arie Louisa “Ouida” Ramé (1839-1908), who began as a sensation novelist, travelled an unlikely path. She wrote over fifty books of which most were romances, a few risky romans à clef, polemical works, and a few children’s stories. The scope of her work reflected the contradictions and shifts in her life. Raised with a commitment to republican France but aligning herself with aristocrats, inspiring readers with stories of love that she herself never experienced, she moved from a rural town to bohemian London and thence to expatriate communities in Italy, as well as from poverty to wealth and back.
Ouida was famous enough to have her portrait on a cigarette card. (Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.) Click on images to enlarge them and for additional information.
In her sensation novels, her heroines behaved almost as freely as her swashbuckling heroes, and the escapism she offered spoke to a wide variety of readers. As her obituary put it, “critics read them with a shrug; the novelist with a sigh; the student with an apology; the school girl with bated breath and shining eyes; and bank clerks and lady helps with numerous thrills of envious rapture” (“Obituary,” 4). Even though her decadent aristocrats and aesthetic style were thought to have influenced Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, most critics agreed with the obituary – her books were mentioned with a tone of contemptuous patronizing (Street, 1895), and her criticisms of hypocrisy and materialism, like her identification with Bonapartists, were all but forgotten.
Long ignored as a result of such dismissals, a return to contemporary sources refines not just received knowledge about the dynamics behind the seismic shifts she experienced, but also the stimuli for her belief in herself, in beauty, and in the importance of fighting against injustice. In an era when the double standard reigned (including in her own writing), Ouida possessed an unerring sense of her own worth.
er father Louis Ramé, a Parisian émigré and occasional French teacher, married Susan Sutton, a pretty English wine-merchant’s daughter, in 1838, the year Louis Napoléon Bonaparte took up residence in England. Ramé was a romantic hero in his own right. He had been a member of the Carbonari, the Italians who fought to unify Italy,and he helped Louis Bonaparte during and after the unsuccessful uprising of 1836. Socially adept, he could be relied upon to play a good hand of whist. But this would-be romantic hero largely abandoned his family, leaving wife and daughter stretched for money in Bury St. Edmund’s when he helped Louis Bonaparte during and after the unsuccessful uprising of 1836.
With a husband mysterious in his comings and goings, Mrs Ramé made their daughter the center of her life. She wanted a child worthy of her husband’s glamour, and she began by retaining the baby’s pronunciation of Louisa, “Ouida,” which immediately distinguished her from other girls and heralded her egoistic future. The doting mother taught Ouida to read and write at a young age, such that, at the age of four, she wrote her first story in block letters. Mrs. Ramé instilled a love of literature that fed Ouida’s imagination and encouraged her to think deeply about life. However, in the absence of a trained tutor, although the young girl’s ideas may have been made of silk, the texture of the resulting fabric had as many gaps in its weave as muslin. Louis Ramé strengthened the flimsy material by focusing Ouida’s mind on adherence to the Napoleonic ideals of a humanitarian society in which rights were recognised and industry flourished freely. Just once Louis Ramé invited his wife and daughter to Boulogne where they enjoyed a round of balls and entertainment with the Bonaparte family. The overwhelming contrast between the quiet routines of everyday life in in Bury St. Edmund’s and the glamour of parties with princes and princesses left a mark on an eleven-year-old’s imagination.
Ouida, who spent much of an often lonely childhood making friends of pet rocks and other found objects because she thought them lonely, delighted in playing with her older Lockwood cousins at the wine business at 54 Whiting Street. She cherished family visits to her godmother, who provided the only relationship besides that with her mother that lasted until her fifties. From the age of eleven, Ouida wrote plays and created paper figurines to act for her adoring audience. Determined to study hard and make something of herself, she attended a local ladies’ academy that did not however repair the holes in the fabric of her learning, but affirmed her difference from the other girls, whom she found jealous and spiteful.
The only relief from the tedium of life in Bury St. Edmund’s, apart from her father’s rare visits, happened in her teens, and it was to prove of great significance. To date, she had a nebulous understanding of the heroic male, for her model was French–Louis Ramé. The West Suffolk militia, almost 700 strong, brought “scarlet fever” to Bury St. Edmund’s, at first with annual month-long billets in public houses, and subsequently for fourteen months when the town became its base (1855-56). The colour of military life and its public drills, alongside the everyday doings and sayings of young soldiers in billets, fired Ouida’s interest.
Later rumours circulated in London that Ouida and her mother had hosted evenings for young Guards at which the women joined the men when they were smoking — scandalous behaviour for women at the time. It was probably during this period of her life that Ouida noted the military passions and speech she later incorporated in her writing, such as Idalia (1867). In mid-February 1856, when they left for Colchester a concourse of people escorted the men to the station, with the band playing, “The Girl I left behind me” and other popular tunes.
Life in London
Madame Ramé, Ouida’s mother.
n 1857, just as the Crimean War generated a wave of military enthusiasm, in a bold step for Victorian women without a man in the house, grandmother, mother, and the eighteen-year-old daughter moved to London, possibly prompted to do so by rumours about their family’s entertaining soldiers. After a changing houses a few times, they finally settled in Hammersmith where grandmother fell ill. The doctor treating her happened to be the cousin of the publisher of Bentley’s Magazine., William Harrison Ainsworth, who believed he “discovered” her (Ellis, 234).
Using her long-standing, gender-neutral pseudonym to ensure her anonymity, little time elapsed before Ouida’s romantic swashbuckling heroes leapt into the public arena. As early as 1859, her serialised stories appeared in Bentley’s, where their masculine raciness led one reviewer to remark, “Still the old tone in Bentley —the genuine gentlemanly articles, the careless, interesting stories. Who is OUIDA?” He affords us some capital amusement. […] How one would like to know such men (“Who is Ouida?” 6).
The Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser tempted potential readers by summarising an episode of, and providing extracts from, one of her serials whose plot and the romantic descriptions were likely to captivate women, not men. The protagonist, a Major in the 50th Dashaway Hussars, bet his horse on preventing his father from marrying a penniless, beautiful girl. After a cat and mouse journey of mutual avoidance across the Continent, they found themselves at the same house, and she had dark hair like waves of silk and eyes full of liquid light, etc. Then a thunderstorm trapped them in a lonely nook...
By the end of 1860, when Ouida had become the chief attraction in the magazine, Ainsworth had published seventeen tales of this ilk. She profitably refashioned serialised and unfinished material into publications initially through Chapman and Hall (who also published Bentley’s), with follow-up deals in the United States (Lippincott in Philadelphia) and Germany (Baron von Tauchnitz in Leipzig). The first such book published under this arrangement was Held in Bondage (1863), which had originally appeared as lengthy serial entitled Granville de Vigne (1861-63). The money rolled in, particularly from American readers. Meanwhile Ouida wished she could meet George Lawrence, who published his novel Guy Livingstone in 1857 and whose “rare power of breathing real life into his characters” she admired (Escott, 336).
Fortunately, the interest in her stories led to introductions to writers, adventurers, explorers and Francophiles, the most important of whom at this early stage included the explorer Sir Richard Burton and his wife, Lady Isabella, the only woman outside Ouida’s family with whom she remained on good terms. She also made the acquaintance of Leonard Lawson, the part-owner of the Daily Telegraph; Charles Hamilton Aidé, writer and soldier; Thomas Escott, journalist and editor; the dashing soldier Christopher “Kit” Pemberton; Lord Bulwer-Lytton; and Sir Alexander Duff-Gordon, who, with his wife, was at the centre of a progressive literary and social circle. To her delight, she met George Alfred Lawrence through “Harry Stone,” who was probably General Breckenridge of the Confederate Army who fled America in 1865, her only known American connection at this time. Lawrence encouraged Ouida to write novels for book publication rather than as serialized publications, and Strathmore, the first such book, appeared that same year (Escott, 335-37).
Although critics enthused about Ouida’s capacity to entertain, they also quickly tired of her military subjects. She understood the criticism as a warning and began to look for new subjects about which to write. Since her writing supported the family, she could demand that her mother help organise smoke-filled soirées in which she gathered men of like mind who felt comfortable enough to speak freely. The creative companionship put her in the thick of London Bohemia. As a result of what she learned at these gatherings, she set her plots first in colleges and next in spa towns on the Continent, relying on others’ conversations for impressions of such places, intriguingly blending realism and fantasy.
Title-pages of four of Ouida’s books and a page from a Tauchnitz edition listing the books of hers the firm published. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Ouida now had income enough to present herself as one of her imagined heroines. She designed her dresses with unfashionably short sleeves and skirts to reveal her tiny extremities and had them made up by Worth in the most expensive pale fabrics. Her guests remarked behind her back on how her romantic, feminine costumes jarred with her masculine face, voice, habits and conversation. Uncaring or unaware, fully in role, she lived as she pleased. She fell in love with a famous tenor, Signor Mario, an aristocrat who had been a fugitive, and dreamt him into novels as the hero.
In July, Mrs. Sutton and Miss de Ramé (she now gave her name an aristocratic twist) joined the fashionable and holidayed on the Isle of Wight, leaving the grandmother in London. They shared their house with three men with naval connections, that is, “thorough yachtsman” John Hugh Smyth Pigott, Lady Isabel Burton’s brother-in-law; Capt. John Bourmaster Dickson (later a Rear Admiral); and a Peter Roe, seemingly a naval surgeon related to Dickson–and, for three of the eight weeks, one of the literary men in her social circle, Wilkie Collins. Collins’s good friend in arranging his holiday was John Hugh’s brother, Edward.
Collins was forty-two to Ouida’s twenty-seven, and they shared small hands and feet, Francophilia, and antipathy to stuffiness and convention expressed, in part, in their clothing. Did they share anything other than friendship? At that moment, certainly suffering and a similar hiatus in their writing lives. Ouida grieved over the death of the beloved family dog. Collins, already addicted to laudanum for his gout, had just finished his serial, Armadale, and through the pain and the drug, was hurriedly trying to write its stage version to beat the plagiarists (No Thoroughfare, with Charles Dickens). Ouida had published her novel Chandos in April, and the following year would publish two volumes presenting old material (published and unpublished) as well as a new work, Under Two Flags.
When Collins made a yachting excursion, Ouida may have joined the trip or merely visited the yacht, which she described in her work three years later:
You are away, and are afloat, and are free. And yet all the luxurious pleasantness of the world you have left, are still with you. On the cushioned bench there lies the newest novel, just cut. In the big goblet the lumps of ice float on the golden wine. Screwed upon your deck your whist-table shows its green, tranquil, familiar face. The silky nectarines and the purple grapes lie lazily together on your plate. In the pretty mirrored cabin a choice little dinner will wait you, when the sun goes down; and, if you be one not happy without this additional toy, there can be also beside you some feminine form clad in the richest and coyest of dresses, that with gold buttons, and azure satin and snowy silk so amusingly copies your own sailor’s attire. [Ouida 1869, 252]
Ouida was wearing just such clothing when visiting Bulwer-Lytton in Torquay in 1870, but the description smacks of a tour of the yacht rather than a voyage.
At the end of their stay, whilst Collins travelled to Reading, Ouida and her mother left the island only to encounter the distress of grandmother’s last days. Following her death, Ouida and her mother moved to a suite at the Langham Hotel, at the time second only to Claridges as a fashionable London hotel. Ouida decorated her rooms lavishly, put her paintings on the walls, and wrote only when she felt inclined. When in the mood to write, she propped herself on her pillows in a bedroom filled with vases of violet flowers, used violet ink on foolscap paper that she wrote on sideways, and tossed each unnumbered and unedited sheet on the floor as she finished it. Evenings were dedicated to sumptuous soirées for men invited to leave their morals and umbrellas at the door. American and English guests at her “causeries intimes, cigarettes permises”, included soldiers, politicians, writers, intellectuals, artists, spies, and journalists, many of them critical of their contemporaries’ values and politics (Escott, 335-37). Some, however, ceased their visits because of Ouida’s egotism and vanity. Journalist and novelist Charles Shirley Brooks noted how she ruined an initially favourable impression. She
finished by saying, in reference to the demand for silence when a person is singing, that she heard “hush, hush” the other night, and immediately remarked that she had heard such cries in a minor theatre, but not in drawing-rooms, and that as she talked better than others, she ought to be listened to. There is something in the notion, only it doesn’t come well from the good talker. It is Johnsonian, which a woman should not be.” [Layard, 409]
Ouida took a risk in increasing awareness of her identity by means of these parties.
She used her 1855 drafts about militiamen in Idalia (1867) and in Under Two Flags (1867), which received criticism for satiating readers with “twaddle about officer luxury” and “uncensored accounts of officer intrigues:”
On the softest of sofas, half dressed, and having half an hour before splashed like a waterdog out of the bath, as big as a small pond, in the dressing-chamber beyond was the Hon. Bertie himself, second son of Viscount Royallieu, known generally in the Brigades as “Beauty.” The appellative, gained at Eton, was in no way undeserved; when the smoke cleared away that was circling round him out of a great meerschaum bowl, it showed a face of as much delicacy and brilliancy as a woman’s; handsome, throughbred, languid, nonchalant, with a certain latent recklessness under the impressive calm of habit, and a singular softness given to the large, dark hazel eyes by the unusual length of the lashes over them. 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.”
This “twaddle” differed little from that offered by George Lawrence. However, as one newspaper put it, “Horse-racing, fighting, and camp life at home or abroad are not fit subjects for a woman’s pen; and the less she knows of them the better” (“Hints,” 6). As this review makes clear, Ouida’s reputation and that of her books suffered when readers and reviewers learned the author of these racy novels was a woman.
She concluded her military novels like Under Two Flags with Tricotrin. (1869), in which her Bonapartist hero sacrificed his life for democracy’s sake — a risky theme in the years before the Paris Commune in 1871. However, the book represented less of a problem than her other work that year, Puck: His Vicissitudes, Adventures, Observations, Conclusions, Friendships, and Philosophies in which a Maltese terrier narrated his life story. In this, Ouida’s first roman à clef, the bohemian replaced the military, and the romantic ceded to the epigrammatic.
As usual, she relied on her social life to develop themes, settings, and characters, but times had changed. Puck, who was variously sold, stolen, and lost, lived the bulk of his life in the demi-monde of journalism and the theatre where he observed that pretty women got everything they wanted. Ouida had her alter ego express deep cynicism about the establishment and its hangers-on, men’s relationships with women (especially courtesans). Her particular target was an Englishwoman, Cora Pearl (in the novel transformed into “Laura Pearl”), a courtesan in Paris kept in great style by the half-brother of Napoléon III. She famously entertained the Prince of Wales and his Jockey Club friends at dinner in 1867 by serving herself as a delectable on a silver platter.
The following passage provides a sample of Ouida’s political criticism in Puck: “The good people are afraid of "mob-rule" in Europe just now,—the fools!—the very dregs of the mob rule already; the Mob Feminine raised on high from the gutter, with its hands clutching gold, and its lips breathing poison, and its vices mimicked in palaces and its lusts murdering the brains, and the souls, and the bodies of men!” (117), Ouida was angry, very angry, and Puck’s voice revealed her several disappointments — first with the Bonapartes, then with a specific man by whom she felt betrayed, and finally the double standard of her times. In writing about this demi-monde Ouida mixed vitriol with poetic analogies as when she reports that during the country parties for the indolent demi-monde, it was easy “to brush a kiss from a cheek so coolly, and with as little pardon asked, as when brushing the bloom off a peach” (258).
Reviewers, who ignoring her jibes at the police, the church, and (less directly) the Prince of Wales, attacked the book as unwholesome nonsense unsuitable for wives or daughters. Luckily, because the reading public did not know Ouida’s identity, her revelations were not a catastrophe. At least not yet.
Just over a year after Puck’s publication, Ouida surveyed her life, which lay in as much ruin as Paris after the battles of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune that followed it (which took at least one of her real-life heroes, Colonel Pemberton, and, she and her mother thought, Louis Ramé). Identifying as more French than British, she sympathized with revolutionaries at a time when hostility to such a position might alienate critics and readers. When the editor of the popular periodical Once a Week revealed that Ouida was a Miss de Ramé, he cut her adrift from the people on whom she depended for both friendship and material. Being ostracised by bohemians would be isolation indeed for someone who did not conform.
Her friend Lord Duff-Gordon advised Ouida to leave England, and she and her mother accordingly left for Florence that August. The tenor Signor Mario, now widowed, had returned to his palace near Florence, and this probably contributed to her choice of where to live. Florence had the additional attraction as one of the refuges for the Bonapartes and a stronghold of the Carbonari; if Ramé survived the Commune, he might seek refuge there. Ouida needed a place like Florence where she her mother could economise but she could still live lavishly, since cheap rentals were available following the unification of Italy and the resulting move of government to Rome. After lingering in Belgium, the women reached their destination that November.
Life in Italy
uida, now thirty-two, found a ready-made community of English-speaking expatriates and holidaymakers who flocked to the city and its surrounds. The first call she paid was on her friend Lord Duff-Gordon’s daughter, now Mrs. Janet Ross. She and her husband, Henry Ross, who was often absent, hosted guests including the Duc de Chartres, William Gladstone, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tom Taylor, and Henry James. Mrs. Ross introduced Ouida to the landlord, who lived in a separate section of the palace when visiting Florence. The Marchese Lotteringhi della Stufa, who was gentleman-in-waiting to the King, spent many leisure hours in Florence introducing Ouida to the land and people he appreciated and sitting with her as she painted. She fell head over heels in love with him.
Soon, following her heart, Ouida took her mother to Rome where Della Stufa presented her to the Royal couple as a foreign writer. In addition, a mutual friend introduced Ouida to Lady Walburga Paget, the wife of the British Ambassador. Lady Paget noted in her diary that Ouida was tiny, her long brown hair hung straight down her back, and she had large, innocent dark blue eyes. Lady Paget’s criticisms of Ouida’s eccentric dress may possibly have been accurate, but photographs of the novelist — and Victorian era photograph are especially unflattering to women — hardly support her description of Ouida’s nose and face.
But oh! The rest was too fearful. The nose, the contour of the face and the complexion all justified the Duc de Dino’s cutting criticism [“Elle était toujours affreuse, maintenant elle est horrible.” / “She was always frightful, now she is horrible.”]. A harsh voice grated on my ear and my first thought was: “What must not a woman suffer who, with such a thirst for beauty, has been treated thus by nature? Much ought to be forgiven her.”
Her appearance excited general astonishment. She dragged her pink poult de soie [thick lustreless silk] train through the stanzas of the Vatican and all the galleries. One look sufficed her to take in the whole of the couleur locale. Her mother, swathed, duenna-like, in much black lace, always accompanied her. [Paget, 253; 282-83]
Lady Paget’s criticisms, which suggest that Ouida was a very homely woman, certainly is not supported by photographs and portrait drawings drawings of her. She does seem to have violated conventional taste in dress and behavior, and Lady Paget’s attacks on her epitomize the disdain of Victorian socialites for those who failed (or refused) to follow current fashion and conventional manners. It also indicates her protectiveness towards her own class. Back in Florence, Ouida avoided writers and artists (or they avoided her). She participated in Florentine salons and kept writing, only travelling from time to time to absorb the essence of locations in one glance.
Villa Farinola, Ouida’s Florentine home. Arthur Daynell. Pencil drawing.
In 1874 Ouida settled in the crumbling grandeur of Villa Farinola outside Florence, not far from the Pagets and della Stufa’s palace. Here, she lived as capriciously as befitted the genius she believed herself to be and as ostentatiously as she had in London. She held receptions on Mondays, which were always crowded despite the makeshift quality of the fare she offered, her rudeness to people with no aristocratic connections (particularly Americans), and her lack of interest in managing the awkward moments she often created. By 1876, living in this manner became so expensive that she continually asked her publisher, Baron von Tauchnitz, for advances on her books. She collected dogs as carelessly as she managed her finances. Known by locals who sold her strays as “la mamma dei canni,” she sometimes had as many as thirty animals. She even created a cemetery in a corner of her gardens complete with marble and granite monuments, which shocked her neighbours as a form of blasphemy.
Ouida in 1878. Courtesy the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Her writing habits shifted in terms of surroundings but not in technique or genre. She hung portraits she had drawn of Mario and della Stufa in the ballroom that she used as her office, and, when writing at her antique desk with her white Maramma sheepdogs at her side, she wore white muslin if her heroine was a peasant and white satin if she was a lady. When she finished, she gathered up the scattered sheets without rereading or editing them with the result that she irritated her publishers with the number of times she returned proofs. Even though her continual revisions cost them money, her publishers put up with her, because her books continued to sell. Indeed, she was so fashionable that Frank Burnand wrote an eighteen-chapter parody of Strathmore as Strapmore! A Romance, by Weeder, in the 1878 Punch.
At this point in her life in Florence, Ouida’s love for della Stufa turned into an awkward drama when she learned that he and Mrs. Ross were lovers, but she believed that he wished to escape this “incubus of a secretly detested mistress” (Jordan, 191). Using the contemporary euphemism for an adulterous relationship, “friendship,” as the title of her next novel, in 1878 Ouida went against her friends’ advice, repeating her earlier error of publicising the affair and satirising her own circle. As a result, she became socially unacceptable, and her salon emptied of Florentines who told della Stufa that “no decent woman in the world” would know her (Lee, 105).
As Ouida attempted to cope with the emotional consequences of this débacle, she returned to Mario as her model whilst continuing her attack on her former friends in Moths (1880). The “disgusting nature” of the story, a confection of scandal, sex, cynicism and brutality, ensured its success, but she still suffered from the open wound left by della Stufa’s rejection. According to Elizabeth Lee, she confessed, “The days seem so blank and strange here without seeing his face; life is death to me” (103).
Ouida compensated for her loss of friends and acquaintances by asserting her supposed superiority in a variety of ways and contexts. Weak and depressed, at first she hesitated over going to Rome to prove her detractors wrong about her position in Italian society. The urge being too strong to resist, she went there alone and against her mother’s advice. At first, she triumphed, received prominence at Court functions, and met the Queen of Italy en tete-a-tete. Then della Stuffa cut her publicly. Determined to put on a brave face, she told Baron von Tauchnitz that–in the light of her eminence–he should address her as Madame, talked seriously of the men she intended to select for Ambassadors at different courts, and, when George Eliot died, told her publisher, “English literature is very sorry stuff nowadays. You must make much of me, for now George Eliot is gone there is no one else who can write English.” And finally, she soothed her heart by engaging in reckless lawsuits over her beloved dogs without regard to the impact on her increasingly precarious finances.
She created further problems for herself in Florence with her next book, A Village Commune (1881), which concerned the misuse of the Code Napoléon for state-sponsored destruction of the land and bullying peasants. She subsequently reframed the book’s message to appeal to a wider audience, as In Maremma (1882). The next year, she turned away from her explicitly Italian theme to write a play criticising men for judging women on their appearances (Afternoon, 1883); an epistolary novel in the vein of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Chloderlos de Laclos (Frescoes, 1883); and the first volume of a trilogy, Wanda (1883), which she dedicated to Lady Paget.
She visited England only once after her move to Italy in 1886-1887 expecting the smart set to lionize her. She dined at the House of Commons and at the French Embassy, where the evening was in her honour. Staying again at the Langham, she hosted a brilliant company that included Oscar Wilde and John Everett Millais, who made her roar with laughter by reading her extracts from Strapmore! Yet, despite such successes, she was disappointed and lonely because most of her old friends had died, and she found the remainder otherwise occupied. She thought London decayed, and she particularly disliked the prominence of American women, whom she considered shallow and common. Much more awkwardly, after five months she could neither afford the flower-filled lifestyle nor, therefore, her hotel bill. Long-standing supporters, especially socialite Lady Dorothy Nevill (persona non grata as far as the Queen was concerned), helped her out, after which she returned to Florence.
Once back home, the community Ouida had outraged took its revenge and determined the course of her downhill slide. Her landlord gave her notice to quit, not because of unpaid rent but on the excuse of her refusal to clip some laurel bushes because it would hurt the limbs. Ouida quickly took a thirty-room apartment in Florence itself, which offered a large terrace for her dogs. Her creditors seized the 30,000 francs worth of furniture, along with her manuscripts and souvenirs. Despite remaining productive (overtly concentrating on political causes), her depression did not lift, her fine clothes turned to rags, and she moved house several times over the next seven years when she could not pay accumulated bills.
The next blow she faced was the death of her mother in 1893, the result of a heavy fall four months previously. Over Ouida’s lifetime, mother and daughter had only spent a few weeks apart, and Ouida’s letter to Baron von Tauschitz said it all: “She is dead” (Lee, 147). Lacking money, Ouida stalled over burying the woman she always kept in the background, but on whom she relied, in the paupers’ section of the cemetery. When no one could help her with the bill, Mrs. Sutton was buried a week later. The old lady’s terrier mourned the loss and died too. Ouida ceased any semblance of looking after herself, turned to her own dogs for companionship, and gave them meat and milk whilst feeding herself tea and biscuits. She hardly wrote, just a few magazine articles and a vehement ant-vivisection paper, “The New Priesthood.”
In the end, she uprooted herself and left for Bagna di Lucca in 1894. Although the town had been home of Louis Napoléon’s mother during her exile and the choice of the cultured in the 1850s, its society now represented everything she disliked. Vulgar British materialists, whose wealth collapsed along with the stock market or as a result of new legislation about land ownership, predominated. Unable to shake off her depression, she soon moved out of town into a pretty villa, unintentionally isolating herself from people she liked as well as those she did not. Her state of mind after three years? “One clings to old friendships and old memories as the sun of life sinks lower” (Lee, 158).
Pressed for money — paperbacks were selling in America at 40¢ each — she sought advances and loans from her publishers, particularly the two with whom she had become friends, Baron Von Tauchnitz and Fisher Unwin. Somehow, she wrote the book she thought was her best, The Massarenes., derived from her London visit. In depicting a vulgar parvenu amongst English gentlemen who lusted after his millions, she combined her usual subjects with topical issues and criticism of the materialism she hated. Thereafter, she largely published short pieces of political and literary criticism, writing letters to her friends and the press, whilst Lippincott republished her early novels in paperback form for 40¢ each. When Scawen Blunt met her in 1900 he thought her more French than English. In Her faded gentle demeanour and lack of passion also surprised him because they so contrasted with her strident work. Her bitter pen had taken her to the dogs, literally, for they were her only companions; he felt sorry for her.
The next change in Ouida’s life, which came on 17 November 1903, proved as abrupt as her departure from Villa Farinola. The landlady’s sons locked up all her possessions – plants, clothes, letters, and manuscripts including that of a novel, Helianthus. The men got drunk in the kitchen after their labours and the next morning put her in a carriage to a hotel in Viareggio without giving her time for bath or breakfast. She took them to court for this eviction, and won, but they decamped before they could be jailed, and, even though the fight continued and was decided in her favour, a Royal pardon meant that she never received either her legal expenses or her personal effects. She remained in deep gloom for seven months and lost all interest in writing anything other than letters, although she tried to reconstruct the manuscript of Helianthus, a difficult proposition given her method of writing.
Two portraits of Ouida in her later years, the left by Giuseppe Norfini, the sculptor who created her tomb, and the right by Visconde Georgio de Moraes Sarmento. 1904. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
In June 1904, Ouida moved back into Bagna di Lucca, which could only be temporary given her dislike of the place. She remained a year, after which she returned, unwell, to Viareggio. She first took rooms at a small hotel, but unpaid bills meant she ended up in a swineherd’s cottage at Massarosa. Frequently ill, often without enough money to buy food but, like her heroine Gladys Gerant in Puck, too proud to accept her friends’ charity, she spent most of the money or food she received on her three remaining dogs. Despite her objections, concerned friends approached the British Embassy. Ouida did not want financial assistance from the British government because she claimed French citizenship. However, France refused to provide any such assistance since she could not prove she was French (documents proving her citizenship were supposedly destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War). In 1906 English friends obtained a civil list pension for her of £150 a year, an honor that they persuaded her to accept. Ouida died of pneumonia on 25 January 1908. An anonymous friend paid for a magnificent tomb in the English cemetery complete with life-size effigy.
Ouida’s Tomb in the English Cemetery, Florence.
Not long before she died, Ouida provided a telling summary of her life in a letter to a friend: “People change as life goes on; I do not. I think I am exactly what I was when very young, in opinions and character” (Lee, 218). She might have been thinking of her Francophile republicanism and her fights for justice or her belief that women deserved an education that fitted them for the use of their talents and for public life. Perhaps inadvertently she also referred to her ego and her belief in her genius. Her vanity often appeared excessive, she was combative in response to her errors of judgment, and in her later years, she suffered from a depression so chronic she was unable to look after herself. However, Ouida, a woman without a man in a misogynist society, needed a strong ego to even take the first step on path she trod, let alone sustain her initial success, achieving international popularity and travelling well beyond the froth of romance.
Last modified 9 July 2019