Marie Corelli (1855-1924) is another of those curious set of authors whose work was stunningly successful during their lifetime but is virtually unknown today. This neglect is often independent of the quality of the writing: Richard Marsh, another Victorian/Edwardian era thriller author, has yet to disappoint me with one of his stories.
Fortunately, Corelli is gradually being reintroduced to the public with a number of excellent quality editions. Last year, I discussed Marie Corelli’s supernatural revenge novel Ziska (1897), which had recently been reprinted by Valancourt Books. More recently, Zittaw Press released an edition of Corelli’s second novel, the macabre Vendetta (1886):
Vendetta is, like the later Ziska, a tale of vengeance. Though I occasionally felt like the novel got a little too wordy (at least to my 21st century ADD brain), the story is dark, atmospheric, and compelling. I ended up staying up way past my bedtime to reach the conclusion, which is pretty high praise on my part!
The novel opens with a bang: wealthy nobleman Fabio Romani of Venice, a kind and naive man, stops to aid a fallen citizen during the cholera epidemic of 1884. He apparently comes down with the disease himself, collapses, and wakes up in a coffin! Due to a fear of infection, he has been hastily buried alive.
Fabio manages to escape his entombment, and stumbles to his villa in the dead of night to reassure his wife and daughter that he is, in fact alive. Before he can speak to his wife Nina, however, finds himself in the shadows of the courtyard and overhears a conversation proving that his wife has been unfaithful to him –with his best friend Guido Ferrari! Furthermore, it is abundantly clear that neither Nina nor Guido is sorry that Fabio is gone, and they are in fact openly contemptuous of their departed companion.
His faith in humanity shattered, Fabio sneaks away into the night. He vows revenge on both Nina and Guido, and immediately sets into motion a plan to carry it out. His night in the grave has left him physically changed, enough to even fool those formerly closest to him; furthermore, by a stroke of fate he comes into a possession of a sum of money larger than that of his ancestral estate. He adopts a new identity, and slowly works his way back into the trust, and home, of those who had betrayed him, leading up to a ghastly finale of vengeance.
The novel is told in first person, and is written as a memoir of Fabio who, after the culmination of his plot, has retired to a remote part of South America to live out the rest of his days. The tale has a tone of both confession and accusation; while admitting his own crimes and treachery, Fabio simultaneously condemns humanity in general and women in particular.
The character’s open (to the reader) hostility towards women is rather difficult to read at times and unsettling. It would be easy to dismiss the book as a misogynistic rant by a jilted author, except that the author in this case is a woman! I endeavored to treat it as a twisted character study, and not read more into these rants, though it seems that Corelli was indirectly criticizing the very idea of intimacy; Corelli herself was never married.
Curiously, Vendetta is somewhat of a complementary story to Ziska. Both are tales of revenge from beyond the grave, though Ziska has a genuine supernatural return from death while Vendetta has a natural explanation. Ziska tells the story primarily from the point of view of the target, while Vendetta is entirely told by the vengeance-seeker. Both stories have strikingly similar endings as well. I don’t know what to make of these observations, but they seemed worth making!
The Zittaw edition of Vendetta is very nicely put together, and comes with a great introduction by scholar Curt Herr, who I’ve previously mentioned as the editor of the truly amazing and epic edition of Varney the Vampire. The introduction gives a number of fascinating anecdotes about Corelli and her work that I will not spoil here; it also explains how the work can be thought of as a critique of the decadent movement of art and literature. The book contains a few typos here and there, likely artifacts of an OCR scan (on p. 179, “woman” is “vroman”), but is otherwise very well done.
Overall, Corelli’s Vendetta is an excellent work of fiction; fans of gothic tales and thrillers will find it an enjoyable tale.
I can’t resist ending this post without saying a little more about Corelli and her reception among the public and the critics of the time! Today, pretty much everyone in the U.S. has heard of Stephanie Meyer and her Twilight series of books — and has formed a strong opinion about them! Though wildly successful, one does not have to go far to find that there is also a strong backlash against the novels, with plenty of critics and non-critics alike dismissing them as “trash” or worse. (I have been known to indulge myself, even though I haven’t read them.)
Corelli was, in essence, the Meyer of her age! Her books were the biggest bestsellers of her time — as noted on the back cover of Vendetta, fans would line up around the block to pick up the newest book! She counted amongst her fans the Queens of England and Italy, and the Empress of Austria. She became fabulously wealthy, and even imported a gondola and gondolier from Venice that she took for excursions on the River Avon (source, which includes other images):
Amongst the critics and the press, however, Corelli’s work seems to have been universally despised, in striking parallel to Meyer’s Twilight. It is tempting to suggest that both writers have suffered by simple virtue of being successful women, with an extra flame of jealousy sparked by the fact that they managed to reach great success without the formal approval of the literati. There is probably something to that, but it is also clear that the shocking themes of books like Vendetta were too extreme to be considered “civilized” writing at the time.
What I’ve found most surprising, however, is that Corelli suffered from another plague of modern celebrities: paparazzi, or at least the 19th century equivalent of them! The popularity of Corelli’s books apparently carried over into an intense interest in her personal life, and there were unscrupulous people happy to attempt to make money from this interest by any means possible. Photographs were presumably out, considering this was an era when good photographs had to be posed, and Corelli wasn’t going to do that for just anyone. Instead, one entrapeneur produced picture postcards depicting supposed scenes from the life of Marie Corelli, postcards such as the one pictured above! This lead Corelli to sue the publishers of the cards, as reported in the May 13, 1906 edition of the New York Times:
Famous Novelist Objects to Private Life on Postal Cards
Miss Marie Corelli has applied to Mr. Justice Swinfen Eady, in the Chancery Division, for an injunction to restrain A. & E. Wall of Stratford-on-Avon from publishing or otherwise disposing of picture postcards purporting to depict scenes in the private life of Miss Corelli.
Mr. Eve, K.C., Miss Corelli’s counsel, stated that the defendants produced sets of postcards called “the Distinguished Authors’ Series.” Objection to the cards was at once taken by Miss Corelli, and if his Lordship would look at them and at a recent photo of Miss Corelli he would see what a gross libel had been perpetrated on her features. One card was styled “Shakespeare and His Contemporaries,” which looks as if the defendants suggested that Shakesspeare was a contemporary of Miss Corelli. Considerable annoyance had been occasioned to Miss Corelli by the publication of the cards, and the offense was aggravated by the fact that after the stationers and W.H. Smith & Son at Stratford-on-Avon had stopped selling the cards the defendants employed a large body of sandwich men to parade the place, including the front of Miss Corelli’s house, with notices that the cards could be obtained at defendants’ place of business or private house. This has made the private life of Miss Corelli intolerable. The vacation Judge granted an injunction, and this the learned counsel asked should be continued until the trial of the action.
Edith Wall was one of the defendants. In their defense the defendants said these were matters of public knowledge. Counsel proceeded to read the affidavit of Miss Corelli, who stated that she went to Stratford-on-Avon for the purpose of obtaining privacy. She had never consented to the publication of the cards, which were calculated to expose her to unjust contempt in relation to her private life and prejudice her in her profession as an authoress.
The affidavit of Miss Edith Wall, in reply, declared that, so far from seeking privacy at Stratford-on-Avon, Miss Corelli had courted publicity in every way.
Mr. Wheeler submitted that if the portraits of Miss Corelli had been flattering nothing would have been heard of the action. Very few ladies would admit, he said, that a photo did them justice, and he assumed that Miss Corelli was no exception to the rule. If that was a libel, every exhibition of the Royal Academy would be a collection of libels. Mr. Justice Swinfen Eady said that the point raised by the motion had never been decided before, and he would consider his decision.
It is fascinating to me that this case sounds very much like one that would be brought today against paparazzi! The arguments by the defendants sound very much like the sort of things said about celebrities today: she is a publicity hound and therefore no cause to complain, she’s just being vain. The latter comment makes me think again that the criticism of Corelli’s work was largely sexist!
I am unaware of the outcome of the court case, but Corelli commented on it herself in the introduction to her book The Treasure of Heaven, published in July 1906:
BY the special request of the Publishers, a portrait of myself, taken in the spring of this year, 1906, forms the Frontispiece to the present volume. I am somewhat reluctant to see it so placed, because it has nothing whatever to do with the story which is told in the following pages, beyond being a faithful likeness of the author who is responsible for this, and many other previous books which have had the good fortune to meet with a friendly reception from the reading public. Moreover, I am not quite able to convince myself that my pictured personality can have any interest for my readers, as it has always seemed to me that an author’s real being is more disclosed in his or her work than in any portrayed presentment of mere physiognomy.
But–owing to the fact that various gross and I think I may say libellous, and fictitious misrepresentations of me have been freely and unwarrantably circulated throughout Great Britain, the Colonies, and America, by certain ‘lower’ sections of the pictorial press, which, with a zeal worthy of a better and kinder cause, have striven by this means to alienate my readers from me,–it appears to my publishers advisable that an authentic likeness of myself, as I truly am to-day, should now be issued, in order to prevent any further misleading of the public by fraudulent inventions. The original photograph from which Messrs. Constable and Co. have reproduced the present photogravure, was taken by Mr. G. Gabell of London, who, at the time of my submitting myself to his camera, was not aware of my identity. I used, for the nonce, the name of a lady friend, who arranged that the proofs of the portrait should be sent to her at various different addresses,–and it was not till this ‘Romance of Riches’ was on the verge of publication that I disclosed the real position to the courteous artist himself. That I thus elected to be photographed as an unknown rather than a known person was in order that no extra pains should he taken on my behalf, but that I should be treated just as an ordinary stranger would be treated, with no less, but at the same time certainly no more, care.
I may add, in conclusion, for the benefit of those few who may feel any further curiosity on the subject, that no portraits resembling me in any way are published anywhere, and that invented sketches purporting to pass as true likenesses of me, are merely attempts to obtain money from the public on false pretences. One picture of me, taken in my own house by a friend who is an amateur photographer, was reproduced some time ago in the Strand Magazine, The Boudoir, Cassell’s Magazine, and The Rapid Review; but beyond that, and the present one in this volume, no photographs of me are on sale in any country, either in shops or on postcards. My objection to this sort of ‘picture popularity’ has already been publicly stated, and I here repeat and emphasise it. And I venture to ask my readers who have so generously encouraged me by their warm and constant appreciation of my literary efforts, to try and understand the spirit in which the objection is made. It is simply that to myself the personal ‘Self’ of me is nothing, and should be, rightly speaking, nothing to any one outside the circle of my home and my intimate friends; while my work and the keen desire to improve in that work, so that by my work alone I may become united in sympathy and love to my readers, whoever and wherever they may be, constitutes for me the Everything of life.
The photograph in question is the following one (source):
I still don’t know how I feel about Twilight, but having learned a bit more about how Marie Corelli was treated in her success, I’m going to try and be a bit more charitable in the future.