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Despite her diminutive size, Marie Corelli reigned supreme in a male dominated world as the duenna of the soap opera, overly dramatic style of feminine Victorian literature.
By the time she published her first novel A Romance of Two Worlds in 1886, she was 31 years old, although claiming to be seventeen and still dressing as a young girl well into her 50’s. Every single one of her thirty plus novels was eagerly awaited by her dedicated readers. Queen Victoria herself had a standing order for each edition whilst Gladstone devoured her latest offering between Parliamentary sessions. In the early years of the 20th century such was her phenomenal success that 100,000 copies per title sold was not uncommon, earning her a healthy income. She outsold Kipling, H.G. Wells and Conan Doyle combined and was the most widely read author of her time, a remarkable feat given that her novels were really quite appalling. In fact one disgruntled journalist called her “the most accomplished liar in literature”.
She adored the North Devon countryside so much so that The Mighty Atom published in 1896 put Combe Martin on the map, in a literary sense of course.
“Combe Martin with its old grey Church, stone cottages and thatched cottages overgrown with flowers”
During her visit to the village in the 1890’s she stayed at the King’s Arms Hotel where in fact until recent years there was a room dedicated as the Corelli room.
“All at the halt outside the funny old inn called by various wags the Pack of Cards on account of its peculiar structure”
Her comment poses a bit of a mystery, as the Inn was not named the Pack of Cards until 1933.
She then stayed as a paying guest in Waverley, a cottage in Castle Street owned by the Church sexton James Norman the model for her character Reuben Dale.
The hero of the story eleven year old Lionel Valliscourt, son of a tyrannical father and indifferent Mother, escapes his life of study and drudgery in a cold loveless house when he meets pretty little Jessamine, the daughter of Reuben Dale and verger of St Peters.
When his Mother runs off with a local toff Charles Lascelles, a wealthy Baronet, Lionel is sent to Clovelly accompanied by his miserable, strict tutor Mr Cadman-Gore. En route they stay at the Castle Hotel in Lynton – the “Switzerland of England” where she mentions the Lynton/Lynmouth tram –
“They’ve got a queer tram car that slides up and down a hill from Lynton to Lynmouth”
While writing the book, she stayed at the Lyndale Hotel in Lynmouth which was unfortunately destroyed during the 1952 flood disaster.
The arrival of Lionel and Mr Cadman-Gore in Clovelly is heralded with three pages of it obvious wonders, but strangely wanders off into a tirade about the local women – their dyed hair and moral decline.
“Dyed hair in the village of Clovelly is a curious anomaly – women of our large and overcrowded cities foolishly strive to make themselves as much like their fallen sisters as possible, but in a tiny village tenderly nestling between two flowery knolls, what stranger sight can there be than artless native maiden with dyed hair”
Miss Corelli had very definite ideas about the sisterhood. Although it was rumoured she not only preferred the company of the fair sex, namely Miss Bertha Vyver with whom she lived with for most of her life, she had little time for the suffragette movement. Her explanation of why she never married, despite suffering the pain of unrequited love, is typical Corelli:
“I never married because I have three pets at home which answer the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog that growls every morning, a parrot that swears all afternoon and a cat that comes home late at night”
Upon his return to Combe, Lionel finds Reuben Dale digging a grave for his beloved Jessamine who had succumbed to diphtheria. After questioning whether there is a God, one of Marie’s favourite subjects, or did life spring from the mighty atom, he hangs himself… remember this is an eleven year old boy.
“Lionel’s grave was closed in and a full flowering stem ot the white lilies of St John lay upon it like an angel’s sceptre. Another similar stem adorned the grave of Jessamine and between the two little mounds of earth beneath which two little innocent hearts were at rest forever, a robin red breast sang its plaintive evening carol while the sun flamed down into the west and the night fell”
Ridiculous as the plot seems now, not to mention the corny, over flowery dialogue, hundreds of faithful fans were so moved they flocked to Combe and St Peters to see where it had all happened. James Norman, much to his bemusement, became an over night celebrity. Corelli tourism at its finest.
Her love of the beauty and wildness of North Devon shines throughout the novel and her obvious appreciation of Devon cream teas at Miss Clarinda Cleverley’s establishment. “New laid eggs and Devonshire junkets”, were particular favourites.
For good measure she threw in the odd bit of local colour –
“Here lyeth ye earthlie body of Simon Yeddie saddler in Combe Martin who dyed full of joy and hope to see his Christe on the 17th daye of June 1761 aged 102”
At the end of her life she and Bertha moved to Stratford to be close to her soul-mate William Shakespeare in fact she purchased Mason Croft, reputed to once have been the home of the Bard’s daughter. Much to the annoyance of the locals, among other things, they had taken to gliding up and down the river Avon in her genuine gondola, propelled by her genuine Venetian gondolier, that is until he was shipped back to Italy after an altercation in a bar.
She seemed to invite controversy, was notoriously outrageous, eccentric, and had a knack of insulting journalists. Hence as one hack who had had enough of her antics described her in a most unflattering way as “a deplorable woman who thought herself a genius”.
Sued by the Ministry of Works during the first World War for hoarding sugar to make jam, she was fined £50 plus 20 guineas for costs.
Whatever has been documented good or bad about the life of Marie Corelli, the Mighty Atom, she was an amazing character, a woman of her time who had risen to dizzying heights – not bad for someone who started out life as plain old Minnie Mackay, the illegitimate daughter of Charles Mackay, poet, writer and editor of the London Illustrated News.