I don’t often write here about bad books. Partly that’s because I don’t usually care to give them publicity. Partly it’s because I don’t usually care to think further about an unrewarding reading experience. Mostly, though, it’s because to me a bad book is typically an uninteresting book. And what I really want to write about, when I write about a book, is what makes it interesting. Still, there are always exceptions. And of course it’s always worth challenging one’s ideas of what ‘bad’ means. So this time out I want to talk about some books by a writer who was, in her time, notorious for literary badness.
Marie Corelli, born in 1855 as Marie Mackay, published her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, in 1886. It launched her career as a best-selling and critically despised author. She went on to write two dozen novels, a number of short stories, and several volumes of nonfiction. Her popularity only began to dwindle at about the time of the First World War; she died in 1924. Reviewers had never warmed to her work, and her obituary in the London Times stated that “even the most lenient critic cannot regard Miss Corelli’s work as of much literary importance.” For several decades she fell into obscurity, but lately a new wave of critics and biographers have been taking another look at her accomplishments.
Certainly Corelli’s an interesting figure. A fair amount of her work has elements of fantasy or of what would come to be called science fiction. In her day, she outsold Doyle, Wells, and Kipling, and was loved by readers of all walks of life, up to and including Queen Victoria. She never married; she seems to have been born out of wedlock to a journalist and writer named Charles Mackay, and took the name ‘Corelli’ for herself as part of an early attempt to establish a career as a pianist. For 40 years she lived with another woman, Bertha Vyver. Different biographers draw different conclusions: here’s one article arguing they were lovers, here’s another stating they weren’t. Both pieces get at another subject of interest — Corelli’s influence on later writers. The latter article argues that Corelli’s 1887 novel Thelma, which I haven’t read, was a significant influence on Tolkien’s Gollum. The first argues that her 1889 Ardath was an influence on Dunsany.
Ardath is a sequel of sorts to A Romance of Two Worlds, and was itself followed by a kind-of sequel, 1892’s The Soul of Lilith. You can find all of them, plus Thelma and a number of other works, at Project Gutenberg, Wikisource, or the Internet Archive. As it happened, I’d picked up paper copies of Ardath and The Soul of Lilith some time ago, so I decided I’d read A Romance of Two Worlds online and get a sense for myself of her writing. How bad were these books, really?
Well, they’re not good. In my opinion. But I’ve certainly read worse. I do think their wretchedness has been overstated, and there is a good case to be made for an influence on Dunsany. Given her popularity, based on these three books alone I feel it’s worth looking at Corelli as a significant figure in the history of prose fantasy fiction.
What are the novels about? A Romance of Two Worlds follows an invalid Englishwoman living in France, who is drawn into the circle of a magus-figure named Heliobas; she learns about the mystical powers of electricity, is transported in visions beyond the earth, and observes a tragedy unfold among Heliobas’s hangers-on. Ardath follows an atheist poet who travels to a monastery in the Caucasus mountains, where he meets the same Heliobas, is directed to the field of Ardath mentioned in the Second Book of Esdras, has a vision of a woman with whom he falls in love — and then is transported seven thousand years back in time. The long second section of the book follows him in this distant past, as he meets a king and a poet and a beautiful but sinister priestess; Part Three sees him return to the present, become famous, and win his true love. The Soul of Lilith follows a kind of proto-mad scientist, El-Râmi, who several years ago was able to keep a girl from death, preserving her in a kind of trance in which her spirit is able to wander across the universe. The book follows him as he slowly comes to realise his love for her, at which point she dies. Heliobas, although not named, makes another appearance here, warning El-Râmi not to oppose the Law of God.
That’s some interesting material, but I have to admit I didn’t much care for what Corelli did with it. The novels all, to greater or lesser degrees, felt padded; I don’t normally think shorter books are better than long ones, or terser prose better than sprawl, but this is a case where sprawl really added nothing that I could see. It was difficult to read them attentively, as the orations and frequent editorial interjections meandered on with minimal insight. Had they been trimmed, they might have been more effective as oratory, and the stories would have been correspondingly swifter and more interesting. Each novel has a relatively simple plot, bulked out by speeches laying out exactly who a character is and what they think and what the writer thinks they ought to think. It’s tempting to try to read them ironically — they’re so earnest they almost satirise themselves.
It’s fair enough for Corelli to use her stories as hooks upon which to hang extended discussions about morality and religion and philosophy. But not only are the ideas she puts forward highly conventional — even five thousand years before Christ, her hero comes to learn that Christianity is true and inevitable — the discussions aren’t particularly interesting in themselves. We’re a long way from witty Chestertonian paradoxes. I’d go so far as to say that ‘wit’ in general is what’s missing from all three books; not simply cleverness, but the unexpected insight, the moment where things come together. So Corelli rails against atheism and materialism and democracy and “mannish women” and journalists who conduct interviews and women who pose in the nude for artists, and it’s all less subtle than it sounds.
The characters were equally unsubtle, and mostly unbelievable. They’re flat without the flatness of myth or archetype, with nothing alive in them. They seem to embody Victorian clichés: the sinister rationalist, the rebel atheist poet, the strong-willed man of god. There’s no depth; again, nothing unexpected. No subtext, no motives or drives that aren’t clearly articulated. They’re concerned with God or Art or Truth, to the total exclusion of things like sex or making a living. Idealists, perhaps, but not credible idealists; not characters so much as the sketches of characters.
I will say that Corelli’s style moves relatively swiftly. It’s good, if overwrought, Victorian prose. Not great, and tending to an overuse of adjectives, but it least serves to keep the interest. When Corelli restricts herself to physical description of a person or place, there is a sense of something concrete and potentially involving, though still tending to the generic.
At her best, you can get something like this paragraph, from a dream sequence in A Romance of Two Worlds:
Roses, roses! An interminable chain of these royal blossoms, red and white, wreathed by the radiant fingers of small rainbow-winged creatures as airy as moonlight mist, as delicate as thistledown! They cluster round me with smiling faces and eager eyes; they place the end of their rose-garland in my hand, and whisper, “FOLLOW!” Gladly I obey, and hasten onward. Guiding myself by the fragrant chain I hold, I pass through a labyrinth of trees, whose luxuriant branches quiver with the flight and song of birds. Then comes a sound of waters; the riotous rushing of a torrent unchecked, that leaps sheer down from rocks a thousand feet high, thundering forth the praise of its own beauty as it tosses in the air triumphant crowns of silver spray. How the living diamonds within it shift, and change, and sparkle! Fain would I linger to watch this magnificence; but the coil of roses still unwinds before me, and the fairy voices still cry, “FOLLOW!” I press on. The trees grow thicker; the songs of the birds cease; the light around me grows pale and subdued. In the far distance I see a golden crescent that seems suspended by some invisible thread in the air. Is it the young moon? No; for as I gaze it breaks apart into a thousand points of vivid light like wandering stars. These meet; they blaze into letters of fire. I strain my dazzled eyes to spell out their meaning. They form one word—HELIOBAS. I read it. I utter it aloud. The rose-chain breaks at my feet, and disappears. The fairy voices die away on my ear. There is utter silence, utter darkness,—save where that one NAME writes itself in burning gold on the blackness of the heavens.
That’s at least interesting. But contrast it with this paragraph, from The Soul of Lilith:
“Ay me! The emptiness of the world!” he murmured at last — “I shall be left alone, I suppose, as my betters are left, according to the rule of this curiously designed and singularly unsatisfactory system of human life. What do the young care for the solitude of their elders who have tended and loved them? New thoughts, new scenes, new aspirations beckon them, and off they go like birds on the wing, — never to return to the old nest or the old ways. I despise the majority of women myself, — and yet I pity from my soul all those who are mothers, — the miserable dignity and pathos of maternity are, in my opinion, grotesquely painful. To think of the anguish the poor delicate wretches endure in bringing children at all into the world, — then, the tenderness and watchful devotion expended on their early years, — and then — why then, these same children grow up for the most part into indifferent (when not entirely callous) men and women, who make their own lives as it seems best to themselves, and almost forget to whom they owe their very existence. It is hard — bitterly hard. There ought to be some reason for such a wild waste of love and affection. At present, however, I can see none.”
To me, there’s something about the mannered anticlimax of “At present, however, I can see none” that makes an already tedious paragraph ludicrous. But even before that, the paragraph shows a number of Corelli’s problems. The basic idea she’s expressing is a commonplace, the imagery she uses (“bird on the wing”) is equally commonplace, and the whole thing feels sententious as a result. And granted that this character is meant to be highly arrogant, the bumptiousness of “in my opinion” is excessive; when you’ve spoken about “miserable dignity and pathos,” you’ve already given your opinion.
It has to be said that the books do improve from one to another. Where A Romance of Two Worlds feels shapeless, with the heroine largely uninvolved in the main plot, Ardath at least works its material into a more satisfying tale. The fantasy’s more inventive and more tightly integrated into the overall story. Lilith isn’t as original — in some ways it feels like a return to Two Worlds — but is tighter, with an attempt to use subplots to provide contrast to the main action. And these are all books from relatively early in Corelli’s career, too; one has the sense of a writer finding her way.
As fantasy, the novels are certainly of historical interest. I personally didn’t think they lived as fiction in and of themselves, but they’re an interesting step in the development of prose fantasy and indeed of science fiction. Corelli’s stories try to cast the cutting-edge science of the time as magic, or as fundamentally mystical. Electricity is a divine force, capable of doing anything; like radiation in Silver Age comic books. Things like the phonograph are, according to these books, only rediscoveries of wisdom known in ancient days — in keeping with the conservative, even reactionary, bent of the books. Science isn’t what it claims, Corelli says, and its supposed wonders are really nothing new or extraordinary at all.
So you can look at the books as being a kind of descendant of Frankenstein, trying to fuse the scientific and the magical. Certainly you can see Ardath as a precursor of Dunsany; there is a similar quasi-Orientalist atmosphere. But Dunsany, in addition to being much more consciously ironic, has a more fluid and inventive prose style; he’s got a better eye for detail, and builds a more evocative atmosphere. Aspects of Lilith seem to prefigure things like Dion Fortune’s The Demon Lover, but the book overall lacks Fortune’s imagination and sense of drama. Corelli’s probably best read in company of her contemporaries, H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, but is far more prone then either of them to stop her story to make a moral point. I find the result not only slows the momentum of the narratives, but also enervates the fantasies, making them less convincing in themselves, and generally creating a sense of books not rising to their full potential.
You can see it in the construction of the plots: Two Worlds and Lilith in particular have all the ingredients necessary for a melodrama, with threatened beauties and (in the first case) a sinister nobleman or (in the second case) a tyrannical magus-figure. But nothing really comes of it. Corelli resolutely avoids formula, which is good, but doesn’t really substitute any stronger sense of structure.
The books almost seem to insist on being less interesting than they ought to be. Heliobas, the character who connects all three novels, is a Chaldean mystic connected to a secret society of Christian monks dating back thousands of years; and yet somehow he’s uninteresting. Rather than explore the melodrama of the idea, rather than get wrapped up in the story, Corelli spends more time using him as a kind of wandering superego: telling other characters what they should do, and what is morally right and God’s will. I find the same sort of problem in Corelli’s depiction of the prehistoric city of Ardath. There are certainly interesting pieces there, conflicting religions and human sacrifice and a wicked priestess and all sorts of politics around a poet-laureate and a king … and none of it’s explored in any interesting way. It all feels like an opportunity missed. As if Corelli’s such a clichéd writer, with such a clichéd view of art, she has to suffer from a clichéd flaw: suppressing the energies of her stories to indulge in excessive didacticism.
It’s a tension that’s amusingly present in the way she writes about poetry — which she does fairly often, being so deeply interested in the power of Art. Shelley and Byron are praised, though she refuses to accept that Shelley was really an atheist (this was a man known to give ‘atheist’ as his occupation). She admits Swinburne is talented, but sees nothing worthwhile in Browning. Which is to say that she’s a belated would-be Romantic, struggling to reconcile the second generation of English Romantics with Victorian morality. Her fiction seems to reflect this struggle, and I can’t help but think that it’s unfortunate that Romanticism didn’t manage a better showing.
Still, when all’s said and done, it’s probably fair to say that Corelli’s reputation for lousiness is overstated. These are far from the worst books I’ve read in my life. They’re not even the worst high-selling Victorian fiction I’ve ever read. In fact, a useful point of comparison for Corelli might be Bulwer-Lytton, now considered a writer of legendary awfulness but in his time quite well-respected. Like her, he was a conservative who mocked supposedly newfangled ideas like democracy and feminism in stories with some fantasy elements. And like her, you can see traces of his fantasies echoing on in the pulp of later generations — sometimes in the literary fiction as well. These three novels by Corelli are not good at all. But they’re not of an unprecedented badness. They’re part of the history of prose fantasy fiction, and if their interest seems to me to be purely historical, at least they’re still more readable than much that has been published more recently.
Matthew David Surridge is the author of “The Word of Azrael,” from Black Gate 14. His ongoing web serial is The Fell Gard Codices. You can find him on facebook, or follow his Twitter account, Fell_Gard.