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The Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli

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One of the oft-repeated themes of Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan is the jealousy and ill-nature of reviewers, who dismiss novels out of hand because of their superior qualities, while praising morally harmful works.  The Sorrows of Satan, Corelli’s 1895 bestseller, was trashed by the critics and adored by many (she was apparently a big hit with both Queen Victoria and, rather more surprisingly, Oscar Wilde; perhaps more importantly, she sold, sold, sold), but to make things even more meta, the novel contains a (lovely, charming, deeply spiritual, and in fact all-around marvelous) character called Mavis Clare – M.C., get it??? – whose novels are routinely trashed by the critics, sell in vast quantities, and actually help with the moral reformation of her devoted audience.

Indeed.

I’m  afraid that Corelli would append me to her chorus of detractors, although honestly, I find her work interesting – inadvertently humorous, but interesting.  I’d been curious about her; she’s been getting some attention from academics as an extremely popular Late-Victorian woman writer.  And the title is irresistible.  If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, you can find free copies everywhere; the one I read is fairly rife with amusing scanning errors, so consider your tolerance accordingly.

The novel’s narrator is the gloriously-named Geoffrey Tempest (don’t you wish you were named Geoffrey Tempest?  I kind of do), a starving young writer who manages to sell his soul to Satan semi-inadvertently.  Oh, all the warning signs are there – the thunderstorm, the eerie violin coming through the wall from next door, the saturnine good looks, the name . . . Prince Lucio Rimanez.  Seriously.  He does everything but wear a lapel pin that says “Sell your soul to the Devil: Ask me how.”  Nobody ever questions his origins – they’re Victorian Britons and he’s a foreigner, no need to inquire further.  Our narrator manages not to realize that his sudden accession to five million pounds from a distant relative is not mere coincidence, but get this:  his lawyers try to warn him.  His lawyers. If your lawyers tell you that they think Satan might be involved in a financial transaction, do listen.

Geoffrey finds that large sums of money assist him in getting his novel published, and he’s even able to purchase himself some good reviews, but it still doesn’t sell particularly well.  No, everyone’s off buying the latest Mavis Clare, possibly because her writing has the odd side effect of making you temporarily into a good person.  Or something.  So he gives in to his wealth, and courts the beautiful, gorgeous, words cannot do her justice, blah blah Lady Sybil Elton.  Sybil has been groomed for the marriage market from an early age, and been encouraged to be proud, shallow, and dependent entirely on her looks.

Geoffrey manages to be surprised, after their wedding, that she’s not that nice a person, something he’d managed to entirely ignore up to that point, despite the fair warning she too had given him.   Nobody ever needs to deceive Geoffrey – he handles that part himself.

There’s all kinds of lovely melodrama, with more thunderstorms, Sybil throwing herself at the Prince of Darkness himself (he’s just not that into her), magical entertainments at country houses, Geoffrey getting fatter (all those 12 course dinners) and Mavis Clare being her spiritual, wonderful self.  She wears white dresses, has small dogs and a merry laugh, and lives in a charming place called Lily Cottage.  She would.  Mavis turns Lucio down flat, when he tries to suborn her, and he admires her all the more for it.

In fact, Satan’s not such a bad guy.  Lucio grants you your every wish, is charming, handsome, and deeply sarcastic, but he venerates the good and admires those, like Mavis, who he can’t entangle.   Unlike his society friends, he believes in God.  (Well, um, yeah.  He’s met Him personally.  War in Heaven and all that.)  He keeps giving Geoffrey openings to redeem himself, offering to go away and leave him alone, but dependent (bromantic?) Geoffrey keeps ignoring them.  And, oh, he quotes Milton sometimes.  Seriously, people, how much harder does he have to hint?

But the real message of this book?  Read more Mavis Clare, er, Marie Corelli.  She will provide the moral uplift you need.   The Romantic poets are suspect in their personal lives, but elevating in their works.  Well, except for Byron, naturally.  Zola?  *shudder*  And those late Victorian decadents?

It  is Algernon Swinburne who bears the brunt of Corelli’s wrath.  Embedded in a character’s suicide note is a lengthy rant about the moral corruption brought about by reading modern novels, but more particularly, the poetry of Swinburne.   Whatever else you do, DO NOT READ SWINBURNE, Corelli says.   Just don’t.  Do.  Not.

This book is an excellent example of the popular entertainment of an age, and it’s still plenty entertaining, although not perhaps in the ways Corelli intended it to be.  There’s some good social commentary on class and economics, and mixed messages on women’s rights (New Women and suffragettes are not to be trusted, but on the other hand, a woman who can support herself is much to be admired;  the marriage market comes in for its fair share of criticism).  There is a gloriously over-the-top climactic scene which is worth the price of admission alone.  The Sorrows of Satan hasn’t really stood the test of time but is fascinating as a period piece.   I’m glad I read it, but now I’m off to read some Swinburne.

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Written by Catherine Siemann

January 23, 2011 at 2:41 pm

Posted in Victorians

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5 Responses

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  1. I had to LOL at “Satan’s not such a bad guy.” I doubt I’ll read the book, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on it.

    Leslie Wainger

    January 23, 2011 at 3:14 pm

  2. He does everything but wear a lapel pin that says “Sell your soul to the Devil: Ask me how.”

    Okay, that made me laugh.

    Bethynyc

    January 24, 2011 at 3:06 am

  3. Is the title a reference to The Sorrows of Young Werther? Or were these “sorrows of…” a trend?

    No copies on pbs right now, but it sounds like the book overall might not have enough moral decadence for me…

    Althea

    January 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    • @Althea: It’s a line that occurs later in the book, but the very slight reading I’ve done about Corelli (not her real name — she began as a musician and decided that Marie Corelli would have more success than Mary McKay) suggests that she was reasonably well-read and would have read, or at least known about, a work as popular as Goethe’s.

      The morally decadent are roundly . . . scolded. Stick with Swinburne. 😉

      Catherine Siemann

      January 24, 2011 at 4:47 pm

  4. Hilarious. I’ll have to give this one a try!

    InVoluntary Exile

    July 24, 2013 at 3:09 pm


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