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

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


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


Rock Burst Deviant Behaviour Moral Sense Hereditary Transmission Moral Message 
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  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
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  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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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    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
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Copyright information

© Stephan Karschay 2015

Authors and Affiliations

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

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