That badly written books turn out to be bestsellers is almost a publishing axiom of modern times. But there are other arguments too: that language and ways of writing are constantly changing. In her time, the English writer, Marie Corelli served as an exemplar for both arguments. Between 1886 till around 1920 (she died in 1924), her 30 best-selling novels were criticised for lacking the “the graceful language, correct style of the average man of letters”. Her works, as critics felt, were written simply to indulge “the popular taste for sensationalism”.

Many novels, many subjects

Yet her books, with one coming out every two years in her most active years, sold over a hundred thousand copies. They were read by Queen Victoria and by Winston Churchill. Corelli was also among RK Narayan’s favourite writers. As John Updike writes in his introduction to RK Narayan’s Dateless Diary (about his travels in the US), Narayan wanted to read books that left him “crushed in the end”, and he found Corelli’s novels ideal in this regard.

The range of subjects Corelli took on – and most of her novels are available here – could certainly crush a normal reader. It was a time other writers too were dabbling in something called “New Age Religion”, where quite outlandish ideas relating to spirit travel and reincarnation were wedded to new scientific inventions. Corelli brought in an admirable range of subjects, at times all in the same novel – spirituality, Catholicism, science, the occult, romance. This had the effect of leaving readers, even the most persistent, a bit bewildered and mystified.

Born in 1855, Marie Corelli was christened Mary Mackay, and it was soon after the publication of her very successful first novel that she reinvented herself by giving herself an Italian name. Some of her novels were set in Italy and elsewhere in Europe, and she did have a predilection, as a quick look at some of her bestselling novels will show, of featuring interesting “oriental” characters too – people who had a mix of the Machiavellian, being equally ruthless and charming.

Electricity and its curing powers

Her first, A Romance of Two Worlds 1886, invokes the strange curing power of electricity, which in this novel is an ancient discovery and not a modern-day invention. Heliobas, a scientist-cum-spiritualist who lives in Paris, passes electricity with his mere glance and touch, and this has the desired effect on a troubled young woman, who rightaway sets off on an interstellar journey. As in Dante’s Inferno, she encounters the human sufferers in Purgatory, is then forgiven by joyous souls in a mini-heaven before she finally crosses an electric circle to encounter god seated with his son Christ wearing a crown of thorns. This vision makes her realise that a life of service on earth is the best of all.

A sequel, Ardath, came three years later. Theos, a confirmed atheist, is administered the same electrical treatment by Heliobas. Taking up half of this 500-page book, Theos has a varied journey, across earth and in space. But his transformation to a fervent Christian believer follows when Theos finds himself in a magical oriental land called Al-Kyris ruled by a degenerate king, and a lewd queen. It’s a land where customs such as “suttee” are in vogue; simply because this pleases the tyrant king.

Corelli followed up her first novel success with Vendetta in 1886, which has a Monte Cristo theme of revenge. Count Romani left for dead after a devastating bout of cholera recovers. On returning home, however, he finds that his wife, Nina, has remarried Ferrari, a former rival for her affections. A bitter Romani carefully plots his revenge. Though the illness has aged him by 30 years or so, Romani takes on a different guise that makes him unrecognisable.

Ferrari dies from wounds sustained in a duel and then Romani proceeds to courts his former wife, only to reveal the truth to her on their wedding day. In the violence that ensues, Romani does manage to extricate himself. Nina though is crushed by a rock. Romani places on her corpse, the crucifix before leaving for South America.

Romance and religion

In 1887 came Thelma, a long novel; evidently Corelli was greatly encouraged by her success. Though her readers wanted more, critics correctly believed the novel’s 600 pages should have been cut down to 300.

An Englishman, Sir Philip Errington, falls in love with Thelma, a highly accomplished Norwegian woman who knows several languages and is a devout Catholic. Thelma’s father, on the other hand, is as Corelli writes, “an Odin worshipper” (the chief god of the ancient Norsemen). When Thelma travels to England following her marriage to Philip, she experiences something like a culture shock.

Here’s what Corelli writes about Thelma’s first impressions of Englishwomen:

“There were those who had no ideas beyond dress and show; others that looked upon their husbands as pieces of furniture; others having nothing better to do went in for spiritualism; then there were the woman-atheists, creatures who had voluntarily crushed all the sweetness of the sex within them, foolish human flowers without fragrance ; there were the platform women, unnatural products of an unnatural age; there were the amateur actresses, patronizing the drawing-room stage as an opportunity for displaying themselves in extravagant costumes; and there were the professional beauties who owed everything to elegant attire and face cosmetics.”

On her discovery of Philip’s affair, a heartbroken Thelma returns to Norway. But she’s too late to rescue her father. Caught in a sledge accident, his last vision is of sailing to heaven with the Valkyries. Errington and Thelma, however, are reunited and she returns to England.

The Soul of Lilith features an eastern character in the shape of El-Rami, also an expert practitioner of the occult. While travelling in a caravan across the desert, El-Rami is asked to save two very ill patients; one an elderly woman and the other, a young girl. While the former survives, the latter dies.

Yet, El-Rami knowing the mysteries of death, realises he can now experiment on her. When they return to London, El-Rami uses his potions to revive the young girl, Lilith. However, she comes to life only in El-Rami’s presence; the rest of the time she lies, like Sleeping Beauty, in a stately repose.

Revenge and reincarnation

Wormwood is also a story of revenge. A young man, Gaston, who is addicted to absinthe, plots revenge on all those who have seemingly betrayed him for one reason or another. These include his fiancée, who has fled to Paris in fear of him; her death is followed by several others and Gaston, believing himself to be the cause, is stricken with remorse and proceeds to make a long, convoluted confession, full of digression and imaginary detours.

Barabbas, written in almost the same year, takes on a Biblical theme. The eponymous protagonist has been in love with Judas’s sister, Judith who however has a penchant for playing off one admirer against the other. Barabbas comes to know of the plot (one devised by the siblings) to betray the “Divine Sufferer” (Jesus), and his confrontation with Judith takes place against the unfolding backdrop of the Crucifixion.

An almost Faust-like tale follows in The Sorrows of Satan (1895). Geoffrey Tempest is a poor, struggling poet who suddenly finds not just a fortune but also a generous patron, one Prince Lucio Raminez, who is mysterious though he is very popular elsewhere – in India, Egypt, Russia and even the US. The latter ensures Tempest’s new poetry book is a success, and Tempest chooses to invest his now considerable royalties on the Derby.

Tempest is lucky here too, but it is when he marries the lady of his dreams that he understands Raminez’s true nature. A rival for Sibyl’s love, Raminez reveals himself as Satan, who tempts all his victims. Tempest repents abjectly. He loses his fortune but, at least, he hasn’t lost his soul.

Corelli took on the theme of reincarnation in Ziska (1897), where the princess Ziska, travelling to Egypt, discovers her own lost self as an Egyptian princess while on a visit to the pyramids.

Another of her common themes as revealed in Thelma is that of heartbreak and revenge. But the victims in her later novels, like Murder of Delicia (1896) and Jane (1897) do not wish ruin on their betrayers. Instead, they retreat to a somewhat dignified and “ladylike” silence.

Free opinions, freely expressed

Marie Corelli also wrote about a range of subjects; short pieces that now appear in a collected volume called Free Opinions Freely Expressed. On some subjects, such as conservation and saving trees, she was radically ahead of her times; on others, such as women’s suffrage, she had rather quaint views. For instance, she attacked the suffragists for their “loose conduct and coarse speech”, writing, “if she (the woman) has the natural heritage of her sex, which is the mystic power to persuade, enthrall and subjugate man, she has no need to come down from her throne and mingle in any of his political frays”.

In another piece, Corelli deplored that education overlooked the basic need to teach people, especially the “upper classes to read”. She did believe, however, that the Press – against which Corelli had a grudge or two for the critical reviews of her books – wielded “a greater educational force than the Pulpit” and went on to add, “responsible editors will…publish magazine articles by women of title and fashion, who prove themselves as ignorant of grammar as they are of spelling”.

Corelli’s secrets

In 1899, Corelli moved with a companion, Bertha Vyver, to Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare was born and lived. She was one of the first writers to speak eloquently about conservation. Corelli went to great lengths to secure a gondola from Venice, complete with an Italian gondolier, so as to be able to sail on the Avon, but it ended on a sour note when the gondolier was sent back after getting into fisticuffs in the local bar. The gondola reportedly remained operational till around 1916, and has apparently been restored recently.

Corelli remained guarded about her personal life. Bertha Vyver was her lifelong companion but Corelli maintained Vyver was a family friend who had helped in the care of Marie’s father, Charles, in his last years. Bertha, the inheritor of Corelli’s estate, survived till 1942. Corelli’s life apparently inspired the film Angel (2007), based on a novel (of the same name) by the writer Elizabeth Taylor.

In recent years, the many curiosities about Corelli’s life have prompted new interest in her life and her books.