Once upon a time, Marie Corelli was the most popular, and bestselling, writer in the world. In England she was just as well known as Charles Dickens, according to one of her biographers, George Bullock (117). Another biographer claimed that while Queen Victoria was alive, Corelli was the “second most famous Englishwoman in the world” (Masters 6). More than half of her 30 novels sold over 100,000 copies each year (Casey 163), a record that outpaces Hall Caine's annual sales of 45,000, Mrs. Humphry Ward's 35,000 and H. G. Wells’ 15,000 (Masters 6). Her sales exceeded those of Rudyard Kipling's, Arthur Conan Doyle's and H. G. Wells’ combined (Casey 163). So popular were her books and her mystique, one cynic complained about the “Corelli Cult” (Stuart-Young 680). Women flocked to her and actually “fought over each other to get near her and tried to kiss the hem of her dress” (Masters 7). In the United States a new church was formed to practice the “Electric Creed” described in A Romance of Two Worlds, and a town in Colorado was called Corelli City (94).
“Marie Corelli” began her life as Mary Mills; with no existing birth certificate, she is believed to have been born on May 1, 1855, in London to Mary Elizabeth (Ellen) Mills, the mistress of Charles Mackay (Ransom 11; Federico, Idol 4). Author, poet and literary editor for the Illustrated London News, Mackay was a married man (to Rose Henrietta Vale) and father of four other children. Little Mary Mills was told he was her stepfather—his absence from her life was constant until the death of his wife and the marriage of her biological parents in 1861, at which point she becomes Mary Mackay but is known as “Minnie” (Ransom 11; Federico, Idol 7).
Living in the country at Fern Dell of Box Hill was a challenge for the young girl. No formal education was available other than the accomplishments provided by a governess, but Minnie seemed to yearn for knowledge because, as she said, “I instinctively did all I could to make myself a personality to be reckoned with.