Just as there are towns with one horse, there are, presumably, towns with one famous son or daughter. On first, or even tenth glance, Stratford-upon-Avon would appear to be one such place. So dominant is a certain William Shakespeare that the man they call “the Bard” eclipses all others.
But to be the second-most important writer in Stratford is not necessarily a bad position to be in. After all, no writer in the English language could aspire to be any higher than this.
Marie Corelli was once the best-selling authors in the country. Whatever the critics thought of her work - and generally they found it awful - her novels flew off the shelves. Yet today one would be hard-pressed to find a copy of any of them, even in a second-hand bookshop. Such are the vagaries of fame and popular taste.
Marie Mackay was born in London in 1855, the daughter of a well-known Scottish poet and song-writer, Dr Charles Mackay, and his servant, Elizabeth Mills. Marie was sent to a Parisian convent to be “finished off”, as they say, and this was probably enough to set her against Catholicism for life.
Marie adopted the name “Corelli” when she looked to embark upon a musical career – an Italian name was essential for this – but by the 1880s she had turned her hand to novels.
Her first book, A Romance of Two Worlds, was published in 1886 and over 20 more novels, plus volumes of short stories and non-fiction, followed thick and fast over the next 40 years. Her final novel, Love and the Philosopher, appeared in 1923, the year before her death.
The subject matter of Corelli’s books may not be to our taste, but they were much to the taste of the Victorian middle-classes. They combined Egyptology, mesmerism, eroticism and what we would now call New Age romanticism, all suffused with melodrama and high emotion. If the plots were thin, the leading characters were very thick indeed.
The 1895 book which crowned her as the biggest seller of her day was The Sorrows of Satan, which showed the Infernal One to be more of a misunderstood adventurer than the Arch-Fiend. It sold more than 200,000 copies.
In another of her books - just to balance the theology – the Baby Jesus time-travels into the 19th century and proclaims himself less than impressed by Victorian England.
The critics – mostly male, of course – loathed them. One reviewer described Corelli as “a woman of deplorable talents, who imagined she was a genius.” Another said she had all the sensitivity of a nursemaid. Eventually Corelli stopped sending out review copies.
Yet ranged against the critics was the adulation of the general public and a host of celebrity admirers. William Gladstone called on her, the Prince of Wales invited her to dinner and Queen Victoria ordered a set of Corelli’s novels to be sent to Balmoral for her summer reading. Winston Churchill was also a fan.
It was in 1899, at the height of her fame, that Marie Corelli moved to Stratford. With her came her lifetime companion, Bertha Vyver, and the two women took over a worse-for-wear house in Church Street called Mason Croft. The Georgian frontage concealed a timber-framed interior and in the garden was a romantic Elizabethan tower, which Marie used as a study.
Here, Marie and Bertha welcomed many of the leading writers and actors of the day, including Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry, the Bensons and Mark Twain. E. F. Benson’s portrayal of Lucia in the Mapp and Lucia novels is said to have been modelled on Corelli.
She upset most of her guests at some point. Corelli’s opinions were fixed, conservative and narrow: she was fiercely anti-Catholic, anti-feminist and anti-homosexual.
She was also extremely vain, concealing her illegitimate birth, lopping ten years off her age and having official photographs “doctored” before publication. Like her heroines, Marie liked to remain eternally young and she made sure to compensate for her short stature by greeting guests from a dais.
Edwardian Stratford was not quite ready for a character like Marie Corelli, and she cut a larger-than-life figure in the town. Despite her uncompromising attitude towards homosexuality, the gossip on the streets (and among visitors to Mason Croft) was that Marie and Bertha had such a relationship.
They would have noticed the grand fireplace Marie had installed in the music room with the letters MC and BV intertwined, with the words “Amor Vincit”.
And as the most famous woman in England, Marie Corelli had an image to nurture. She cruised the River Avon in a gondola imported from Venice, along with a gondolier to steer it, while her pony and trap was often to be seen on the roads of the town. Postcards of her competed on the racks with those of Holy Trinity and Shakespeare’s Birthplace.
Marie Corelli died on April 21 1924 and was buried five days later at the cemetery on Evesham Road. A typically romantic angel of marble (imported from Italy) marks her grave. Bertha Vyver was too distraught to attend the funeral, but, almost 20 years later, she was laid beside her friend. Only then, with the threat of legal action no longer hanging over them, could newspaper reporters investigate the mystery of Corelli’s birth. But they quickly learnt that Marie Corelli was not news any more.
Corelli left her entire estate to Bertha, with the request that Mason Croft should one day be preserved “for the promotion of Art, Literature and Science among the people of Stratford-upon-Avon”. But debts and running costs swiftly swallowed up the estate, and the complete contents went under the hammer after Bertha’s death in 1942.
But Marie Corelli’s wishes were not entirely thwarted. After a few years’ occupation by the British Council, Mason Croft was purchased by Birmingham University as the Stratford base for the Shakespeare Institute.