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Marie Corelli, Wormwood, and the Diversity of Decadence

Jessica DeCoux
p. 89-106


Marie Corelli was, in her day, a wildly popular best-selling author and public figure, one who captured the public’s imagination with her dramatic and fantastical novels. Her great popularity and the apparently moralistic elements of her work have excluded her from the ranks of the fin-de-siècle British Decadents, a group (such as it exists) traditionally defined by its rejection of mainstream middle-class values and its desire to appeal to a select readership of aesthetically-minded intellectuals. Indeed, Corelli’s novel Wormwood is generally read as an anti-Decadent creed, or at the very least a novel which disingenuously castigates Decadence while titillating readers with themes and tropes “co-opted” from works of that genre.
In fact, Wormwood is so often read in these terms because it eludes easy interpretation, a quality that marks it as a distinctly Decadent text. Corelli’s condemnation of the absintheur as a failed Decadent is a call not to moral orthodoxy, but to another, less recognizable but equally subversive model of Decadence. Some of the doubts the novel raises about the Decadent project and the troubled place of the Decadent in the nineteenth-century popular imagination are echoed by other Decadent works of the time.
Reading Corelli’s novel in this way not only allows for a dramatic rethinking of her work, it also opens up a reconsideration of the ways that Decadence was embraced by the fin-de-siècle literary public, and the ways that public did not merely consume Decadence but refined and disseminated it. This reading also raises the possibility that the Decadent practice of drawing the boundaries of genre in tight and exclusionary ways served to encourage the production of numerous Decadences.

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1Marie Corelli was, in her day, a world-renowned author and celebrity, one whose book sales are likened to those of Danielle Steele, while her cultural influence is taken to be on a par with Oprah Winfrey’s. However, she has only rarely been the subject of critical scrutiny in the years after her death. When she is discussed, she is often mentioned as a reactionary against Decadence and its questioning and challenging of traditional middle-class moral values and institutions. Corelli’s reputation concerning Decadence is due in some measure to her 1890 novel Wormwood: A Drama of Paris. The work is generally taken to be a morality tale about the terrible dangers of absinthe—a kind of Reefer Madness for the Victorian set—as well as a screed against Decadence, which was closely associated with absinthism at the time.

2However, critics even then could not help but notice how vivid and detailed were Corelli’s descriptions of the Parisian underworld, and Corelli’s own publisher, George Bentley, worried that the novel would draw readers in with its alluring portrait of the absintheur. (Federico, 73) Indeed, Corelli gave Bentley specific instructions that the book be packaged with an absinthe-green cover, a snake woven through the initial jagged W of the title. Annette Federico and Kirsten Macleod, in their discussions of Wormwood, both explicitly state that they consider the novel to be essentially an anti-Decadent work, yet both also note Corelli’s inclusion in the novel of the complete text of a poem by Decadent poet Charles Cros and an admiring description of the poet in a footnote written in Corelli’s own voice. (Federico 74–75, Macleod, 36–37) Macleod speculates that Corelli may have misread or intentionally mis-transcribed a key word in his work. (Macleod 37) For these reasons Federico, Macleod and various other scholars have read Corelli as a borrower of Decadence, one who co-opted its tropes to vicariously titillate a curious public. Federico, in her readings of Wormwood as well as other Corelli novels, notes deeper elements of Decadence, but even she sees those elements as being incongruous with Corelli’s work as a whole. (Federico, 74, 78–79)

3However, upon reading Wormwood it is difficult to place the exact nature of Corelli’s protest against Decadence; in fact the novel is for many reasons a full-fledged work of Decadence in its own right. Reading the novel in this way, and reading Corelli as a producer of Decadent works rather than a critic or borrower of them, opens up a very different view of the way Decadence functioned both as a literary discourse and within the public imagination at the fin de siècle. By confronting the way that fin-de-siècle authors negotiated Decadence as a highly unstable and contested category and frequently sought to draw and redraw its boundaries to their own tastes, we may find a new interpretive lens for many works of the period. We may also, by understanding Corelli’s Decadent tendencies in the context of her celebrity, find a new means of comprehending the way Decadence functioned productively in the Victorian popular imagination. The end result of all these examinations will hopefully be to force a reconsideration of various preconceptions regarding Decadence which persist despite our best scholarly efforts.

  • 1 Book-length scholarly studies or biographies of Corelli have been written by George Bullock, Eileen (...)

4“Who was Miss Marie Corelli?” So asked a plaintive newspaper obituary announcing her death in 1924. (Ibid. 161) The question is sometimes taken to be a sly jab at Corelli’s waning popularity at the time, but it also undoubtedly referred to the almost mythic nature of her public persona and the uncertain details of her early life. It might just as easily refer to our own present-day difficulties in understanding Corelli in anything but contradictory terms. From the release of her first novel, Corelli’s popularity took the literary community by surprise. Some of the remarkable nature of that success is due to the changing publishing practices of the time, which allowed for much greater sales of one and two-volume novels than ever before, but even by the standards of the day her success was breathtaking. At the peak of her popularity her novels sold in the hundreds of thousands—at least twice as many copies as those of her nearest competitors, including H. Rider Haggard, Hall Caine, Mrs. Humphrey Ward and H. G. Wells—and they were translated into numerous languages. That popularity, along with the occult and supernatural content of many of her novels, their Christian iconography and their melodramatic, effusive prose helped solidify her reputation as a writer for the relatively new masses of middle-class readers populating England at the time, a characterization which held despite Corelli’s sharp protests. This popularity also made Corelli the subject of great scrutiny and caused her to come under harsh attack by critics and peers in the literary community. Her novels were frequently reviled in the press, to the extent that she eventually refused to send out advance copies of her books for review. Edmund Gosse called her “that little milliner,” (Masters 4) and one reviewer in The Spectator wrote that “she was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities and prejudices she gave a glamorous setting and an impressive scale.” (Felski 116) In some part because of her critics’ disdain, Corelli’s popularity dissipated after her death and there has been relatively little scholarly discussion of her in the subsequent years.1

5These qualities—her popularity and her apparent dismissal by the majority of serious-minded critics as a purveyor of mass-appeal twaddle—would seem to place Corelli squarely outside of the realm of Decadence, which is distinguished by its attempt to reject and subvert mainstream values and beliefs. Furthermore, past generations of critics have traditionally defined the Decadent canon by the short list of authors of the “tragic generation” who wrote within it—authors who became interchangeable in their contemporary public’s mind and in the minds of subsequent critics with the iconic figures about which they sometimes wrote: opium addicts, dandies, bohemians, collectors of exotica, and of course absintheurs. These figures were formulated as the originators and guardians of a perverse, degenerate, misogynistic yet artistically exclusive literary mode, one that failed because it could define itself only by reifying the normative values it ostensibly sought to subvert.

6In order to avoid this reductive, critically self-defeating formulation of Decadence, many recent scholars have chosen, as Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff and Matthew Potolsky put it in the influential introduction to their 1999 book Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, to formulate the genre “as something more than the mere compendium of transgressive themes and images by which it is usually identified,” (Constable et al. 2) and to understand it as a set of “textual strategies [that] interfere with the boundaries and borders (national, sexual, definitional, historical, to name but a few) that criticism normally relies upon to make its judgments.” (Ibid. 3) This approach has led to a rich field of criticism that examines Decadent expression in a wide array of works from many different disciplines. However, precisely because it understands Decadence as disposing with a traditional understanding of boundaries, this mode of criticism has eschewed addressing the issue of canonicity. Thus have many of these works of criticism unintentionally reinforced the mythologies of Decadent production which they hope to overturn by referring to those authors not canonically associated with the genre (particularly women) as “writing through,” “intervening into,” or “rearticulating” Decadence rather than creating it, implicitly placing the genre’s origins with another, presumably canonical group of authors. So also, by not directly focusing on the various historically-bounded tropes of decay, death and evolution, nor on the array of decadent characters and symbols that populate many fin-de-siècle texts, have some studies stopped short of examining the possible dislocation between Decadent sign and Decadent project—that is, the way that a work may have critiqued the popular symbols of Decadence while still producing it.

7This is precisely the dislocation that is revealed by an examination of Corelli and her novel Wormwood. By castigating the iconic persona of the Decadent male while upholding the principles and projects of Decadence, Wormwood disrupts boundaries and eludes easy interpretation, two characteristics that mark it as a distinctly Decadent text. By reading the novel in this way, this essay offers a portrait of fin-de-siècle Decadence as a form defined by the multiplicity of its formations, one that created itself through a dialogical process of negation and re-creation.

8The novel Wormwood, written in the first person, tells of Gaston Beauvais, a respectable young French banker who is betrayed by his fiancée, the lovely and naïve Pauline. The day he learns of Pauline’s betrayal of him with another man, Gaston is invited to drink absinthe. Under the influence of the drink he forms a vague plan to take revenge on Pauline by publicly humiliating her at their wedding, which he does. He becomes an inveterate absinthe drinker, eventually murders his rival, the angelic priest-in-training Silvion Guidel, and drives Pauline to suicide, and by the novel’s end he claims himself to be “a slinking, shuffling beast, half monkey, half man, whose aspect is so vile, whose body is so shaken with delirium, whose eyes are so murderous, that if you met me by chance in the day-time, you would probably shriek for sheer alarm!” (363) It is perhaps obvious why the book is so often read as an attack on Decadence. Yet for all of Gaston’s emphatic and effusive expressions of horror at his own situation, his character remains oddly static throughout the course of the novel, and his adoption of a Decadent lifestyle fails to disrupt his status as a bourgeois male.

9At the tale’s outset Gaston is a young, handsome, wealthy and respectable banker. His work as a partner in his father’s business has not kept him from dabbling in writing in his spare time, his most notable productions being a “critical study of Alfred de Musset” and a “high-flown sentimental novel” (both of which he regards with a degree of smugness) (82). He is also arrogant, self-absorbed and condescending. He meets the young, naïve Pauline and is charmed by her beauty, but he admits on several occasions that he “attached not the least importance” (107) to what she said. He explains that “men never fall in love at first with a woman’s mind; only with her body,” and he claims that “a stupid beauty is the most comfortable sort of house keeper going, believe me.” (83) Gaston is warned by Pauline’s noble and artistic cousin Héloïse against asking for her hand, but ignores both the advice and Pauline’s involuntary gesture of “fear or timidity” (97) upon his proposal. When he learns of Pauline’s unfaithfulness, Gaston threatens to murder her if she does not reveal the name of her seducer, and when she tells him he declares that Silvion “shall die for his treachery.” (151) After Pauline leaves, Gaston wrestles with his thoughts and eventually agrees to have mercy on the two lovers, but at that moment he is by chance asked to dine out with the bohemian artist André Gessonex. Upon drinking only a few draughts of absinthe he reverts to his initial plan for revenge.

10Gaston’s subsequent actions as an absintheur represent no disruption in this character arc. One of the most common accusations leveled at male Decadents of the day was that their philosophy served to degrade their masculine power, rendering them weak and feminized. However, Gaston describes himself in stereotypical terms of masculinity. While lying in bed after his first drinks of absinthe, Gaston claims that his thoughts are like a “scientific puzzle.” (174) It is in this state that he concludes “what a wretched effeminacy it would be on my part, to actually put up with my own betrayal and aid to make my betrayers happy!” Gaston claims that absinthe can “kill all gentle emotions and rouse in a man a spirit of a beast of prey.” (175) It would seem that absinthe actually enhances Gaston’s masculine tendencies, exaggerating rather than effacing his identity as a dominating male, an identity which is repeatedly reinforced throughout the novel as Gaston becomes both murderer and attempted rapist.

11In her essay on Wormwood, Talia Schaffer also notes the strange stasis of Gaston Beauvais’s character. She posits him in psychoanalytic terms as a proto-Modern figure who takes to absinthe at the moment when the events of his thwarted engagement would force to a crisis his reckoning with the trauma of his mother’s death and with his own repressed resentment and desire. Thus, absinthe functions as a convenient distraction for Gaston; he is not so much turned to violence by it as allowed an excuse for not turning away, and all of his hyperbolic and inflated expressions of self-loathing act as so much white noise to distract him from any meaningful confrontation of his own pain and guilt. The “tawny spectral leopard” (355) that haunts Gaston’s footsteps through the latter part of the novel is not only a hallucinatory symptom of his absinthism but also a symbolic manifestation of the terrifying truths which absinthe only incompletely blocks out. Gaston himself declares that “honesty is a mortal affront to the absintheur!” (287) and attributes his attraction to the drink to the fact that it allows him to forget. Gaston’s purported Decadence is only a sort of hypocrisy, a feint which transforms his outward figure while allowing him to remain psychologically stagnant.

  • 2 William Gladstone was prime minister of England at the time Wormwood was written.

12Corelli criticizes the Decadent figure not for his perversity but for his conventionality, for the way his attempts to remove himself from his middle-class life and recreate himself as the dissipated, amoral absintheur only work to reassert him as a hyper-masculinized, tyrannical member of the middle class. By formulating Gaston’s violence in terms of its conventionality, Corelli also implicitly criticizes the patriarchal establishment as a whole, metaphorizing it as a self-pitying, degenerate hypocrite. This idea is further supported by the numerous references in the book to the typicality of Gaston’s behavior, as when he exclaims, “nearly every man has some evil propensity to which he secretly panders—this is a fact of which we may be perfectly sure!” (233) The indictment extends to the highest ranks of those in power when, later in the book, Gaston directly compares himself, by virtue of his “discursive” literary style, to “Gladstone of Hawarden.” (317)2

13Interestingly, Gaston’s unchanging nature is reflected in his body’s strangely unflagging vitality. His murderous strength remains unabated; although he once falls ill, his illness is of the mind, not the body. By novel’s end, Gaston’s career as absintheur is in no danger of doing him in, in fact he predicts that his behavior will continue far into the future. Although possessing a poison by which he might end his life, he claims that he “cannot die,” and soliloquizes:

Life is precious!—yes, even my life, surrounded with phantoms, darkened with delirium, enfeebled by vice and misery as it is, it is precious! I know its best and worst,—its value and worthlessness;—I can measure it and scorn it,—I can laugh at it and love it!—I can play with myself and it as a tiger plays with its torn and bleeding prey!—and knowing it, I cling to it—I do not want to be hurled into what I do not know!. . . I shall never part with life consciously, or while the faintest glimmer of reason remains in me,—to be sure of that! I love life—especially life in Paris! (364)

14The small-minded egotism of Gaston’s words and his fate contrast those of the many characters that have died over the course of the story. In fact, except in the case of the murdered Silvion, each other major character’s end marks the culmination of a project or a positive escape from the irresolvable difficulties the world presents. This is particularly true of the novel’s two significant female characters, Pauline and Héloïse, who succeed in enacting Decadence in ways at which Gaston fails. The two characters are both beautiful, and both are accomplished musicians—Pauline as a singer and Héloïse as a violinist. Thus they each inhabit an artistic realm of which Gaston is only incompletely aware. Through Silvion Guidel, we are told that “religion is poetry—poetry is religion,” and shortly after that “the beauty of woman is one of the gifts of God to gladden our eyes;—it is not to be rejected or deemed unsacred.” (104–105) We subsequently learn of Héloïse that “music teaches her . . . all sorts of things” (108) and she explains that “language is sound, . . . even as music is, and music is often able to go on with a story when language breaks off and fails.” (109) Corelli quickly lays out the boundaries of a world in which the nature of all meaning (and all beautiful bodies) is poetic, and in which the two women, both by their forms and their creative powers, exist as aesthetic objects and Aesthetic artists. This status renders them vulnerable to subjectification at the hands of Gaston.

15The character of Pauline begins the story as an inexperienced and vulnerable girl. By the manipulations of her father, who sees his daughter as a commodity and Gaston as a desirable financial prospect, she is engaged to the selfish and conceited man. Her affair with Silvion would seem to place her as a typical Victorian fallen woman. However, she never renounces her love for Silvion, even when he abandons her without warning to return to his religious training. What is more, the text itself, despite all of Gaston’s self-righteous expressions of outrage, does not condemn Pauline; it portrays her transgressive affair with great sympathy and casts her as a “tragic heroine.” (330) After her public denunciation, Pauline runs away, but neither to die nor to become a prostitute. The novel does not dispose of her as if she were a Little Em’ly or Maggie Tulliver, whose dispatch restores equilibrium to the social order. Rather, late in the book, when Gaston runs into Pauline by chance on the streets of Paris, she explains that she has kept herself alive by doing menial work and singing on the street for change, all for the opportunity of seeing Silvion again some day. When Gaston realizes the incompleteness of his revenge, he grows enraged and tells her of Silvion’s murder, roughly kissing her against her will and threatening her with even greater sexual and physical violence. Pauline’s response is to throw herself into the Seine, a gesture not only of escape but of erotic reunion with her lover, whose corpse Gaston had earlier flung into the river. As Gaston stares into the stirred-up water in shock, he muses “it seemed such a ludicrous thing to consider that, after all, this weak, fragile child had escaped me—had actually gone quietly away where I could not, dared not follow!” (329)

16Her death marks the culmination of her resolve to reject the oppressive fate offered by her middle-class existence, to elude masculine violence and unrepentantly rejoin Silvion. Gaston subsequently views Pauline’s corpse in the morgue (where her body is laid on the same slab that Silvion’s had recently occupied), and his language confirms that in death she has satisfied her desire and retained her status as aesthetic object, one that now eludes easy interpretation. The river “had fondled her,” had “stroked her cheeks” and had “kissed her lips and closed them in a childlike happy smile.” The river also revealed “how prettily the blue veins were pencilled under the soft transparent skin” and made of her body “a wondrous and piteous...picture.” The response of all who look upon the corpse is “reverent,” yet no one can identify her; her various trinkets and articles of clothing are illegible to the morgue workers. (338) To the casual onlooker, at least, she has shed her identity as “Pauline de Charmilles,” that is, her identity as a culturally and socially identifiable subject. Her corpse is at once utterly carnal and utterly artistic.

17The same fate awaits Héloïse, who stands as an even more admirable and highly idealized character in the novel. Héloïse’s learnedness and careful cultivation of her musical ability mark her as a true artist. Her playing, as her recitation of the poem by Charles Cros, leave her audience “as though under a spell.” (111) She also, we are to understand, secretly loves Gaston, although his self-absorption and prejudice in favor of a “stupid” wife preclude his noticing her until it is too late. She never confesses this to Gaston until late in the book when he has grown irreversibly dissolute, and she says of her love “if there were the smallest pulse of life stirring in it now, you should never have known.” (310) In the novel’s final episode, Gaston, in a fit of repentance, decides to go to Héloïse and ask her to take him in and help redeem him. He arrives at her house only to find that she has recently died and is laid out in state. He learns that “she was glad to go,” and her “beautiful” and “serene” body seems to tell Gaston “I am safe! from evil—safe from sorrow—safe from love—safe from you!” (359) Héloïse, like Pauline, chooses death as the preferable alternative to the dangerous and threatening terrain of heterosexual union, and in so doing also renders herself indecipherable to those around her. As Gaston and Héloïse’s music instructor both gaze upon her body, they find that “the dead girl before [them] held some secret hidden behind her closed eyes and set, smiling lips.” 360) They vainly struggle to fathom this secret, but neither man can do so.

18By framing her heroines’ deaths as an escape and their corpses as illegible, Corelli places herself as one of a fin-de-siècle literary community who used the trope of death as a way to challenge dominant values and to render both the physical and the textual body resistant to reductive or subjectifying apprehension. In order to enact this process of challenge and resistance, the text needs a standard against which to negatively place itself, and the figure of the stereotypically decadent absintheur fulfills this role. Gaston Beauvais embodies simultaneously the failures of Decadence and the brutality of the patriarchal establishment, and it is by their rejection of him that Pauline and Héloïse achieve an aesthetic apotheosis. Thus, in Wormwood, Decadence exists not in a dualistic system of normal/abnormal, healthy/diseased, alive/dead, or good/evil, but in a multivalent system of meaning in which the borders between the normative and the subversive are blurred, and in which Decadence is produced by negating not only the “non-Decadent,” but by negating the multiplicity of other Decadences which give rise to it. So too does Gaston’s preternaturally long-lived body act as a warning against the cultivation of a single, static model of Decadence, as the novel favors a form which, by its willingness to enact its own destruction and decomposition, impedes exegesis. So the Decadent trope of the dead body functions, in Corelli’s hands, as an over-determined marker not only of the individual who resists normalization, nor of a nation in decline at the end of the century, but also of the corpus that resists interpretation, and of the literary undertaking that produces itself by means of its own repeated refutation.

19The apparently foreclosing and dismissive result of understanding Decadence in terms of refutation has led many critics to avoid such characterization—to try to read Decadence in terms of production rather than failure. However, there is room to explore the ways that the fin-de-siècle Decadents experienced and utilized failure as a literary tactic, and the way that the various formulations of that failure productively allowed for a variety of Decadences. (For example, in Huysmans’s A Rebours, that most paradigmatic of Decadent texts, the anti-hero Des Esseintes, in his refusal to die and therefore fulfill his Decadent project, not only signals that project’s failure but also symbolically opens the way for another, new one.) Readers of Western literature are conditioned to read the death of a transgressive character as moral condemnation or retribution meted out by the just system of the novel. Yet in Decadent texts, both death and the failure to die signal a foreclosure that invites reinvention and innovation. In such a genre, the line between the production of and the criticism—even condemnation—of Decadence must be necessarily hazy, and this haziness allows for the exploration of the liminal, the extra-social and the unbounded, even among those who would seem to occupy the mainstream.

20Despite the critics’ reception of Wormwood, it seems clear that Corelli herself expected the novel to be understood as a contribution to the Decadent project. She sent a copy of the novel to Arthur Symons, and wrote to Bentley “it may even suit them [admirers of Naturalism and Decadence] though. . . it will not be their realism.” (Fictions, 88) While she may have seen Wormwood as articulating Decadence in terms that were particularly understandable to her peers and her public, the novel’s tropes and themes are in keeping with Corelli’s other works. Many of her novels’ plots center on death—the presence of both dead and undead bodies (particularly female ones), murder, suicide, and visits to an afterlife which, though sometimes framed in Christian terms, is highly unorthodox in its conception. They are populated with characters whose sympathy rests in their relative exclusion or difference from the ranks of the masses, and they generally replace traditional moral value judgments with a system based on standards of imagination, emotional intuition and aesthetic sensitivity.

21This evidence, which attests to Corelli’s understanding of herself as a producer of Decadence, leads inevitably to a reckoning of that Decadence in the context of her popularity. Just as it is tempting to characterize Corelli’s Decadence in terms of co-option or intervention into an already-extant form, so too is it tempting to understand the public’s engagement with Decadence in terms of either reactionary outrage or misappropriation. If we accept that Corelli’s work is in fact intentionally resistant to interpretation, then we must also accept the possibility that some of her fans based their admiration for her work on the assumption that it was more morally and socially conservative than it may actually have been. This also leaves open the possibility that Corelli intentionally co-opted Decadent strategies of resisting interpretation in order to render her books palatable to a wider audience, an act of rhetorical prevarication for the purpose of increasing book sales.

22However, this possibility was vociferously contradicted by Corelli herself, not only in her personal writing but in her novels. In fact, Corelli’s first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, contains numerous passages which dismiss the value of public acclaim and place marketplace concerns as being hostile to artistic achievement. One character explains that “those who adopt any art as a means of livelihood begin the world heavily handicapped—weighted down, as it were, in the race for fortune.” (44) Another character, Zara, a highly idealized and beautiful sculptress, is told that her talent places “all the world” before her. She responds: “To have all the world before you in the general acceptation of that term means to live long, to barter whatever genius you have for gold, to hear the fulsome and unmeaning flatteries of the ignorant, who are as ready with condemnation as praise—to be envied and maligned by those less lucky than you are.” (77) She later tells another character that she “despise[s]” him for being a “plain man” who “likes to live and love and laugh according to the rules of society—a puppet whose wires society pulls.” (117) Written before Corelli could know what her effect on the public would be, these passages express contempt for that public’s judgment, and characterize it as “ignorant,” conformist, and easy to manipulate. All of this would imply that Corelli did not expect her novel to sell widely, that she thought her story—of a pianist cured of her neurasthenia by a brother and sister who dabble in astral projection—to be too shocking and unconventional for the public at large. It also indicates that, from the outset, Corelli placed herself within a community of Decadent writers who used their ostensible disdain for public opinion as a way to denote their own elite, highly-cultured status.

23Corelli continued throughout her career to insist that she wrote only “the truth” and never pandered to the public’s tastes, but she was forced, by the inescapable reality of her great popularity, to reconsider the public’s judgment. Rather than defining herself by her superiority to the reading public, Corelli began to offer her reading public a wide assortment of negative models against which they could positively contrast both her and themselves. Take, for example, this dense and complex passage in Wormwood:

When your English lord is conscious of having more vices in his composition than there are days in the year, he builds a church and endows a hospital!—can anything be more excellent? He becomes virtuous at once in the eyes of the world at large, and yet he need never resign one of his favorite little peccadilloes! We do not manage things so well in France,—we are blagueurs—even if we are vicious, nous blaguons la chose! How much better it is to be secretive à l’Anglaise!. . . . But I digress. I ought to keep to the thread of my story, ought I not, dear critics of the press?—you who treat every narrative, true or imaginative that goes into print, as a gourmet treats a quail, leaving nothing on the plate but a fragment of picked bone which you present to the public and call it a “review!” Ah mes garçons!—take care....The Public itself is the Supreme Critic now,—its “review” does not appear in print, but nevertheless its unwritten verdict declares itself with such an amazing weight of influence, that the ephemeral opinion of a few ill-paid journalists are the merest straws beating against the strong force of a whirlwind. Digression again? Yes!—what else do you expect of an absintheur! (316–317)

24In this single piece of prose, Corelli offers the reader an array of antagonists who replace one other in rapid succession. Just as the character of Gaston embodies both the Decadent and the bourgeois, unsettling their status as mutually exclusive, antonymic categories, so does this enumeration of various representative figures serve to confuse their dialectical relation to each other. Collectively, they also offer the reader an assortment of representative figures against whom to articulate their own sense of difference or complicity. The English lord, representative of both the nobility particularly and England generally, is offered as an object of contempt, only to be quickly replaced by the French “blagueur” (joker) who, while perhaps superior to the English lord in his lack of hypocrisy, may be deplored for his brazen callousness. The two figures are contrasted, yet they cannot be considered oppositional. (The apparently sarcastic statement “How much better it is to be secretive à l’Anglaise!” only increases the ambiguity of the comparison.)

25Just as the consideration of these two types draws the (English) reader uncomfortably into self-recrimination, the text announces it has digressed—or perhaps that it will digress—and leaps quickly to a comparison of the critic and the public. This section is addressed directly to the critic, and while the content of the discussion is in many ways precisely what one would expect of Corelli at this point in her career, a withering indictment of the devouring critic and a paean to the power of the public’s influence, even here there is some ambiguity. The reference to the critic being “ill-paid” is both a sneering attempt to undermine the profession’s standing and a subtle gesture of sympathy. Corelli draws in her readers, striking a blow against the snobbish literary establishment, yet the glory of the Public’s “weight of influence” is undercut by the unsettling violence of its “whirlwind” force. Throughout the excerpt, Corelli, via Gaston, trips nimbly from tirade to tirade. As each successive object of her/his ire threatens to become a recrimination of the reader, it is forestalled with the excuse of “digression!”

26Gaston confirms Corelli’s project of simultaneously inviting and forestalling the reader’s self-incrimination, for at the excerpt’s close he confesses that his rambling diatribe has all been an attempt to avoid recounting the painful details of Pauline’s suicide, which he then proceeds to do. His outrage, then, like the reader’s, has been an expression of displaced or deferred guilt. This tactic is repeated throughout the novel, which is peppered with extreme expressions of anti-French sentiment. Yet these expressions are at times coupled with comparatively unfavorable depictions of the English. So too in Wormwood (and many of Corelli’s other works) is condemnation of the critic and approbation of the public juxtaposed with declarations of the cruelty, hypocrisy or superficiality of “mankind.” Just as the straw man of “the Decadent” provides a space for Corelli’s covert criticism of the middle class, the construct of “the French” provides a space for criticism of the English and “the Public” for criticism of people in general.

27If the novel is a site for covert self-criticism, it also allows for unmingled indignation at the French, the English, the press, and the public as a whole. The reader’s experience of either self-reproach or righteous anger at these various figures depends entirely on her or his relative sense of association with them. By offering her readers an array of identities: nationalities, classes, political allegiances, philosophical positions, etc., through which or against which they might identify themselves, Corelli not only allows the reader to identify him or herself within a variety of categories, but also to experience the alienation from all categories, even those to which he or she ostensibly belongs. As the narrative shifts focus and destabilizes dichotomous classification, it invites the reader to occupy with Corelli the privileged position of the artist who stands apart from society, who may condemn each various element of it while identifying with no element in particular. Of course, all of these various possibilities for identification, condemnation and alienation are increased greatly by the novel’s first-person narrative structure, as Gaston’s status as unreliable absintheur calls each element of the story into question, further destabilizing the reader’s relationship to the text.

28Given the numerous strategies that Corelli uses both to thwart and to activate the reader’s interpretive abilities, it is impossible that every reader should perceive Wormwood identically. Yet almost all of Corelli’s critics, even the most insightful, have not hesitated to describe Corelli’s readership in monolithic terms, to generalize about her reception, or to use her work’s popularity as proof that it was necessarily moralistic, lurid, or misread by an audience less sophisticated than herself. In fact, Corelli’s audience, as she herself frequently insisted, was compiled of people from a broad range of social groups and classes, from the working class to the nobility. (The Prince of Wales was purportedly a fan, and Queen Victoria asked that copies of all Corelli’s novels be sent to Balmoral Castle.) Given not only the diversity but the sheer number of her readers, it seems fruitless to attempt to characterize their reception of her, or indeed the “Victorian Public” in general, as homogeneous.

29While we must assume that some of Corelli’s readers did read Wormwood as a prudish cautionary tale on the dangers of intemperance and lasciviousness, and that some also read it to satisfy their “middle-class curiosity” (Federico, 72) about Decadence, we must also assume that others read it because it articulated a disgust for society’s repressive hypocrisy and extolled the value of emotional and sexual honesty. If readers responded to her description of a public music hall, or to her evocative depictions of dying and dead bodies, it may be because the scenes and images gave symbolic shape to their desires and fears, whether illicit or explicit. Their responses should not be understood as a “co-option” of those tropes any more than the response of the most erudite reader to the writings of Gautier or Symons should be seen as a co-option of Decadence. We must also acknowledge that, by frequently asserting her position as a literary outsider rejected by the mainstream press, Corelli encouraged her readers to share with her that outsider status, to see themselves, despite her great popularity, as connoisseurs of a misunderstood and marginalized artist’s work, and by that to express their “otherness.” Corelli was forced to incorporate the adoration of the public into her literary philosophy by the inescapable fact of its existence. Rather than making her merely an apologist for her own fame, her popularity may have placed her in a unique position to sympathetically apprehend the public’s engagement with Decadent ideals.

30By accepting that some part of Corelli’s audience recognized and responded positively to the Decadent elements of her work, we must also consider the possibility that aspects of Decadence were widely embraced by the fin-de-siècle public. It may be useful to understand the seemingly oxymoronic espousal of Decadent principles by the Victorian public at large not in terms of co-option, which necessarily entails misappropriation and adulteration, but as a necessary and productive element of the formation of Decadence. To accept Decadence as a mainstream movement is to accept that the public may have experienced itself as a collection of individuals in various states of disaffection, and that Decadence allowed for the widespread articulation of difference and discontent. In fact, it was the public’s rejection or recapitulation of the various proffered symbols of Decadence that engendered the creation of “the Decadent”—male, effete, dandified and debauched—as a paradigmatic type representative of the movement. Even the authors who inspired and apparently embodied that type clearly experienced it not as a fully-realized selfhood but as a performative persona through which and against which they could articulate their philosophies. This persona was collectively produced from the accumulation of Decadent texts that utilized it, but no single text (even A Rebours or The Picture of Dorian Gray) can be said to completely embody the figure, and any single representation could be understood as defining itself as much by its departure from as its adherence to that figure’s ideal form. So then is Corelli’s use of that figure in Wormwood in keeping with, rather than antagonistic to, the principles of Decadent production. If Corelli used “the Decadent” as a straw man through which to elucidate her aesthetic philosophy or criticize various social institutions, that is because there is no other way for the figure to be used. The iconic figure of the Decadent functions as a highly idealized, emulatable and consumable symbol of Decadent ideology, and also as a cloak or protective performative space within and beyond which Decadent production can take place. It is the ostensible stability and yet actual instability of the identity, which can be variously adopted, adapted or rejected, which renders it a useful means of expression. If this process relies on the public’s misunderstanding or misappropriation of the symbol, it also relies on the public’s production and refinement of that symbol.

31Just as Corelli’s work is populated with straw men who allow her to construct her texts rhetorically in negative terms, so is fin-de-siècle Decadence populated with straw men who functioned as a symbolic vocabulary within and against which Decadence could define and redefine its ever-shifting boundaries. “The Decadent” is one of these figures, as are the bourgeois, the invalid, the artist, the artist’s model, the poseur, the “exotic” foreigner, the vampiric woman, the sexual “invert,” the addict, the degenerate, and the dying or dead body, among many others. These symbols were used in myriad ways to engage in an ongoing fin-de-siècle conversation about the endangered, unstable or untenable position of the human subject. These characters may have over time become associated either with a particular model of Decadence or with its condemnation, but they could not be dualistically categorized as “Decadent” or “not Decadent.” Neither can the failure of any one character to fully embody or to provide a sustainable model for Decadence be seen as an admission of the genre’s failure. Rather the characters existed as a multiplicity of possibilities out of which each articulation of Decadence composed itself and gave way to the next.

32Of course, not all criticism invited response. Corelli’s detractors expressed a genuine dislike of her writing and a genuine anxiety at the threat her celebrity presented to their cultural authority, and when Corelli railed against the critical press, her resentment of their slights was also genuine, and not only a rhetorical gesture. Corelli was part of a community who competed not only for book sales but for prestige, and in that competition her gender and popularity worked against her. However, the vitriol of some critics should not be taken as proof that Corelli’s voice was not important to her literary community. Rather than being anomalous, Corelli’s Decadence and her audience’s appreciation thereof suggest that neither the male coterie of Decadents’ exclusive occupation of the Decadent realm, nor indeed the very parameters of that realm, were nearly so stable or so inevitable as was subsequently considered, and that their animosity toward traditional moral conventions and institutions may not have precluded them from considering Decadence as a popular form. Reengaging with the specific icons and tropes that marked fin-de-siècle Decadent production doesn’t necessitate a return to Decadence as a rarified, narrowly-defined mode of production; it remakes Decadence as a communal process, one in which to discredit another’s Decadent status was to reinforce one’s own, but in which neither the primary nor the final “meaning” of Decadence was a given. Thus the factious nature of Decadence, even the public battle for the right to declare its boundaries, served to encourage rather than inhibit Decadent production. By reading Corelli as anti-Decadent or her audience as homogeneous, we may unintentionally recapitulate a condescending conception of the Victorian reader which, while a motif and an artifact of fin de-siècle literature, was not presupposed as truth by its authors.

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Constable, Liz, Dennis Denisoff and Matthew Potolsky, eds. Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence. U. of Pennsylvania Press: Philadelphia, 1999.

Corelli, Marie. A Romance of Two Worlds. Dodo Press: U.K. and U.S., n.a.

Corelli, Marie. Wormwood. Broadview: Peterborough, Ont., 2004.

Federico, Annette. Idol of Suburbia: Marie Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture. U. Press of Virginia: Charlottesville and London, 2000.

Felski, Rita. The Gender of Modernity. Harvard University Press: Cambridge and London, 1995.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature. trans. Margaret Mauldon. Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 1998.

MacLeod, Kirsten. Fictions of British Decadence. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire, England and New York, 2006.

MacLeod, Kirsten. “Introduction.” Marie Corelli. Wormwood: A Drama of Paris. Ed. MacLeod. Broadview: Peterborough, Ont., 2004.

Masters, Brian. Now Barabbas Was a Rotter: The Extraordinary Life of Marie Corelli. Hamish Hamilton: London, 1978.

Ransom, Teresa. The Mysterious Miss Marie Corelli: Queen of the Victorian Bestseller. Sutton Publishing Ltd: United Kingdom, 1999.

Schaffer, Talia. “Modernist Mental States and Marie Corelli’s Wormwood.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies. Issue 4.2 (Summer 2008).

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1 Book-length scholarly studies or biographies of Corelli have been written by George Bullock, Eileen Bigland, Brian Masters, Teresa Ransom and Annette Federico. Other critics of Corelli include Rita Felski, R. B. Kershner, Christine Ferguson, Talia Schaffer, Kirsten Macleod and Angela Gaye Kingston, among others.

2 William Gladstone was prime minister of England at the time Wormwood was written.

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Jessica DeCoux, « Marie Corelli, Wormwood, and the Diversity of Decadence », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 74 Automne | 2011, 89-106.

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Jessica DeCoux, « Marie Corelli, Wormwood, and the Diversity of Decadence », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 74 Automne | 2011, mis en ligne le 14 octobre 2014, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.1337

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Jessica DeCoux

City University of New York.
Jessica DeCoux is a Ph.D. candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, where she specializes in nineteenth-century British literature. She is currently writing a dissertation on Marie Corelli and Oscar Wilde.

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