As a matter of stern fact, it is a horrible piece of cowardice for one nation to try murdering another just to see which one gets its way first.
Marie Corelli, Boy (1900)
[Corelli was] the prophet of all the simple souls of the world, and for the simple reason that she was one of them. She loved what they loved, shared their aversions, their special modes of curiosity about life, their peculiar tastes or distastes in good and evil.
Manchester Guardian (1924)
In her day, Marie Corelli (1855-1924) was perhaps the most popular and widely read novelist in Britain. And when you consider that her day overlapped with those of Stevenson, Wells, Kipling and Hardy, that’s some achievement.
By the time of her death, though, the light was fading fast. ‘A generation is growing up that knows not Corelli, yet it is not so long ago since her books sold by the hundred thousand,’ noted the obituaries; now ‘her books are largely left to gather dust on library shelves.’ There has been no revival of readership in the decades since.
The reason for her slide into obscurity is perhaps indicated by some of those obituaries, as they attempted to summarize her writing. She was: ‘A purveyor of strongly seasoned and richly tinted romance, into which was infused with liberal hand elements of mystery and wonder; while the characters, the grouping and the background were often with disregard, and even contempt, for the commonplace and conventional.’ Or, alternatively: ‘She had the courage of her hysterics. She was not afraid to scream and to let sentiment overcome judgement.’
In short, the literary establishment sneered at the gaudy cheapness of her writing:
Miss Corelli wrote without distinction and without any particularly competent craftsmanship, but she wrote, in Wilde’s phrase, ‘at the top of her voice’. Her emotional treatment of impossible themes, her assumption of mysticism, her peculiarly feminine appeal all combined to make her the idol of the new and vast reading public which popular education was bringing within the novelists’ reach.
The barely concealed subtext of such comments was that such low-grade material was suitable only for women and the lower orders, but at her peak Corelli had as wide a social reach as any author. ‘She is doted on in the drawing-room as well as in the servants’ hall,’ admitted one paper. ‘From the palace to the cottage no home seemed complete without her,’ conceded another.
Her fans included monarchs (Victoria, Edward VII, George V), prime ministers (Gladstone, Salisbury) and poets (Tennyson), as well as all those servants and cottagers. And the infantry too; there was a story of a copy of one of her novels being shared on the march during the Boer War – pages were torn out and read individually, each soldier, as he finished his page, passing it on to the man next to him, so that sixty men were simultaneously reading the same book.
Having made her name with her debut novel, the surprise best-seller A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), she hit a vein of form with a storming run of hits in the 1890s: The Soul of Lilith, Barabbas, The Sorrows of Satan, The Mighty Atom. As the century drew to a close, however, Corelli’s position became more vulnerable. A potentially life-threatening illness, and the personal tragedy of the death of her stepbrother, interrupted her prolific output: there were no new novels in 1898 or ’89. When she did return to writing, it was with two books published almost simultaneously: The Master Christian and this one, Boy: A Sketch.
Robert D’Arcy-Muir – who everyone calls, simply, Boy – is the son of ‘a drunken father and a sloven mother’. Given his social position, he should be expected to grow up a gentleman, but his parents are temperamentally unsuited to child-rearing and, thoroughly neglected by them, he soon slips from the path of truth and decency. Between them, his indolent mother and violent father crush his spirit and kill ‘the sweet little heart of the child’.
It’s not simply a question of social graces; this being Marie Corelli, it’s his immortal soul that is at stake here. Children, Corelli believes, are ‘lately arrived from the Infinite’ and are born with memories of their previous existence, far beyond this Earthly realm, only losing their sense of joy and beauty as they experience our fallen world. It is our responsibility, therefore, to protect their purity, and to equip them to survive this life in as virtuous a manner as possible.
Boy, a particularly sensitive child, lacks that protection, so inevitably he goes to the bad.
To ensure that we understand this is a sermonizing fable – a kind of po-faced Vice Versa – we are shown an alternative to Boy’s appalling parents, in the form of a middle-aged spinster, Miss Letitia Leslie, and her friend, Major Desmond. They take an interest in the child, try to instil in him a love of duty and hatred of falsehood, so when Boy, aged nine, holidays with them, the Major gives him a book titled Our Country’s Heroes, ‘in which there were some very thrilling pictures of young men, almost boys, fighting, escaping from prison, struggling with wild beasts, climbing Alpine heights, swimming tempestuous seas and generally distinguishing themselves’.
But their best efforts cannot compensate for the parental negligence that Boy experiences. So great is his mother’s shocking abandonment of her duties that she sends him to school in France, if you please. (It may be worth mentioning that Corelli herself was educated at a convent in France.) Major Desmond is particularly incensed by the news: ‘An English school might have been the saving of Boy. He would have been taught there that death is preferable to dishonour. But at a foreign school he’ll learn that to tell lies prettily, and to cheat with elegance, are cardinal points in a gentleman’s conduct.’
And indeed it turns out that in France, Boy learned
that the chief object of living was to please one’s Self. To do all that seemed agreeable to one’s Self – and never mind the rest. For example, one could believe in God as long as one wished to; but when this same God did not arrange things as suited one’s Self, then let God go. And Boy took this lesson well to heart.
This selfishness is in sharp contrast to the life of sacrifice embodied by both Miss Letty (who remains true to the memory of her dead fiancé) and Major Desmond, who has been in love with Miss Letty almost all his life, knowing that his feelings will never be requited.
Through Miss Letty and the Major, Boy also meets Alister McDonald, whose parents are from a decidedly different drawer: ‘a very fine specimen of a gentleman at his best’ and ‘a woman of bright disposition and sweet character’, they ‘have brought up their boy to love all things bold, manly and true’. Consequently Alister intends to be a soldier: ‘Let me hear anyone abusing England, and I’ll run them through with my sword in no time!’
Boy, too, ends up in a military school, in preparation for Sandhurst and a career of soldiering, but he’s not so enthusiastic about the prospect. ‘Don’t you think it’s the finest thing a young chap can do – to learn how to fight for the glory of his country?’ asks Major Desmond, but (like Harry in The Four Feathers) Boy’s only following family orders: ‘When I came back from France, father sent me just where he chose – and that’s how it is… It’s no good saying you want to be one thing when your father wants you to be something else.’
That lack of patriotism distresses the Major, but elsewhere Miss Letty is more upset by the way military life crushes a free spirit:
He was destined to become merely one of a set of army chessmen, moving in strict accordance with the rules of the game – rules not only of the game of war, but of the game of life. And part of this game of life, with latter-day Englishmen, is to check all natural emotion – kill enthusiasm – and let the wonders of the world pass by, while you stand in the place where fortune or circumstance has thrown you, never budging, and indifferent to all things but your own precious and (if you only knew it!) most unimportant and ridiculously opinionated self.
As with Corelli’s work more generally, the reader is left in no doubt about which character is channelling the author’s thoughts. And the author herself chips in later with an attack on the public-school ethos of sport:
A young colt gallops about in the meadows, and frisks and rolls on the soft green turf, rejoicing in his youth and strength, but the young boy must take his college ‘sports’ as he takes his lessons – by rule and line and with more or less severity, under the control of a master.
Boy does scrape into Sandhurst, but he has by now become a weak, spiritually enfeebled and lost creature and there is no health in him. He is soon expelled for drunkenness and finds himself ‘drifting like a wreck in a vast ocean’. Falling prey to gamblers, he is saved from absolute disgrace only by Miss Letty’s intervention – and that humiliation suddenly brings him to a realization of what he has become.
Seeking to redeem himself, he enlists in the Army as a private. Then comes the Boer War and he dreams that he might ‘do something great – for Miss Letty’s sake…’
The novel ends, as one rather expected it would from the very early pages, in a tear-jerking death, accompanied by implausible coincidence. Interestingly, however, the moment of absolute courage that one also expects does not materialize. Boy does not earn his redemption – though it is bestowed upon him through grace.
Given that this – like AEW Mason’s most famous novel – was written during the patriotic fervour of the Boer War, it is notable that there is no endorsement of honour or glory on the battlefield. As they await the first casualties from the Battle of Colenso in 1899, a nurse (who is the noble and beautiful niece of Major Desmond) and a surgeon reflect on the conflict. ‘If the politicians who work up wars could only realize the true horror of bloodshed they would surely be more careful!’ she reflects, and he can only agree:
The proper way for civilized nations to behave in a difficulty is to submit to peaceful arbitration. War – especially nowadays – is a mere slaughter-house, and the soldiers are the poor sheep led to the shambles. The real nature of the thing is covered up under flying flags and the shout of patriotism, but, as a matter of stern fact, it is a horrible piece of cowardice for one nation to try murdering another just to see which one gets its way first.
That’s not entirely what one expects from Britain’s most popular writer in 1900. The monosyllabic title of the novel can hardly fail to evoke H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), one of the founding documents of imperial adventure yarns, but the attitude is very different.
It’s an often cloying, sometimes even annoying, book – nowhere more so than in the first ninety pages, where Boy speaks only in babytalk: ‘Boy wiz Kiss-Letty! But me feels awfoo funny!’ There’s only so much of this stuff that a reader should be asked to endure. None at all, would be my suggestion.
Corelli’s ham-fisted attempts at satire are a little wearing, as well. Boy’s father, Captain Hon. James D’Arcy-Muir, is repeatedly referred to sarcastically as ‘his “honourable” father’. His mother, meanwhile, is so lacking in moral fibre that she has grown grossly overweight, careless of both dress and appearance, and has become, in Major Desmond’s words, ‘A devil encased in fat!’ In a clunking parody of maternal smugness, she is continually mouthing platitudes about a mother’s duty.
There’s also Corelli’s tendency to ride her own hobby-horses at the expense of the subject in hand. There’s a long explanation, for example, of why writers shouldn’t fear critics, but should rather embrace negative reviews, since critical abuse has been the fate of all the best writers from Scott to Dickens. (Modesty alone prevents Corelli from adding her own name to the list.) ‘To lead the world one must first be crucified,’ she observes; ‘this is the chief lesson of practical Christianity.’
Corelli’s feud with the critics was one of the most noted features of her literary career. She refused to have review copies sent out, realizing that, as one paper put it, ‘her reviewers never took her as seriously as she took herself’. They mocked her use of language with its over-liberal use of exclamation marks, its freeform grammar, and its neologisms (in French as well as in English). And they disliked her style, even if – as this obituary notice in The Times shows – they couldn’t ignore her narrative powers:
Even the most lenient critic cannot regard Miss Corelli’s works as of much literary important. They were chiefly tracts, written in an emotional and melodramatic style of invective against some one of her pet aversions, of which, being a good hater, she had many. She was always wholeheartedly on the side of religion and morality. No theme was too tremendous for her courage, and she laid her colours on thickly and liberally like a scene-painter. She was deficient in humour, a sense of proportion, and an understanding sympathy with human nature. But she possessed in large measure the magic gift of telling a story, however wild and improbable it might be, and to that more than to anything else her great popular success is attributable.
Given this general attitude, however, Boy didn’t fare too badly at the hands of the critics, largely because – despite the flaws – it’s possibly her best book. Apart from anything else, it isn’t anywhere near as over-written as some of the earlier work, as Robert Hitchens (hitherto one of her detractors) recognized: ‘After her long silence, Miss Corelli has taken a new departure. In simplicity she has won a new success, and found a way to the fountain of tears. But those who finish Boy with a lump in their throats will afterwards have a pleasant memory of it.’
Punch was also surprisingly favourable: ‘Marie Corelli’s new story Boy would alone suffice to establish her reputation among the very best of our novelists whose works English readers would not willingly let die. The story of Boy is simply charming. It is true to life, genuinely humorous and powerfully pathetic.’
Not that any of it mattered. The first print run of 35,000 was swiftly followed by a second of the same size, and then by a third of 40,000. This was within the first two months.
There’s a perfectly sound reason why Corelli was so extraordinarily popular in her day. Once Boy gets going, the story moves along at a decent pace, the sub-plots are well balanced, and the ending – however melodramatic, however sentimental – is genuinely moving. Even cheap literature has gradations of quality, and this is good stuff.
Corelli said that she wrote ‘straight from the heart to the hearts of others, regardless of opinions and indifferent to results’, but one can’t help thinking that she’d be disappointed at how low her stock has fallen. Maybe we should leave her with another quote from those obituaries:
At no time did she quite merit her deserts at the hands of the public – the unstinted applause of yesterday, the contempt of the youth of today, the utter oblivion of tomorrow. Whatever else she was an extraordinary capable craftsman even though the human stuff she chose to work in was shallow and false.