Monday, March 27, 2017

Exploitation and unfinished business in the life of Marie Corelli

There are some lessons to be learned from the financially successful but personally sad life of best-selling Victorian novelist Marie Corelli. 

One of these lessons is about taking responsibility where appropriate, as opposed to blaming someone else. It particularly involves learning to be a good judge of character and not being influenced by factors such as self-interest, self-deception and wishful thinking, as opposed to blaming the other party for not being what we thought they were or wanted them to be.

Blaming people for deceiving us and letting us down seems to be the default. We need to learn to look after our side of things; we need to learn from experience what to look for in people. In particular, we need to learn to recognise warning signals.

This extract from Marie Corelli's book The Silver Domino shows that she knew, in theory at least, that people should take responsibility and blame themselves for their own poor judgement when they feel that they have been deceived by someone:

"Remember that if you do persuade yourself into thinking that I am a Somebody, and if I turn out after all to be a Nobody, it is not my fault. Don't blame me, blame your own self deception."

This is admirable; it is spot on. However, she talked a better game than she played; she didn't apply her wise words to herself. The Silver Domino was published in 1892; here is an extract from The Young Diana, first published in 1918:

"I asked for love – now I ask for vengeance. I gave all my heart and soul to a man whose only god was Self, and I got nothing back…So I have a long score to settle, and I shall try to have some of my spent joys returned to me – with heavy interest."

This is Marie Corelli speaking for herself, and from bitter experience. She was raging at a man she had been infatuated with, because she felt that he had deceived her; he was not what she thought he was and wanted him to be. She had become disappointed and disillusioned. The expression 'Hell hath no greater fury than a women scorned' very much applies in her case.

This is not the place to relate the full sad story. It is enough to say that it provides a good example of what can happen when unfinished business is not dealt with. This is another of the lessons that we can learn from Marie Corelli's life story. She had unfinished business with Eric Mackay, a family member. This set her up for more of the same later on in her life.

Eric was lazy and unscrupulous; he was bitterly jealous of Marie’s success, although more than happy to live off her earnings. He demanded money and for her to use her influence to get him opportunities and promote his dreadful poetry. None of her efforts on his behalf came to anything.

Marie put up with considerable bullying from Eric. He mocked her appearance, he belittled her writing and he tried to make trouble between her and her female companion. He took advantage of her generosity while she continued to do all she could to further his career. Marie bought him an expensive violin and even tried to get him made Poet Laureate. The cognitive dissonance must have been very strong.

He repaid her for all she had done for him by implying that he wrote her novels and spreading vicious rumours behind her back. He sounds like a spiteful, passive-aggressive, nasty piece of work; he sounds like a classic textbook case of a useless sponger.

So why did she put up with all that? Why did she ignore the elephant in the room and the emperor's lack of clothes? Maybe they were exploiting each other; maybe she was trying to buy his company and attention. Maybe she had no defences. Maybe he was blackmailing her.

Eric died in 1898, after failing at everything he had ever tried and having done nothing useful with his life. Marie found evidence among his papers that he had been systematically cheating her and blackening her name with all and sundry. Her hurt and shame were very great. She felt devastated because of all the resources she had wasted on such a hopeless case of a man.

The unresolved problems with Eric Mackay may have drawn the artist Arthur Severn into Marie Corelli's life and created the script for their relationship. If she had only done some inner work, she might not have suffered so much the second time around.

Marie became infatuated with Arthur Severn; she wrote him daily letters from 1906 to 1917.They collaborated on a book. She made great efforts on Severn's behalf, doing her best to further his career, advance his reputation and promote his paintings. This all sounds very familiar. The main difference is that Arthur Severn had genuine talent.

As might be expected, it all eventually turned sour and ended badly.

Their friendship and working relationship got off to a good start. She set up a studio for him; she even cleaned his paintbrushes and filled his pipe.

Severn started by repaying her generosity with small attentions. She took this far too seriously, and her feelings for him became intense; they turned into a romantic obsession. She wanted far more from him than he was able or willing to give. This caused him to withdraw and become cruel. He behaved towards her rather like Eric had. He became openly scornful of Marie. He humiliated her and argued with her in public; he mocked her writing and left her intimate letters to him lying around so that his family or any stranger could read them.
History had repeated itself.

Eric Mackay made inappropriate, inordinate and unrealistic material demands on Marie Corelli. His lack of talent doomed these demands to failure.

Marie Corelli made inappropriate, inordinate and unrealistic emotional demands on Arthur Severn. Her appearance, her sometimes unattractive manner, her obsessive infatuation and her age at the time doomed these demands to failure.

They were probably exploiting and using each other. She had an ulterior motive for furthering his career; he had an ulterior motive for paying her attention.

Marie Corelli put some of the content of her private diaries into her fiction. From An Open Confession to a Man from a Woman, published after her death:

...my idol has not only feet of clay but a whole dull body of the same gross and heavy material! I never judged you capable of stabbing the heart of a woman you professed to adore, nor could I have believed you would develop ungratefulness of which a dog might be ashamed. ... I realise now, that during the whole period of your assumed devotion to me, and while you took advantage of my hospitality, used my friends, and assisted yourself through my influence, you were busy preparing the way to a safe shelter from the worries of the world. . . .”

So in other words, in her own words, at first she took Severn for a Somebody and then he turned out to be a Nobody. She regretted ever having met him.

These sad stories support the theory that some of the people who do not deal with unfinished business are forced to take the downward path and experience more of the same, but even worse. Marie Corelli was very hurt by the way Eric Mackay had behaved towards her, but it was nothing compared to the devastation caused by feeling disappointed, disillusioned and betrayed by Arthur Severn.