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Book Reviews Marie Corelli Annette R. Federico. Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000. xii + 201 pp. $30.00 TO EDMUND GÖSSE she was "that little milliner"; to William Gladstone she was "an earnest woman-thinker." James Joyce was fascinated by her; Mark Twain deemed her "an offensive sham." But to Marie Corelli's vast, loyal readership, she was feminine visionary and consolation , a radiant "literary lady" whose novels had the power to move, inspire and seduce, in an aesthetic sense at least. The reason for such contradictory and inconsistent responses to Corelli is just one of the questions which Annette Federico seeks to answer in her very readable analysis of Corelli as the first Queen of the Popular Bestseller and the cult literary celebrity of the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods. Idol of Suburbia approaches its subject as cultural icon, a strategy which enables Federico both to reassess Corelli's literary merit and achievements and to explore the commodification of the author at the turn of the century. The monograph is underpinned by key recurrent motifs: the ability and need of an author to create a "self-mythology"; the battle for control of the celebrity's public image at a time of increasing press intrusion and surveillance; continued debates about the valuation of high and popular culture and the "decline" of literary taste; and—behind all of these issues—a lurking fear of the power of a mass lower-class and substantially female readership. Federico deftly relates these concerns to wider cultural and aesthetic movements of the time (most notably feminism, Aestheticism, Decadence and modernism) and to literary trends (such as the privileging of modes of realism over romance and "subjective authenticity"). The result is a fascinating book which sheds further light on the gulf between elite and popular taste in the period but which also suggests some of the ways in which mass and high cultural products interact or at least engage with similar social problems and anxieties. Federico provides ample evidence that Corelli's life and fiction were both driven by the quest for fulfilment through self-discovery and the 205 ELT 44 : 2 2001 cultivation of a particular kind of feminine mystique. Born Mary "Minnie " Mackay, possibly illegitimate, Corelli seems to have been a precocious , ambitious, and lonely (even repressed) child who used her own imaginative romanticism and sensuous response to the beautiful to achieve recognition, financial security and social status, as well as a platform for her version of a feminine aesthetic. Her creative talents were first turned to fashioning an appropriately exotic and high profile artistic identity. She variously represented herself as Signorina Corelli, the recital pianist with special skills in improvisation; the sonneteer Marie di Corelli; and finally the novelist Marie Corelli with a (fictitious) aristocratic cosmopolitan background. Her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), was an instant success with the public who found spiritual reassurance in her vaguely theosophical narrative about "personal electricity." In today's terminology, Corelli quickly became a superstar . She sold a hundred thousand novels a year while her nearest rival (Hall Caine) sold forty-five thousand, Arthur Conan Doyle fifteen thousand . Notwithstanding this duplicitous and even naive manufacturing of a crassly romantic artistic alter ego, Corelli proved to be a formidable match for the gender and class biases of the literary and publishing worlds of the time. Part of her appeal undoubtedly rested on her ability to give voice to alternative ideals and perspectives to those of upperclass males. To the reader of today her work seems at first to conform to dominant ideologies about femininity; but Federico argues convincingly that Corelli both confirmed and subverted these. She was in tune with the feelings and aspirations of a less educated but substantial reading public (both male and female) which enthusiastically embraced an author who could portray the ideal fulfilment to be had from conventional opportunities and expectations. In fact, Corelli's power in the marketplace gave her an unassailable position for challenging certain patriarchal assumptions about the value of different modes of writing and the cultural beliefs on which these are based. Victorian realism and modernist...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 205-209
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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