned to Mickleham in Surrey in 1870 before moving to London in 1882. She became a talented pianist, using the name Marie Corelli for performances, as she claimed to have had an Italian father. She later turned to writing romantic fiction using the same pseudonym, although she initially used her real father’s influence amongst editors to get them published. A Romance of Two Worlds (1886) was her first published novel and she enjoyed popular success from Thelma (1887) onwards, particularly with Barabbas (1893) and The Sorrows of Satan (1895). She became the most popular author of fiction of her day, outselling Hall Caine, Mrs. Humphry Ward, H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle by the thousands. In 1895, with The Sorrows of Satan, she broke all previous publishing records, and by 1906 each new novel guaranteed sales of around 100,000 copies a year. 

She was Queen Victoria’s favourite author and her works were collected by King Edward VII, the future King George V and by Winston and Randolph Churchill, amongst others. She had many friends amongst other literati and all the famous actors and actresses of late Victorian and the early part of the 20th Century. Despite this she came under harsh criticism from many of the literary figures of the time for her overly melodramatic and emotional writing and her constant errors, suggesting a lack of education. Edmund Gosse dismissed her as “that little milliner.” Her difficult ego and huge sales inspired spiteful comments: Grant Allen called her, in the pages of The Spectator: “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.” James Agate represented her as combining “the imagination of a Poe with the style of an Ouida and the mentality of a nursemaid. ”In 1901 she moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, purchasing 'Mason Croft', a house reputed to have belonged to the daughter of William Shakespeare. There, she fought hard for the preservation of Stratford's 17th century buildings, and donated money to help their owners remove the plaster or brickwork that often covered their original timber framed facades. Her eccentricity became legendary, however, and she caused much amusement by boating on the Avon in a gondola, complete with gondolier, that she had brought over from Venice. Her knack for drawing attention to herself was coupled with her own self-appreciation. Her constant companion, Bertha Vyver, wrote an appreciative memoir, published in 1940. Bertha’s role has been misinterpreted by gay activists. Bertha was an adopted sister and treated as such.

Bertha nursed Marie in 1900 when, after a serious operation, she moved to Brighton and its restorative sea air to convalesce. Although Marie had ‘crushes’ on one or two men, she never married, leading to her memorable quote:

“I never married because there was no need. I have three pets at home which answer the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog which growls every morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon and a cat that comes home late at night."

A recurring theme throughout her books was her attempt to reconcile Christianity with reincarnation, astral projection and other mystical topics. The books became an important part of the foundation of today's New Age religion, some of whose adherents say that Corelli was "inspired". The overblown characterisations and descriptions overcame her thin plots and, even though her work lacks timeless literary quality, Marie Corelli still commands a place in the study of women's literature.  Her passion still appeals to female readers. One modern critic said that if Marie described a thunderstorm or love affair, one could really feel it. In The Treasure of Heaven she describes a thunder storm on the Exmoor coast:“What a wild Paradise was here disclosed!--what a matchless picture, called into shape and colour with all the forceful ease and perfection of Nature's handiwork! No glimpse of human habitation was any-where visible; man seemed to have found no dwelling here; there was nothing--nothing, but Earth the Beautiful, and her Lover the Sea! Over these twain the lightnings leaped, and the thunder played in the sanctuary of heaven, --this hour of storm was all their own, and humanity was no more counted in their passionate intermingling of life than the insects on a leaf, or the grains of sand on the shore. ”Marie’s Exmoor novels were The Mighty Atom (1896) and The Treasure of Heaven(1906). 

She was fond of seaside holidays and made a couple of trips to the Exmoor coast. The Mighty Atom is set in Combe Martin, where Marie stayed for some time at 'Waverly' near Seaside. She is also said to have stayed at the 'Pack of Cards' whilst writing The Mighty Atom and the inn has a 'Corelli Room' and a desk at which she is said to have written the novel. It deals with the conflict between science and religion. Its hero is an eleven-year-old schoolboy, Lionel Valliscourt, whose father is a rationialist and forbids religious education. Lionel makes friends with Reuben Dale, parish sexton, and falls in love with Reuben’s daughter, Jessamine. In Marie’s typical melodramatic style, Jessamine dies of diphtheria and Lionel hangs himself. Reuben Dale was based on the real life sexton James Norman, who is buried near the lych gate in the churchyard. Many tourists flocked to Combe Martin to see him and he posed for countless pictures. His thatched cottage, now completely rebuilt and bearing the name 'Reubendale House', is not far from the church, across the road from a house named after Marie Corelli. In The Treasure of Heaven much of the action takes place at the fictitious village of Weircombe, loosely based on Porlock Weir.

Marie died in Stratford and is buried there in the Evesham Road cemetery, as is Bertha Vyver. Her house, 'Mason Croft', still stands on Church Street and is now the home of the Shakespeare Institute, part of the University of Birmingham.