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Chapter 2 - From “Girl Alone” to “Genius”: Corelli's Transforming Epistolary Rhetoric

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2019

Colleen Morrissey
Affiliation:
PhD candidate in English at the Ohio State University.
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Summary

In February of 1886, Marie Corelli wrote to George Bentley, the man who agreed to publish her first novel, to thank him for his kindness. “You know a girl alone,” she wrote, “or almost alone in the world and half a foreigner besides, does not always meet such a friend.” This “girl alone” was nearly 31 years old, and she lived with her father, Charles Mackay, her brother Eric and her lifelong companion Bertha van der Vyver (Ransom 23). Scholars know, however, that Corelli was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good angle. As many have noted, including Nick Birch in the previous chapter, over her long career Corelli became the master of her public image, from her Italian pseudonym to her careful control (and doctoring) of any authorized photographs. Corelli's early-career correspondence with George Bentley, however, reveals the instability of this woman writer's self-projection as she evolved from amateur to professional, all the while negotiating the complicated gender dynamics of her relationship with her older male publisher. Indeed, even to call this correspondence “professional” would not be strictly accurate, since from the beginning Corelli refused to delineate the personal from the professional. She positioned herself initially as Bentley's daughterly ward in addition to his client, and her later missives express intense hurt at his (perceived or actual) slights. Through letters often sent several times a week over a period of nearly ten years, Corelli's epistolary rhetoric fitfully morphs from girlish, affected ignorance into canny attempts to manipulate a publisher she was convinced, in the end, undervalued her. What Corelli does in her novels—trying by any means necessary, including both feminism and anti-feminism, to achieve what she saw as her artistic birthright—is graphically illustrated in her letters to Bentley.

The Corelli– Bentley correspondence provides an essential insight into how this record-breaking female author attempted to influence a man who held a great deal of personal and professional power over her. The drastic, erratic changes in her rhetoric—from innocent naiveté to righteous indignation to wounded martyrdom, and back again to coy ignorance—demonstrate the unique position in which Corelli found herself as a bestselling author rejected by critics but embraced by the masses.

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Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2019

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