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Mackay, Mary [pseud. Marie Corelli] (1855–1924), novelist, was born on 1 May 1855 at Gloucester Terrace, Bayswater, London, the illegitimate child of , journalist and writer of Scottish songs, and Mary Ellen Mills, née Kirtland (d. 1876). In 1859 Charles Mackay's wife died, and two years later he married Mills, and the family left London to settle at Fern Dell, Box Hill, Surrey. Mary was educated at home, and her precocious talent as a pianist was particularly encouraged by her neighbour, the novelist George Meredith. She spent her late teens in a convent school in France. In 1876 Mrs Mackay died, and Bertha Vyver (c.1855–c.1930), Mary's childhood friend, came to live at Fern Dell. Vyver remained Mary Mackay's lifelong companion, assisting with her career and running her household.

The household moved to 47 Longridge Road, Kensington, London, in 1883, where they were joined by Eric Mackay, Mary's half-brother, twenty years older than her and heavily encumbered by debts. The move to London prompted the beginnings of Mary's career. She had devised the pseudonym Marie Corelli as a stage name for a planned career as a concert pianist and singer, but after several indifferently received performances in London, Edinburgh, and various provincial towns during the early 1880s, she did not pursue her music. Turning to journalism, in July 1885 she published her first article in Temple Bar magazine, ‘One of the World's Wonders’, signed Marie Corelli. Meanwhile, she was at work on her first novel, A Romance of Two Worlds, published in February 1886 by George Bentley. The novel was a judicious blend of mysticism, pseudo-science, and pseudo-religiosity, appealing to a contemporary interest in the occult. While her ideas were roundly ridiculed in the literary press, A Romance sold well, and found an unlikely admirer in Oscar Wilde, who wrote to her: ‘I have read the book over again … you certainly tell of marvellous things in marvellous ways’ (Vyver, 58).

Mary Mackay was a swift and diligent writer, and, again as Marie Corelli, produced a successor within months. Vendetta (1886) was a melodramatic family saga set during the Naples cholera epidemic, and it too achieved sales respectable enough to delight Bentley. It established her pseudonym for good, and brought her welcome fame and financial independence. It was Thelma (1887), however, set in Scandinavia, which laid the foundations of her sustained popularity and literary fortune. It was in turn followed by Ardath: the Story of a Dead Self (1889), which won her the admiration and lasting friendship of William Gladstone. With Wormwood (1890), Mackay turned from her established themes of spiritualism and psychic phenomena to address the contemporary problem of addiction to absinthe. That same year she published My Wonderful Wife, another ‘issue’ novel which satirized the emerging spectre of the ‘new woman’ from the perspective of a man married to an anti-heroine who smokes, shoots, and dresses in men's clothes.

In 1889 Dr Mackay died, and Mary stayed for six months in Eastbourne with her brother Eric and Bertha Vyver, to recover from nervous exhaustion and depression. Soon, however, she was writing again, and the anonymously published The Silver Domino (1892), foretelling the arrival of a novelist destined to outsell all her competitors, alienated many of her professional contacts. The Soul of Lilith (1892) was more kindly received, although the story, a reworking of Frankenstein which centred upon the mystical powers of an Arabian fakir, El-Rami, provoked understandable mirth from reviewers. However, in 1893 Marie Corelli broke into the ranks of the best-seller with Barabbas: a Dream of the World's Tragedy, a daring fictionalization of the crucifixion story rejected by a nervous George Bentley, but published by the newly established Algernon Methuen. She called the novel a ‘passion play in prose’, and its melodramatic religiosity proved such a success with the public, if not the critics, that it ran to fourteen editions in three years.

The success of Barabbas fortified Mackay against the scourges of literary London, prompting her to deliver her next novel to Methuen only on condition that no review copies were to be released to the press in advance. The Sorrows of Satan (1895) thus gained lucrative advance notoriety, and it achieved an immediate sale greater than that of any other English novel at that time, although its popularity was perhaps due to an accident in publishing history, since it was one of the first novels to appear in a single sixpenny edition following the collapse of the three-decker. The story tantalizingly combined a semi-sacred theme with prurient descriptions of the vices of the rich. The Sorrows of Satan was in many respects the climax of Mackay's career, establishing Marie Corelli as the most popular novelist in Britain for the next dozen years. However, since The Sorrows of Satan had as its heroine a woman writer, Mavis Clare, whose serene personality and mystical gifts are the main challenge to the devil on earth, the novel also secured a view of Mackay as a self-regarding eccentric, a reputation she was unable to live down.

The next year saw the publication of The Murder of Delicia, with a very similar heroine to Mavis Clare, more divine than human, and critical amusement turned to open mockery. Meanwhile, a rift between Mary Mackay and her brother Eric had been occasioned by Eric's production of a dramatic version of The Sorrows of Satan, without his sister's consent. The play was a failure, and when Eric died the following year, her distress was accentuated when she discovered that he had spread a rumour that he was the real author of Marie Corelli's novels. Mackay privately printed and distributed a controversial pamphlet accusing her brother of slander, and her actions were widely perceived as an unforgivable attempt to libel the dead.

In 1899 Mary Mackay and Bertha Vyver left London for good, moving to Mason Croft in Stratford upon Avon, the town's associations with Shakespeare explaining its appeal. There Mackay contributed to a wide range of middle-class women's journals, including the Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Harper's Bazaar. She cultivated an eccentric reputation and appearance, becoming embroiled in local controversies and reacting against the ‘rational dress’ movement with her exaggeratedly feminine, flower-strewn costumes. In 1900 she released a Birthday Book, a collection of sentimental quotations and illustrations from her novels, capitalizing upon her reputation as a literary celebrity.

The Master Christian appeared in June 1900, a narrative of the second coming of Christ, and its vehement attack upon the Catholic church offended many. It was followed by Temporal Power (1902), a thinly disguised and unflattering portrait of the court of Edward VII, which still further alienated Mackay's remaining friends in London society. However, her popularity with the general public was undiminished, and by 1901 it was estimated that each of Marie Corelli's novels made £10,000, a figure supplemented by high fees for her journalism. By this time, more than half of her books were worldwide best-sellers, many translated into almost all the European languages. Treasures of Heaven (1906) sold 100,000 copies on its first day of publication.

In 1907 Mary Mackay began a romantic friendship with Arthur Severn, a happily married Royal Academician, and she became heavily involved in promoting Severn's paintings. The two collaborated on The Devil's Motor (1910), which once more focused upon characters from Christian mythology. Her affection for Severn perhaps inspired her to direct her vehement dislike of turn-of-the-century feminism against the suffrage movement. She campaigned for the Anti-Suffrage League during the second half of the decade, publishing articles such as ‘Woman—or suffragette?’ (July 1907) in Harper's Bazaar, which insisted that suffrage would deprive women of their influence over their menfolk.

By 1910 the friendship with Severn was at an end, and Marie Corelli's literary reputation was also in decline. The Devil's Motor failed to share in the success of her earlier works, and The Life Everlasting (1911), elaborating upon a theory of eternal youth, similarly failed to capture the public imagination. From 1914, Mackay threw herself into the war effort, appealing at public meetings to men to enlist, offering her home as a military hospital, and donating large sums of money to the Red Cross. Her reputation was sullied in 1917, when she was prosecuted for food hoarding, and although she protested that a large donation of sugar from her friend Sir Thomas Lipton was for jam-making, and the jam for public consumption, she was convicted. Shortly before the armistice, Mackay began work on her final long novel, The Secret Power (1921). However, public taste for her work had altered immeasurably since the war, and while her sales were still respectably high, they were far below those she commanded before 1914. In January 1924 she collapsed from a heart complaint, and three months later died on 21 April 1924 at Mason Croft; she was buried at the Evesham Road cemetery, Stratford upon Avon. Bertha Vyver published her memoirs of Marie Corelli in 1930.

Katherine Mullin

Sources  

E. Bigland, Marie Corelli: the woman and the legend (1953) · B. Vyver, Memoirs of Marie Corelli (1930) · G. Bullock, Marie Corelli: the life and death of a best seller (1940) · A. Federico, ‘Marie Corelli and literary celebrity’, Nineteenth-Century Studies, 11 (1997) · Blain, Clements & Grundy, Feminist comp. · J. Casey, ‘Marie Corelli and fin de siècle feminism’, English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920, 35 (1992), 163–76 · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1924) · T. Ransom, The mysterious Miss Marie Corelli (1999) · A. Federico, Idol of suburbia: Marie Corelli and late-Victorian literary culture (2000)

Archives  

BL, letters [copies] · Bodl. Oxf., letters · Claremont Colleges, California, Honnold/Mudd Library, papers · Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, papers · Detroit Public Library, papers · Folger, papers · Kensington Central Library, London, letters, MSS incl. letters to her secretary, and literary papers · Morgan L., papers · NYPL, papers · Ransom HRC, corresp. and literary papers · Shakespeare Birthplace Trust RO, Stratford upon Avon, corresp. and papers; letters; literary proofs, papers, miscellanea; MS of Sorrow of Satan · University of Illinois, Chicago, papers · University of Iowa Libraries, special collections, papers · Yale U., Beinecke L., papers |  BL, corresp. with R. Bentley & son, Add. MSS 46622–46646 · BL, letters to F. H. Fisher [copies] · BL, letters to W. E. Gladstone, Add. MSS 44507–44509 · BL, corresp. of subject and her executors with Society of Authors, Add. MS 56683 · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sidney Lee · CAC Cam., letters to W. T. Stead · Keats House, Hampstead, London, letters to W. E. Doubleday · Richmond Local Studies Library, London, corresp. with Douglas Sladen · Shakespeare Birthplace Trust RO, Stratford upon Avon, letters to Archibald Flower and papers · Shakespeare Birthplace Trust RO, Stratford upon Avon, letters to Anna Nairne · Shakespeare Birthplace Trust RO, Stratford upon Avon, letters to Frederick C. Wellstood · V&A, theatre collections, letters to lord chamberlain's licensee


Likenesses  

H. Donald-Smith, oils, 1897, NPG · G. Gabell, photogravure, 1906, NPG · photographs, repro. in Bigland, Marie Corelli: the woman and the legend

Wealth at death  

£24,076 17s. 4d.: probate, 8 July 1924, CGPLA Eng. & Wales