arie Corelli was fifty-one years old when she fell in love with Arthur Severn (1842-1931). Both were public figures: she was the most popular English novelist at the time, he an acknowledged watercolorist, and although rather unsuccessful with his paintings, coveted in artists’ circles as the youngest son of the painter Joseph Severn (the intimate friend of Keats) and as a friend of Ruskin’s, whose niece, ward, and heir Joan Agnew he married. Corelli’s acquaintance with Arthur began in 1906 when Corelli and her companion Bertha Vyver visited Ruskin’s house Brantwood in the Lake District, where the Severns lived, and it culminated in Corelli and Severn’s cooperation on The Devil’s Motor in 1910. The writer and the painter planned another joint work, a factual book on Shakespeare’s Stratford-on-Avon, written by Corelli and illustrated by Severn. It was assigned for 1912, then postponed and finally abandoned in 1915, as the relationship between the author and the painter had become more and more strained over the years and finally ended in 1917.
A number of sources document Corelli’s love for Severn, which ran from obsessive infatuation via frustration to rage, once she realised that Severn did not return her passionate feelings. Most explicitly and most clearly biographically, her romance The Life Everlasting (1911) depicts the raptures of a perfect love, and her posthumous confession story Open Confession to a Man from a Woman (1925), sharply contrasts fulfilment in love with its denial. But it is the real-life correspondence between Corelli and Severn, conducted between 1906 and 1917, which most clearly documents the author’s gradual development from the one stage to the other.
The University of Detroit Mercy library holds several boxes that contain hundreds and hundreds of letters of Corelli’s almost daily correspondence with Arthur Severn and his wife Joan. Joan, it seems, was used as an alibi to prove that Corelli’s relationship with Arthur was not of an adulterous nature. With her concurrent steady correspondence with Arthur’s wife, she could disguise the amorous nature of her attachment to the man as friendship for the Severn couple. Over the years, Joan – a friend at first – became in Corelli’s imagination the superfluous third party in a love triangle. In a cryptic letter to Arthur, written in 1915, Corelli draws upon a Biblical allusion to declare her primary, yet unacknowledged, role in Arthur’s life: ‘[M]y next novel […] deals […] with the story of – Abraham! He was such a nice “normal” man, with an overpoweringly good opinion of himself! – and drove Hagar out into the “wilderness” of life, after he had done with her, there to starve ! – so afraid was he of “scenes” with his Sarah!’ (25 April 1915) Joan had become the much abused and discontented Sarah, while Marie saw herself as the mistreated and abandoned concubine Hagar.
Of the letters, still unpublished, only Corelli’s communication to the Severns has survived. Corelli, probably in an outbreak of temper once the relationship had ended and when Severn did not comply to her demand to return her post, burnt all of his letters, and probably also those of Joan. Corelli’s final break with Arthur happened in 1917 after a correspondence of more than ten years and a friendship that went on her side from affection, love and happiness over jealousy, misunderstanding and reproach to disappointment and utter disillusionment. Corelli’s bitter remark to Severn that she could ‘only deeply regret that [she] ever saw Brantwood or its inhabitants ’ (1 August 1917) can scarcely hide her disappointment, despite the overall dramatic tone of the letter. For the last seven years of her life Corelli did not hear from the Severns again, but they attended her funeral in 1924, as some obituaries note.
Unspeakable Desire: The Correspondence as Masquerade
What makes the correspondence fascinating and important for the early twentieth-century context in general and the Corelli context in particular is its ambiguous position between expressive and impassive writing, Victorian decorum and an exploration of the woman’s own sexuality and the unconscious. One might want to say that it epitomises the female writer’s struggle, in Virginia Woolf’s words, to tell ‘the truth about [a woman’s] experiences as a body’ while at the same time having to conform to the Angel in the House ideal (Woolf, 288). Corelli, in her correspondence, experiences the same shock as Woolf’s woman writer who suddenly explores her own unconscious and emotional depths, who thinks about the body, about improper passion and who can, as a consequence, write no more. She, too, encounters the obstacle of unspeakable desire, which is consequently carefully veiled behind a set of strategies.
Meaningful role-play is one of these strategies – the Abraham, Hagar and Sarah reference being a first example. More prominently, Corelli invents the name ‘Pen’ for Arthur, short for ‘Pendragon’, thus alluding to the mythical King Arthur, son of Uther Pendragon. Hundreds of letters are addressed to ‘Pen’ or ‘Pen(dragon)’ – the word play with ‘dragon’ brought in by Corelli to express Arthur’s often explosive manner towards her. Less frequently, but no less important, in her letters to a common friend, Alexander Wedderburn, Corelli becomes Circe and Severn – Ulysses. It seems that Wedderburn made a remark about Corelli’s enchanting power over people, and with Severn’s constant travelling the pair Circe-Ulysses was born. Again, Corelli refers to a work of literature but insists that there is the difference that she – in contrast to the Homeric Circe – ‘[does not] want to get the worst out of people but the best ’ (29 March 1911).
More role-play is revealed in Corelli’s references to other great lovers in world literature: her ambiguous allusion to Dante’s Vita Nuova in a letter to Severn – ‘[…] I do not think I ever loved it so much! Perhaps something has heightened my comprehension who knows!’ (27 August 1910) – evokes the comparison with Dante and Beatrice. Similarly, the author likens her love for Severn to that of Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella . In December 1910 she copies Sonnet 31, ‘With how sad steps, Oh Moon, thou climb’st the skies’, for Arthur. In her fantasy, Arthur is the stargazer and she is the star. It seems ironic that, in the end, Corelli’s love for Arthur would be all too similar to that of Circe and Ulysses, Dante and Beatrice and Astrophil and Stella, namely unrequited. Ulysses, after all, returned to a patiently waiting Penelope-Joan.
Substitute Discourses to Express Love: Literature, Painting, and Music
A more complex strategy to express and at the same time reveal her feelings for the man can be found in Corelli’s substitute discourses of literature, painting and music. The literary references are primarily of a romantic nature. In her letters of 16 and 18 April 1910, for example, Corelli incorporates the Browning correspondence in her own letters. The Browning courtship letters had been published in 1899, and apparently, Severn was reading them in 1910. In her own first letter, Corelli quotes lines from the second sonnet in Elizabeth Barrett’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, erroneously claiming that it was part of the courtship correspondence:
So you’ve been reading the Browning love-story? It is an ideal, all too rare, – and yet I hardly think it strange. It would have been far stranger had the fates allowed those two brilliant passionate souls to beat themselves out in irresponsive silence. I daresay there are many more such romances going on – only these lovers happened to be ‘celebrities’ which perhaps makes it more thrilling. Do you know the lines she wrote to him in one of her first love-letters? – lines which she afterwards included in her ‘Sonnets’– ? Here they are – I hope I can copy them clearly; I daresay she was thinking of her hard father when she wrote them; –
‘Men could not part us with their earthly jars, Nor the seas change us, nor the tempests bend; Our hands would touch for all the mountain bars, And heaven being rolled Between us at the end We should but cling the Closer for the stars.’ He must have been rather happy after this! (16 April 1910)
One can infer from Corelli’s next letter that Severn disparaged the poem in his response to Corelli, by calling it ‘far-fetched’ and ‘obscure’. It seems that the direct language of passion was repugnant to the painter, which he dismissed in a later letter as ‘twaddle’ (18 September 1915). Consequently, Corelli’s reference to poetic language that expresses unrepressed desire evoked a rather disheartening reaction from him, as Corelli’s next letter indicates: ‘I entirely agree with you about the obscurity of Mrs Browning’s line about the stars. It is far-fetched – for of course they could’nt [sic] “cling the closer for the stars”. But she wanted a rhyme to “mountain bars” – and more than that, she wanted to express something which she found beyond expression.’ (18 April 1910) The first part of the statement is rather unfortunate in its acceptance of Severn’s verdict, and feeble in the line of argument – the plausibility of art and the necessity of rhyme –, but the final statement grasps something fundamental about love writing.
Corelli was interested and involved in Severn’s art, and not just through their collaboration on The Devil’s Motor . The discourse of painting, however, is also another substitute code in Corelli’s articulation of love, as the discussion of the ‘Iona’ painting shows. After a common trip to Scotland and Iona, Severn presents Corelli with one of his paintings as a gift. Her (earlier) confession, ‘it is good of you to think of giving me just what I love best for a birthday gift – a picture of yours ’ (25 April 1910) – using the word ‘love’ – suggests that the love for Severn’s picture is a substitute for the inexpressible love for the painter. The painting arrives, and Corelli writes:
The ‘Iona’ is exquisite ! – a perfect poem and perfect picture combined! I cannot explain to you what I felt when I saw it this morning – it was just like hearing some enchanting melody that moves the heart to tears! Such lovely warmth of thought and delicacy of colour are beyond all praise, and equally beyond all thanks ! […] I cannot write about anything else today – it would be a kind of sacrilege. Your heavenly picture is beside me as I write on a temporary table-easel – and every moment I look up and see its wonderfully soft glow burning into my eyes – – yes ‘Pen’! – you are – – well! I must not say what I truly think or you will tell me I ‘flatter’ you – but I never flatter – I can only speak what I feel – and very often I cannot even do that when the feeling is very deep – so that your picture in its extreme beauty deprives me of all language – and I can only admire and do silent homage to the genius in you which can so poetically and faithfully portray Nature’s loveliest moments. (23 August 1910)
The admiration of the painting, says Corelli, takes her to the limits of language. She cannot explain what she feels and is deprived of words. The rhetoric signals the breaking up of syntax and, with it, rational thought. Corelli’s failure to express her affective reaction to art – ‘I can only speak what I feel – and very often I cannot even do that when the feeling is very deep’ – is reminiscent of what Roland Barthes says in A Lover’s Discourse about the failure of language in the phrase ‘je-t’-aime/ I-love-you’: ‘Those who seek the proffering of the word […] are at the extreme limit of language, where language itself […] recognizes that it is without backing or guarantee, working without a net’ (Barthes, 154).
In art, the author is able to express her feelings and even use the word ‘love’, which is otherwise denied to her, as the following quotation shows: ‘I love your work’ (20 August 1915), she admits.
Corelli’s letter of 11 April 1910 reveals the third reference within the masquerade of the letters, at the same time confirming literature and painting as the other two surrogate discourses:
Your letter came by the second post this morning – you are good to cheer me up with such nice letters! Fancy your having no sunshine in London yesterday! – here it was glorious, like full summer, and I sat up with the window wide open, listening to the discourse of two amorous thrushes who were distinctly in earnest about the coming of Spring. I had a few callers who bored me almost to tears! and Dr. Ross [Corelli’s doctor] has since been very peremptory about them, saying to Bertha [Corelli’s companion] – ‘I cannot allow everyone to have the privileges of Dr. Severn !’ I have had the Penzance moonlight brought up from the studio, and placed against the little ship on my wardrobe, so that I can see it from my bed. It is lovely – and just exactly what we saw. It amuses me to hear the doctor issuing orders about my singing! I wonder when I shall be able to render the song which at the Conservatoire was taught ‘for steadiness of voice’ –‘Caro mio ben, credimi almen, Senza di te, languisce il cor.’ I rather question the ‘steadiness of voice’ when I begin! They say there is still a cold wind, even with the sunshine, so I do hope you wont [sic] forget to be careful ! Joan writes you are looking so well and bright – and I am glad ! You should always be well and bright, for so you do your best work; and you have so much beautiful work to do . The world needs it, and you must give it ! A riverderci! – Be quite sure I am getting well by slow degrees. La tua devotissima Marie. (11 April 1910)
The casual chit-chat tone of the letter and its conveying of trivialities, such as the weather, Corelli’s cold and Severn’s general health, cannot hide the latent feelings Corelli implies in the three instances of masquerade. The amorous thrushes most likely refer back to Romantic poetry: here, the thrush is often linked to the lover in a metaphor which appears throughout Corelli’s favourite authors, such as Coleridge, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley. In ‘The Cuckoo at Laverna’, Wordsworth, for instance, speaks of ‘the Nightingale and Thrush/ Blending as in a common English grove/ Their love-songs’ (ll.22-24). Second, the reference to a painting implies a romantic attachment: the ‘Penzance moonlight’ has by now even entered Corelli’s bedroom. Third, music, more precisely, the Italian love song speaks of the heartache and longing of the lover (‘Senza di te, languisce il cor’) when the beloved (‘caro’) is absent.
Corelli has, in her letters, like the woman writer in Woolf’s essay, metaphorically discovered the body. The letters show Corelli in love, and yet, this love cannot be expressed openly. Instead, Corelli performs an act of masquerade that is meant to hide her feelings of love and desire. The role-play and the substitute discourses of literature, painting and music are the main strategies Corelli employs and through which she conforms to etiquette. But nevertheless, in their intensity and expressive non-expressive nature the letters open questions about a woman’s self-expressive life-writing in the early twentieth century. In particular, they pose the question whether the claim for an impersonal modernism – voiced, among others, by T. S. Eliot in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’– might not be an all too masculine version of literary modernism.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments . 1977. Trans. Richard Howard. London: Cape, 1979.
Marie Corelli, ‘To Arthur and Joan Severn’. Autograph letters. Ms. Marie Corelli Collection, Special Collections, University of Detroit Mercy . UDMC – 999. Referenced by date.
Virginia Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’. 1931. Collected Essays . Vol. 2. London: Hogarth, 1966. 284-289.
William Wordsworth, ‘The Cuckoo at Laverna’. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth . Ed. E[rnest] de Selincourt and Helen Darbishire. Vol. 3. Oxford: Clarendon, 1946. 218-222.
Last modified 20 October 2005