Dennis Des Chene, a philosopher at Washington University, has a blog Philosophical Fortnights (note the admirable URL); a recent post made me very happy. First off, the cover of Marie Corelli’s novel attracts me as it did him:

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.

Then there’s the fact that the heroine of the book “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.” And the icing on the cake is that Corelli’s own use of language is so dreadful:

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.

Tu quoque, sweet Marie!


  1. Nice fishing, LH. There but for the brace of cod go we!

  2. “This vague, sieve-like quality of brain and general inability to comprehend or retain impressions 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.”
    Hm, I thought it was a more recent phenomenon caused by LSD.

  3. That dash is kind of jarringly unnecessary. I tried to convince myself that it’s just decoration–it’s not even long enough to be an en-dash, but it’s nevertheless there.
    Such pretention. How can you be a so-called reader? Jeez.

  4. Pehaps Marie Corelli was the David Foster Wallace of her time.

  5. I was thinking, “the Kaye Grogan of her time”.

  6. What’s so bad about that use of language? Why isn’t it just old-fashioned?

  7. The first sentence isn’t a sentence at all, it’s a fragment; furthermore, the quotes around “how” are completely pointless. “Beautiful thoughts expressed in beautiful language” was cliched tripe even back then. More pointless quotes. “Anything in short which” should be “in short, anything that.” “Something of their utmost and best”: huh? I could go on, but you get the point — it’s poor both in terms of the sort of traditional school-grammar nonsense she thought so highly of and in terms of just plain good writing. It might sound better translated into Klingon, though.

  8. Well, I don’t think it’s as bad as that, Hat. The fragmentary punctuation reminds me in a way of Buckminster Fuller’s “I Seem To Be A Verb” — it turns the text into something very spoken-seeming. And the cliches have that effect as well. (Copy editors always want to compress things into Ciceronian piths, as if there were a world-wide paper shortage or something. It’s true that generally this is an improvement, but pithing on somebody’s copy is a heuristic rather than a goal in its own right.)
    Henry Miller spoke very highly of Marie Corelli’s writing, and his opinion should be worth something. The few examples you’ve given suggest that the merit was in conveying what an excitable person jabbering about art and beauty between the wars sounded like. The historical necessity of such evidence that there were other people in the world than teetotaling Kiwanis boosters should not be underestimated.
    Having said that, I doubt I could finish a work of Marie Corelli’s today.

  9. Specific example:
    “Anything in short which” should be “in short, anything that.”
    The meaning is the same but the sound of the sentence has been made completely different, and this has consequences for the larger structure. This particular clause between two em-dashes of disputed utility introduces a pause of a certain length between the other two halves of the sentence. The length and nature of this pause affect the way the rest of the sentence is processed. The original pause is in iambic pentameter and the reader comes out of it without a ruffle. By contrast the suggested rewrite begins with a spondee, kapow(!), that draws too much attention to the possibility of a new thought, which then naturally makes the resumed sentence after the second em-dash seem weak. But this only seems so if you are automatically “fixing” the inserted clause as you read along.
    There is an art to barroom or parlor storytelling and much of it comes from the speaker’s interrupting himself or herself to manage the flow of information and create a sequence of small expectations. I think Marie Corelli understood this art and was able to convey it in writing.

  10. Before I can discuss this with you, you’re going to have to decide whether you’re defending her writing or not. I can’t take very seriously your talk of her “art” when you say “I doubt I could finish a work of Marie Corelli’s today.” And if you told Marie she was practicing “barroom or parlor storytelling,” I suspect she’d paste you one. As for the four words you analyzed so thoroughly, I was not claiming my rewrite was preferable in terms of good writing, just pointing out that in terms of the fourth-grade grammar “rules” Defenders of the Language like her love to uphold, it was Wrong. But you can take it up with Messrs Strunk & White if you like.

  11. Neither of us likes her writing but where you see a lack of technique I see an outsider technique correctly applied to a failure of taste.
    And I think she would have thrown her drink at Strunk and White.

  12. Hm, an outsider technique correctly applied to a failure of taste… I’ll have to think about that. I guess I see what you’re getting at.

  13. 🙂

  14. I think you’re being pedantic.
    ‘Anything in short which does not…’ seems fine to me! I read it without a blip. It sounds very demotic, exactly the way people speak (although it does perhaps sound a little British?)
    As for the “rush” through, yes, it may be bad style, but it works. In fact, I think it fulfils the real function of “quotes”, which I would tentatively define as distancing the author from the content of the quotes for a specific purpose, flagging the content as if to say, “Here, I’m highlighting this because it doesn’t quite belong in the context but I’m putting it in here for a purpose”. Here her purpose is to emphasise her own words, “rush”. You can almost hear her disdainfully enouncing the word “rush” as you read the sentence. Take out the quotes and you’ll see the difference.

  15. Bathrobe, you’re missing my point. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it by our standards, I’m saying it’s badly written by her standards — by the standards of Those Who Deplore. None of them can keep to their own rules, but she does a worse job than most.

  16. Point taken.
    Just wondering: Love and The Philosopher was published in 1923. Did her writing violate the standards of her day? Take your example “Anything in short which”. Are you sure that this would have been castigated in 1923? Rewriting it as should be “in short, anything that” sounds quite modern to me.
    And how old is this campaign against the use of quotes? It feels quite recent to me. I find Qov’s “old-fashioned” a better explanation.

  17. Sorry, the passage isn’t necessarily a quote from “Love and the Philsopher”, but the era is correct (1886-1923).

  18. Good questions, to which I do not have the answers.

Speak Your Mind