Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0024739, Sat, 2 Nov 2013 21:46:19 -0500

Marie Corelli's "The Mighty Atom"
In “Speak, Memory” (Chapter 4, section 4) VN discusses his many governesses including “one awful person who read to me Marie Corelli’s “The Mighty Atom”. Corelli, very popular in her day, is bettered remembered for her first biggie “Romance of Two Worlds”. “The Mighty Atom” may be found in full on the web. Below, I quote from a brief web summary of the volume.

D. Barton Johnson (Who, for his sins, is now reading Corelli’s “Romance of Two Worlds”.)

Marie Corelli’s novel from 1896, “The Mighty Atom”, is an attempt by Corelli to show the evils of Atheism. Her dedication reads: “To those self-styled “progressivists,” who by precept and example assist the infamous cause of education without religion, and who by promoting the idea borrowed from French atheism, of denying to the children in board schools and elsewhere the knowledge and love of God as the true foundation of noble living are guilty of a worse crime than murder.”

Corelli then tells a very contrived tale of a sickly boy, Lionel, whose father (John Valliscourt, insists be taught a curriculum devoid of superstition (a.k.a. religion). There are two forces in the boy’s life, one is his father, the source of the entire push of atheism. His father’s influence extends to the boy’s mother as well as to the teachers who are responsible for his instruction. The other force is that of people who believe, which includes the boy’s first teacher Mr. Montrose, who is dismissed by his father due to lack of satisfactory progress in Lionel’s education; Mrs. Valliscourt, though she lacks the ability to stand up to her husband, and even the boy’s second teacher Professor Cadman-Gore softens in this area due to Lionel’s influence. However, it is the grave digger Mr. Reuben Dale and his daughter Jessamine that are the biggest influences in this area, as it is from them that he learns the most about religion.

The conversations between Mr. Dale, Jessamine and Lionel are among the most painful to read, as the author insists on trying to convey in misspelling how Jessamine (and her father) pronounce their words. Other parts of the book read very much like Corelli’s previous works as the characters are very two-dimensional, and other than the slight hint at change in Professor Cadman-Gore there is no character growth which has always been a problem with Corelli’s writing. The worst part of the story though is Corelli’s attempts at conveying what atheists actually believe. It is clear from the start that she has no idea how atheists think. It is also clear that she has no understanding of science, given the way she talks about “The Mighty Atom”, which she seems to think is science’s substitute for God.

When I started reading Corelli’s works, I was a bit more forgiving about her weaknesses as a writer, and though her characters have rarely shown growth in the course of the books, the earlier stories at least contained some interesting ideas. That seemed to change with “The Sorrow of Satan”, and I am sorry to say that this problem has continued with this novel as well. The only saving grace here is that “The Mighty Atom” is fairly short, but you will pretty much know the entire story within the first couple of chapters.

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