The extreme romantic, her novels ,whatever their apparent subject, were extremely romantic too. She could write on love, morality, religion, music, vegetarianism, animals, radioactivity – whatever the topic it would be wrapped in an exotic miasma of romance. However whacky the subject, it seems, not only did she write about it, but she believed in it as well. Many of her readers were swept along with her; during her life it is said that the Queen and Gladstone – even Oscar Wilde! – admired her (but on what grounds?). Her first book was A Romance of Two Worlds (1886) and from an extensive list the curious reader today might sample those that sold the best: Barabbas (1893) or The Sorrows of Satan (1895). Perhaps The Soul of Lilith (1892) or The Mighty Atom (1896) are to your taste? It is easy to scoff – and many have – but Corelli knew her audience. Consider The Sorrows of Satan, which she begins like a skilful angler, knowing precisely in which pools her readers swim, and casting her first line skilfully to reel them in:
Do you know what it is to be poor? Not poor with the arrogant poverty complained of by certain people who have five or six thousand a year to live upon, and who yet swear they can hardly manage to make both ends meet, but really poor, – downright, cruelly, hideously poor, with a poverty that is graceless, sordid and miserable? Poverty that compels you to dress in your one suit of clothes till it is worn threadbare, – that denies you clean linen on account of the ruinous charges of washerwomen, – that robs you of your own self-respect, and causes you to slink along the streets vaguely abashed, instead of walking erect among your fellow-men in independent ease, – this is the sort of poverty I mean.
She was born Mary Mackay to Charles Mackay, a Scottish poet and newspaper editor who penned A Good Time Coming. She learnt early the value of publicity, dashing off letters to papers and magazines and speaking wherever an audience was guaranteed. In her later years she ensconced herself at Stratford (with her moustachioed companion, Bertha Vyner) where she would parade the streets or sail along the Avon in her version of Cleopatra’s barge (a gondola imported from Venice). Many tourists went to see Miss Corelli rather than the Shakespearian sights.