- Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan:Literary Professionalism and the Female Author as Priest
"... no one with education believes in angels nowadays."1 "... you have been guilty of literary sublimity.... not one author in many centuries writes from his own heart or as he truly feels—when he does, he becomes well-nigh immortal. This planet is too limited to hold more than one Homer, one Plato, one Shakespeare."2
In her 1895 novel The Sorrows of Satan, Marie Corelli portrays modern England as a world that has forgotten God, besieged by Decadents, naturalism, French novelists, New Women, and sexuality. She attributes England's decay to highbrow literary institutions and their representatives—critics and scholars—who praise naturalism, which she believed incapable of cultivating the general reading public's morality because the movement described people only as they are, and did not inspire readers to imagine the ideal or to become what they might be. Instead of portraying heroic individuals for the reader to admire, these novels were filled with models of immorality: "to be morally dirty was ... at the moment fashionable and much applauded by society."3
To rescue society from this state of decay, Corelli attempted to transform herself into "a moral crusader—a veiled prophetess—a preserver of the past."4 For Corelli, as for Carlyle, a heroic literary figure such as Shakespeare, who might function as an "articulate voice ... a man who will speak-forth melodiously what the heart of [the nation] means,"5 was essential to cultivating the nation's values. It is no coincidence that Corelli chose to settle in Stratford-upon-Avon as she attempted to transform herself into a modern-day Shakespeare. She thought it essential that the nation have a female author who might "speak forth [End Page 374] what the heart of it means" because male authors, she believed, had been corrupted by materialism and scientific rationalism. In "The Power of the Pen" (1905) Corelli argues that in order to liberate society from its degradation, women must once again become objects of reverence by cultivating their essential femininity: "[Walter Scott] lived in a time when men still reverenced women, and when women gave men cause for reverence. I think if he could be among us now, and see the change that has come over society since his day, he would scarcely have the heart to write at all.... I think he would implore women not to part with their chief charm—womanliness."6 Or, as she writes in The Sorrows of Satan: "'In the present day ... there are a number of females clamouring like unnatural hens in a barnyard about their "rights" and "wrongs." Their greatest right, their highest privilege, is to guide and guard the souls of men.'"7 Corelli clings to the Victorian notion of female purity and morality, yet also invests the feminine with a new power and significance. She entrusts the female author with the traditional Victorian woman's task of moral education, but unlike the Victorian mother, Corelli's female literary professional was endowed with the power to educate not only the family but also the entire nation.
Corelli portrayed herself as a modern-day prophet and her biographers have detailed her "eccentric" efforts to make herself appear what she believed she was, a "handmaiden of the Lord who wrote under divine inspiration."8 Her first act was inventing her pseudonym, Marie Corelli, to replace her more common given name, Minnie Mackay. Later, maintaining fierce control over her public image, Corelli avoided having her photograph taken by journalists. Instead, she released carefully corrected photographs to the public to make herself look younger and angelic, dressed in white robes like the authoress-heroines of her novels in order to make herself seem holy, an idea to which some of her readers were receptive (Fig. 1). Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales, William Gladstone, and some Anglican priests recommended her and her books as moral exemplars for the nation. Gladstone saw in her "'a great power to move the masses and sway the thoughts of the people.... There is a magnetism in your pen which will influence many.'"9 A priest who preached a...