Helena Esser studied Anglophone Literature and History at the University of Duisburg-Essen, from which she graduated with a BA thesis on retrofuturist feminism in steampunk literature and an MA thesis on female identity in WW1 memoirs. She is currently busy trying to coordinate her many research interests, which include steampunk subculture, cityscapes, cyborgs, and airship pirates, Ouida, WW1 history, Terry Pratchett, and cyberpunk. You can find her on Twitter @EsserHelena
The writings of Ouida, as Marie Louise de la Ramée (1839-1908) was commonly known, were widely read between the 1860s and the end of the era, when ‘Victorian sentimentality’ fell out of favor with the modernist-spirited critics. Her works were
published in Britain and the US and translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Czech, Finnish, Dutch, Russian and Japanese, several racehorses were named after her, her novels were adapted into plays, operettas, and film adaptations. Ruskin praised her novel A Village Commune (1881) as a ‘perfect picture’ of Modern Italy, yet the author who spent more than twenty years of her life near Florence remains invisible in recent scholarship concerning the Victorians in Italy. Wilde called her ‘the last of the romantics’, ‘florid, and fervent, and fanciful’, and ‘the high-priestess of the impossible’, yet her influence on the decadents (beautifully outlined as it has been by Talia Schaffer and Jane Jordan) remains a mere footnote in Wildean scholarship.
For some, her works were ‘marked by beauty and vigor of language, delicacy of thought, and richness of imagination’, for others, she was ‘the Chopin of dramatic narration’. G.S. Street, in his review in The Yellow Book, admired her ‘unrestrained and incorrect eloquence’; Max Beerbohm praised: ‘Her every page is a riot of unpolished epigrams and unpolished poetry of vision, with a hundred discursions and redundancies. […] Her style is a veritable cascade.’ Marie Corelli posits one should not praise ‘the system of morals set forth in her books’. One critic worried that ‘the uneducated and thoughtless who have neither knowledge nor discrimination of taste, no doubt feel unmitigated admiration for those eloquent rhapsodies of lurid descriptions’. Another professed Ouida was ‘Nordau’ “degnerate” incarnate’, that ‘Preachers have cried out against the immorality of “Ouida”, and mammas have forbidden their daughters to read her, and gentlemen of the world have pretended to shudder at her cynicism.’ Some of these phrasing are passionate; yet if we consider other, ore radical critical responses to sensation fiction or fin-de-siècle art and literature, they seem somewhat feeble and tame. Margaret Oliphant was deeply troubled about women who ‘give and receive burning kisses and frantic embraces’ in sensation fiction, but some of Ouida’s female characters ‘get away’ with much more than that.
In Under Two Flags (1867), we have Cigarette, the youthful, foul-mouthed French-Algerian vivandière who falls in love with dandy-turned-soldier Bertie Cecil and is redeemed for her ambiguous non-feminine behavior by sacrificing herself for the male hero. While I do not disagree with this reading, I wonder if Cigarette’s death which is, after all, also a heroic soldier’s death, must really only be read as a ‘punishment’ for gender transgressions. Cigarette is portrayed as both ‘unsexed’ and decidedly feminine in her secret passions, at once fierce, proud, loyal, jealous, nimble, courageous, witty, fearless, gentle, mischievous, graceless, kind, angry, compassionate. A kitten, a soldier, a child, a young lion, fiercely democratic, yet cowed by Princess Venetia’s grace and refinement. Cigarette has seen battle, taken lovers and watched men die. She has good-humored maternal feelings for violent soldiers, yet is dismissed as a ‘poor child’ by both Cecil and Venetia, although the latter is only two years older. She lives a degree of personal freedom, acclaim and adventure that thoroughly disqualifies her as a ‘woman’ in Cecil’s eyes, but while she is certainly meant to be exotic and can be thus because of her mongrel status, Cigarette is neither antagonist nor victim. She is Under Two Flag’s other main character. And not only is she allowed to be a number of things we have come not to associate with female characters in Victorian literature, her unrequited love for Cecil is portrayed with insight and psychological complexity: As she saves Cecil’s life, her face is ‘one moment soft, and flushed, and tender as passion; it was the next jealous, fiery, scornful, pale, and full of impatient self-disdain’, she feels ‘a curious conflict of pity, impatience, anger, and relief.’ With her complex array of characteristics – brave, sullen, passionate, at once compassionate, self-sacrificing and tender in her care for wounded soldiers in accordance with feminine ideals, and fierce, impatient, angry – Cigarette embodies French Algiers, a space of adventure, suffering, and exile; a space with which Cecil is eventually irreconcilable with.
Talia Schaffer has provided an insightful and plausible reading of Princess Napraxine, the heroine of the so-titled novel, as a female aesthete who resists male objectification and actively constructs her own elusive identity through epigrams. She escapes her own commodification by becoming both an icon of female beauty, silence and angelhood, and genuinely unfeminine, passionless, and rational: ‘I am not a stupid woman, I am not a silly woman certainly; no, I am quite convinced I have a brain, though as for a soul, I don’t know, and I am afraid I don’t very much care.’ In addition to being both idealized and removed, Princess Napraxine can also, from today’s perspective at least, be read as asexual and aromantic: ‘When she did know what [marriage] was, it filled her with an inexpressible disgust and melancholy’, ‘all the caresses and obligations of love were odious to her’. The Princess is thoroughly disenchanted with marriage and domesticity and exhibits an astoundingly unfeminine distaste for her own children, yet she finds herself imbued with no end of social power; men fantasize about ‘winning’ her, go bankrupt, or commit suicide for her.
Similarly, both Ouida’s successful novel Moths and her late work The Massarenes feature beautiful, monstrous mothers: ‘Mouse’ and Dolly are pretty ‘social butterflies’ who gamble, cheat and scheme. Mouse’s children are explicitly outlined as not her husband’s, she is vain, and egotistical, an antagonist, a true ‘daughter of decadence’, yet not ‘doomed in a downward spiral of degeneration and decay’ as Andrew King has outlined, but she survives and triumphs, having independently navigated her way through the conflicts she faces and daring, even, to be happy in the end.
One is compelled to wonder why Ouida’s women, heroines or antagonists, manage to navigate her novels in so carefree and unapologetic a manner: ‘Why this was tolerated’, admitted Pamela Gilbert in an early study, ‘is unclear.’ As Gilbert notes, many of her creations anticipate the New Woman (a term Ouida is credited with coining), reject traditional gender roles, question marriage, or live active, self-determined lives, and while many New Woman writers must have grown up reading her novels, Ouida’s criticism of the movement have won her a reputation for being anti-feminist in feminist scholarship. While that is certainly true as far as feminist scholarship of the 1970s, 80s and 90s is concerned, does such a reception not hinge on our definition of feminism as such? Scholars agree that she ‘cannot be regarded as in any way a foremother of twentieth-century feminism’, but might the case be different with twenty-first century feminism?
Popular feminism, especially that concerned with the portrayal of women in today’s pop culture, has increasingly argued that it is important to portray rounded, complex female characters who speak for themselves, are less defined by male-centric relationshipa and have agency within the narrative. It has called for the representation of a multitude of female types: ‘I want her to be free to express herself. I want her to have meaningful, emotional relationships with other women. I want her to be weak sometimes. I want her to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical dominance or power. I want her to cry if she feels like crying. I want her to ask for help. I want her to be who she is’, demanded Sophia McDougall in her influential piece, ‘I Hate Stong Female Characters.’ Perhaps this individualist approach can provide ways of reading Ouida that does not depend on a teleological view of cultural history: Ouida’s popular literature is not easily assimilated into a canon of the ‘great tradition’ which hinges on artistic innovation and evolution. Neither does she sit comfortably with feminists who prefer to construct a narrative of steady progress, but the fact that Ouida is hard to place politically does not mean she has nothing to teach. As Andrew King states; ‘Ouida was of a decidedly libertarian persuasion. Her opposition to feminism and to the “New Woman” stemmed from that very commitment to freedom. Her argument was that the “New Woman” placed women in greater chains than ever. Such claims must irritate those who prefer the formation of a coherent genealogy of foremothers dedicated to the formal integration of women into the state and public life. But we must ask ourselves why we are irritated.’
The question arises: Are we irritated because our perspective cannot accommodate Ouida’s more complex- or more careless? – stances? Ouida herself professed: ‘No one can accuse me of any political prejudices. My writings have alternatively been accused of a reactionary conservatism and a dangerous socialism, so that I may without presumption claim to be impartial: I love conservatism when it means the preservation of beautiful things, I love revolution when it means the destruction of vile ones.’ And, after all, G.S. Street admired best in her work two qualities: ‘a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression.’