The Firs was a large house standing where the police station is now. Its gardens are still in existence, and along with an eighteenth century dovecot in one corner they contain a plaque reading:
"The Firs', a nearby house no longer in existence, lends the gardens its name. When it was sold in 1910, Marie Corelli, the famous novelist, bought the gardens to preserve them as an open space for the benefit of the town."
This was only one of the things Marie Corelli did for Stratford-upon-Avon, after moving here in 1899. She was a conservationist long before there was a general understanding of the term, and in 1901 suggested the establishment of an organisation for that purpose. She had to wait until 1913 before the Guild of Stratford was established, at which time she became a committee member.
When she first moved to the town, she rented Hall’s Croft, then privately owned. During the next couple of years she paid for the whole Grammar School to go to the circus; for nearly 2000 children to attend parties in the Memorial Theatre, and for over 600 National Schools children to visit Rugby Park. At the beginning of the twentieth century, such treats did not often come the way of the town’s youngsters.
She became involved in a national controversy regarding the placement of a memorial in Holy Trinity Church, to be followed by an international controversy relating to a free public library in Henley Street. In the first she was wholly successful and in the second partly so.
In 1901 she was elected President of the Stratford-upon-Avon Choral Union, organising a sell-out concert at the Memorial Theatre, as well as a concert on the river, with illuminated boats.
In 1903 she was alerted to an elaborately carved corner post that had been uncovered during repair work on numbers 23-24 High Street, on the corner of Ely Street. She subsequently paid the owner, printer A.J. Stanley, £200 (nearly £20,000 in today's money) to enable him to restore the building to its original Tudor condition.
Two years later Marie bought a 16th Century property called Harvard House, which had belonged to Mr & Mrs Rogers. Their daughter, Katherine, was the mother of John Harvard, founder of Harvard University. The house was in a rundown condition and Marie found support for its repair amongst various wealthy Americans. Restoration took four years and in October 1909 it was opened by the then American Ambassador. Today it is in the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
In 1916 she urged the Guild to pay for the uncovering and preservation of the old timbers at 30 High Street, owned by Fred Winter. Estimated at £75 (over £7,000 today), Marie contributed £60 and the Guild £15.
At the beginning of 1920 plans for the restoration of the gardens at New Place (Shakespeare’s last home) were in full swing, with a number of donors, including Queen Alexandra and the Earl of Pembroke, giving plants. According to Roy Strong in his book The Quest for Shakespeare’s Garden, Marie ‘had saved the day by contributing a cheque for £50 towards the planting of Ernest Law’s New Place garden.’
In a wider context the world was changing: scientists were challenging clergy with new ideas about the natural world. The penny farthing was superceded by the bicycle which could be ridden by brave women, enabling them to escape from the confines of Victorian drawing rooms. Marie was tapping into the zeitgeist of her time with her own brand of the perfect escapist novel, mixing mysticism, spiritualism, science and romance; her work outsold that of Dickens and other male authors.
Her publisher, George Bentley, said of her, ‘In the first place, she really says what she means, and so you are dealing with a reality. In the next place she has strong likes and dislikes, and good reasons for either.’
Gladstone said to her, ‘There is a magnetism in your pen which will influence many.’ When Thelma was published in 1887 a large number of mothers were influenced enough to give their baby girls the same name, which Corelli was said to have invented.
Her grave in the town cemetery has an angel hovering over it. Marie Corelli was hardly an angel. She was an outspoken, famous, fearless woman, who happened to be unmarried and running her own household. Throughout her stay in the town she ruffled many feathers, especially those of the town council, but was openly adored worldwide by millions of fans.
Jann Tracy’s book Marie Corelli: Shakespeare’s Champion is available from Amazon, Magic Alley and Waterstones.