Great Books: The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli
- October 21, 2022
- Marie Daouda
Marie Corelli’s best-selling novel is not just an old-fashioned romance but a sophisticated reflection on temptation and on the problem of evil.
Marie Corelli was by far the best-seller of the Victorian era. She was even, in a way, the first best-seller ever. She sold more books than Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling together. She was so famous that calendars were sold with quotations from her books, and series of postcards representing her were sold as goodies to a dedicated readership. Everyone read Corelli’s books, from the lowest shopgirl to Oscar Wilde and Queen Victoria herself.
Her tremendous success started in 1886 when editor George Bentley received a manuscript from a 17-year-old Italian called Marie Corelli. The novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, narrated the spiritual journey of a pianist improvisatrice who is saved from her nervous disease by Heliobas, a mysterious physician who uses electricity to maintain physical youth and spiritual strength. A Romance of Two Worlds questioned post-Darwinian materialism and asserted, both through the narrative and through extensive didactic chapters, that the soul was an electric force. The editorial committee discarded the novel with such harshness that Bentley decided to read the novel himself — and to publish it.
In fact, the young Italian Marie Corelli was a pseudonym for 31-year-old Minnie MacKay, daughter or adoptive daughter of Charles Mackay, a retired journalist and literary critic to whom we owe the phrase ‘the madness of the crowds’. With little to no advertising, A Romance of Two Worlds received an incredible response from the readers. People from all backgrounds sent letters to the hitherto unknown writer, telling her about their own experiences and thanking her for the relief she brought them. One year later, A Romance of Two Worlds was republished with these letters and Corelli’s answers. For three decades, readers continued to enjoy Corelli’s novels and to reach out to her as a spiritual advisor.
Corelli’s novels appeared to be the perfect answers to the spiritual void left by Darwinism and Positivism at the turn of the century. Although she never claimed to belong to any church, Corelli saw herself as an inspired writer and drew in an esoteric fashion on Christian science, Catholicism and Transcendentalism. Corelli’s success was by no means unanimous. The high-brow literary press regularly ridiculed her, and James Agate notoriously described her as having ‘the imagination of a Poe with the style of a Ouida and the mentality of a nursemaid’. The public, by contrast, couldn’t care less. Her eighth novel, The Sorrows of Satan, was published in 1895. Some 25,000 copies were sold within a week of publication, and within seven weeks, eight editions — 50,000 copies — were already sold out. It was adapted twice for the screen, in 1917 and in 1926.
There is something gripping about the first pages of this novel. The narrator, Geoffrey Tempest, sketches his experience of poverty — misery that robs one of one’s dignity, as hunger turns even the noblest character into a broken animal. As his last hope to make some money through journalism collapses, Geoffrey is on the verge of committing suicide when he receives an unexpected message from a Prince Lucio Rimânez.
The Faustian element is very explicit, not only through the apparition of a Mephistopheles-like figure, but more strikingly in the way Corelli realises the character of Lucio Rimânez by placing him in the continuity of Milton’s Satan and Byron’s Lucifer. There is a certain delight in this extremely referential literature, where the author leads the reader through a field of identifiable allusions that make the plot and the characters at once familiar and unique. The name Lucio, of course, is meant to echo Lucifer, the highest of angels whose revolt led to the fall of angels and of men. Rimânez nods to a readership that would be aware of the recent studies on Eastern religions, and familiar with the name Ahriman, whom the Zoroastrians believe to be the deity of chaos and destruction. However, while Corelli’s contemporary, Bram Stoker, builds the readers’ sympathy towards Jonathan Harker and his allies, Corelli’s Lucio Rimânez is, in many respects, more interesting than Geoffrey Tempest.
Indeed, the literary twist that Corelli brings to the conventional Faustian narrative is that Geoffrey Tempest quickly becomes a dull, uninteresting character. The endless stream of money he gets from his pact with Lucio corrupts his high literary ideals. He becomes what he originally despised — a vain socialite married to the even vainer heiress Lady Sibyl. The novel is built as a downward spiral: the rags to riches delusion of the first chapters serves as a contrasting backdrop against which Corelli sketches a bitter critique of her time. Like any proper Mephistophelian character, from Faust’s Mephistopheles to Tom Ellis’s Lucifer, Lucio Rimânez brings out the worst in anyone he meets. Men are unmasked in their greed and violence. Lucio remarks: ‘The sentiments called honour and virtue by the majority of men are the most shifty things imaginable, set sufficient cash down, and they become bribery and corruption in the twinkling of an eye!’
As for women, they are hardly better, except one, the only character who stands out against the temptation that Lucio incarnates. Lucio toys with Geoffrey Tempest by accompanying him to meet Mavis Clare, a young writer who lives secluded in a cottage, surrounded by birds, and names owls after the critics who speak badly of her books. Contrary to Geoffrey, and not unlike Marie Corelli, Mavis Clare achieved success by writing novels that speak directly to her audience, without the mingling of advertisers and critics; and the stories she writes are meant to uplift them morally.
Lucio tells Geoffrey Tempest the story of an Egyptian king’s favourite, who turned a city into an earthly paradise by taking care of all her subjects. Lucio adds: ‘The king’s favourite was something like Mavis Clare in that she possessed genius — she had also the qualities of justice, intelligence, love, truth and a most noble unselfishness — she made this place happy. It was a paradise on earth while she lived — when she died, its glory ended. So much can a woman do if she chooses — so much does she not do, in her usual cow-like way of living!’ Lucio and Mavis’s encounter leads to one of the most striking scenes of the novel. The roles between Lucio and Mavis seem to be inverted: she is not tempted by him, as she is perfectly content, but upon meeting her, the devil is tempted towards goodness.
The Sorrows of Satan can seem to be a harmless feel-good middlebrow Victorian novel. Some might find its bitterness towards the British literary scene of Corelli’s time a bit tedious. W. T. Stead, editor of the Review of Reviews, wrote on the novel’s publication:
If, after she has achieved her success, sold her scores of thousands, and avenged herself to her heart’s content upon her critics, she would then be so good as to take the book, tone it down, omit her superlatives, and cut out every solitary word that relates to reviews, reviewers, and other women novelists, she will have produced a book which will live long after much of the ephemeral literature of the day is forgotten. Otherwise, The Sorrows of Satan will be sunk by the sorrows of Marie Corelli which, however interesting they may be to our little contemporary world, cannot be expected to be entertaining or edifying to posterity.
There might be some truth to that. While the whole novel praises literature as the highest form of art, it can seem too deeply rooted in its own time, and to wallow too much on the author’s own distrust of the literary scene around her. Yet the reliance on the critics, the flawed aesthetic judgements of the crowd, the tension between scandalous and edifying writing, the throes of youth imprisoned in squalor, match the best pages of social satire in Balzac’s Illusions perdues or Dickens’s David Copperfield. As for Corelli’s permanent tendency to write edifying stories that stand against the moral depravity of the French ‘décadents’ (a word she uses in French!), it can be nuanced in The Sorrows of Satan and in many of her writings by her own tendency to enjoy the artistic licentiousness of her time. What she condemns, she describes with great talent, as can be seen through the fatal encounter between Lady Sibyl and Lucio Rimânez.
One can still enjoy The Sorrows of Satan, not just as an old-fashioned and slightly over-sweetened romance or as a fin-de-siècle criticism of decadence, but as a reflection on temptation and on the problem of evil. Corelli shows that so serious a question as, ‘Should we steer our ways clearer from evil if we knew its result?’ can, and should, still be asked in a novel that anyone, from Queen Victoria to a young milliner, would enjoy reading.