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Corelli, Marie (1855-1924)  

The popular English novelist Marie Corelli is now known chiefly as a camp figure who inspired E. F. Benson's Lucia.

Although she strove to conceal her origins through numerous fictions, Corelli was born Mary (or Minnie) Mackay in Perth, Scotland, in 1855, the natural daughter of Dr. Charles Mackay, a minor literary figure who married her mother, a servant, in 1864.

While in her twenties, she pursued a brief career as a concert pianist and assumed the fantastic, self-created persona of Marie Corelli, "a true Italian" descended from the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Arcangelo Corelli. Subsequently, she turned to the more lucrative venture of writing fiction.

Her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), combines science fiction and occultism in examining such disparate notions as out-of-body time travel, moral didacticism, and "personal electricity." After the moderate success of this initial venture, she produced, among other works, the best sellers The Soul of Lilith (1892), Barabbas, a Dream of the World's Tragedy (1893), and The Sorrows of Satan (1895). Initial sales of the latter work surpassed those of any English novel previously published, and, in all, fifteen of her nearly thirty novels had sales in excess of 100,000 copies.

Her novels brought her extravagant wealth and fame; simultaneously, her melodramatic plots, purple prose, anachronistic and ill-informed use of antique or biblical settings and characters, and idées fixes (for example, Christian moralism, pseudo-science, and attacks on society women and the literary establishment) made her the target of critical ridicule, to which she publicly and self-righteously responded.

As a result, Corelli was the most publicized British author of the 1890s, overshadowing even Oscar Wilde. Her fame was ephemeral, however, and she fell from public popularity before her death, in 1924, in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Although Marie Corelli has been represented as a feminist or lesbian author, both definitions are highly problematic. Her novels, generally variations on the standard heterosexual romance plot, are frequently polemics against marriage and male dominance, and Corelli firmly believed in the essential spiritual superiority of women over the base carnality of men.

She was an outspoken foe of women's suffrage, however, and denounced women with political and professional aspirations as both unwomanly and unladylike.

From 1876 until her death, she lived with Bertha Vyver, who served as companion, confidant, housekeeper, and nurse. Corelli wore a ring Vyver had given her when both were young, and the entwined initials of the two women, who themselves appeared in public with their arms around each other, were carved into the mantelpiece of their home with the inscription amor vincit.

Whether their relationship went beyond romantic friendship, however, is unclear. Corelli publicly inveighed against "sex feelings" and maintained a close friendship with Henry Labouchere, author of the amendment to the Criminal Law Act of 1885 by which Wilde was convicted and imprisoned. (Corelli proclaimed that she would have "that Douglas man [Wilde's lover Lord Alfred Douglas] soundly whipped.")

Ironically, Marie Corelli's most significant contribution to gay and lesbian culture is an unwitting one, that of a camp figure. In the early stages of their respective careers, Wilde derived amusement from the flamboyance of her writing (he wrote, "you certainly tell of marvellous things in a marvellous way") and advised her in the art of self-promotion.

Additionally, the meddlesome and imperious Corelli, who was given to reciting imaginative historical "facts" and dispensing phrases in skewed French and Italian, provided E. F. Benson, an occasional visitor to her home, with the perfect model for the protagonist of his Lucia novels.

Most of Corelli's novels are currently in print, their author having achieved something of a cult status since the 1960s. The Romance of Two Worlds remains a perennial favorite in occult bookstores.

Patricia Juliana Smith


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Marie Corelli in 1904.
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Arcangelo Corelli, who was probably homosexual, was one of the seventeenth century's most widely admired composers and performers.

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Biglund, Eileen. Marie Corelli: The Woman and the Legend. London: Jarrolds, 1953.

Bullock, George. Marie Corelli: The Life and Death of a Best-seller. London: Constable, 1940.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: William Morrow, 1981.

Masters, Brian. Now Barabbas Was a Rotter: The Extraordinary Life of Marie Corelli. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978.

Vyver, Bertha. Memoirs of Marie Corelli. London: Alston Rivers, 1930.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Patricia Juliana  
    Entry Title: Corelli, Marie  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 2, 2004  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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