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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: March 2010

14 - “An ‘old-fashioned’ young woman”: Marie Corelli and the New Woman

Summary

Although she wrote at a time when feminist agitation was at its peak, Marie Corelli (1855–1924) was not exactly on the vanguard of feminism's first wave. She opposed women's suffrage and detested the New Woman, and she was able to speak directly to a discontented audience who felt alienated from the tenets of emerging feminists and practitioners of the New Fiction. At the same time, Corelli believed in the intellectual equality of women, supported women's economic independence as an indispensable right, and loudly opposed sexism within the male literary establishment. This apparent contradiction has invited recent examinations of Marie Corelli as a cultural phenomenon. Her conspicuous place in late-Victorian society has become a way of entering discussions of feminism, decadence, class ideology, and Victorian and early modern literary culture.

And she is conspicuous: in 1886, Corelli began an unparalleled publication record. At the turn of the century, sales of her novels averaged 175,000 copies, and Temporal Power (1902) achieved a first day record of 120,000. Her fall in popularity was sudden and total after World War I, and Corelli's reputation today as a low-status author of “bestsellers” has hardly been disputed, despite the fact that her success had a lasting impact both on the publishing industry and on generations of readers, whofound her narrative energy and moral assertiveness irresistible.

Several critics have worked within a feminist framework under the assumption that Corelli's huge popularity and splintered feminism may provide us with information about women and culture at the turn of the century. Although extremely important for nineteenth-century studies, the historical and demographic focus of these works tend to dispense with any sustained or formal reading of Corelli's novels.