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James, Simon J. (2013). 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): 134-151.

Author(s) from Durham


Marie Corelli's The Sorrows of Satan (1895) presents a paradoxical test case for the practice of academic literary criticism. The best-selling work of fiction of the nineteenth century, the book was demeaned by Victorian critics and has been long ignored by criticism since. In spite of Corelli's recent mini-revival, the formally self-conscious properties of this work deserve further examination: the text insistently foregrounds the act of literary criticism and demands that the reader's attention is focussed on not only the content of the narrative but also the nature of the procedure of reading. Such a strategy allows Corelli's romance to participate safely in the kinds of literary transgressions enacted in the work of her since-canonized contemporaries such as Thomas Hardy and Oscar Wilde. The narrative mode warns against the production of the wrong kinds of readings of the narrative, inoculating its consumer against the corruption suffered by many of Sorrows's characters – and by the readers of the kinds of contemporary fiction Corelli seeks to warn against. As a consequence, The Sorrows of Satan, while exiled from the canon, shows itself to be surprisingly representative of the image of fin-de-siècle literary culture constructed by its afterlife. Like so many 1890s fictions, it is a work of art about the work of art, and dramatizes such by now familiar late-Victorian tropes as: decadence, moral relativism, debates over literary taste, realism, post-Ibsen drama, the sexual double standard, the marriage market, the New Woman, motherhood, hysteria and female pathologies, degeneration anxiety, mesmerism. The Sorrows of Satan's status as forgotten best-seller, a ‘great bad book’, asks difficult questions about the relationship between literary criticism and literary pleasure.