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Marie Corelli (1855-1924)

Biographical Remarks by Eva Fitz

The name Marie Corelli sounds very nice. Marie herself must have thought so when she chose it, instead of Mary Mills or Minnie Mackay. Being not very proud of her past she invented it new. She made herself a different woman altogether, and a younger one, too.

I made my first aquaintance with Marie in Stratford-upon-Avon - the appropriate place - in a second hand bookshop. The first thing I was told about her was that she was eccentric and pulled to pieces by her critics. The first novel I read was A Romance of Two Worlds. I was at once struck by her imaginative power. Other novels followed - I confessed myself her admirer and joined the Marie Corelli Fanclub. Unfortunately, I am the only living member. Other members were Queen Victoria (she had a "standing order" for Marie's novels), Queen Alexandra, Sir Frederick Leighton, and many others more. Maybe I am mistaken and other admirers live in Corelli City, Colorado?

Marie's origin is somewhat obscured by her own contradictory statements and by speculations on her parentage. Was she the daughter of Elizabeth Mary Mills or a foundling, was Charles Mackay her natural father or her stepfather? Was Mackay's second wife Ellen identical with Elizabeth Mary Mills? Or was Marie Mackay's granddaughter, the child of Rosa Jane Mackay and an Italian? It seems that even Marie herself probably got to know about her true identity only a few weeks after Mackay's death in 1890. She kept that knowledge to herself, though.

As the daughter of Elizabeth M. Mills, Marie was born on 1 May 1855. Marie seems to have been a lively and strong-headed child. She also was a lonely child and made books her friends. Books and music were her chief amusement.

From 1866 to 1870 she was sent to a Paris convent to be educated. During holidays she often stayed with the Russell family or with the van der Vyvers, friends of her father's, Charles Mackay. Being "a delightful child, steeped in poetry and tenderness" (Countess van der Vyver to Mackay), she was a welcome guest. With Bertha van der Vyver, Marie contracted a lifelong friendship. After the death of Ellen Mackay in 1876, Marie and Bertha managed the Mackay household together. At some stage Mackay's son George Eric Mackay joined the household. Having tried his hand at several professions and still not able to find a suitable employment, he stretched his legs under his father's table. Marie believed in George's ability to do something for himself, encouraged and supported him in his literary and musical schemes. Once, because he took it into his head to become a violinist, she bought a violin for him and paid for his music lessons - he was never able to play a single tune. Another time she sold her jewellery in order to have a book of his published. She got small thanks for all that from him.

Marie's first attempts to have a poem, then an article on 'Music and Song' published by Blackwood's were thwarted by her correspondent's neglect and wavering attitude towards her writing. He at first encouraged her to write the article and played at being mute afterwards. Nothing daunted, she made another fruitless attempt in offering five sonnets to Blackwood in Juli 1881.

Her writing career began when she offered her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, to George Bentley. Despite the derogatory comments by his readers, George Bentley not only read the book himself, but even published it. It was an immediate success and was followed shortly by Vendetta and Thelma. Bentley showed a fatherly attitude towards Marie, and whenever she was disheartened by the cutting comments of the press, Bentley wrote kind and comforting letters to her. Unfortunately, this relationship came to an end when Bentley felt insulted by a passage in The Silver Domino, a book to which Marie had contributed. Though she denied that she had a hand in putting in the offending passage the break could never be healed. As Marie could not get herself to like George Bentley's son und business successor Richard Bentley the business relationship soon came to an end. Marie then withdrew her books from Bentley and placed them with Methuen.

Marie's novels are moral tales with attacks on human types or institutions. Her style is highly emotional and melodramatic. Her themes range from education (The Mighty Atom) to the deepest abyss of moral depravity (Wormwood). Bertha distinguished between three categories: "human" books such as Vendetta and Thelma, "religious" books as Barabbas and Sorrows of Satan and spiritual books as A Romance of Two Worlds and Ardath. With the latter Marie hit the Victorian taste for table rapping and spiritualism, though she wrote in A Romance of Two Worlds

'Spiritual beings are purely spiritual; they cannot touch anything human, much less deal in such vulgar display as the throwing about of chairs, and the opening of locked sideboards.'
(London: Methuen, 42nd ed. 1950, p.136).

But not only did her writing accord with the Victorian taste for mysticism, with The Sorrows of Satan she had written a book which served as a basis for sermons. When Father Ignatius gave sermons on The Sorrows of Satan at the Portman Rooms in Baker Street there were crowds who flocked to the event. Though very popular with her readers, throughout her writing career Marie was torn to pieces by the press. In 1894 Marie and Bertha met the well-known and influential critic Edmund Yates and his wife during a holiday in France. They became fast friends. He might have been a great help to Marie in regard to the press had he not died a couple of months later. The attacks from the press went on and with The Sorrows of Satan Marie decided that she would not have free copies of her books sent out for review anymore.


Marie Corelli's Pet Yorkshire Terrier "Czar": What becomes of the Press Cuttings! (from Thomas F.G.Coates and R.S.Warren Bell, Marie Corelli. The Writer and the Woman, London: Hutchinson & Co., 1903).

In 1899 Marie and Bertha moved to Stratford-upon-Avon. Marie was frequently invited to public functions, she arranged parties and excursions for children, she spent her money freely in behalf of others, she filled, as the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald put it, "the role of Lady Bountiful admirably". She raised a fund to pay the debt which lay on Holy Trinity Church and prevented that Shakespeare's bust in this church was overshadowed by a private memorial; she fought a partially successful battle for the preservation of old cottages in Henley Street, Stratford.

Marie was invited by several societies to give lectures, among others by the Royal Society of Literature and here she was the first lady ever who addressed the members. Marie's lectures were very popular and always drew crowds.

Marie was conservative and she did not think much of suffragettes. Nevertheless she was a strong feminist also and felt deeply about the weak position of women. As she wrote in the introduction to Delicia:

The woman who paints a great picture is "unsexed"; the woman who writes a great book is "unsexed"; in fact, whatever woman does that is higher and more ambitious than the mere act of flinging herself down at the feet of man and allowing him to walk over her, makes her in man's opinion unworthy of his consideration as a woman; and he fits the appellation of "unsexed" to her with an easy callousness, which is unmanly as it is despicable.

In later years she changed her attitude towards suffragettes and she wrote in 1919:

By every law of justice they should have the vote - and I who, as a woman, was once against it, now most ardently support the cause.
(Is All Well with England, p.25)

Marie had very strong opinions and worked them convincingly into her works. In an obituary notice the Daily Telegraph wrote:

She never was afraid to utter her opinions with extreme and sometimes disconcerting frankness. She was endowed with an imagination of unbounded scope. Above all, her novels were always readable. But the main cause of her popularity was that she aimed directly at the heart of the people, and gave them as much sentiment and pathos and melodrama - couched in an equally descriptive and exuberant style - as they could possibly desire.
(22 April 1924)

© Eva Fitz 2000

Source: Teresa Ransom, The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli, Queen of Victorian Bestsellers (Stroud, 1999).

Marie Corelli's books in chronological order:

Copyright © 2005, Eva Fitz