I promised in my first post that there would be heroes and villains. I haven’t found any heroes yet, other than the railroad workers who shot steam at locomotives to defrost them. But I’ve found my first villain: the wildly popular British novelist Marie Corelli.
According to the January 3, 1918, New York Times, Corelli was fined £71 by the Stratford-on-Avon Police Court for hoarding sugar. Authorized 32 pounds in a ten-week period, she obtained 179 pounds, plus 50 pounds of preserving sugar. The court didn’t buy her lawyer’s argument that she had acted out of patriotism in preserving fruit for future use. When the police showed up at her house, she said, “You are upsetting the country altogether with your food orders. Lloyd George will be resigning tomorrow, and there will be a revolution in less than a week.”
Who was this woman? I decided to learn more, and I found an article she wrote for the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping called “The World’s Greatest Need.” The world’s greatest need, according to Corelli, is sanity—something that is sorely lacking in this article, aside from a well-argued condemnation of corporal punishment. Corelli writes that that the desire to “wallow in blood and slaughter” has prevailed over reason. That’s an understandable sentiment in 1918; it’s her solution that’s a problem. Anyone who violates the peace and progress of the world, she says, “should either be shot like mad-dogs as incurable and dangerous, or imprisoned for life in asylums for the criminally insane.”
Corelli thinks a lot of people are insane. There’s the Scottish woman who, “after accepting many useful kindnesses from a friend” (could it have been Corelli?), cut the friend out of her prayers following a minor disagreement. Not to mention the Futurists, the Cubists, Debussy, writers of “revoltingly sexual fiction,” and other producers of art that is “utterly opposed to truth and nature.” How to return sanity to the world? Simple—just require everyone wishing to marry to submit to “a searching health examination, so that union may be forbidden to the unfit.”
Corelli was an ardent spiritualist; her books deal with mystical and extrasensory phenomena. (If her predictions to the police about Lloyd George and the revolution are any indication, though, she wasn’t a very gifted prognosticator.) Ironically, she was the daughter, by a household servant, of Charles Mackay, whose 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds debunks hocus-pocus of all types.
It can’t have been easy to be Marie Corelli. She was born with the stigma of illegitimacy and mocked by the literary establishment. She may have had a decades-long same-sex relationship with her father’s caretaker; if so, she had to keep it secret. Still, she chose what beliefs to espouse, and she chose some of the worst elements of 1918 thinking—eugenics, superstition, and reactionary literary taste. Not to mention the sugar hoarding!