So back in May, I read the Sorrows of Satan by Marie Corelli. I carried this book with me on my trip to Bhutan and read it mainly at airports, on flights and during the wait in between. This is the one book I picked because I was fascinated by the title for I didn’t know of it before I saw it on my own bookshelf. Call it an advantage of coming from a family of readers or a weak moment where I judged a book by its cover, but I found it to be an easy read despite being from the Victorian era and is in all its Faustian glory, rebellious.
The Sorrows of Satan is the story of Geoffery Tempest, a pauper who turned into a millionaire overnight by what seems a sheer stroke of good luck. Tempest, having seen the best (and worst) of both worlds, provides invaluable insights on the position of poor artists in the Victorian society and the power the wealthy hold over the lives of those around and whom they deem below them. The story follows his experiences after he inherits five million and gains a friend, one Prince Lucio Rimanez (the Satan), all in one night.
The Sorrows of Satan addresses various themes: the unfortunate position of women, the hardships of extreme poverty, the dilemma of artists (especially writers): economic, creative and in regards to the perception of their profession in the society, the competition between them, virtue, art and science, and the perpetual war between science and religion. The character developments are remarkable, ironic and unexpected.
Geoffery Tempest on turning rich, initially finds himself suffering when he witnesses the ugly side of ‘the upper ten’ or ‘society’. He is disgusted by their swellheaded lifestyles that is solely focused on gratifying nobody but themselves as they turn a blind eye to all the opportunities to end the afflictions of those in need while enduring no significant loss themselves. He suffers a writer’s block amidst all the luxury and finds his creative faculties undergoing a qualitative decline. He describes with such precision the dilemma of those who can feel but not find it in them to express it through their work that though Lucio attributes it to Geoffery’s acquisition of wealth, one and all who have experienced a creative block can relate to him. So poor Geoffery is suffering from a writer’s block and is outraged by the hypocrisies of the upper class: so far I like him. We all do, don’t we?
But the story goes on and in the company of his now closest friend Lucio, who is unparalleled in beauty, wealth and intelligence, he finds himself surrendering to the glittery lifestyle of the financially flourishing. Everything is for sale. There is nothing money cannot get him: be it love, fame or respect. And therein begins the decaying of his personality. Tempest turns into everything he had once hated, and now loves his life of shameless profligacy and self-indulgence. While his friend maintains an admirable stance despite his endless wealth and influence, Geoffery, awed by the power of money, is greedy for more.
Thus, we have a mindless, hypocritical sycophant who is gullible to the insular prejudices of those who once equalled him only in matters of wealth. The luxury awakens the chauvinist within and one comes across lots of instances where he tries to justify his antediluvian sex-role stereotyping. It is a man’s prerogative to control the provinces of art, politics and libertinism. That of a woman is to serve, obey and remain chaste until the worldly man is tired of philandering and ready to let her change him with her unconditional love and domestic slavery. He buys fame and is jealous of a woman who is popular in the true sense of the word.
Here, the “free press” is questioned. Journalism has lost all its credibility because people do not care for the opinions of the ‘learned’ reviewers. The public does not like it when they’re told what to like. Literature tastes the freedom of expression in all its prurient and feministic brilliance. The “virtuous” detest the open discussion of everything they freely indulge in as if it was an invasion of privacy of their own bedrooms. The jealous “slash” these works in magazines, newspapers and through word of mouth. But the public loves it.
Fame is the voice of the whole civilized public of the world.
Lucio Rimanez, the enigmatic, angelic (pun-intended) man with his cynicism, witticisms, Byronic disposition is somewhat of an anti-hero and the most captivating character in this story. He [seems to] go out of his way to fulfil Geoffery’s desires and in all his misanthropy, is loved, feared and respected by all. He speaks in contempt of the human race and detests women with inexplicable intensity. He loathes the power they hold over men, their potential for greatness and above all, how they do nothing about it and are content being the subordinate half of the society. He challenges Tempest’s self-serving notions so often through biting sarcasm and savagery that the latter ends up avoiding any form of discussion that may lead to Lucio shattering the grandiose delusions of his own worth and merits.
Mavis Clare, the wise writer who makes her mark in the literary world without help and solely on the basis of her talent is the least of my favourites. And this is because her character development took a direction that was entirely opposite to my expectations. And while that is usually admirable, my reason for such an accusation is this: Mavis Clare is introduced to us as a fiercely independent woman who rose to fame without help. She was envied and hated by many (mainly male authors) for exactly this. She leaves a remarkable impression on the reader when she is first introduced to Tempest (and the reader) by Lucio. Mavis Clare is a woman who worships her work and doesn’t like to compromise her independence: of thought or character, for anything. She is someone who grew as a person through the hate she received and found amusement in the attempts of those who tried to drag her down. Mavis Clare thus established a powerful presence through this independence. But then she is compared to all the ‘bad women’ in the country and placed on a pedestal where she was respected for her purity and undeniable faith in God. If you ask me, there is nothing wrong about portraying a character the way Mavis Clare was. But the book, in all its rebellion, ended up antagonizing polyandry and faithlessness through what could’ve been a remarkable source of ending all debates on the very subjects. Mavis Clare was actually a God-loving, optimistic and utilitarian character who was indeed lovable. She was non-judgemental and content and bestowed a sense of hope on all who read her books. But her character unintentionally (maybe not) became a proponent of faith as a path to happiness and the height of her contentment was deemed unattainable by the irreligious and unchaste Lady Sibyl Elton.
Which leads me to my favourite character from the book. Lady Sibyl Elton, the daughter of a once wealthy Earl, is the beauty of her age. She is introduced as a cold, unimpressed and unsocial young girl who encourages no man, rich or poor, who thinks himself worthy of her affections. She is an avid reader of contemporary literature. She ends up marrying Geoffery Tempest who, in the course of time, realises that she is nothing like his expectations. Honest to him from the very beginning about herself and her beliefs, Sibyl Elton refuses to change herself. She is brutally direct about her persona: inside and out and is unapologetically herself till the very end. She offers some of the most eyeopening and endearing convictions through her dialogues and her letter(s). In all her jealousy, arrogance and subjective notions, Lady Sibyl Elton established a love-hate relationship with me.
Though I didn’t really like the way the book ends, I found within its pages some of the most enlightening views and counterviews on vast manmade structures like money, gender and religion. The author endorses both sides of the coin with equal apprehension and as a result, produces some erudite conversations between her characters.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on both the book and my opinions on it. Feel free to write to me in the comments’ section or drop in an email!