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Corelli’s Caliban in a Glass: Realism, Antirealism, and The Sorrows of Satan
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In 1890, authors Walter Besant, Eliza Lynn Linton, and Thomas Hardy took part in a New Review symposium on the subject of contemporary literature entitled “Candour in English Fiction.” The question at hand was just how truthfully fiction could delineate life—especially relations between the sexes—before it ran afoul of the moral expectations of its audience. What, in short, were the limits of realism in the contemporary age? As all three contributors agreed, the issue was inextricable from the workings of the literary marketplace. If a story were too racy, it would fail to be picked up by the middle-class outlets, dooming it to commercial failure. In Besant’s phrasing, the bounds of fiction are “assigned by an authority known as Average Opinion,” and “Average Opinion cannot be resisted. The circulating libraries refuse to distribute such books.” Hardy’s contribution also stressed a related point: the person considered most vulnerable to candid literature was the female reader, especially the daughter of the family. He deplored that fiction was being written with this reader, her feminine innocence, in mind: “[A]ll fiction should not be shackled by conventions concerning budding womanhood.” Like the others, Linton wondered about the implications for serious literary art. “Must men go without meat,” she asked, “because the babes must be fed with milk?” Some solution must be found to protect English fiction from such “emasculation,” for presently it was “the weakest of all, the most insincere, the most jejune.… It is wholly wanting in dignity, in grandeur, in the essential spirit of immortality.”

The New Review discussion exemplifies a larger debate at this time about what fiction should, or practically could, represent. A main cause of this debate was the fin-de-siècle development of a new type of English realism, also called the “new fiction.” This was an unsparing mode, comparable, some said, to the naturalism of figures such as Émile Zola. In contrast to the more cautious, discreet realism of earlier Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot, the new realism was committed to the stark analysis of social facts, including (most controversially) indecent sexual circumstances. At stake in discussions of this fiction were thus not only definitions of great art—as distinct from the commercial demands of the masses—but also the acceptable moral range of literature. The latter issue became inseparable from considerations of gender, indeed giving rise to a common epithet, used by both proponents and opponents of the new fiction: at the heart of the debate was the “Young Person” or the “Young Reader,” meaning the young female reader specifically.

Best-selling author Marie Corelli participated energetically in these conversations, as for example through the plot of her 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan. In this retelling of the Faust legend, the devil, disguised as a handsome and debonair prince named Lucio Rimânez, attempts to lure the protagonist, Geoffrey Tempest, into a soul-wasting life. Lucio encourages Geoffrey to use his suddenly inherited wealth to buy a great beauty of London society, Lady Sibyl Elton, from her father in the marriage market; but during their engagement, Geoffrey makes a terrible discovery: Sibyl has been brought up on “fashionable novel-reading,” which has made her by her own account a “contaminated creature, trained to perfection in the lax morals and prurient literature of my day.” Hence her disturbing sangfroid during their first meeting at the theater while viewing a play about a fallen woman, a “realistic study of modern social life.” Geoffrey is further staggered by his fiancée’s sexual knowingness through literature when he finds her reading what she describes as just one of many highly reviewed novels that teach “girls … all about marriage before they enter upon it, in order that they may do so with their eyes wide open—very wide open!” After their marriage, he is horrified to catch her throwing herself at Lucio; when rebuffed in her advances she takes her own life. Sibyl’s suicide note again blames contemporary fiction for her wantonness: as a mere adolescent, she recalls, she encountered a critically praised novel whose “vulgarities” she at first hardly comprehended, but “little by little...



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