Victorian Literature Marie Corelli
Kirsten MacLeod
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0005


In her lifetime, Marie Corelli (b. 1855–d. 1924) was one of the most famous and highly paid writers of the day, enjoying an international readership. Her 1895 novel, The Sorrows of Satan, sold over 50,000 copies in its first seven weeks and has been credited with being the first modern best seller. Though she lapsed into obscurity after her death, in the late Victorian and Edwardian era she outstripped the combined sales of Rudyard Kipling, H. G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle. Corelli’s oeuvre includes thirty-one novels, several volumes of short stories, a volume of poetry, and a number of collections of essays and tracts. Her works both spanned and combined a range of genres, including the gothic, romance, historical, and society novels. Her energetic writing style, exotic and mysterious locales, and religious eclecticism appealed to a broad cross-class popular readership on a number of levels. Corelli’s reception among professional critics and reviewers, who characterized her work as florid and sensational, however, was poor. This perception was one shared, with a few exceptions, by the handful of biographers, critics, and scholars who wrote about her between her death in 1924 and the 1990s. As a consequence, much of this early writing on Corelli is characterized by an ill-concealed distaste for her work. With the development of the discipline of book history and the growth in interest in popular literature and culture brought about by the rise of cultural studies, Corelli has begun to receive serious critical attention. This attention has focused strongly on Corelli as cultural phenomenon and on the sociohistorical context of her works, though there is a growing interest in critically reevaluating her aesthetic in terms of its relationship to canonical genres and figures.


Biographies of Corelli tend to fall into two camps. They are either hagiographies that perpetuate the myths and legends around the author (Carr 1901, Coates and Bell 1903, Vyver 1930) or, they are patronizing and dismissive accounts of her career (Bullock 1940, Bigland 1953, Masters 1978). These biographies have a kind of historic interest that will be valuable to those seeking a more in-depth understanding of Corelli’s status in certain periods of the 20th century, though the hagiographies, particularly, are not useful for “facts” about her life. For those new to Corelli, the most useful biographies are Masters 1978 and Ransom 1999. Masters 1978 is the more thorough account of the two, though Masters is disparaging toward his subject. Ransom 1999, by contrast, provides a long-overdue feminist framework within which to understand Corelli’s life. Though the author is not technically a biographer, Federico 2000 (in the chapter “Who Was Marie Corelli?”) offers a cogent analysis of the problematic state of biographical representations of Corelli for researchers who might want an understanding of this important context.

  • Bigland, Eileen. Marie Corelli: The Woman and the Legend: A Biography. London: Jarrolds, 1953.

    A patronizing account of Corelli’s life that devotes its attention to the 1855–1906 period, hastily skimming over the last eighteen years (1906–1924) in a single chapter and making much of her failed love affair with painter Arthur Severn.

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

    Misogynistic and patronizing perspective. Bullock engages in a pseudo-psychoanalytic analysis by which he concludes that Corelli was “frigid” and an example of “retarded development.” Notably, Bullock is the first biographer to delve into the mystery, still unsolved, of Corelli’s parentage. Corelli’s will is included in an appendix.

  • Carr, Kent. Miss Marie Corelli. London: Henry J. Drane, 1901.

    One of two biographies written in her lifetime. This is a hagiographic view, one that acknowledges its own bias. Contains interesting illustrations, including an image of a blood-spattered, bullet hole–riddled page from a copy of The Murder of Delicia discovered in the Boer trenches.

  • Coates, T. F. G., and R. S. Warren Bell. Marie Corelli, the Writer and the Woman. London: Hutchinson, 1903.

    The second biography written during Corelli’s lifetime, the purpose of which seems to be to defend Corelli from her detractors. Coates and Bell offer only the unreliable information Corelli provided about her own life, and the volume focuses primarily on her writing.

  • Federico, Annette. Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.

    Federico’s chapter, “Who Was Marie Corelli?” is not strictly a biographical account. Rather, it is an informed critical analysis of “cultural readings” of Corelli, drawing on obituaries, biographies, memoirs, letters, and literary reviews. It serves as a useful starting point for assessing the biographical terrain of Corelli studies.

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

    The best-researched and most useful of Corelli biographies, unfortunately hampered by Masters’s misogyny and relentless disparagement of his subject.

  • Ransom, Teresa. The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 1999.

    A welcome corrective to the ill-concealed disparagement that marks many other biographies. Ransom’s feminist perspective paints a picture of Corelli as a strong-minded woman with a will to succeed in a harsh male-dominated environment. Lacks the detail and attention to her writing that represents the strengths of Masters’s biography.

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

    An idealized portrait of Corelli by her longtime friend (and possibly lover) that is, understandably, protective of its subject. Notable for its citations from Corelli’s letters to Bertha in the 1880s, demonstrating the deep intimacy between the two women.

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