Phenomenally popular fin-de-siecle celebrity Marie Carelli, in her fictional
and nonfictional writing, repeatedly affirmed that the era's iconic
New Woman represented not the promise but the threat of "modernity."
Modernity, as represented by the New Woman, did not extend the civilizing
process. Rather, it jeopardized it. By challenging rules of behavior that
were integral to the civilized state, the New Woman threatened a return
to a previous state of barbarianism. Indeed, by refusing to allow a proper
feeling of womanly shame to regulate her thoughts and actions, this icon of
modernity seemed to counter Norbert Elias's understanding of the symbiotic
relationship between advancing frontiers of shame and the progression
of civilization. Given that this New Woman's improper behavior threatened
to destabilize English society and interrupt British imperialism-Britain's
international role of bringing "civilisation" to others-as self-appointed
"guardian of the public conscience," Carelli took it upon herself to attempt
to shame her. More accurately, she took it upon herself to elicit "proper"
feelings of guilt and shame from her readers, particularly her female readers,
whose sympathies dared to stray too closely toward the damaging feminist
aspirations of the unseemly and unwomanly New Woman, and the
decivilizing process she apparently championed.
Carelli unambiguously opposed what she saw as the transgressive New
Woman's decivilizing drive; nevertheless her writing demonstrates her era's
accommodation of a complex attitude toward the notion of human progress
and its inevitability or otherwise. By the early decades of the twentieth
century, Britain had reached what Carelli termed a state of "over-ripe
civilisation." So, while this celebrity writer railed against the New Woman's
threatened instigation of a decivilizing process, she simultaneously,
and somewhat paradoxically, promoted a limited reversal of civilization.
Importantly, she only advocated a partial, controlled rolling back of "progress"
to a time when human relations were not threatened by an attempted
obliteration of sexual difference. In the endeavor to restore civilization to a
state of balance-to reverse cultural change-Corelli worked to reinstate
the frontier of shame: specifically, womanly shame. Given her rule as
"queen of the bestsellers" for almost three decades-given that her writing
was such an integral and ongoing part of the era's public debate-her
large body of work casts light on just how accepted her literary technique
of using emotions to attempt to effect wider cultural change was at the end
of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century.