Stratford’s forgotten novelist

Think of Stratford-upon-Avon and the first name that comes to mind is William Shakespeare, known around the world for his plays and sonnets. Yet Stratford was also the home of a novelist who during her life, was very well known. Indeed, in her day her novels were so popular they outsold the combined sales of famed authors of her time, including Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells. Her works were even popular with Winston Churchill and some members of the Royal Family.

This coming Sunday, 21 April 2024,  is the 100th anniversary of her death, but today she is almost completely forgotten. Why? Before I answer that let’s learn a little more about her.

A commemorative plaque to Marie Corelli, Church Street, Stratford-Upon-Avon. Copyright Philip Halling

Marie Corelli was born on 1 May 1855; at birth she was given her mother’s name, Mary Mills.  She was the illegitimate daughter of Mary Elizabeth Mills (a servant of Dr Charles Mackay) who was her father. Dr Mackay was a Scottish poet and songwriter. At the time of Mary’s birth Dr Mackey was married, though after the death of his wife, he eventually married Mary’s mother, and the young Mary Mills adopted the surname, Mackey.

In 1866, eleven-year-old Mary was sent to a Parisian convent school, to further her education. She returned home four years later in 1870. To hide her illegitimacy, Mary took the name Marie Corelli, possibly giving the impression she had noble Italian ancestry, though this is unlikely.

Marie Corelli, c.1904. Public domain

Her first novel A Romance of Two Worlds was published in 1886, and she continued writing becoming a best-selling author. Some of her best-selling titles included Thelma, Wormwood, Barabbas and The Sorrows of Satan. Despite the critical views of the literary elite at the time, Corelli developed a considerable following, with even Queen Victoria reading her books. Her Royal recognition resulted in Marie Corelli being the only novelist invited to the Coronation of King Edward VII in 1902.

Mason Croft, Church Street, Stratford-Upon-Avon. Copyright Philip Halling

Marie Corelli moved to Stratford-upon-Avon in 1899, living with her companion, Bertha Vyver at ‘Mason Croft’, a Queen Anne style house on Church Street from 1901. She was an eccentric and would be seen boating on the River Avon in a gondola, complete with gondolier, both of which she had brought over from Venice.

She was once asked why she never married, her reply was: “I never married because there was no need. I have three pets at home which answer the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog which growls every morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon, and a cat that comes home late at night.”

She could be described as an early conservationist because she championed the preservation of buildings in Stratford, and through her connections and influence, she was successful in this preservation work. We can thank her for saving buildings such as Harvard House in Stratford – the home of Thomas and Alice Rogers, grandparents of John Harvard. The same John Harvard who settled in the American colonies in 1637 but died soon after in 1638, leaving money and his library to a nearby college; in his honour they renamed the college ‘Harvard’. You may have heard of it!

The transgressive, gesturing angel at the grave of Marie Corelli at Evesham Road cemetery, Stratford. Copyright, Philip Halling

Marie Corelli died on 21 April 1924, leaving everything to her companion Bertha Vyver who continued to live at ‘Mason Croft’ until her own death in 1941, aged 87. The two woman are buried together in a grave in Stratford’s Evesham Road cemetery.

Even in death there is a touch of individuality about Marie Corelli. There is the figure of an angel on the grave with a raised right arm, its right hand making the well-known raised two finger gesture!

So why is she almost completely forgotten today? During the Great War (WWI) she was convicted of food hoarding in March 1918 and was fined £30. With her reputation tainted, her popularity as a novelist never recovered.

 

 

About the Author

Phil Halling is Heart of England Blue Badge Guide. Born in Gloucestershire, Phil grew up on a working farm in the north of the county. He has worked in the photographic industry and as a tutor in further education. After early retirement, Phil retrained as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide and now enjoys sharing his knowledge gained though his years of exploring the region. Although widely travelled around the world, he has lived in the counties of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire all his life. You can contact and book one of Phil’s tours HERE