Radioactive Fictions Marie Corelli and the Omnipotence of Thoughts

Outselling books by Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells in their day, Marie Corelli’s occult romance novels brim with fantasies of telepathy, mesmerism, and radioactivity. Steven Connor revisits The Life Everlasting (1911), where the recent discovery of radium shapes the mechanics of phantasmal machines and psychic forces able to pass through all impediments.

July 5, 2023

Photograph of Marie Corelli leaning out of a window in Stratford-upon-AvonScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Photograph of Marie Corelli in a window at Mason Croft in Stratford-upon-Avon, ca. 1910 — Source (CC-BY-NC-ND).

From the 1890s onwards, radiation became the successor to electricity as the bearer of a kind of phantasmal mechanics. In one sense, radioactivity represented an entirely new way of conceiving the physical world, not in terms of objects and their interactions, but in terms of fields of influence. It is a world, not of stresses, resistances, contacts, and impacts, but of emanations, permeations, participations, minglings, and superimpositions. The history of the radioactive imaginary is one which sees largely positive and optimistic associations giving way to negative ones. X-rays started to be used to treat cancers almost immediately upon their discovery in 1896. The infatuation with the curative and invigorating qualities of radium has been amply and, it must be said, sometimes rather gleefully demonstrated. Nevertheless, the offensive and destructive powers of radiation had also long been apparent, and energetically dreamed of.

In a series of popular and successful novels starting with the appearance of A Romance of Two Worlds (1886), the English novelist Marie Corelli developed a supernaturalist system centred on the spiritualised powers of electricity. In this Corelli echoed the envious hunger for scientific validation that was characteristic of many varieties of late Victorian supernaturalism. Like Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, the originator and high priestess of theosophy, Corelli was vehemently opposed to what she regarded as the vulgar theatrics of spiritualism, and attempted to give her theories of spiritual evolution a rational basis by assimilating ideas derived from contemporary science and technology. Corelli was less religiously eclectic than Blavatsky, and continued to make Christianity the centre of her “Electric Creed”, in which God becomes “a Shape of Pure Electric Radiance”, and Christ an “electric flame or germ of spiritual existence combined with its companion working force of Will-power”.1 Modern science demonstrated that the miracles of Christ were electrical phenomena: walking on water, she coolly affirmed, is “a purely electric effort, and can be accomplished now by anyone who has cultivated sufficient inner force”.2

Twenty-five years on, in the prologue to her novel The Life Everlasting (1911), Corelli announced her conversion from the idea of electricity as a vital principle to a more contemporary analogy: “the infinite power of that within us which we call Soul, – but which we may perhaps in these scientific days term an eternal radio-activity, – capable of exhaustless energy and of readjustment to varying conditions”.3 Indeed, Corelli claimed that she had been in on the secret of radioactivity even when writing her debut novel:

I was forbidden, for example, to write of radium, that wonderful “discovery” of the immediate hour, though it was then, and had been for a long period, perfectly well known to my instructors, who possessed all the means of extracting it from substances as yet undreamed of by latter-day scientists. I was only permitted to hint at it under the guise of the word “Electricity” – which, after all, was not so much of a misnomer, seeing that electric force displays itself in countless millions of forms.4

Corelli’s heaving blend of overheated romance, vitalist metaphysics, and occultism, with plentiful hints of clairvoyance, reincarnation, mesmerism, Egyptian mysticism, and mysterious psychic powers and traditions, had secured her position as one of the most popular and successful authors of the Edwardian period, outselling writers like H. G. Wells, J. M. Barrie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling.

Marie Corelli standing in formal dress looking at the camera in a photography studioScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Photographic negatives of Marie Corelli in formal dress, ca. 1920s. The right image has been subject to editing — Source (CC-BY-NC-ND).

Although Corelli did not adhere to any particular supernaturalist doxa, her willingness to blend the psychic and the pseudo-scientific along with her attraction to the idea of hierarchies of the spirit gave her work strong affinities with theosophy. The Life Everlasting is split between its denunciations of the spiritually barren mechanism of modern life and suggestions that the magical powers of technology might not be wholly inimical to spiritual progress. Her stories are in fact thronged with mysterious psychically-powered devices and machineries, making it apt that, when the “telly” arrived later in the century, it was referred to in Cockney rhyming slang as a “Marie”.

The central relationship of The Life Everlasting is between a free-thinking “psychist” young woman, whose name we never discover, and Rafael Santoris, the mysterious man she meets during a yachting trip in Scotland, who is the captain of “The Dream”, a spectral vessel powered by some photosynthetic version of electricity that allows for light to be turned into kinetic force. Santoris is a mechanical Magus as well as a mystic:

Our yacht’s motive power seems complex, but in reality it is very simple, – and the same force which propels this light vessel would propel the biggest liner afloat . . . A few grains in weight of hydrogen have power enough to raise a million tons to a height of more than three hundred feet, – and if we could only find a way to liberate economically and with discretion the various forces which Spirit and Matter contain, we might change the whole occupation of man and make of him less a labourer than thinker, less mortal than angel! The wildest fairy-tales might come true, and earth be transformed into a paradise! And as for motive power, in a thimbleful of concentrated fuel we might take the largest ship across the widest ocean. I say if we could only find a way! Some think they are finding it –5

Using this mysterious spiritual propulsion, “The Dream” is not only able to fill its sails when there is no wind (though it is never explained why it should in that case need sails at all), but even to power its progress with moonlight, rather like the novel it inhabits. The novel indeed pulses and glitters relentlessly with various kinds of radiance and radiation, white, pearly, warm, lustrous, “weirdly gleaming”, “soft yet effulgent radiance . . . as if the walls glowed with some surface luminance”.6

Photograph of Marie Corelli sailing a boatScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Photograph of Marie Corelli captaining a racing sailboat belonging to the tea merchant Sir Thomas Lipton, 1905 — Source (CC-BY-NC-ND).

Late in The Life Everlasting, its heroine, launched on a path of spiritual instruction, encounters the central principle of magical thinking, in a “magic book” entitled The Secret of Life. Her quotations from the book accord neatly with Freud’s characterisation of magical thinking as “Allmacht der Gedanken” (omnipotence of thoughts), though mediated through contemporary technologies:

Thought is an actual motive Force, more powerful than any other motive force in the world. It is not the mere pulsation in a particular set of brain cells, destined to pass away into nothingness when the pulsation has ceased. Thought is the voice of the Soul. Just as the human voice is transmitted through distance on the telephone wires, so is the Soul’s voice carried through the radiant fibres connected with the nerves to the brain. The brain receives it, but cannot keep it – for it again is transmitted by its own electric power to other brains, – and you can no more keep a thought to yourself than you can hold a monopoly in the sunshine.7

Neatly and sweetly, the magic book skewers itself on the paradox that attends every evocation of universal and unlimited mediation — namely that it would not have any effect at all unless it were in some way limited:

Everywhere in all worlds, throughout the whole cosmos, Souls are speaking through the material medium of the brain, – souls that may not inhabit this world at all, but that may be as far away from us as the last star visible to the strongest telescope. The harmonies that suggest themselves to the musician here to-day may have fallen from Sirius or Jupiter, striking on his earthly brain with a spiritual sweetness from worlds unknown, – the poet writes what he scarcely realises, obeying the inspiration of his dreams, – and we are all, at our best, but mediums for conveying thought, first receiving it from other spheres to ourselves, and then transmitting it from ourselves to others. Shakespeare, the chief poet and prophet of the world, has written: ”There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so,” – thus giving out a profound truth, – one of the most profound truths of the Psychic Creed. For what we think, we are; and our thoughts resolve themselves into our actions.8

The magical credo, “what we think we are”, has a positive and a negative aspect. On the positive side, it promises a world subdued to will. On the negative side, it threatens the possibility of becoming a captive to one’s own thought. If the world is to be subdued to thought, then thought must itself be subdued to will; but that is an unwinnable struggle if “you can no more keep a thought to yourself than you can hold a monopoly in the sunshine”.9 If your thought can penetrate and control everything, then it can also penetrate you, leaving you merely transparent, the will-less vehicle of thought, spilling in all directions, rather like radiation.

An illustration of radium as a round, seed-filled elementScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Illustration of the “vivid and living” central “sphere” of radium, from Annie Besant and Charles W. Leadbeater’s 1919 book Occult ChemistrySource.

A poorly exposed photograph with splotches that might resemble planetsScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A “thought photograph” by Louis Darget, ca. 1910, supposedly capturing “V-rays” that radiate from the phosphorus in a person’s brain. In this particular image, a planet and its satellites become visible because Darget’s subject, Mrs A, was browsing a celestial atlas when the photographic plate was placed against her head — Source.

The fantasy of being in touch with a universal power, extending indifferently in all directions and with no modulation of its force, makes an absurdity of the other side of the fantasy, that this knowledge might actually have, in the mechanical sense, an Archimedean point, or point of application, any way of acting in one way rather than another, as The Secret of Life promises:

If you would stand firm, you must stand within the whirlwind; if you would maintain the centre-poise of your Soul, you must preserve the balance of movement, – the radiant and deathless atoms whereof your Body and Spirit are composed must be under steady control and complete organisation like a well disciplined army, otherwise the disintegrating forces set up by the malign influences of others around you will not only attack your happiness, but your health, break down your strength and murder your peace. 10

The pan-psychist immediation that makes thought indistinguishable also makes it impossible for there to be any distinguishable thought bearing on anything in particular, or any particular or determinate action of thought possible, thus busting apart the Psychic Creed and much else besides. Included in this “much else” must, of course, be the whole machinery of narrative that has brought the book to this point.

Indeed, narrative seems to have been entirely abandoned by this point in the novel, the final third of which is given over to a description of the narrator’s spiritual ordeals in the House of Aselzion, the residence of a master occultist. Located on the northern coast of Spain, it is full of fantasy apparatus, mostly embodied in forms of magical architecture. There is automatic mood-lighting, her room illumined by a “soft yet effulgent radiance” seemingly supplied by no lamps or burners, but “as if the walls glowed with some surface luminance”; doors that open automatically or walls that melt away, baths that fill themselves; a dumb waiter arrangement whereby the dresser in her room is furnished with meals which are then automatically carried away; “a crystal globe which appeared to be full of some strange volatile fluid, clear in itself, but intersected with endless floating brilliant dots and lines”, which makes visible the Brownian dance of atoms that are not subjected to the force of Will, and is intended “as an object lesson, to prove that such things are – they are facts, not dreams”; and Aselzion’s power of projecting images of the narrator’s desire on to the surface of the sea, along with mysterious sourceless voices, rooms that appear and disappear, walls and staircases that melt away and mysterious cowled figures who abruptly appear and disappear.11 Of course, these are not machines, precisely, since their mechanisms are not open to view, and they work without any obvious workings. But they are not machines precisely because being not-machines is what they are there for — that is, to be imaginary machines, machines imagined because unimageable, imagined in order to be unimageable, machineries of phantasmal self-sublimation that manifest the melting away of machinery.

Radioactivity was the ultimate phantasmal machine in being both mechanical and yet seemingly without material limit or containment. It was a machine that went beyond the conditions of being a machine. “This is precisely what the radio-activity in each individual soul of each individual human being is ordained to do”, wrote Corelli, “to absorb an ‘unknown form of energy which it can render evident as heat and light.’ Heat and Light are the composition of Life; – and the Life which this radio-activity of Soul generates in itself and of itself, can never die.”12

A chromolithograph of friends in a parlour, warmed by a radium hearth, in the year 2000Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Chromolithograph by Villemard, ca. 1910, imagining the use of radium hearths for heating in the year 2000 — Source.

A pamphlet cover reading “The Romance of Radium” and a caricature of Marie and Pierre CurieScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: the cover of a 1920 pamphlet produced by the Radium Dial Company out of Pittsburgh, which argues that radium is “fast forsaking its romance to give mankind comfort and convenience”. Right: Julius Mendes Price’s 1904 caricature for Vanity Fair of Marie and Pierre Curie holding a radioactive element — Source: left, right.

Corelli was not alone in seeing radium as a pure source of perpetual energy, and therefore a kind of mechanics without limit. Marie Curie had been led to the discovery of radium by Henri Becquerel’s realization that the X-rays emitted by uranium salts did not seem to depend on any external action but rather on some indwelling yet inexhaustible property of uranium itself. As Carolyn Thomas de la Peña suggests, this encouraged the idea that radioactivity was a principle of limitlessness; it was the fantasy gift to fantasy that never gave over giving:

Radium entered into and flourished within a popular culture of energy fantasy well established by previous mechanical and electrical energy devices. Yet unlike machines’ and electric devices’ measurable limits and inorganic relationships to the body, radium was invisible, ingestible and seemingly infinite. Many believed it could power the body by a “technology” as natural as the heart and muscles themselves.13

This capacity to generate and perpetuate itself from within meant that radiation, as embodied in the mutative element radium, was identified early on as more than just a new kind of physical force. It was, as Luis A. Compos has shown, a new embodiment of the idea of Life itself, giving rise to a “vitalised radioactive discourse”.14 Although radiation belonged to a new kind of physics, centred on fields rather than bodies delimited in space, there seemed to be considerable resources in poetic, religious, and magical tradition for imagining this kind of permeative geometry, and especially in relation to the idea of “influence”, a word which entered English from Latin influxus stellarum primarily to signify what the OED calls “The supposed flowing or streaming from the stars or heavens of an etherial fluid acting upon the character and destiny of men, and affecting sublunary things generally”.

Photographic images made through exposure to radium. Left is the chemical symbol written as if with ink; right is an image made from radium passing through a coin, key, and heart-shaped object.Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Left: the chemical symbol for radium, “written” on a plate by a pen-shaped glass tube containing a sample of radium. “Radium acted on the plate . . . so energetically as to leave the impressions of its action, in written letters”. Right: a skiagram of a coin, key, and heart formed by “rays passing through” these objects. Both images are from William Hampson’s Radium Explained (1905) — Source: left, right.

An image of a small pinpoint of black surrounded by white demonstrating “photographic reversal” through prolonged exposure to radiumScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

A demonstration of the “photographic action” of radium, and the possibility of reversal through prolonged exposure, from Charles Raffety’s An Introduction to the Science of Radioactivity (1909) — Source.

Most importantly for The Life Everlasting and its fantasies of influence are different forms of powerful rays, like the gaze of Aselzion, who “studied my face with a keen scrutiny which I could feel as though it were a searching ray, burning into every nook and cranny of my heart and soul”.15 Rays are not just instruments of inspection, but are also often the means of transmitting ideas, voices and images. The altar of the chapel is adorned with a large cross which gives out “ever darting rays of fiery brilliancy, and the effect of its perpetual sparkle of lambent fire was is if an electric current were giving off messages which no mortal skill would ever be able to decipher or put into words but which found their way into one’s deepest inward consciousness.”16 The danger increases as the narrator enters the chapel at the House of Aselzion on her own and approaches the central power source, which voluptuously probes, penetrates and permeates her in a mixture of mystical rapture and alien abduction fantasy: “the glowing radiance of the Cross and Star in all that stillness was almost terrible! – the long bright rays were like tongues of fire mutely expressing unutterable things!”.17 Despite, or because of her terror, she is irresistibly drawn towards the “perfect vortex of light . . . that strange starry centre of living luminance”, until she is swallowed up — if she does not herself do the swallowing — in ecstatic consummation:

step by step I went on resolutely till I suddenly felt myself caught as it were in a wheel of fire! Round and round me it whirled, – darting points of radiance as sharp as spears which seemed to enter my body and stab it through and through – I struggled for breath and tried to draw back, – impossible! I was tangled up in a net of endless light-vibrations which, though they gave forth no heat, yet quivered through my whole being with searching intensity as though bent on probing to the very centre of my soul!18

Steven Connor is Director of Research of the Digital Futures Institute, King’s College, London. He is Grace 2 Professor of English Emeritus in the University of Cambridge, and an Emeritus Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge. His most recent books are The Madness of Knowledge: On Wisdom, Ignorance and Fantasies of Knowing (London: Reaktion/Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2019), Giving Way: Thoughts on Unappreciated Dispositions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019) and A History of Asking (London: Open Humanities Press, 2023).

Excerpted and adapted from Steven Connor, Dream Machines (Open Humanities Press, 2017), which is licensed under a Creative Commons By Attribution Share Alike license.