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decorated initial 'L'ike many Victorians, particularly those later in the century, Marie Corelli, one of the best selling Victorian and early-twentieth-century novelists, believed in her own fervent, if idiosyncratic, Christianity. As Aubrey Leigh, one of the characters in The Master Christian (1900) proclaims, "There are no Charles Kingsleys nowadays, — if there were, I should call myself a 'Kingsleyite'." Essentially, Corelli believes in an essential, non-institutional form of Christianity, for as her character explains,

A church is a building more or less beautiful or ugly as the case may be, and in the building there is generally a man who reads prayers in a sing-song tone of voice, and perhaps another man who preaches without eloquence on some text which he utterly fails to see the true symbolical meaning of. . . . But as matters stand I am not moved by the church to feel religious. I would rather sit quietly in the fields and hear the gentle leaves whispering their joys and thanksgivings above my head, than listen to a human creature who has not even the education to comprehend the simplest teachings of nature, daring to assert himself as a teacher of the Divine. My own chief object in life has been and still is to speak on this and similar subjects to the people who are groping after lost Christianity. They need helping, and I want to try in my way to help them." [133]

Appropriately, although most of the attacks on religion in The Master Christian — a very devout book — have Roman Catholicism as their target, Corelli also criticizes protestantism, even when it diverges from the Roman church. She, for example, uses Cyrillon, the young reformer, as a way of sharply criticizing both Protestant and Catholic services because they ignore Christ's explicit instructions:

I say IF we believe, we must accept His commands; and they are plain enough. 'WHEN YE PRAY, USE NOT VAIN REPETITIONS AS THE HEATHEN DO, FOR THEY THINK THEY SHALL BE HEARD FOR THEIR MUCH SPEAKING. BE NOT YE THEREFORE LIKE UNTO THEM, FOR YOUR FATHER KNOWETH WHAT THINGS YE HAVE NEED OF BEFORE YE ASK HIM.' Now if this is to be understood as the command of Christ, the Messenger of God, do we not deliberately act against it in all directions? Vain repetitions! The Church is full of them, — choked with them! The priests who order us to say ten or twenty 'Paternosters' by way of penance, are telling us to do exactly what Christ commanded us not to do! The terrible Litany of the Protestant Church, with its everlasting 'Good Lord deliver us,' is another example of vain repetition. Again — think of these words — 'When thou prayest, thou shalt NOT BE AS THE HYPOCRITES ARE, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues, and at the corners of the streets THAT THEY MAY BE SEEN OF MEN.' Is not all our churchgoing that we may be seen of men?" [232]

More commonly throughout the novel, however, Corelli's speakers attack Catholicism from virtually every Victorian point of view. At times in the novel Corelli's anti-catholicism appears little more than common British suspicion and hatred of the Catholic Church expressed in the strident tones of rabble-rousers like William Murphy, "the apostle of popular anti-Catholicism in the England of the 1860s." Aubrey Leigh, the Anglo-American who is one of her mouthpieces, seems as hysterical as any member of the Orange Lodge when he swears that England will never be converted to Catholicism:

"Not while I live!" said Aubrey firmly. . . . The hand of Roman priestcraft shall never weigh on England while there are any honest men left in it! The conversion of England! The retrogression of England! Do you think such a thing is likely to happen because a few misguided clerics choose to appeal to the silly sentimentality of hysterical women with such church tricks and rags of paganism as incense and candles! Bah! Do not judge the English inward heart by its small outward follies, Monsignor! There are more honest, brave, and sensible folk in the British Islands than you think. And though our foreign foes desire our fall, the seed of THEIR decay is not yet in us!" [298]

Many Englishmen of widely varying religious and political positions feared, disliked, and distrusted Roman Catholicism for a number of reasons, including Papal mis-government of large portions of Italy, the then-novel doctrine of Papal Infallibility, the Church's unwillingness to accept modern science, and the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in England. Many Catholics and and non-Catholics alike were horrified by the declaration by Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (1865), which condemned as heretical the beliefs that Catholic countries could tolerate other religions, that any form of Protestantism could be a legitimate form of Christianity, and that freedom of opinion itself was valuable. In The Master Christian, however, Corelli's virulent anti-catholicism far exceeds such principled political and religious opposition when she charges that important figures in the Church hierarchy greedily see the conversion of the United Kingdom chiefly in financial terms!

For there were, and ARE great interests at stake in the so-called "conversion of England," — it is truly one of the largest financial schemes ever set afloat in the world, if those whose duty it is to influence and control events could only be brought to see the practical side of the matter, and set a check on its advancement before it is too late. Gherardi knew what great opportunities there were in embryo of making large fortunes; — and not only of making large fortunes but of obtaining incredible power. There was a great plan afoot of drawing American and English wealth into the big Church-net through the medium of superstitious fear and sentimental bigotry, — and an opposer and enemy like Aubrey Leigh, physically handsome, with such powers of oratory as are only granted to the very few, was capable of influencing women as well as men — and women, as Gherardi well recognised, are the chief supporters of the Papal system. Uneasily he thought of a certain wealthy American heiress whom he had persuaded into thinking herself specially favoured and watched over by the Virgin Mary, and who, overcome by the strong imaginary consciousness of this heavenly protection, had signed away in her will a million of pounds sterling to a particular "shrine" in which he had the largest share of financial profit. Now, suppose she should chance to come within the radius of Leigh's attractive personality and teaching, and revoke this bequest? [300]

Or, as the repentant Abbé proclaims to his fashionable Parisian congregation in Carlylean terms, "A lie is opposed to the working forces of Nature, and those forces sooner or later will attack it and overcome it. They are beginning now in our swiftly advancing day, to attack the Church of Rome. And why? Because its doctrine is no longer that of Christ, but of Mammon!" [476]

Other times, using standard Protestant arguments, Corelli claims that the Church of Rome is essentially pagan. Again drawing on Carlylean analogies, she has Aubrey Leigh point out that "The [Hindu] Car of Juggernaut was considered to be divinely ordained . . . and the wretched and ignorant populace flung themselves under it in the fit of hysterical mania to which they were excited by the priests of the god, and so perished in their thousands. Not THEY were to blame; but the men who invented the imposture and encouraged the slaughter. THEY had an ideal; — the priests had none! But Juggernaut had its end — and so will Rome!" The comparison to the Hindu Juggernaut is not the only comparison to pagan religions, for like many Victorian anti-catholics, Corelli charges that Roman Catholicism is fundamentally the Church of pagan Rome.

Roman Christianity is grafted upon Roman Paganism. When the Apostles were all dead, and their successors (who had never been in personal touch with Christ) came on to the scene of action, they discovered that the people of Rome would not do without the worship of woman in their creed, so they cleverly substituted the Virgin Mary for Venus and Diana. They turned the statues of gods and heroes into figures of Apostles and Saints. They knew it would be unwise to deprive the populace of what they had been so long accustomed to, and therefore they left them their swinging censers, their gold chalices, and their symbolic candles. Thus it is that Roman Catholicism became, and is still, merely a Christian form of Paganism which is made to pay successfully, just as the feasts and Saturnalia of ancient days were made to pay as spectacular and theatrical pastimes. I should not blame your Church if it declared itself to be an offshoot of Paganism at once, — Paganism, or any other form of faith, deserves respect as long as its priests and followers are sincere; but when their belief is a mere pretence, and their system degenerates into a scheme of making money out of the fond faiths of the ignorant, then I consider it is time to protest against such blasphemy in the presence of God and all things divine and spiritual!" [301-302]

Like many Protestants, particularly the extreme Evangelicals whom Ruskin wanted to convert to gothic architecture, Turner, and the Pre-Raphaelites, Corelli and her mouthpieces in the novel not only distrust any church hierarchy they also hate any ornamentation, display, or ritual in a place of worship. Not surprisingly, when Christ returns to earth in the form of the Manuel, the street child whom Cardinal Bonpré makes his companion, he finds himself horrified by St. Peter's in Rome.

St. Peter's, — the huge Theatre misnamed a Church! Oh, dear friend! — do not look at me thus! Surely you must feel that what I say is true? Surely you know that there is nothing of the loving God in that vast Cruelty of a place, where wealth and ostentation vie with intolerant officialism, bigotry and superstition! — where even the marble columns have been stolen from the temples of a sincerer Paganism, and still bear the names of Isis and Jupiter wrought in the truthful stone; — where theft, rapine and murder have helped to build the miscalled Christian fane! You cannot in your heart of hearts feel it to be the abode of Christ; your soul, bared to the sight of God, repudiates it as a Lie! Yes!" — For, startled and carried away by the boy's fervour, Cardinal Felix had risen, and now stood upright, making a feeble gesture with his hands, as though seeking to keep back the crushing weight of some too overwhelming conviction, — "Yes — you would silence me! — but you cannot! — I read your heart! You love God . . . and I — I love Him too! You would serve Him! — and I — I would obey Him! Ah, do not struggle with yourself, dear and noble friend! If you were thrice crowned a martyr and saint you could not see otherwise than clearly — you could not but accept Truth when Truth is manifested to you, — you could not swear falsely before God! Would the Christ not say now as He said so many centuries ago — 'My House is called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves!' Is it not truly a den of thieves? What has the Man of Sorrows to do with all the evil splendour of St. Peter's? — its bronzes, its marbles, its colossal statues of dead gods, its glittering altars, its miserable dreary immensity, its flaring gilding and insolent vulgarity of cost! Oh, what a loneliness is that of Christ in this world! What a second Agony in Gethsemane!" [316]

Similarly, earlier in the novel, Manuel, whom the saintly Cardinal does not yet know is Christ, draws the elderly man's attention to what is essentially a Ruskinian symbolical grotesque in the manner of the Victorian sage. Pausing before a "priest's garment of lace," he points out the high human cost of the finery:

See all the leaves and rosebuds worked in, this by the needle, — and think how many human eyes have strained at it, and grown dull and blind over it! If one could only believe that the poor eyes were comforted at all in the following of the difficult thread! — but no,- -the sunshine must have lessened and the days grown darker and darker, till death came and gently shut up the lids of the tired orbs of earthy vision, and opened those of the soul to Light indeed! This work speaks with a thousand tongues! I can hear them! Torture,- -poverty, — pain, — pitilessness, — long hours, — scant reward, — tired fingers, — weary hearts! — and a priest of Christ wears this to perform Christ's service! Clad in a garment of human suffering, to preach mercy! Is it not strange? [138]

In contrast to these words of the divine child Manuel, we may conclude with those of the completely evil power of the Vatican, Moretti, who argues that true Christianity, real religion, is impossible:

Christianity pur et simple, WOULD be eccentricity. In its primitive simplicity it is an impossible creed. Founded by the Divine it needs divine beings to comprehend and follow it, — beings not of this world nor addicted to the things of this world. And to exist in the world, made of the world's clay, and the world's inherited associations, and yet not be of it, is to be judged crazed! True, there have been saints and martyrs, — there are saints and martyrs now, unknown and unheard of, but nevertheless consumed by flames more cruel perhaps than those which physically burn the flesh; — idealists, thinkers, dreamers, heralds of future progress, — and how are they estimated? As madmen all! To be human, and yet above humanity, is the supreme sin! For that very affront the multitude cried out, 'Not this man, but Barabbas!' And to this day we all prefer Barabbas to Christ. Hence the power of the Church!" [396]


Corelli, Marie. The Master-Christian. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1900. [Project Gutenberg has a free electronic text online; search on Google.]

Last modified 25 August 2003