Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture by Annette R. Federico (review)
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Reviews Annette R. Federico. Idolof Suburbia:Marie CorelliandLate-Victorian Uterary Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. 201p. $46.50 CAN. "Impelled ... by a curiosity about a woman whose fame at the turn of the century was unsurpassed and yet who by the end of the twentiethcentury had become only a name vaguely, and pejoratively, connected with popular fiction" (2), Annette Federico embarks on one of the first full-length critical studies of the paradoxical Victorian cultural icon, Marie Corelli. Rather than providing an exhaustive analysis of Corelli's oeuvre, Federico uses specific works and particular aspects of her life in order to reveal Corelli's active engagement in many of the central literary, philosophical, and social debates of the late-Victorian and early modern period. Always a vociferous and combative personality, Corelli had strong views on feminism, sexual equality, marriage, and the elitist male-dominated literary world, views which were often contradictory. Federico does not set out to resolve these contradictions; instead, Federico places Corelli's views in their cultural context, revealing the extent to which the contradictions were, in a sense, produced by the very conditions in which Corelli lived and worked. Federico employs a variety of theoretical models in her study of Corelli including those of cultural studies, poststructuralist , feminism, psychoanalytic theory, and phenomenology. This "eclectic approach" as she terms it, is not only appropriate for studying a complex figure like Corelli who continually "defies reflexive categorization," it also provides future readers and scholars with a number of interesting vantage points from which to view this fascinating cultural icon (1 1). Federico's study consists of five chapters, each of which takes up a different aspect of Corelli's relationship to English culture and society at the turn of the century. In the first chapter, Federico discusses Corelli's ambivalent attitude towards the press in the context of the increasing commodifications of art and the insatiable appetite of the public for photographs of, biographical information about, and interviews with famous authors. While Corelli was often aggressive Victorian Review1 27 Reviews in her pursuit of publicity, she also disliked interviewers, autograph hunters, and particularly photographers. Objecting to a biographer's claim that this ambivalence attests to Corelli's vanity and egotism, Federico offers a more nuanced approach which emphasizes the consistency between Corelli's position in the romance/realism debates and her views on photography and photographic re-touching. Corelli believed that like romances, photographs should "lift the spirit through their idealization of reality" (50). From Corelli's point of view, this subjective truth was far more real than the "truth" of "realism," whether in art or photography. In this chapter, Federico also considers Corelli's ambivalence towards the media in the context of the position of the female novelist at this time. Federico is surely right when she claims that Corelli's attempt to stricdy control her media image is understandable at a time when hostile stereotypes of the lady novelist abounded in the press.Corelli's position in the literary world of the nineties is more fully examined in the second chapter. In this chapter, Federico discusses Corelli's use of decadence and aestheticism in Wormwood and TheSorrowsofSatan in the context of widespread appropriation and commercialization of features of high art by the middle classes. Federico argues that Corelli disturbs the carefully constructed boundaries between commercial art and literary aestheticism and between mass and elite culture. On the one hand, Corelli was a popular and commercial writer who professed disgust with literary decadence and who, unlike her aesthetic and decadent contemporaries, respected the mass reading public. On the other hand, as Federico argues, Corelli shared with the aesthetes and decadents a commitment to high artistic principles. Corelli saw nothing contradictory about occupying both these positions, and her unique status informed her attempts to revise the myth of the artist from one which centred on the struggling hack, bohemian outcast, or over-educated aesthete to one which valorized the earnest, hardworking middle class artist as hero. Chapters three and four deal with Corelli's relationship with feminism and feminist aesthetics. Once again, Corelli's views prove highly contradictory. Violendy opposed to suffragists and New Women 1 28volume...


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