Book review: Bestseller in a gondola

The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli, Queen of Victorian Bestsellers by Teresa Ransom Sutton pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
P osterity has not been kind to Marie Corelli. But then, people weren't exactly peachy about her while she was alive. Oscar Wilde is supposed to have dissed her novels from his Reading Gaol cell: "Now don't think I have anything against her moral character," he sneered. "But from the way she writes she ought to be here."

His wasn't an eccentric opinion. Journalists sent her poison pen letters. The grammarian Henry Watson Fowler (of Fowler's Usage) cited her work as a perfect example of "horrible" writing. And once she was dead, they only kicked harder. At a sale of her effects in 1943, the crowd laughed openly as her belongings were auctioned off at pitiful prices. A huge painting by Arthur Severn - an artist with whom she had once been infatuated - was sold for four guineas to a man who thought he was buying the easel. Corelli had bought it for 500 guineas.

Thirteen years later, the novelist Marguerite Steen pumped up the bitchiness by recalling Corelli as "a fat little dwarf : her enormous torso, which was that of a normal adult, only looked enormous because of her dwarfed arms and legs, which would have fitted a child of 10. Her face was a ball of pink putty into which were pushed the dark beads of her eyes, and trimmed with yellowish curls."

And yet, despite this hostility, Corelli was once Britain's bestselling novelist, who counted Queen Victoria, Gladstone and the Prince of Wales among her admirers. One hundred years ago, her brand of quasi-religious romance - in which beautiful heroines with names like Zara and Thelma conduct telepathic love affairs with Ancient Egyptians or scoot through outer space by means of "spiritual electric force" - touched the imagination of an English public besotted with table-rapping, hypnotism and hunting for fairies at the bottom of the garden. Her fiction seduced with the kind of power wielded today by Angel Theology and New Age Christianity. Her readers saw her as a spirit-guide who offered a glimpse of a mystical, electric realm beyond English domestic tedium.

For a modern biographer, Corelli presents particular problems, most of which were created by Corelli herself to dissuade research into her life and background. She was furiously self-obfuscating, fogging the public's view of her with fanciful myths and half-truths. At 31, she passed herself off to her publisher as a precocious 17-year-old. She variously claimed Italian, American or Scottish parentage. Her exotic name was a complete fabrication - before she decided to reinvent herself, she was plain old Minnie Mackay. The circumstances of her birth were kept deliberately vague. She was probably the illegitimate child of her guardian Charles Mackay, but nobody has ever disproved the story that a mysterious stranger left her on a doorstep in a basket, on a cold winter's night in Leatherhead. She never married, and had no children. The Evening Standard used a report of her funeral to imply that she was a lesbian, but if that was the case, she destroyed all evidence that her relationship with her companion, Bertha Vyver, had any sexual element. In later life, she doctored her publicity photographs, transforming herself from a tiny, saggy old dear into a svelte, statuesque ice maiden. She even tried to conceal her lack of height by greeting her house guests while standing on a raised dais, hidden under the long train of her dress.

Wisely, Teresa Ransom's engrossing study of Corelli makes its subject's self-delusion its theme, not its secret. The contradictions stack up as the story progresses. Corelli was aggressively independent, yet she turned on the little-girl act whenever it suited her. She sermonised against the snobberies of society, but was desperate to get herself on royal guest lists. Just like Mr Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody, she once wrote to the editor of a newspaper to complain that her name had been omitted from a list of guests at a society gathering. The correction, of course, proved much more humiliating than the error.

Ransom rehearses these details with clarity and sensitivity. She recounts how William Gladstone was so anxious to be alone with Corelli that he made his wife drive round the block for two hours while he paid the novelist a visit. She tells how Corelli imported a gondola and a gondolier from Venice to punt her up and down the Avon, and how - when the Italian pulled a knife on a drinker in the Dirty Duck - Corelli was forced to send him home.

Ransom's treatment of Corelli's involvement with the cinema, however, contains some frustrating mistakes. She makes much of her subject's successful suppression, in 1911, of an American adaptation of The Sorrows of Satan, and tells how Corelli continued to keep up the legal pressure on the offenders, the Dreadnought Film Company, for the rest of her life. "The film was finally produced in 1926, two years after Marie's death," writes Ransom, noting that D W Griffith directed Theda Bara in the role of the heroine, Sibyl Elton. However, she doesn't mention that in 1917, a British version was filmed by the Samuelson company, starring every Somme bombardier's favourite pin-up, Gladys Cooper. Did this film receive her approval? We don't find out. Ransom is simply content to note that "After Marie's death ... it is surprising to see the number of her books under negotiation to the film companies." She then enumerates a list of screen adaptations - without seeming to realise that most of these were in the can years before Corelli departed for the Life Everlasting. Thelma (1887), for instance, was filmed at least five times between 1910 and 1918, a record that John Grisham couldn't hope to match. It's hard to believe that an author with such a jealous regard for her own work would let these pass without a struggle.

However, it's not impossible that these inaccuracies might have been imported from Corelli's own records. After all, a writer who lied about her age, her height and her parentage might easily have denied the existence of a handful of royalty cheques.