restricted access Disease and Degeneration in Marie Corelli's Vendetta
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Disease and Degeneration in Marie Corelli's Vendetta

In Memoirs of Marie Corelli, Bertha Vyers, Marie Corelli's longtime companion and confidante, explained that Corelli traveled to the Scottish Highlands after the success of A Romance of Two Worlds (1886) to retreat from the pressures of her father's ailing health, financial concerns, and the anxiety over publishing her next popular novel. Before her return to London, Corelli wrote to Vyers that she was ready to finish the next novel but cryptically bemoaned the state of morality worldwide: "But when I get back to my dear desk, with Patch [her dog] to help me, I daresay I shall soon finish Buried Alive [afterwards called Vendetta]. I long to see Papa and you and all the pleasant surroundings of home.... The world seems to me to be going all immoral together, I confess."1 Buried under the stresses of financial responsibilities and perhaps the general zeitgeist of cultural degeneration at the fin de siècle, it was no wonder that Corelli's second novel, published just months after A Romance of Two Worlds, was a best-selling Gothic tale exposing the dangers of despair and immorality. Significantly, the language of the original title (Buried Alive) placed emphasis on one of the main horror themes captured in the novel—disease as an agent of psychological terror, immoral behavior, and metamorphosis. As might be expected, readers expressed ambivalence over the gruesome contents of Vendetta, but curiously, many reviewers focused more on the protagonist's villainy and quest for vengeance, treating disease as merely a sensational backdrop for the tale.

As with most of Corelli's works, Vendetta was a huge hit with the public, as readers were most likely fascinated with the frightening scenarios generated in the novel, namely the awful details of a cholera epidemic, the narrator's descent into madness, violent plans to exact revenge against a cheating wife, and an apocalyptic vision of a world where humans fail to abide by the moral codes of Christianity. The [End Page 167] novel both gripped and terrified readers, and there is perhaps no better account of this fact than in journalist George Augusta Sala's anecdote about his need to read the anxiety-inducing Vendetta with "a wet cloth round his head and his feet in a basin of iced and camphorated water."2 Like Sala, George Bernard Shaw seemed disturbed by Vendetta, specifically noting in his review that the villainous characterization of the protagonist made him wonder whether Corelli's sensational novel, like Alexander Dumas's "L'Homme Femme," endorsed the right of husbands to murder their wives or if the protagonist's barbarity could be seen to indict the notion. Shaw also offered a mixed assessment of the novel, giving Corelli a modicum of praise for refraining from the "supernatural quackery" of A Romance of Two Worlds while comparing her favorably to Ouida.3

Responses such as these reveal one of the basic paradoxes for late-Victorian reading audiences. On the one hand, readers craved sensational fiction as a form of entertainment, and on the other hand, many of those same readers felt ambivalent and uneasy over the prospects of finding a morally instructive lesson in the commercial enterprises of popular fiction. In the case of Corelli's novels, this contradiction plays out time and again as she attempts to produce popular fiction that reconciles shocking story lines with warnings about the consequences of immorality. It is no wonder, then, that she cried foul against critics who pegged Vendetta as a "brutal compound of villainy and immorality."4 For in this novel, Corelli combines the images of Gothic horror with the sensationalism of melodrama to create a moral invective against the vices of her day: religious hypocrisy, moral depravity, marital infidelity, the mistreatment of the poor, and the callousness of aristocrats.

Structured into two parts, the novel first explores the wretched realities of a cholera epidemic that terrorizes Neapolitan society, and second, it examines marital infidelity as an agent of spiritual death, one that contributes to the protagonist's madness and self-destruction. If there is a social allegory to be found in Vendetta, then it lies in...