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Individual

The “Philosopher” and the “Sentimentalist”

On my way to Coleridge the other day I couldn’t help but notice the work whose front cover you see here. Could I resist? Of course not. It was that emdash between ‘love’ and ‘philosopher’. I have a soft spot for eccentric punctuation.
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Marie Corelli was a prolific and extremely successful novelist. She combined an unconventional private life, including a female partner, with social conservatism—in her Free opinions, freely expressed, she takes on “unchristian clerics”, the “vulgarity of wealth”, “little poets”, and the declining attention-span of readers (). She published her first novels in 1886, and in all published over 30 volumes, many of them still in print. Love, one of her last anthumous works (), was published in 1923. The title character is an inveterate “sponger”, brilliant but verbally cruel; the “sentimentalist”, his foil, is the daughter of a rich old man who with the Philosopher’s help is completing his lifework, The Deterioration of Language Invariably Perceived as a Precursor to the Decadence of Civilization (). Needless to say, a young, intelligent woman, unmarried, with “such a charming curve to the back! […] and oh, dear me, such a very small hand,—as white as the dove that had settled upon it”, must fall in love with someone: but with whom?
() The detailed bibliography at Violet Books, compiled by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, lists four works dictated by Corelli from beyond the grave. She has been silent, it appears, since 1969. Also by Salmonson: a biography of Corelli at the Victorian Web, a bibliography of works on Corelli, and a filmography. From the latter I learn that D. W. Griffith directed a version of The sorrows of Satan in 1926, starring, among others, the lovely but ill-fated Lya de Putti.
() See p. 70. If this puts you in mind of Casaubon and Middlemarch, you’re right: the characters themselves note the parallel (35). The Deterioration of Language reflects one of Corelli’s own preoccupations: here and elsewhere she inveighs against slang and vulgarity, regarding it as symptom of cultural decline.
() Of the public she writes that “their reading is of a most strange, mixed, and desultory order”. Why?
Simply because even the million do not know “how” to read. Moreover, it is very difficult to make them learn. They have neither the skill nor the patience to study beautiful thoughts expressed in beautiful language. They want to “rush” something through. Whether poem, play or novel, it must be “rushed through” and done with. […] They have time for motoring, cycling, card-playing, racing, betting, hockey and golf,—anything in short which does not directly appeal to the intellectual faculties,—but for real reading, they can neither make leisure, nor acquire aptitude.
This vague, sieve-like quality of brain and general inability to comprehend or retain imprssions of character or events, which is becoming so common among modern so-called “readers” of books, can but make things very difficult for authors who seek to contribute something of their utmost and best to the world of literature.
A hundred years before Coleridge was already lamenting the ill effects of reading the newspapers and reviews (Biographia litteraria, c3, ed. Engell & Bate 1:48). A hundred and fifty years before that, Pascal laid the scalpel to the human thirst for distraction (Pensées ed. Lafuma 1962, nos. 132–137). It’s possible that the public—that beast—has been in continuous decline the last two centuries, and that the laments of Coleridge and Corelli and Alan Bloom have all got something to them. But as Coleridge himself notes, reading novels of the trashy sort found in the circulating libraries of his time is an activity belonging to “that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely: indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy”. If those propensities are innate, then the impression of decline must be a sort of illusion; only the means of indulging them have changed. Pascal would be closer to the truth in treating them as symptoms of original sin, transmitted ex traduce from Adam (or Lucy) onward.

LinkMarch 7, 2005 in Books · Literature