I’m always fascinated to discover long-forgotten celebrities. This is Marie Corelli. My guess is you have not studied her works in your British Lit class, but she was at the turn of the last century one of the most successful writers alive. (She was a Victorian J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steel.) Her book sales were greater than those of contemporaries H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling combined.
As with most things popular, her works were often criticized for being too sensational and low-brow and her success annoyed some of her arguably more talented but less successful peers. Oscar Wilde, when in prison, was asked about Corelli and he responded “Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be in here.” (Wilde’s publishing track record was far less successful than Corelli’s. He had only one book that could be said to have achieved best-seller status in his life time. It was not, as you might expect, The Picture of Dorian Gray but The Ballad of Reading Gaol.)
The wonderfully named Lilli Loofbourow wrote about Corelli’s fame in the Los Angeles Times:
It’s difficult to reconcile Corelli’s current near-total obscurity with her once vast literary footprint. Loyal readers named their children after her. Pages of her novels were found in the Boer trenches. Her fan base began with the eccentrics at society’s lower end and went all the way up to Queen Victoria. Corelli was the monarch’s favorite author, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense: her books are high flown, aspirational, unsubtle, workmanlike, idealistic, rich in pseudo-Shakespearean ruminations, pleasurable in an instructive way, siding with the virtuous but fully understanding — and reveling in — the value of a good villain: perfect bedtime reading for English queens.
Struggling writers have traditionally found comfort in the knowledge that the hacks who are celebrated today will be forgotten tomorrow and while an obscure poet like yourself might be the focus of English departments a century from now. Charles Dickens was nearly bankrupted, the thinking goes, and I am nearly bankrupted, so there is hope for my work yet. This is true, so far as it goes. Although there is certainly as much luck in what writers works survive as there is in which strike a chord in the present day. What is more, being appreciated posthumously may be better than not being appreciated at all, it doesn’t do much to improve the writer’s life. You won’t be around to know there is a journal where scholars debate your use of the word “and.” It doesn’t improve your standing with your friends. (“Hey, could you buy me a sandwich? I’m waiting on royalties.”)
It is good for writers to remember as well the wisdom of Bernard Shaw, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”
So, sadly, it is not a choice of appreciation in this world or the next. Nothing is guaranteed at all, and you just keep on writing. [I just discovered a book with the title The Honorably Obscure Handbook. I appreciate the title and the sentiment, although the links on this blog page to actually buy the book do not work, so I can’t vouch for the text itself.]
I learned something even more interesting from the Los Angeles Times article. Did you know that female authors were more popular in the 19th Century than male authors? I did not.
[As an aside, did you know that historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women? I learned this fact only recently.]
Female-authored fiction was enormously popular throughout the 19th century (more so than male-authored fiction, in fact), but many more male than female authors have been rescued from obscurity by scholars, usually by being retrospectively credited with founding a subgenre. Tolkien and Haggard fit together roughly into one category (male-authored “high fantasy” adventure), and the gendering of their novels is so strict that it makes recognizing feminine predecessors all but impossible — not because they’re not there, but because the logic of the genre itself renders them unthinkable.
Loofbourow’s article argues that Corelli influenced Tolkien.
The audience for fiction has always been more female than male. Until recently, academia was made up almost entirely of males. To be popular in your own time was to strike a chord with women. To be studied as a serious artist meant to strike a chord with men.
Has this changed and will it change?
I don’t know. I’ll keep writing.