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Marie Corelli and Fin-de-Siècle Francophobia: The Absinthe Trail of French Art Kirsten MacLeod University of Alberta MARY MACKAY (1855-1924), who wrote under the pseudonym Marie Corelli, was one of the first best-selling authors, outstripping the combined sales of many of her contemporaries including Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells.1 Part of Corelli's immense appeal was no doubt due to her ability to reflect the popular sentiments of the public. Despite the increasing trend among avant-garde artists to see themselves in opposition to the masses, Corelli took immense pride in her popular appeal. In fact, she, along with much of the British public, was very much opposed to these avant-garde artists and the art forms they represented. At least two of Corelli's novels are of interest for their representation of popular views regarding emerging modernist artistic trends such as realism, decadence, and impressionism. Because these art movements originated in France, public debate about their influence on British artists and the public was couched in Francophobie discourse. Corelli's Sorrows of Satan2 and Wormwood3 represent the prevailing Francophobie attitudes οι fin-de-siècle Britain as they comment on French art and its English imitators. Such attitudes were expressed in a number of cultural contexts, from the anti-Zola debate that preoccupied the House of Commons and the National Vigilance Association in 1888 to the controversy caused by the exhibition of Degas's L'Absinthe in 1893. British Francophobes attacked not only the impressionist style of Degas's painting, but also the subject matter. As early as 1868, well before Corelli's own treatment of absinthe addiction in Wormwood, the Times attributed the "decline" of France to absinthism. All of these Francophobie attitudes were greatly reinforced by the discourse of degeneration that linked artistic and cultural decline, and which saw "decadent" French culture as a particular danger to Britain. This essay 66 MACLEOD : CORELLI examines Corelli's two novels, The Sorrows of Satan and Wormwood, as expressions of this prevalent Francophobia in British culture of the finde -siècle. Corelli's Sorrows of Satan and Wormwood are representative of the prevailing Francophobie attitudes οι fin-de-siècle Britain as they comment on French art and its English imitators. These Francophobie attitudes were greatly reinforced by the popular discourse of degeneration which could be used to link artistic and cultural decline. Corelli took advantage of any evidence that pointed to the decline of the French nation . While the decline of French art was often sufficient to explain the decline of the nation and vice versa, sometimes other reasons identified themselves. One of the most popular of these was to be found in the vice of absinthe-drinking, one that the British could use to explain both the cultural and artistic deterioration of France. Corelli watched the infiltration of French culture into Britain with great concern. The Francophobie discourses that resulted from this perceived invasion express not only a hatred of the French but a fear of becoming French, a position that was clearly seen as a degeneration from the higher state of Englishness. This fear, however, existed side by side with a fascination with the exotic, "depraved" aspects of Britain's European neighbours. Corelli's exotic-sounding nom de plume and the numerous and conflicting stories of her ethnic origins indicate her own fascination with European foreignness. But despite her claims to Spanish and Italian ancestry, Corelli's "view of ethics and human conduct" was, as her biographer suggests, "eminently Victorian."4 Like many of her readers, then, Corelli's fascination with foreignness was checked by Victorian moral sensibilities. This combination of the exotic and the conventional carried over into Corelli's works which, despite their often sensational subject matter and glamorous settings, are highly moralistic . She established herself as a kind of spokesperson for the people, believing that it was her duty to "instruct" them. Her popular appeal suggests that her readers were eager pupils, for "in her lifetime [Corelli enjoyed] the status of an unofficial saint, whose words were preached from the pulpit and whose influence changed laws."5 Unfortunately, Corelli often used her influence to perpetuate reactionary views...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 66-82
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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