Thursday, February 15, 2018

Wormwood, by Marie Corelli

Broadview Press, 2004
originally published 1890
407 pp


"You mean to tell me...that Absinthe, -- which I have heard spoken of as the curse of Paris, -- is a cure for all human ills?" 
Well, I must say there's nothing like adding a page onto one's reading journal and then putting nothing on it for over a month. I got sidetracked with Jan Potocki's magnum opus The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a true behemoth of a book, as well as a week away from home and other distractions.

Anyway, the here and now is what's important; today's focus is Marie Corelli's Wormwood, published in 1890. As an author,  Marie Corelli  (1855-1924) was pretty much universally despised by critics, and as Sutherland reveals in his Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction, by 1889
"reviews of her fiction were an orchestrated chorus of ridicule and savagery." (148)
She was known to "her detractors" as "the idol of suburbia -- the favorite of the common multitude," (60); another author, J.M. Stuart Young wrote in 1906 (as quoted in Kirsten Macleod's introduction, 10)  that
"no intelligent reader could enjoy Corelli's books and that her 'appeal' was only to the 'unthinking classes.' "
So much for literary snobbery, though -- as scholar Annette R. Federico in her book Idol of Suburbia: Maria Corelli and Late-Victorian Literary Culture points out,
"Corelli was also admired, at least for a time, by some of the literary and theatrical lights of London: Oscar Wilde asked her to write for Woman's World, she was introduced to Robert Browning and Algernon Charles Swinburne, Ellen Terry adored her, and Lillie Langtry asked to perform in dramatizations of her novels."
She also "broke all publishing records:"
"on average, a Corelli novel sold 100,000 copies a year. At the turn of the century sales averaged 175,000 copies, and in 1906 The Treasure of Heaven: A Romance of Riches achieved a first-day record of 100,000." (2)
Corelli was also admired by no less a personage than Queen Victoria herself;  Sutherland says that while In the 1890s her work was actually "boycotted by several journals,"  at the same time, her novels were "devoured" by British and American readers "as fast as they appeared."

Wormwood is my introduction to Corelli's work, although I've picked up and plan to read many others. While it works on several different levels, the most obvious is that it reads like the Reefer Madness of its day, a cautionary tale that centers on the evils of Absinthe and its degenerating effects on  those who become addicted to it.  It is also, as the cover blurb on my edition reveals,
"a lurid tale of unrequited love, betrayal, vengeance, murder, suicide, and addiction"
which just about covers the plot in its entirety, but it is also her look at some of the more decadent aspects of Parisian society of the time. In her preface to the book,  Corelli asks her readers to consider that the spread of "French drug-drinking" might just become as "à la mode" as  French fashions, habits, books and pictures that have become "particularly favoured by the English."

the original cover of the 1890 edition, designed by Corelli herself. From The Virtual Absinthe Museum

Written in the first person and looking back in retrospect,  Wormwood is the story of Gaston Beauvais, son of a highly-respected French banker of Neuilly whose story, as he puts it, begins with "love."   We first encounter Beauvais on a bridge overlooking the Seine, looking down at the water and seeing "faces peering up at me," wondering if they "want something" from him. He feels strangely "impelled toward them," as they draw him "downwards by a deadly fascination..." but tears himself away "with a violent effort." From there, he reflects on his life story.    Beauvais recalls how he fell in love with and eventually becomes engaged to Pauline de Charmilles, who has just returned to her family home after being away at school. For Beauvais, it is love at first sight -- he worships and adores Pauline, and decides to ask her father for her hand in marriage.  Pauline's cousin Heloise, however, urges that he give Pauline some time -- after all, she had only just completed finishing school after having been educated in a convent:
"She is sweet, she is good, she is a little angel of beauty; but she does not understand what love is, she cannot even translate the passing emotions of her own heart"
and begs Gaston to be patient and to "give her time to be quite sure of herself."  It is advice that Gaston would have been smart to heed, since on the very day before the two are to be married, Pauline reveals that she has another man and other plans in mind.   While in Paris after this shattering announcement, suffering a broken heart beyond all measure,  Gaston runs into André Gessonex, an artist acquaintance of his who invites him to a cafe and there introduces him to Absinthe as a "remedy" to ease his suffering. Gaston, who has never imbibed, muses that if only it could
 "quench mad passion -- if it could kill love! -- if it could make of my heart a stone, instead of a tortured palpitating sentient substance --..."
and then takes his first taste of the "Fairy with the Green Eyes."  Several tumblers later, and Gaston is on the road to his own complete and utter deterioration, beginning with his own plans for revenge against those who have wronged him. As he gives into his cravings, he notes that it was the start of his life as one of the city's Absintheurs, who
 " are the degradation of Paris, -- the canker of the city -- the slaves of mean insatiable madness which nothing but death can cure." 

What follows is a look at a man spiraling down into the depths and the effect of his addiction not just on himself, but on everyone in his orbit.

I loved this book, melodramatic as it can often become,  and couldn't get enough of it. If I'd read it in 1890, I probably would have joined the ranks of  those "unthinking" suburban readers eagerly awaiting the release of  Corelli's next novel -- this book has everything.   Wormwood is  neither stodgy nor dry,  it has all the hallmarks of the best, most scandalous sensation fiction, and fits in nicely with Decadent tradition,  despite the fact that Corelli implies it as an attack on fin-de-siècle French society.   That is just one contradiction to be found in his novel -- another example can be found in Corelli's own use of the Naturalist style while making it quite clear that she deplores it   (she lets loose on Zola more than once here), but then again, she may have done it this way on purpose. As Macleod says in the introduction, up  until the time she wrote Wormwood, Corelli's books were all the kind "associated with women readers and writers;" in taking on the style of Naturalism, "a 'masculine' literary genre," she had hoped it would "earn the respect of the male-dominated literary elite,"  perhaps to show them that women writers could move beyond simply writing novels enjoyed mostly by other women.

Anyone who has it in his or her mind that Victorian fiction is positively dull really needs to read this book. Trust me, it is anything but.

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