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Normalising the Degenerate: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Marie Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan

  • Stephan Karschay
Chapter
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)

Abstract

At first glance, Oscar Wilde and Marie Corelli may seem to be odd literary bedfellows: Wilde, a homosexual man leading a conventional marriage; Corelli, a heterosexual woman spending most of her life with her best female friend; Wilde, the mastermind of the decadent élite in Britain; Corelli, ‘the beckoning siren of the bourgeoisie’ (in Annette R. Federico’s words);1 Wilde, a fin-de-siècle celebrity, who basked in the limelight of literary fame; Corelli, the first bestselling novelist, who shunned public appearances;2 Wilde, who suffered his biggest personal defeat in the court room in 1895; Corelli, who experienced her greatest success with The Sorrows of Satan in that same year. These biographical nuggets, which are suggestive of widely contrary ideological positions in late-Victorian culture, may offer a tentative explanation why contemporary critics failed to see the many common features that connect Wilde’s and Corelli’s most successful novels. In fact, Wilde’s fall from grace in 1895 may well have stolen some of the thunder accompanying the publication of The Sorrows of Satan and can arguably account for the general initial reticence of literary journalists with regard to Correli’s novel.3

Keywords

Rock Burst Deviant Behaviour Moral Sense Hereditary Transmission Moral Message 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Annette R. Federico, Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture (Charlottesville, VA, and London: University Press of Virginia, 2000), p. 88.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    At the height of Corelli’s fame, she sold more books than Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells combined (see Janet Galligani Casey, ‘Marie Corelli and Fin de Siècle Feminism’, English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 35 (1992), pp. 162–78 (163)). The Sorrows of Satan experienced ‘an initial sale greater than any previous novel in the language’Google Scholar
  3. (Brian Masters, Now Barabbas Was a Rotter: The Extraordinary Life of Marie Corelli (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1978), p. 143) and sold 25,000 copies in one week and 50,000 in seven weeks (see Federico, Idol of Suburbia, p. 7). It became the first and biggest bestseller of the nineteenth centuryGoogle Scholar
  4. (see Michael Wheeler, English Fiction of the Victorian Period, 1830–1890 (London: Longman, 1994), p. 180).Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Another reason for this muted reception may have been that Corelli decided to instruct her publishers at Methuen not to send out any review copies to press critics and equip the novel with an according announcement (see Peter Keating, ‘Introduction’, in Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan, ed. Peter Keating (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. vii–xx (ix),Google Scholar
  6. and Simon J. James, ‘Marie Corelli and the Value of Literary Self-Consciousness: The Sorrows of Satan, Popular Fiction, and the Fin-de-Siècle Canon’, Journal of Victorian Culture 18.1 (2013), pp. 134–51 (134)). That the novel nevertheless became ‘a runaway success, of the order any writer would dream of’ (Masters, Now Barabbas Was a Rotter, p. 143), so that it is today credited as being the first modern bestseller, was also the immediate consequence of Corelli’s aggressive advertising strategy of acting as ‘her own spin doctor’ (Federico, Idol of Suburbia, p. 17) in the promotion of her books.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 4.
    Simon J. James aptly labels Corelli’s recent ascendancy in the academy a’minirevival’ (James, ‘Literary Self-Consciousness’, pp. 141–2). Important studies of Corelli’s life and works are Federico, Idols of Suburbia; Julia Kuehn, Glorious Vulgarity: Marie Corelli’s Feminine Sublime in a Popular Context (Berlin: Logos, 2004);Google Scholar
  8. Teresa Ransom, The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli: Queen of Victorian Bestsellers (Stroud: Sutton, 1999); and a special issue of Women’s Writing 13.2 (2006).Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Kirsten MacLeod, ‘Marie Corelli and Fin-de-Siècle Francophobia: The Absinthe Trail of French Art’, English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, 43 (2000), pp. 66–82 (81, n. 21).Google Scholar
  10. 7.
    For an analysis of how The Sorrows of Satan works in the generic tradition of Faustian tragedies with a particular emphasis on gender roles, see Kristen Guest, ‘Rewriting Faust: Marie Corelli’s Female Tragedy’, Victorians Institute Journal 33 (2005), pp. 149–77.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    The agency that grants Dorian’s wish is never made explicit in the novel (see Nancy Jane Tyson, ‘Caliban in a Glass: Autoscopic Vision in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, in Elton Edward Smith and Robert Haas (eds), The Haunted Mind: The Supernatural in Victorian Literature (Lanham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1999), pp. 101–21 (102)). The artist Basil Hallward, terrified by the portrait’s supernatural transformation, tries to find a scientific explanation for the curious change: ‘No! the thing is impossible. The room is damp. Mildew has got into the canvas. The paints I used had some wretched mineral poison in them. I tell you the thing is impossible’Google Scholar
  12. (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Robert Mighall (London and New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 150). Similarly, Dorian wonders: ‘Might there not be some curious scientific reason for it all?’ (Wilde, Dorian Gray, p. 103).Google Scholar
  13. 10.
    Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995), p. 58. Similarly, Stephen Arata attests Dorian a ‘lack of interiority’ and claims that — like his picture — Dorian ‘exists entirely on the plane of the visible’Google Scholar
  14. (Stephen Arata, Fictions of Loss in the Victorian Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 60).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 11.
    Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Robert Mighall (London and New York: Penguin, 2003), p. 21. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  16. 12.
    See Terri A. Hasseler, ‘The Physiological Determinism Debate in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Victorian Newsletter 84 (1993), pp. 31–5 (32).Google Scholar
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    Mary C. King, ‘Digging for Darwin: Bitter Wisdom in The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Critic as Artist”’, Irish Studies Review 12 (2004), pp. 315–27 (315).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Interestingly, not only Dorian seems fated through his line of descent. As Donald R. Dickson remarks: ‘Dorian is not the only character whose past seems to determine his future. Sibyl has nearly the same stormy parentage as Dorian, and she seems doomed to repeat the tragedy of her mother and grandmother’ (Donald R. Dickson, ‘“In a Mirror That Mirrors the Soul”: Masks and Mirrors in Dorian Gray’, English Literature in Transition 26 (1983), pp. 5–15 (10)).Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    Oscar Wilde, ‘The Critic as Artist’, in Merlin Holland (ed.), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Collins, 2003), pp. 1108–55 (1137).Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    Susan J. Navarette, The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin-de-Siècle Culture of Decadence (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1998), pp. 56–7.Google Scholar
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    Robert Mighall also ascribes a central significance to the mechanisms of heredity in Wilde’s novel, which ‘implies that Dorian’s tainted inheritance motivates the action upon which the narrative turns’ (Robert Mighall, A Geography of Victorian Gothic Fiction: Mapping Histoty’s Nightmares (Oxford: Oxford University Press (1999) 2003), p. 159).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 20.
    Chris Baldick, In Frankenstein’s Shadow: Myth, Monstrosity, and Nineteenth-Century Writing (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press and Clarendon Press, 1987), p. 152.Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    It is worth noting that the inclusion of ancestral portraits in late-Victorian fiction to illustrate the hereditary mechanism of atavistic survivals is conspicuous, yet in no way restricted, to the genre of the Gothic. There is a large body of British fiction at the fin de siècle in which portraits play a prominent role. For an analysis of the subgenre of late-Victorian ‘portrait fiction’, see Powell (1983). One of the most controversial novels of the 1890s, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891), also makes use of a series of family portraits to raise the issue of atavism. When Clare and Tess set up lodgings in a country house that once belonged to the D’Urberville family, they notice ‘two life-size portraits on panels built into the masonry’Google Scholar
  24. (Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, ed. Tim Dolin and Margaret R. Higgonet (London and New York: Penguin (1891) 2003), p. 216). Clare experiences a disconcerting sensation when he notices that Tess resembles the depicted ladies, who have been dead for more than two hundred years: ‘The unpleasantness of the matter was that […] her fine features were unquestionably traceable in these exaggerated forms’ (Hardy, Tess, p. 217). The disturbing quality of the portraits to exhibit features still recognisable in Tess is further emphasised in the subsequent chapter: ‘The Caroline bodice of the portrait was low — precisely as Tess’s had been when [Clare] tucked it in to show the necklace; and again he experienced the distressing sensation of a resemblance between them’ (Hardy, Tess, p. 235). The realisation of Tess’s ancestral history becomes a ‘distressing’ experience for Clare as it deadens the glamour of his strait-laced idealisations: ’Nothing so pure, so sweet, so virginal as Tess had seemed possible all the long while that he had adored her, up to an hour ago’ (Hardy, Tess, p. 235).Google Scholar
  25. 22.
    Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘Olalla’, in Barry Menikoff, The Complete Stories of Robert Louis Stevenson: Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Nineteen Other Tales (New York: Modern Library, 2002), pp. 420–57 (450).Google Scholar
  26. 27.
    Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles: Another Adventure of Sherlock Holmes, ed. Christopher Frayling (London and New York: Penguin (1902) 2001), p. 138.Google Scholar
  27. 37.
    Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan, ed. Peter Keating (Oxford: Oxford University Press, (1895) 1998), p. 3. All further references are to this edition and are given parenthetically in the text.Google Scholar
  28. 38.
    Benjamin F. Fisher, ‘Marie Corelli’s Barabbas, The Sorrows of Satan and Generic Transition’, Women’s Writing 13 (2006), pp. 304–20 (305–6).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 39.
    Henry Maudsley, Body and Mind: An Inquiry into Their Connection and Mutual Influence, Specially in Reference to Mental Disorders: An Enlarged and Revised Edition: To Which Are Added Psychological Essays (London: Macmillan (1870) 1873), p. 43.Google Scholar
  30. 41.
    Marie Corelli, The Life Everlasting: A Reality of Romance (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1911), p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Elaine M. Hartnell, ‘Morals and Metaphysics: Marie Corelli, Religion and the Gothic’, Women’s Writing 13 (2006), pp. 284–303 (286).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. 46.
    A biographical anecdote concerning Marie Corelli’s own physical appearance is not only intriguing as a piece of literary gossip but proves instructive with regard to the author’s sentiments about physiognomy’s reliability. Corelli was notoriously averse to having her pictures circulated by the press, a quaintness of character that contributed to speculations about her appearance. To forestall malicious gossip and slander, Corelli decided to publish an authorised photograph as the frontispiece to her novel The Treasure of Heaven: A Romance of Riches (1906). The ‘Author’s Note’, which accompanied the picture, contains a disclaimer that expresses her discomfort at such an unusual step: ‘I am not quite able to convince myself that my pictured personality can have any interest for my readers, as it has always seemed to me that an author’s real being is more disclosed in his or her work than in any portrayed presentment of mere physiognomy’ (Marie Corelli qtd in Federico, Idols of Suburbia, pp. 40–3 [sic]). Ironically, the frontispiece was heavily retouched to make her look at least twenty years younger, a circumstance one of Corelli’s biographers decided to attribute to her vanity (see Federico, Idols of Suburbia, p. 44). Instead, Annette R. Federico has attempted to read Corelli’s cheat as her personal ‘attempt to contest journalists’ versions of the “truth” and her scepticism about the truth-value of photographic representation’ (Federico, Idols of Suburbia, p. 44). Alternatively, Corelli may have ordered the makeover out of her scepticism about the reliability of physiognomic theories. In the ‘Introductory Note’ to her novel The Murder of Delicia (1896), Corelli expounded a passionate defence of the intellectual woman and her appearance: ‘And lastly, on the subject of good looks, — it is not a sine qua non that a clever woman must be old and must be ugly. It sometimes happens o, — but it is not always so. She may be young and she may be lovely; nevertheless men prefer to run after the newest barmaid or music-hall dancer, who is probably painted up to the eyes, and whose figure is chiefly the result of the corset-maker’s art’ (Marie Corelli, The Murder of Delicia (Philadelphia: Lippincotts, 1896), pp. 13–14). Corelli clearly believed that looks are mostly deceptive, and her own deceit of a retouched photograph can be read as a subversive act that exposes the fallacies of physiognomy in a self-defeating act of hypocrisy.Google Scholar
  33. 48.
    Kirsten MacLeod reads this feature of Corelli’s fiction as a significant reason for her popular appeal: ‘If Corelli was at heart a moralist, she was also a first-rate entertainer who more than provided the spoonful of sugar necessary to help the medicine go down. Corelli’s ability to provide narrative excitement and moral purpose was an important factor in her success’ (Kirsten MacLeod, ‘Introduction’, in Marie Corelli, Wormwood: A Drama of Paris, ed. Kirsten MacLeod (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2004), pp. 9–55 (27)).Google Scholar
  34. 55.
    Carol Margaret Davison and Elaine M. Hartnell, ‘Introduction: Marie Corelli: A Critical Reappraisal’, Women’s Writing 13 (2006), pp. 181–7 (181).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 57.
    Havelock Ellis, The Criminal (London: Walter Scott, 1901), p. 287.Google Scholar
  36. 59.
    Henry Maudsley, Body and Will: Being an Essay Concerning Will in Its Metaphysical, Physiological and Pathological Aspects (London: Kegan Paul & Trench, 1883), p. 164.Google Scholar
  37. 63.
    John Lucas, ‘Corelli, Marie’, in James Vinson (ed.), Great Writers of the English Language: Novelists and Prose Writers (London: Macmillan et al., 1979), p. 283.Google Scholar
  38. 66.
    Max Nordau, Degeneration (New York: D. Appleton, 1895), p. 2.Google Scholar
  39. 69.
    Nickianne Moody, ‘Moral Uncertainty and the Afterlife: Explaining the Popularity of Marie Corelli’s Early Novels’, Women’s Writing 13 (2006), pp. 188–205 (191).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. 71.
    This is, of course, not to say that such readings of the novel are necessarily flawed. Valuable work has been done in the field of Queer Studies to show how Oscar Wilde’s life and works have been instrumental in the staking-out of a homosexual identity. The classic contributions are Neil Bartlett, Who Was That Man? A Present for Mr Oscar Wilde (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1988);Google Scholar
  41. Joseph Bristow, ‘Wilde, Dorian Gray, and Gross Indecency’, in Joseph Bristow (ed.), Sexual Sameness: Textual Differences in Lesbian and Gay Writing (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 44–63;Google Scholar
  42. Christopher Craft, Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850–1920 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994);Google Scholar
  43. Richard Dellamora, Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990);Google Scholar
  44. Jonathan Dollimore, Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991);CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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  46. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (1990) 2008);Google Scholar
  47. and Alan Sinfield, The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Moment (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  48. 72.
    See Matt Cook, London and the Culture of Homosexuality, 1885–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 104. As Richard Dellamora points out, ‘[a]lthough Wilde often alludes to details, situations, and events that connote homosexuality, Dorian lives not in a homosexual subculture but rather in what [Eve Kosofsky] Sedgwick might term a male homosocial environment’ (Dellamora, Masculine Desire, p. 208). Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick herself also asserts that ‘the lurid dissipations of the characters in The Picture of Dorian Gray are presented in heterosexual terms when detailed at all, even though (biographical hindsight aside) the triangular relationship of Basil, Dorian, and Lord Henry makes sense only in homosexual terms’Google Scholar
  49. (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 176.Google Scholar
  50. 73.
    The most vicious attacks on Wilde’s novel were published in 1890 immediately after the novel had appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. This earlier version of The Picture of Dorian Gray was more explicit about homoerotic relationships, and Wilde ultimately decided to tone down certain passages that described Basil’s infatuation with his model for the 1891 book version on the advice of Walter Pater. Additionally, he wrote six new chapters, divided the original last chapter in two and added the ‘Preface’, which consists of twenty-five aphorisms (see Merlin Holland, Irish Peacock & Scarlet Marquess: The Real Trial of Oscar Wilde (London and New York: Fourth Estate, 2004), p. 309–10, n. 110;Google Scholar
  51. Nicholas Ruddick, ‘“The Peculiar Quality of My Genius”: Degeneration, Decadence, and Dorian Gray in 1890–91’, in Robert N. Keane (ed.), Oscar Wilde: The Man, His Writings, and His World (New York: AMS Press, 2003), pp. 125–37 (125)). The reviewers’ charges of ‘immorality’ seem even more problematic with regard to the 1890 version as that novel’s conclusion allows for a reading that interprets Dorian’s stabbing of the portrait as a kind of repentance for his wickedly immoral past. In response, Wilde decided to surround Dorian’s motivations with an even greater aura of uncertaintyGoogle Scholar
  52. (see Thomas Wright, ‘Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray’, in Jay Parini (ed.), British Writers: Classics (New York: Thomson & Gale, 2004), pp. 211–28 (222)). As he put it in a letter to the Daily Chronicle on 30 June 1890: ‘I think the moral too apparent. When the book is published in a volume I hope to correct this defect’ (Oscar Wilde qtd in Ruddick, ‘Degeneration, Decadence and Dorian Gray’, p. 130–1). The most comprehensive study to investigate the differences between the two versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray isGoogle Scholar
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    Rupert Hart-Davis (ed.), Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) p. 82.Google Scholar
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    Kenneth Womack, ‘“Withered, Wrinkled, and Loathsome of Visage”: Reading the Ethics of the Soul and the Late-Victorian Gothic in The Picture of Dorian Gray’, in Ruth Robbins and Julian Wolfreys (eds), Victorian Gothic: Literary and Cultural Manifestations in the Nineteenth Centruy (Basingstoke: Palgrave — now Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), pp. 168–81 (180, n. 3).Google Scholar
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    David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Time, vol. 2: The Modern Gothic (London and New York: Longman (1989) 1996, p. 7. Other critical studies that take a similar view with regard to the novel’s ethical lesson includeGoogle Scholar
  57. Christopher S. Nassaar, Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974) andGoogle Scholar
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    Cesare Lombroso and Guglielmo Ferrero, Criminal Woman, the Prostitute, and the Normal Woman, ed. Mary Gibson and Nicole Hahn Rafter (Durham, NC: Duke University Press (1893) 2004), p. 221.Google Scholar
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    See Patrick R. O’Malley, Catholicism, Sexual Deviance, and Victorian Gothic Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Robert Mighall, ‘Introduction’, in Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Robert Mighall (London and New York: Penguin, 2000), pp. ix–xxxiv (xiii).Google Scholar
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    Havelock Ellis, Selected Essays (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1947), p. 274.Google Scholar
  63. 96.
    Baldick, In Frankenstein’s Shadow, p. 152; also see Nils Clausson, ‘Culture and Corruption: Paterian Self-development Versus Gothic Degeneration in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray’, Papers on Language and Literature 39 (2003), pp. 339–64 (348).Google Scholar

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© Stephan Karschay 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephan Karschay
    • 1
  1. 1.University of PassauGermany

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