Marie Corelli: Stratford-upon-Avon’s‘Fairy Queen’?

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By Nick Birch

Marie Corelli in her conservatory at Mason Croft (now the Shakespeare Institute). She lived there from 1901 until her death in 1924. Photo courtesy of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Marie Corelli in her conservatory at Mason Croft (now the Shakespeare Institute). She lived there from 1901 until her death in 1924. Photo courtesy of The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

 

In 1899 Marie Corelli, with her companion Bertha Van de Vyver, arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Marie Corelli was, by that time, the world’s most successful living author and a Victorian celebrity. It was said that if you had not actually read one of her books, you certainly knew whom she was.

If she was so famous, why is it that today Marie Corelli has been forgotten by us and the town she called home? To help answer that question we need to look at her work, and contemporary articles, letters and comments. Fortunately much material resides in the SBT’s archives, including manuscripts of her novels, letters, speeches, and copies of the Stratford Herald which reported her activities.

When Corelli moved into Mason Croft in 1901, the Herald reported: ‘During the comparatively brief time she has been among us, Miss Corelli has identified herself with everything that tends to make the social life of the town bright and pleasant, and she has also shown unstinted generosity in her contributions to our charitable institutions.’

Locals and visitors alike were intrigued by their famous new resident, and apparently more people came to Stratford to see the home of Marie Corelli, than went to see Shakespeare’s Birthplace. Others in the town were wary of her. Corelli was unmarried, wealthy, independent, and very popular. She also considered her immense success qualified her to comment on any issue worthy of her attention and was soon labelled as a meddling eccentric.

She became involved in numerous controversies, the most serious in 1903, when she protested against the proposed destruction of cottages in Henley Street to make way for a new Carnegie library, demonstrating an early interest in the conservation of built heritage. She wrote: ‘Two points seem to require attention from those who love Stratford; first that nothing worth preservation be destroyed, and second, that good features now hidden be brought to light.’

Reviewers of her work rarely missed an opportunity to criticise her style of writing. The Spectator called her ‘a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, and was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities and prejudices she gave a glamorous setting.’ But the expanding Victorian reading public ignored the reviews and bought what they liked, and the critics were unwilling to give Corelli credit for her huge success.

Does this mean that the critics were all driven by misplaced petty jealousies? Perhaps not. She succeeded despite them because she understood the social anxieties and moral concerns of the public at a time of great social change. She spoke directly to her readers through her work, writing with power and conviction, conquering the world through the power of her pen.

Corelli wrote: ‘It remains, even in these days, the greatest power for good or evil in the world. When poised between thumb and finger, it becomes a living thing – it moves with the pulsations of a loving heart and thinking brain, and writes down, almost unconsciously, the thoughts that live, the words that burn.’

Behind the name on her books is a complex and fascinating woman, full of paradoxes, but who played an important part in the history of the town. If we wish to understand her and the context of her life we must keep an open mind and be ready to reassess her place in literary and cultural history.

 

Nick Birch led the Shakespeare Birtplace Trust’s Research Conversation in July. These take place on the second Wednesday of each month in the Shakespeare Centre from 5.00-6.00pm. Entrance is free and no tickets are required. Find out more about our forthcoming Research Conversations by clicking here.

 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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  • Christine Chapman

    Really enjoyed reading this post – thank you, Nick. I have attended many Summer Schools at the Institute and became fascinated by Marie Corelli when I learned the history of the little writing house at the end of the garden. Lovely to see the Conservatory again, as I haven’t been able to travel to Statford in the summer for a couple of years. I bought her biography and one of her books in a second hand bookshop, though have never got round to reading them. I’m sure I will sometime! The dates you cite fascinate me though. I blog about the history of my school’s history and the site it was built on. It interests me that Marie moved to Stratford and was at the height of her fame at around about the same period of time. Perhaps that’s why I felt the affinity. I’ve subsequently done quite a bit of research about the cultural life of educated girls at the turn of the century. The picture of Marie you posted reminded me of a photo of Flora Klickman who edited The a Girls’ Own Paper at that time. The oldest copies are fascinating to flick through. On top of Shakespeare, this has become another obsession of mine. The blog will undoubtedly be of no interest to you at all, but I will add the link here simply so you can check out the background information page if it might interest you. I share Marie’s concern that local history should be preserved http://www.hightimes.churchhigh.me.uk http://www.churchhigh.me.uk

    Christine Chapman

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