Our hero, Geoffrey Tempest, is living in a tiny rented room, is in arrears on rent, and hasn’t enough money to buy so much as a piece of bread. Having written a book but found no publisher, he is a prime example of a starving artist.
Suddenly, plot devices appear! His school chum in Australia has sent him a check for some cash to tide him over, as well as an introduction for a new friend of his who will soon arrive and advise Geoffrey on the literary world. Also, there’s another letter stating his distant relative has died and left him oodles of cash.
The mysterious friend, a Prince Rimanez (first name Lucio – that’s not leading at all), arrives and begins to turn Geoffrey’s life upside down. The book gets published and promoted and lauded by the critics; Geoff gets a new wardrobe, new digs, and new hobbies to suit his new faux-ristocratic station; he is introduced to lovely young ladies of all sorts; his monies are put into the care of the same firm which managed his relative’s affairs.
Through it all, Geoff and Lucio are the best of friends – Lucio leading the way, as he seems to know everybody. When not gambling, carousing, and/or being seen in all the right places by the right people, they often engage in philosophical discussions, as Geoff is staunchly scientific and analytical of mind, and Lucio likes to play (dare I say it) devil’s advocate:
“Well, people have all sorts of fancies now-a-days” – I said. “What with Blavatskyism, Besantism and hypnotism, it is no wonder if some folks still have a faint credence in the silly old superstitions of a devil’s existence.”
Geoff also has some definite ideas about women, stating that they are merely an appendage to a man and women should only look to wed where they will have the greatest advantage. Careful what you wish for Geoff, my boy…
Lucio introduces Geoff to a gorgeous young creature named Sibyl, daughter of a cash-poor lord. He’s smitten, she’s bored with life; he does his best to woo her, she’s mostly unimpressed; he proclaims love, she mumbles ‘meh’. Perfect match, right? What could possibly go wrong?
They get married, and soon enough he gets a taste of his own medicine. He realizes he is merely appendage to his millions. You almost feel bad for the guy, except he’s a lackwitted, boorish, misogynist prick, so you really don’t. Of course, when confronting Sibyl about her various unseemly behaviors, he accuses her of hysteria:
She sprang up from the couch, her tears dried on her cheeks as though by sheer heat of the crimson glow that flushed them, and she laughed wildly.
“Yes, that is it!” she exclaimed. “Hysteria! – nothing else! It is accountable for everything that moves a woman’s nature. A woman has no right to have any emotions that cannot be cured by smelling-salts! Heart-ache? – pooh! – cut her stay-lace! Despair and a sense of sin and misery? – nonsense! – bathe her temples in vinegar! An uneasy conscience? – ah! – for an uneasy conscience there is nothing better than sal volatile! Woman is a toy, – a breakable fool’s toy; – and when she is broken, throw her aside and have done with her, – don’t try to piece together the fragile rubbish!”
Well one fine night Geoff awakens to realize Sibyl isn’t in bed with him, and when he gets up to investigate, he finds her imploring Lucio to take her away from that boring Geoff guy. In a shocking display, she kneels before him, offering him worship and sex and all kinds of very improper things. Lucio, lit by a convenient lightning storm, spurns her advances.
She commits suicide shortly thereafter, and Geoff is left with the empty gestures of fellow society members:
As a rule, people are seldom or never unselfish enough to be honestly sorry for the evansihment of some leading or brilliant figure in their midst, – the vacancy leaves room for the pushing in of smaller fry. Be sure that if you are unhappily celebrated for either beauty, wit, intellect, or all three together, half society wishes you dead already, and the other half tries to make you as wretched as possible while you are alive.
He and Lucio take a trip to Egypt, to forget his troubles, but he soon tires of the tour and wishes to return home. After more Victorian melodrama, he finally realizes what we’ve known since Lucio appeared with that name: Geoff’s BFF is Lucifer. Having asked ‘why me’ (in far more words), Lucio responds to Geoff thusly:
I have chosen you because you are a type of the apparently respected and unblamable man – you are not what the world calls a criminal, – you have murdered no one, – you have stolen no neighbour’s goods, – your unchastities and adulteries are those of every ‘fashionable’ vice-monger, – and your blasphemies against the Divine are no worse than those of the most approved modern magazine-contributors. You are guilty nevertheless of the chief crime of the age, – Sensual Egotism. – the blackest sin known to either angels or devils, because hopeless. The murderer may repent, and save a hundred lives to make up for the one he snatched, – the thief may atone with honest labour, – the adulterer may scourge his flesh and do grim penance for late pardon, – the blasphemer may retrieve his blasphemies, – but for the Egoist there is no chance of wholesome penitence, since to himself he is perfect, and counts his creator as somewhat inferior!
During this, another ominous storm is brewing, but since the guys are on a boat, the danger is more real. It sinks, and Geoff is just barely saved by a passing vessel; no sign of the devilish Lucio. When he finally makes it back to Jolly Old England, it turns out his financial team has nicked most of his millions, and Geoff can’t even be bothered to chase them. He feels he’s getting what he deserved.
The Sorrows of Satan, while certainly not autobiographical, does feature a number of elements with direct ties to Corelli’s life. Geoff and Lucio’s great friendship is a mirror of her life-long relationship with Bertha Vyver. Sibyl’s anti-man tirades are Corelli’s views given voice. Like Geoffrey, she held her own spiritual philosophies to be superior to any other world view.
Corelli’s two great skills are scenic description, and maintaining suspense. Her climactic scenes, such as Sibyl’s pleading with Lucio, keep the tension at a drawn-out peak, if that makes any sense. If it were a film, it would have the soundtrack of a sustained high note on a violin that you get just before a big reveal – only the violinist for her scene would need a bow about a mile long for the length of note required.
Sorrows is a LONG read: 519 pages. It is, however, FREE from Feedbooks, so you can take your time once you’ve downloaded it. If you prefer to Listen, Lisa Statler has recorded the full book on Librivox.
If you’re interested, you can watch a silent film based on the book, directed by D.W. Griffith. The picture quality is not the best, but I think the silent-film acting matches up well with the Victorian fantastical melodrama.