Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byronic Authority in Petticoats: Marie Corelli's Improvisations on Byron's Themes

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Byronic Authority in Petticoats: Marie Corelli's Improvisations on Byron's Themes

Article excerpt

The Byronic hero suffering with unutterable pain was a readily-identifiable literary touchstone of the Victorian era, if not to say a cliché. I will not dwell on Victorian readings of Byron, as we know that he was fiercely advocated by the Bronte sisters, by Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and others, but instead turn to the hitherto unacknowledged links between Byron and the best-seller of her day, Marie Corelli.

Nowadays the name of Marie Corelli does not ring a bell with a popular readership. She has fallen into relative neglect since her death in 1924, although she has received scholarly attention, particularly from those interested in themes associated with the finde-siecle such as Gothicism and degeneration.1 In her time, she was read by everyone from the lowest shopgirl to Queen Victoria, Prince Edward, Prime Minister William Gladstone and Oscar Wilde.2 Her real name, Minnie Mackay, may suggest more familiarity to Byronists, as it is commonly assumed that Corelli was the daughter of Charles Mackay, who wrote about Byron's daughter in Medora Leigh, A History and an Autobiography (1869). Byron was, in a way, part of the Mackay household, since Marie Corelli's step-brother, Eric Mackay, published a book titled Lord Byron at the Armenian Convent in 1876.3

Marie Corelli was introduced to Byron quite early in her childhood through her father. Byron holds a special place in Corelli's personal pantheon since he stands as a model of rebellion. When she was around eleven, she would try to scandalise her governess by posing as a romantic heroine and quoting lines from Don Juan. Corelli sketches a youthful memory where she faced her governess, Miss Knox and claimed the right to read everything:

'Byron read just whatever books he fancied-so did Keats-[...] You see, I must learn!-I must make progress if I am ever to do anything in the world-and I will do something!-I will!-and I'll be as unlike anybody else as I can!'

'That would hardly be wise', said Miss Knox placidly; 'You would then be called eccentric'.4

Minnie Mackay's will to 'wake up one day and find herself famous' was also an obvious reference to Byron.

Minnie first appeared under the name of Marie Corelli as an improvising musician in 1884. Then in 1886, she sent her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, to the editor George Bentley, who was amazed by the wild imagination of this unknown genius who introduced herself as a 17-year-old Italian girl. To tell the truth, in 1886, Corelli was probably closer to 31, but she made the most of her child-like countenance to present herself as a deliberate antithesis to the New Woman. She managed to secure such literary fame that, ten years later, her sales figures exceeded by far the ones of Kipling or Conan Doyle.5 James Agate wrote that she had 'the imagination of a Poe with the style of an Ouida and the mentality of a nursemaid.'6 She had a Byronic contempt for critics, and if she did not lead a scandalous life, she did bring a gondola on the Avon.7 She was evidently a figure of authority in her time, giving speeches on topics ranging from votes for women to the nature of poetic inspiration. She was invited to talk about Byron twice, first at the Mechanics' Institute in Nottingham, on the occasion of the opening of the first Byron exhibition ever held in that town on 5 February 1915, and a few months later, on 5 October, at the County School of Harrow, recently established in 1911. As a last wink of fate, she died a hundred years and five days after her model.

My aim in this essay is to show how Corelli shaped her own authorial identity by improvising on Byronic themes to provide a new reading of Byron. Her success as a novelist can be explained by the presence of identifiable Byronic patterns, particularly those related to Cain (1821), that gave readers a feeling of familiarity with the characters of her novels and the issues they faced. More specifically, at the beginning of the First World War, Corelli uses her literary authority to endorse Byron, insisting on his power as a poet able to move multitudes. …

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