Ouida, a significant figure in Victorian literature, enjoyed a readership spanning continents. Great authors, such as John Ruskin, Oscar Wilde, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, read her books just as much as those who used subscription libraries. Max Beerbohm called her one of the miracles of modern literature, whilst her publishers made enough from her sensation novels to subsidize others’ publications well beyond her death. The snobbish damned her with faint praise. Her later works of political and literary criticism had their admirers but were soon forgotten. Nowadays her books can be a difficult read not only because of their cascades of adjectives but also because of their sexist, racist and anti-Semitic attitudes.
Her life and character remain something of a conundrum. Once she had achieved fame – living extravagantly, loving men unrequitedly, and pampering up to thirty dogs in personally ruinous ways – her departures from social norms became what people remembered about her. Her self-professed misogyny lay alongside frankness about taboo subjects, such as affairs and prostitution. She fought against colonialism but lived a large part of her life as an expatriate in what were in essence British colonies.
Her complexity makes relating her work to her life story resemble a game of Genius Solitaire, where the contrary card directions of two packs require simultaneous play. Certainly, others have worked through the decks. Lee, her first biographer, writing half a dozen years after her death obliterated all evidence of the nature of Ouida’s relationships with men. Following the usual approach of Victorian and late-Victorian biographers, she wrote about a spinster who guarded her right to privacy. Yvone ffrench, Ouida’s second biographer, focused on her ostentation and the Byronic identification that drove her misanthropy (1938). Eileen Bigland, her third biographer, thought Ouida shrewd, egoistic, and driven by “hydra-headed” competing desires (1951). Far outstripping the second and third works in terms of balance, Monica Stirling (1958), who accessed new sources in Italy, employed a general historical framework, tying Ouida’s political writing to her childhood experiences while examining the most obvious aspects of Ouida’s unconventional spinsterhood.
If we take seriously Ouida’s own claims that she was more French than English, then a fifth new path opens up through the cards. Such an approach requires returning to both Elizabeth Lee’s 1914 biography, the account of her life closest to Ouida’s lived experience, and to contemporaneous memoirs, traces of her life in the press, and events of her youth. For example, Ouida’s romantic heroes and heroines, romans à clef and later political writings derived from her family experiences. An exploration of her father’s attitude to the Bonapartes uncovers the seeds of her fights against injustice. Recognizing that she was the sun to her mother’s moon reveals reasons for her grandiose streak. Stripping her biographies of their coyness and their criticisms throws light on Beerbohm’s “unique, flamboyant lady,” sensitive, enthusiastic, creative, and very witty. Unfortunately, her lack of modesty, desire for a loving relationship with much younger men, and her merciless criticism of others that she published following any disappointment made her many more enemies than friends. As a result, Ouida, who experienced an impoverished old age and lonely death, acquired a reputation solely as a writer of extravagant melodramatic romances, and all evidence of her social and political ideas were forgotten.
Bigland, Eileen. Ouida, the Passionate Victorian. London: Jarrold’s, 1951. [archive.org] Web. 23 June 2019.
ffrench, Yvonne. Ouida: A Study in Ostentation. London: Cobden, Sanderson, 1937/8.
Jordan, Jane and King, Andrew (eds.). Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture. Abingdon, Oxon and New York: Routledge, 2016.
Lee, Elizabeth. Ouida. New York: Duffield & Co., 1914.
“Ouida.” [www.britannica.com] Web. 20 June 2019.
Stirling, Monica. The Fine and the Wicked: The Life and Times of Ouida. New York: Coward-McCann, 1958.
Last modified 27 June 2019