Ouida: Good or Bad, but Never Indifferent

undertwoflagsThe name of Ouida has been vaguely familiar to me ever since I saw Under Two Flags on the list of Classics Illustrated comic books. Somewhere in the course of studying English literature, I assimilated the knowledge that she had written a great many popular novels of no great merit in the second half of the 19th century, and as I more recently began to investigate what works by neglected women writers there might be to discover, I kept seeing her titles popping up in search results on the Internet Archive. And I would probably have left it at that have I not stumbled this morning onto Elizabeth Lee’s 1914 book, Ouida: A Memoir, began to read it, and from there set off on a meandering path around the many corners of the web that led me to conclude that this is a life that deserves to be better known, if only for its quirks and contrasts.

She was born Maria Louise Ramé, with a French father and English mother, in Bury St. Edmonds in 1839. She hated the town, which she considered an uncultured backwater. She referred to it as “that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land,” and said that “the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.” Many years later, when the town placed a plaque in her honor outside the house where she was born, she snipped to a friend, “This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind you named being put as you say.”

ouidaMaria Louise was delighted to leave the town behind and moved with her mother to London in 1857. Through their doctor, she was introduced to the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth, who was then working as the editor of Bentley’s Miscellany and who encouraged the girl’s interest in writing. Her first story, “Dashwood’s Drag: or, The Derby and What Came of It,” appeared in the magazine in 1859 under the pseudonym, “Ouida,” which appears to have been her own toddler’s version of “Louise.” “Dashwood’s Drag” is something of an anomaly in Ouida’s oeuvre, as it’s told in the voice of a rough-and-tumble young friend of Dashwood’s and displays a certain amount of humor–a quality legendary in its absence from her writing.

She quickly learned what appealed to readers, and to her great fortune, that was much of what appealed to her, too. Although her own education was limited, she thought her father’s French roots entitled her to consider herself a woman of culture, and she aspired to be treated as one of the gentility. At the same time, however, she loved melodramatic subjects. As Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodge Holt put it in Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction, her first two novels, Held in Bondage and Strathmore “contain secrets, bigamy, adultery, the dead-alive, murder, shipwrecks, gypsy fortune tellers, secret marriages, and strong female villainesses.” With her talent for what Anthony Powell would later call “an extraordinary vitality in the presentation of her narrative” soon gained great popularity,” Ouida became one of the most successful writers of her time.

Over the next forty years, she would publish 47 books, including 41 novels, several short story collections, and a few works of nonfiction. Of these, her best-known today are A Dog of Flanders (1872), of which at least ten different film versions have been made, and Under Two Flags (1867), which was also filmed several times. With its story of a Guardsman who runs away to Africa and joins a precursor to the French Foreign Legion, Under Two Flags almost certainly inspired P. C. Wren’s 1924 best-seller, Beau Geste. Looking back from a far difference perspective than that of 1867, however, Talia Shaffer, in her The Forgotten Female Aesthetes: Literary Culture in Late-Victorian England (Victorian Literature and Culture Series), describes it as “a novel of homoerotic thrills.” It’s hard not to say she might be right, given Ouida’s description of her hero, Bertie Cecil, known as “The Beauty of the Brigades”:

His features were exceedingly fair — fair as the fairest girl’s; his hair was of the softest, silkiest, brightest chestnut; his mouth very beautifully shaped; on the whole, with a certain gentle, mournful love-me look that his eyes had with them, it was no wonder that great ladies and gay lions alike gave him the palm as the handsomest man in all the Household Regiments — ­not even excepting that splendid golden-haired Colossus, his oldest friend and closest comrade, known as “the Seraph.”

Less than thirty years after the novel was published, Willa Cather gave it the kind of mixed praise that characterizes even Ouida’s most enthusiastic advocates: “Really, it would be hard to find a better plot than is in that same Under Two Flags, and the book contains the rudiments of a great style, and it also contains some of the most driveling nonsense and mawkish sentimentality and contemptible feminine weakness to be found anywhere.”

In some ways, Ouida’s novels were the action comic books of their time. Her characters were certainly as one-dimensional as comic book heroes and villains. As Bonamy Dobrée wrote, “Her wicked are so deeply wicked, her good so extravagantly good, the issues between them so strenuously fought out, that one abandons any hankering after analysis, probability, subtlety, and floats, even now, deliciously on the great wave of her exuberant, superabundant vitality.” “Ouida’s persons are types, or rather, they are what used to be called ‘humours'”, Dobrée wrote; Max Beerbohm — one of her fans — called them “abstractions.”

Take, for example, the French nobleman/defender of the people/artistic genius of her 1870 novel, Tricotrin. Tricotrin is everything but faster than a speeding bullet:

A man with the wit of a Piron, the politics of a Jean Jacques, the eloquence of a Mirabeau, the Utopia of a Vergniaud! — a man with the head of a god and the blouse of a workman, the brain of a scholar and the life of a scamp, the soul of a poet, and the schemes of a socialist.

And a “Straduarius” violin with which he plays Mozart for the peasants in the fields.

“Straduarius” is only one of the many, many factual gaffes for which Ouida was criticized. She commonly put historical figures in places they’d never been, placed events in the wrong year, and misinterpreted or mistranslated foreign terms. She gave elaborate and fanciful descriptions of places she’d never seen, attributed incredible abilities to her characters, and moved her narratives along with utterly implausible motives and actions. As W. H. Mallock wrote in his memoirs, “Ouida lived largely in a world of her own creation, peopled with foreign princesses, mysterious dukes — masters of untold millions, and of fabulous English guardsmen whose bedrooms in Knightsbridge Barracks were inlaid with silver and tortoiseshell.”

Subtlety was never her forté, but her work seems to have left no one in the middle ground. The reading public of the time loved almost everything she doled out. Reviewers–pro or con–were rarely unmixed in their assessments. Of her 1885 novel, Othmar, one reviewer wrote, “This latest production from the fertile pen of “Ouida” is at once one of the most powerful and penetrating, and weak and superficial, novels of the year.” Writing in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885, George Bernard Shaw described the typical Ouida novel as “diffuse, overloaded with worthless mock sociology, perceptibly tainted by a perversion of the sexual impulses, egotistical and tiresome and yet imaginative, full of vivid and glowing pictures, and not without a considerable moral stiffening of enthusiasm — half-reasoned but real — for truth and simplicity, and of protest against social evils which is not the less vehement because certain emotional and material aspects of it have a fascination which the writer has not wholly escaped.” Robert Louis Stevenson and some of his friends once wrote a parody of Ouida as a parlor game. The result, titled, An Object of Pity; or, the Man Haggard: A Romance (it also mocked H. Rider Haggard) carried the following dedication: “Many besides yourself have exulted to collect Olympian polysyllables, and to sling ink, not Wisely but too Well. They are forgotten, you endure. Many have made it their goal and object to Exceed; but who else has been so Excessive?”

Few of the many thousands of her readers objected to any of this, however. Indeed, they reveled in all the things that serious critics derided. And it earned her a very plush lifestyle. At the height of her success, Henry James wrote a short story, “Greville Fane,” which mocked her strategy of aiming for the lowest common denominator:

She made no pretence of producing works of art, but had comfortable tea-drinking hours in which she freely confessed herself a common pastrycook, dealing in such tarts and puddings as would bring customers to the shop. She put in plenty of sugar and of cochineal, or whatever it is that gives these articles a rich and attractive colour. She had a serene superiority to observation and opportunity which constituted an inexpungable strength and would enable her to go on indefinitely.

Ouida held her own work in considerably higher regard. As early as 1881, she was writing one of her publishers, Baron Tauschnitz, “English literature is very sorry stuff nowadays. You must make much of me for now George Elliott [sic] is gone there is no one else who can write English.” She had a very old-fashioned view of success, however. She wasn’t interested in pursuing the cult of celebrity and tended to avoid publicity for herself. She once described interviewers as “the vilest spawn of the most ill-bred age that the world has ever seen.” And she didn’t think much of the changes in the publishing business that were taking place. In a letter to the Times she wrote, “The literary agent … is a middleman between other middlemen and the producer; he is, to use a homely simile, the maggot of the nut; he is neither the kernel nor the shell; he is an esoteric body living between and upon the two. Maggots have rights and uses no doubt, but the nut never yet was the better for them.”

What success entitled her to was not celebrity but social status. “Please to address me Madame de la Ramée, or Madame Ouida. It is the more correct way to address a woman of eminence,” she advised a new acquaintance. And her bias toward gentility sometimes put her in foolish positions. “In whatever company she might be in, her first anxiety was to ingratiate herself with the most important members of it,” Mallock recalled,

but she was constantly making mistakes as to who the most important members were. Thus, as one of her entertainers — Violet Fane — told me, Ouida was sitting after dinner between Mrs. _____ , the mistress of one of the greatest houses in London, and a vulgar little Irish peeress who was only present on sufferance. Ouida treated the former with the coldest and most condescending inattention, and devoted every smile in her possession to an intimate worship of the latter.

Toward the end of the 1880s, Ouida’s work found a new set of advocates among the Aesthetes. Writing in 1889 the same magazine as Shaw, Oscar Wilde rose to her defense, calling her “the last of the romantics.” He admitted that her style was “full of exaggeration and overemphasis,” but held that it showed “some remarkable rhetorical qualities and a good deal of colour.” He did, however, concede the limitations of her intellect, writing that “Ouida is fond of airing a smattering of culture….” As with many of her supporters, his endorsement is less than unqualified: “Guilderoy, with all its faults, which are great, and its absurdities, which are greater, is a book to be read.”

Wilde’s review quotes numerous epigrams from Guilderoy that certainly betray more than a few signs of being an influence on his own style:

Moralists say that a soul should resist passion. They might as well say that a house should resist an earthquake.

Men always consider us unjust to them when we fail to deify their weaknesses.

And the country in England is so much more intolerable than anywhere else, because the weather is so bad: to endure it long one must have the rusticity of Wordsworth’s mind, and boots and stockings as homely.

Ouida’s characters often speak in epigrams, and in her day these nuggets were consider worthy of being captured in books titled The Wisdom, Wit, and Pathos of Ouida and A Flash of Ouida. Not all of them stand the test of time, however: “A pipe is a pocket philosopher, a truer one than Socrates. For it never asks questions. Socrates must have been very tiresome when one thinks of it.”

Not long after Wilde’s review, G. S. Street wrote “An Appreciation of Ouida” that appeared in the influential magazine that gave its name to the 1890s, The Yellow Book. “I respect an unrestrained and incorrect eloquence more than a merely correct and periphrastic nothingness,” he wrote in something of a left-handed compliment. For Street, the two qualities that underlay the best of Ouida’s work — “and which must have always saved it from commonness” — “are a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression.” In the end, he declared, “I take the merits in Ouida’s books to balance their faults many times over.”

Another The Yellow Book dandy, Max Beerbohm, dedicated his 1899 collection of essays, More, “To Ouida, with Love,” and offered similarly passionate yet qualified praise: “Her every page is a riot of unpolished epigrams and unpolished poetry of vision, with a hundred discursions and redundancies. She cannot say a thing once; she must repeat it again and again, and, with every repetition, so it seems to me, she says it with greater force and charm.” Yet more than a few critics and academics have since noted evidence of Ouida’s influence in the work of George Meredith, J. K. Huysmans, and Ronald Firbank.

Ironically, while the Aesthetes were rising to her defense, Ouida’s own career was beginning to decline. Her formula was growing weaker and weaker from constant reuse and dilution. One of her harshest critics, Malcolm Elwin, later wrote that, “Towards the end of the ‘eighties, she began to lose her grip. In spite of her highfalutin blather about her ‘art’, she wrote purely and simply for money, and all but herself could see that her work had degenerated.” Even one of her more recent advocates, Talia Shaffer, writes bluntly that by the 1890s, “Ouida finally ran out of ideas.”

By that time, she had long left England for good, moving to Florence, where she bought an expensive villa where she and her mother lived with a pack of pet dogs. She quickly developed a deep affection for Italy and the Italian people, and within a few months of arrival had written a novel, Pascarel (1873), set there. It was the first of nearly a dozen, including A Village Commune (1882), In Maremma (1882), and The Waters of Edera (1900). Some, like In a Winter City portrayed the expat society around Florence and Rome, but most were set in the countryside and portrayed the various ways in which corruption and capital was used to exploit and repress the peasants and workers.

She fell in love with an Italian nobleman, the Marchese della Stufa, who took maximum advantage of her adoration and generosity while at the same time encouraging the affections of other women, including a fellow English expat, Janet Ross. Ouida took revenge on Ross by writing Friendship (1878). A little taste of how Ouida took the knife to her victims can be obtained from this excerpt from a less-than-enthusiastic review:

The whole plot of the story is that a thoroughly depraved, covetous, swindling, bullying, brazen adventuress of noble Scottish birth, whom some early and unexplained scandal has forced into a marriage of convenience with a speculating trader, first pigeon and then rook, and who is compelled to live out of England, has succeeded in forcing an Italian prince into a prolonged intrigue with herself (the friendship of the title), carried on with the full knowledge and consent, but simulated ignorance, of her husband, who is partner with his wife in the business side of the transaction, which consists in ruining the lover, and practically seizing his ancestral estate.

Yes, folks, that’s all one sentence. Della Stufa seems to have been her one great love. She never married and became, increasingly, an eccentric recluse. As Rose Macaulay later wrote, “She spent her great fortune recklessly, on lavish living, on rich dinner menus for her dogs, on going continually to law.”

By 1893, Ouida had spent so much that when her mother died, as Elizabeth Lee recounts in her memoir, “There was literally no money in the house at all, and there seems no doubt that Ouida kept her mother’s body upstairs long after it should have been buried because she could not endure the thought of laying her in a pauper’s grave in the Allori Cemetery.” Yet she refused to accept help from her friends, and when one of them arranged for meals to be brought to her from one of the finest restaurants in Florence, she gave the food to her dogs, preferring to live on tea and toast. A notable neighbor and expat, Walburga, Lady Paget wrote that she found Ouida on one visit “… in a draggled white nightgown, trimmed with lace, and a black cape. Eight dogs kept up an infernal noise and went on mistaking the lace frill of her nightdress for a lamp-post.” And another friend confided in a letter that “Ouida is now by her own folly denuded of everything.”

She eventually had to give up the villa and move, first to Bagni di Lucca and then to a cheap apartment in Viarregio, on the coast north of Pisa. (Viareggio has attracted its share of unfortunate English writers, starting with Shelley, whose body washed up on its shores, and later, Marjorie Bowen, who nursed her husband there through much of the First World War.) Her situation became so desperate that Lady Paget begged the then-Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, to award her a Civil List pension in 1906 — to which Ouida responded in typical hauteur, “What right have they to offer me a pension only fit for superannuated butlers?” She died there of pneumonia in early 1908. Her friends purchased a fine tomb for her in the cemetery in the spa town of Bagna di Lucca.
ouidatomb
Her obituary in the Times shows just how far her star had fallen by then — indeed, it’s almost shocking in its derisive tone:

The comparative study of her writings, though these cover a period of about 40 years, discloses but little artistic growth. From first to last Ouida, with certain exceptions to be noted, entirely failed to realize the life that was going on around her. Her most famous novels all suggest a schoolgirl’s dream of the grande passion. She seems to be living and moving in a world, not of men and women, but of demi-gods and demi-reps. She takes her facts from her imagination, and does not check them by inquiry.

“To enjoy her work,” declared the Times writer, “it is necessary to forget everything that you know, and resign yourself to hallucinations and deceptions.”

By the 1930s, Ouida was a favorite object of ridicule. In his survey of popular Victorian literature, Victorian Wallflowers, Malcolm Elwin wrote dismissively, “The popularity of Ouida’s novels illustrates the degenerate taste of the new reading public of the commercial middle class…. As a novelist, she lacked humour, reality, and humanity, she had the scantiest of skill in devising a plot, a stereotyped sense of character, and an almost complete absence of culture.”

With the rise of feminist critics and academics in the last thirty years, however, Ouida’s critical reputation has begun to be restored. Two academic books — Schroeder and Holt’s and Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, edited by Jane Jordan and Andrew King — have been published in the last ten years, and she has been the subject of a 2008 PhD dissertation by Carla Molloy. 300-some different versions of her works are available for free on the Internet Archive. And in an age where the pulp fiction and sleazy novels of the 1950s and 1960s are routinely celebrated and studied, one could argue that this great Victorian producer of potboilers deserves her own recognition, whether you side with her critics (“a schoolgirl’s dream”) or her supporters (“extraordinary vitality”).


 
 
 

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