|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Gollum's Mother: On Marie Corelli by Lili Loofbourow
February 13th, 2013
IT'S DIFFICULT, even a century after her literary career began its decline, to talk about Marie Corelli without succumbing to a battery of adjectives. Often condemned as a hack and praised as a saint, Corelli was something altogether more interesting, a sort of Oscar Wilde in reverse. If Wilde’s lampoons show a certain tenderness toward human hypocrisy, the joke being that most everyone is terrible, Corelli’s satire, while no less affectionate, sides always with the angels. Hers is a sincere sarcasm. She was a flamboyant puritan, an antisuffragist cryptofeminist, and a defender of traditional morals who lived all her life with another woman. On a wall above the mantel in one of the main halls of Mason Croft, the house she shared with her lifelong companion Bertha Vyver, both women’s initials appear encircled by a wreath. The caption underneath reads “Amor Vincit.” (All-conquering love notwithstanding, it’s likely that Corelli’s relationship with Vyver remained platonic.)
Corelli ought to be well remembered as a late 19th-century publishing phenom alone: her book sales exceeded those of contemporaries H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling combined. Derided by critics and even her own biographers for being too sensational, and later by the public for writing herself into her own work like a kind of fin de siècle Mary Sue, Corelli’s real gift lay in combining exotic high fantasy themes with the prosaic cynicism of London society without quite capitulating to the formulae of either. She could even be called a cult leader of sorts: her first novel, a first-person narrative titled A Romance of Two Worlds, introduced something called the Electric Principle of Christianity, a well-theorized fictional religion that caught on like wildfire. Sales of the novel soared and the Electric Principle developed a dedicated following.
It’s difficult to reconcile Corelli’s current near-total obscurity with her once vast literary footprint. Loyal readers named their children after her. Pages of her novels were found in the Boer trenches. Her fan base began with the eccentrics at society’s lower end and went all the way up to Queen Victoria. Corelli was the monarch’s favorite author, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense: her books are high flown, aspirational, unsubtle, workmanlike, idealistic, rich in pseudo-Shakespearean ruminations, pleasurable in an instructive way, siding with the virtuous but fully understanding — and reveling in — the value of a good villain: perfect bedtime reading for English queens. (If the genre of “high fantasy” takes place not in this world but in a richly-rendered imaginary universe, what more perfectly represents it than Queen Victoria, who politely owned and governed half a world she never even saw?)
Conventional wisdom says there’s nothing surprising about Corelli’s fall from favor; it’s the bestseller’s fate to be forgotten, and the price of popularity is oblivion. But Corelli’s work has left significant literary traces: besides the generally unflattering references to her work that bubble up in Joyce, Nabokov, Wodehouse, and E.F. Benson, she had a decisive influence — as I shall argue — on one of the most famous fictional characters of the 20th century (and now the 21st).
Corelli’s origins are somewhat murky, and this was by her own choice. Born Mary Mackay, she renamed herself as a young woman and would later insist that her father, Charles Mackay — a friend of Charles Dickens — was not really her father at all. She wrote as much to an admirer in 1892:
There isn’t much in the historical record to support this rather romantic account. Corelli appears to have taken her Italianate name when she tried to launch a career as a pianist. She abandoned her musical ambitions but retained the pseudonym when she submitted her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, to the respected publisher George Bentley in 1885.
On receiving that novel, Bentley’s readers, among them the bestselling novelist Hall Caine, advised him not to publish. The recommendation backfired. Caine’s review was so notoriously savage that George Bentley decided the book must have extraordinary commercial appeal. Once she’d established herself as a bestselling author, Corelli, when asked about her start, would look back on this moment and credit Bentley with being overly indulgent toward her early work. It was the sort of thing she could say with the expectation of being loyally contradicted, and Corelli’s fulsome biographer Kent Carr didn’t disappoint. In his 1901 biography of Corelli (written with Corelli’s aid; much of the biography recounts her recounting), Carr maintains that charity had nothing whatsoever to do with the novel’s acceptance. Bentley, he says, was motivated by nothing but good business sense: “Mawkish sensibility towards incompetent work has no sort of virtue to recommend it,” he writes. “On the contrary, it is quite fair to assume that Mr. Bentley was struck by the fact that his readers had found Miss Corelli’s novel a big enough fellow to fight.” Bentley turned out to be right: A Romance of Two Worlds sold extraordinarily well.
Corelli’s detractors were as passionate as her advocates. Mark Twain described his 1907 visit with her as “the most hateful day my seventy-two years have ever known.” Anthony Keane faults Corelli’s style with embodying “well-nigh every fault known to the student of the language,” and accuses her readers of loving any book of hers because they fondly believe it to be intellectual — they “think that it thinks”:
It’s interesting that Keane’s irritation with Corelli’s subject matter trumps his irritation with her style. Corelli certainly did stage long philosophical debates in her novels. Even Ziska (1897), a novel about a reincarnated Egyptian prince and his jilted concubine, now seeking her revenge, contains long academic digressions on the nature of the soul. Corelli strenuously exercised her right to instruct as well as delight. She continually mixed serious subjects coded masculine, like philosophy and science, with spiritualism, romance, and other sensational modes. That she did so with an air of authority while anticipating and answering her critics meant that, stylistic faults notwithstanding, she played their game a little better than they liked. Considering the pleasure she took in their vitriol, she might even be considered the first of a very specific kind of feminine troll.
All but forgotten for some decades, Corelli’s literary fortunes are finally turning thanks to contemporary scholars like Annette Federico and Julia Kuehn. As late as 1988, though, critic Hugh Kenner could write, more or less unopposed, that “Marie Corelli’s way was the pornographer’s: spin out, spin out, find empty emphatic words, but keep it up.” Though Kenner was clearly not a fan, it’s actually rather wonderful to think of Corelli as a methodological pornographer. If her themes are unremittingly pure, her language gets hotter and heavier as her ambition climbs. Narrated in the first person, “Marie Corelli’s” meeting with God in A Romance of Two Worlds is pretty steamy:
Radiant, daringly, inexpressible, unshrinking, swift, supreme. I said earlier that it’s impossible to talk about Corelli without succumbing to a battery of adjectives. Her empire is built on them, and her vision is vast. Kenner’s characterization of Corelli’s language as phallic captures something true about her stacked descriptions, but very little about her work could be called conventionally orgasmic, and the erotics of her novels are, on the whole, disappointing. “I was left to contemplate the uncurtained bare prose of life,” muses the protagonist of The Sorrows of Satan (1895) after marrying for social advancement, “and the knowledge that I had wedded a beautiful feminine animal with the soul of a shameless libertine.” Sexuality is always already rejected. Novels like Ziska contain a little more sensuality, it’s true — that same critic for the National and English Review, Anthony Deane, accused both Corelli and Hall Caine of “pruriency posing as piety” — but Corelli’s more passionate excesses tend to have determinedly exotic contexts, and the characters are excused from exemplarity.
Corelli’s main philosophical investments are chaste in the extreme: the “feminine animal” is a foil for Corelli’s Ideal Woman, who combines impregnable purity with ageless wisdom. She is beautiful but not vain, her voice is strong, and she has:
This is a description of the titular heroine of Corelli’s Thelma (1887). A precursor to the archetypal Disney princess, Thelma is a blonde, blue-eyed Norwegian maiden, dressed in white, with whom doves have a particular rapport: “she softly stroked [a dove’s] opaline wings and shining head without terrifying it. It seemed delighted to be noticed, and almost lay down under her hand in order to be more conveniently caressed.”
The dove’s shining head matches Thelma’s shining locks; there’s no separating the Ideal Woman from her Ideal Metaphor, and the proliferating reflections can be exhausting. Thelma, like much of Corelli’s work, is stuffed with didactic Shakespeareanisms. A deformed dwarf named Sigurd — of whom much more later — calls flowers “Thelma’s thoughts.” In case the allusion was too obscure, one of the gentlemen explains that the phrase is “linked with the crazy imaginings of Ophelia.” Thelma’s Odin-worshipping father announces genially that Shakespeare is the only reason he’s considered Christianity. Victor Hugo is described as “the Shakespeare of France,” and both The Sorrows of Satan and Thelma feature estates in Warwickshire, always designated as “Shakespeare’s County.” When the hero sees Thelma, his friend calls it “a palpable hit!” Corelli’s “Norway” is as usefully distant as Shakespeare’s Verona and ample enough to house a wild forest with its own unhappy Caliban.
In Corelli’s less intensely allusive moments, her language runs the gamut from cliché to sharp satire. Some of it is truly bad: Thelma arrives onstage with a “laugh of sweet amusement which brought a thousand new sparkles.” Her Norwegian settings are 100-proof romance; hills glow “with a warm, deep violet tint, flecked here and there with touches of bright red, as though fairies were lighting tiny bonfires on their summits.” The atmosphere is so thickly drawn, in fact, that the hero’s head keeps going swimmy in it:
(Incidentally, the phrase “midnight sun” recurs so often and bears so great an evocative burden that the main effect ends up being Corelli’s delight in the idea of there being such a thing.)
So, yes: Corelli’s sentences can drag, especially when the maiden is being proudly humble or humbly proud. (To her credit, one of the characters in Thelma notices the drippiness surrounding its eponymous heroine and mocks hero and author both, calling the whole setup “stagy.”) There comes a point, after all the spun gold tresses and clear-voiced women, when you really can’t accommodate any more blue eyes or evocations of a glittering Viking past. You’re about to write the novel, and its author, off as syrupy. That’s when Corelli surprises you. Her prose turns on a dime and she devotes more lines than she’s spent on any of the maidens and birds and midnight suns to a thoroughly modern Protestant minister, and every line is a delight:
The Reverend’s unappealing exterior is documented as minutely as Thelma’s, but the effects — dusty potatoes, a nose aware of its own significance — are overwhelmingly quotidian. The fantasy makes a hard landing.
Thelma — who eventually finds herself plopped down in late Victorian London, where there are more Dyceworthys to contend with — was an avatar of Corelli’s Ideal Woman: intelligent, amused, and untroubled by the latest fashions. She does not preach, she is never without a sense of humor, and she will not obey men if that means believing their flawed accounts of human nature: laughter is the corrective to an unthinking obedience.
Thelma was just one entry in Corelli’s lifelong attempt to theorize both the Ideal Woman and her slightly better sister, the Ideal Woman Author. Both of these perfectly feminine avatars were intended to provide a contrast to Corelli’s “mannish” female contemporaries and, more broadly, to the fin de siècle phenomenon of the New Woman, of which she disapproved. If Corelli’s Ideal Woman is both cultured and innocent, her Ideal Woman Author is an even more rarefied creature. In The Sorrows of Satan, her alter ego Mavis Clare is a best-selling author whose books are uniquely virtuous and compelling, philosophical and wise. When she is first pointed out to the narrator, he “looked […] and saw nothing but a fair-haired girl in a white gown.” Nothing but: the female author resembles Thelma’s simple recipe for perfect womanhood:
Mavis Clare is described as “a picture by Greuze,” dressed, as Corelli’s good women always are, in a “soft white gown.” Her hair is — as always — blonde: “the sunlight caught her fair hair and turned it to the similitude of a golden halo circling her brows.” Corelli’s description of Clare’s face might be the closest thing we have to her hopes for her own image:
The Ideal Woman Author is self-supporting:
She is exceptional, though critically reviled:
Her very presence is improving to the soul:
And she deserves all her praise:
The resemblances between Corelli and Clare did not escape her reading public, and even as The Sorrows of Satan in one sense marked the climax of Corelli’s career — she would be the most popular novelist in Britain for the next few years — it also typecast her as a “self-regarding eccentric,” or worse, a woman failing to live up to her own self-regard. Society has never liked a woman who thought too well of herself, and Mark Twain’s view is not unrepresentative of Corelli’s more savage detractors:
When it was pointed out to Corelli that Mavis Clare bore a marked resemblance to her creator, even sharing the same initials, she angrily denied the charge of “being so conceited as to draw my own picture in that ideal conception.” One has some sympathy for Corelli, who felt she was putting principle first and performance second: to walk the walk of the ideal author meant cleaving as closely as she could to the perfect model she’d theorized. Even Carr admits the possibility of a positive feedback loop: “Miss Corelli is pretty and good, and, being good, may naturally strive to emulate a type of character she evidently admires.” At any rate, Corelli was clearly obsessed with her authorial image: this is a woman who, when she finally consented to have an official author photograph taken — a photo that needed, in her view, to express all the aforementioned ideals of female authorship more than it needed to depict her in particular — sent the proofs back to the photographer. She’d drawn several lines around her none-too-slender waist in the photograph and written, next to them: “Why this stoutness?” A new and better waist would appear in the actual photograph, along with a less lined face.
It’s a curiosity of literary history that Corelli’s fantasy virgin, unwrinkled and slim waisted, would give rise to one of its most grotesque, tragically despoiled characters. But without Corelli’s Thelma, there would be no Gollum.
J.R.R. Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, five years after Corelli’s Thelma was published. He moved to England when he was just three-years-old. He could read at the age of four and did so voraciously; it’s extremely likely that he encountered Thelma among his mother’s or grandparents’ books. It’s even conceivable that Thelma’s fairytale Norway (it was one of very few English novels set there at the time) set Tolkien on the road that would eventually lead to his becoming a scholar of Scandinavian languages and myths.
But the strongest evidence for Corelli’s influence on Tolkien is the text itself. Thelma begins with the adventurous Lord Errington, who takes it upon himself to stalk a chaste Scandinavian maiden named Thelma after seeing her emerge mysteriously from a cave. He makes his way to the cave after she leaves. There he finds the dwarf Sigurd, whose entrance is Gollum-like in the extreme:
Sigurd is described as a scarred, misshapen being, “not quite four feet high, with large, ungainly limbs out of all proportion to his head, which was small and compact […] from under his shaggy brows gleamed a restless pair of large, full, wild blue eyes.” In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes Gollum as
Like Gollum when he first encounters Bilbo, Sigurd yells at Errington, his language distorted but familiar; Errington recognizes the Norwegian word for hell. He tries to appease Sigurd by apologizing in English. To his surprise, Sigurd answers in fluent but odd, alliterative, ejaculatory English that sounds extraordinarily like Gollum’s:
The jewel is Thelma, who Sigurd loves: she is his “precious,” as it were. Like Gollum’s, Sigurd’s suspicions are well-founded: he understands long before any of the other characters that Lord Errington is going to take Thelma away from Norway, and away from him. Later in the novel, once Errington is engaged to Thelma, Sigurd sees that Errington’s best friend is in love with Thelma too, and desperately plots to get him to murder Errington. He fails, so when Errington plans an excursion through difficult terrain to see the great Fall of Njedegorze, Sigurd — in a display of friendliness that corresponds to Gollum’s willingness, in The Lord of the Rings, to guide Frodo and Sam to what turns out to be Shelob the spider — offers to lead them:
Like Gollum, Sigurd is an excellent hunter and woodsman. Like Gollum, he oscillates between servility and a larcenish brokenness that snaps and grabs cunningly at what it wants. I’m quoting the next passage at some length because the scene closely parallels Gollum’s behavior with Frodo and Sam as they’re making their way to the Cracks of Doom:
Sigurd urges Errington to follow him to the very top of the falls, leaving the others behind. At the top, Sigurd asks Errington if he’s afraid. Errington says no, and turns to go down:
The hero survives. Sigurd does not. Even Gollum’s death, in The Return of the King, parallels Sigurd’s: both fall from a great height at an unredeemed moment, convicted by their own obsessions.
Gollum’s literary ancestry hasn’t received much scholarly attention. The most popular theory holds that Tolkien drew on H. Rider Haggard’s Gagool from King Solomon’s Mines for his characterization of Gollum, and indeed, there are some points of resemblance: Gollum’s twisted delight while relating painful lost histories is somewhat like Gagool’s, and like her, Gollum functions as a sort of expository interpreter of darkness. But the parallels end there. Gagool is female, ageless, African, and uncomplicatedly evil, evil to the core. She’s powerful in her mutant state, whereas Corelli’s Sigurd, like Gollum, is a weak, degraded member of a human (or quasihuman) race. Gollum suffers endlessly, finding joy only in his “precious,” whereas Gagool clings ferociously to life and delivers a rather moving speech concerning the mistaken belief that only the young can enjoy life. She is clever, conniving, and in control. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that Gagool never gets a humanizing backstory: she is simply malignant. No one would say of her, as Gandalf does of Gollum, “[T]here was a little corner of his mind that was still his own, and light came through it, as through a chink in the dark: light out of the past.” What makes Gollum compelling is his hybridity in a universe largely constituted of unambiguous Good and Evil, Elves and Orcs.
Sigurd is a far more convincing progenitor. He is deformed, like Gollum, by traumatic events in his early life, his mother having tried to kill him when he was an infant: “I tried to kill him with a knife, but when the blood flowed, it sickened me, and I could not! He was an infant abortion — the evil fruit of an evil deed — and I threw him out to the waves.” He was eventually rescued by Thelma’s mother, and it is her coffin Sigurd guards in the cave while falling in love with Thelma. Sigurd’s past is unspeakably painful, much like Gollum’s, who “only wept and called us cruel, with many a gollum in his throat; and when we pressed him he whined and cringed, and rubbed his long hands, licking his fingers as if they pained him, as if he remembered some old torture.”
Given how extensive the parallels are between Sigurd and Gollum, it’s hard to understand how they could have gone unnoticed until now. Much as I’d like to claim credit for being an exquisitely sensitive reader, it’s almost impossible to encounter Sigurd without seeing Gollum. And yet no one, to my knowledge, has made the connection before. How is this possible, given that Corelli, Haggard, and Tolkien were all bestsellers?
The first answer likely has to do with gender; the second, related to the first, has to do with genre. Female-authored fiction was enormously popular throughout the 19th century (more so than male-authored fiction, in fact), but many more male than female authors have been rescued from obscurity by scholars, usually by being retrospectively credited with founding a subgenre. Tolkien and Haggard fit together roughly into one category (male-authored “high fantasy” adventure), and the gendering of their novels is so strict that it makes recognizing feminine predecessors all but impossible — not because they’re not there, but because the logic of the genre itself renders them unthinkable.
The women in Haggard and Tolkien are princesses, queens, and witches (or nonhuman entities like texts — the map in King Solomon’s Mines is famously a woman’s body — or spiders, like Shelob). And yet, if Haggard’s novels are filled to the brim with men — and they are — why on earth would one of the only two female characters in King Solomon’s Mines leap to the eye as a predecessor for Gollum? Tolkien openly acknowledged his debt to Haggard and it makes a certain amount of sense to accept his account at face value, and to search his work for possible Gollum precursors. But to believe that authors are fully conscious of their influences posits a kind of faith in the creative brain as a selectively permeable membrane, immune to the merely popular, the gauche and (in this case) the feminine. And defending this connection in particular requires ignoring the really relevant fact that Gagool — unlike Gollum, whose fragile identity is built around desire and possession — possesses nothing and wants nothing. Gagool communes with kings, lives gleeful and untormented, has extraordinary powers, enjoys her work and the respect of her community, and is female. Considered this way, it’s difficult to imagine someone who resembles Gollum less.
These are not trivial oversights. They weren’t then, when these books were written under a female sovereign just as the New Woman was emerging as a threat, with all the anxiety that implied, and they aren’t now, when female authors are still consistently overlooked by scholars as possible influences on male authors. The impulse to imagine literature as purely patrilineal runs deep.
I mentioned earlier that Corelli was one of Queen Victoria’s favorite authors; the two women’s sensibilities are beautifully matched. In his novel She (short for She-who-must-be-obeyed), Haggard constructs a type of anti-Victoria, a woman who controls men and rules civilizations by instrumentalizing her sexuality. The contrast between Haggard and Corelli is instructive: while Corelli pens Ideal Female Authors who wear white and speak in clear voices — and who are better writers than their male counterparts — Haggard busily paints She, the woman all women should strive not to be. More interesting than manifestations of 19th-century sexism is the fact that both Haggard and Corelli are reacting to a common enemy, the cigar-smoking, trouser-wearing New Woman. More interesting still is how radically their approaches to this shared “problem” differ.
Corelli’s objections to the New Woman revolve around the notion of “unsex.” “Literary women are my abhorrence,” writes the protagonist of The Sorrows of Satan, whose judgments we can generally dismiss as unsound, “they are always more or less unsexed.” “You are thinking of the ‘New’ women I suppose,” replies Lucio, the tragic Satanic figure who understands human nature all too well, and whose views line up rather closely with Corelli’s own:
Only Corelli could call the New Woman both unchaste and a “hybrid of no-sex” in the space of a single sentence. But there is no internal contradiction: for Corelli, chastity is so central to womanhood that unchastity is unwomanly; by behaving sexually, she becomes more masculine, and ends up being neither this nor that.
In Haggard’s She, by contrast, the central female figure is exceedingly sexual, and that sexuality is essential to and even constitutive of who “She” is — that is, of womanhood. The difference in the authors’ approaches reveals what each of them takes to be at stake. Corelli is trying to refeminize the female writer who she sees as “unsexed” and “mannish.” Unfemininity is the problem for Corelli, whereas Haggard’s New Woman, as manifested in She, is entirely too womanly. For Corelli, femaleness is good because it has its own power, whereas for Haggard, that power, that excessive womanhood, is precisely the problem.
So what happens when Corelli is confronted with the prospect of women in actual power? The following is an excerpt from one of her pamphlets on the question, titled Woman or Suffragette:
High fantasy indeed! Corelli’s fiction was energized by her full-throated commitment to a universe wherein magnetic meekness and persuasion are the ultimate weapons of feminine power. As is often the case with Corelli, practice clashes with theory, and her conflation of political and romantic power flags; her attempted literary seduction of the painter Arthur Severn, for instance, produced no subjugation, and toward the end she was far from enthralling. That said, Kent Carr, that stalwart biographer, defends her against her own contradictions. Of some of Corelli’s less convincing theories he writes that “we must always believe that her implicit belief in what she related robbed it of every trace of charlatanism. She was born original, and there was no striving after effect even when her canvas was glowing with strange and unusual hues.”
In a sideways way, he’s right: only a woman whose hues glowed strangely, however much she bleached her hair blonde and her dress white, who was born without advantages in 19th-century England, who never married, could confidently claim, as she does elsewhere in her antisuffragist writing, that she controls 50 votes because of her power to persuade and subjugate 50 men. And this is the paradoxical principle of Corelli’s feminism: woman is the “very head and front of government,” but she must drive from the back. “Woman, apparently, is not meant to shine, except as the ‘light behind,’ which illumines the whole.”
Still, this kind of influence, this background illumination that does not shine and yet is also the very head of government, nicely captures whatever happened between Corelli and Tolkien, and Sigurd and Gollum. It’s tempting, when trying to establish literary progenitors, to imagine a literary-historical version of the Maury Povich Show. All the claimants are welcomed to the stage, forced to state their case, then tested to conclusively decide a work’s parentage. The audience might scream epithets at the authors who might, in turn, pull each other’s hair. Twain could appear onstage with Corelli and they’d exchange withering bon mots on each other’s bad-faith obsession with dressing in white all the time. (Or maybe Corelli would bring a dove with her to the studio and feed it while cooing in Twain’s face.)
In the absence of this satisfying arrangement, we’re stuck with the invisible partitions we inherited. The distortions of the past boss us around, yanking our heads in Haggard’s direction so we don’t see the hulking lady bestseller to our left. It’s so easy, so terribly awfully easy, to agree that yes, only the good stuff lasts, and how curious that there are only fathers.
Corelli wanted, more than anything, to leave a legacy. The remarkable thing — as remarkable, perhaps, as the spectacle of Gollum’s mother rowing down the river Avon in a gondola, a slightly grotesque figure in white, head tilted, Shakespeare in her hand and a swan by her side — is that she might really, in precisely the way she praises, have done so.
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