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Ouida (1839 – 1908)
Renowned just as much for her eccentric lifestyle as for her highly popular fiction, Ouida’s sensational existence has invited a considerable amount of critical attention over the last century, and a number of biographical books and essays position her as a woman who was vivacious, outspoken and socially rebellious. As Malcolm Elwin notes: “Ouida is a good subject for a biographer, because she was a colourful personality, essentially, though curiously, feminine, impressed other people strongly, and talked a lot about herself” (311). Only in the last decade or so have scholars such as Talia Schaffer and Natalie Schroeder really begun to interrogate Ouida’s novels.
During the last third of the nineteenth century, Ouida, born Marie Louise Ramé, enjoyed a variable literary reputation, as Bonamy Dobrée identified in 1970:
Yes, she was enormously read, but her books were not allowed to lie about drawing room tables. She was too glamorous; she was, they said ‘unwholesome’; but then that was part of the thrill, for she was in rebellion against rigid Victorian conventions, current moral, religious, and domestic ideals . . . (193)
Her writing was notable for its extravagant settings and sensational plotlines. According to Yvonne Ffrench, “amongst her more than twenty-six novels, Moths epitomises Ouida’s penchant for melodramatic subject matter and ‘grand regal manner’” the best (131). At the time she wrote Moths (1880),a novel which attempted to counter as well as exploit the immorality of the fashionable world as a subject, Ouida had been living in Italy for nine years, and a shift in the setting of her novels from London to various European sites accompanied her own relocation to the Continent. Some reviewers found fault with the novel’s over-accentuated language and breaking of sexual taboos, not to mention its “offending against propriety” (Fiske 552). On the other hand, the Morning Post recognised its literary power, heralding it not only as “the author’s finest work, but one which marks a new epoch in fiction” (“Review of Moths”).
Ouida’s publisher in the late 1870s, Chatto and Windus, originally intended to release the novel in time for the autumn season in 1879 (Nieman 14), but by the time Ouida managed to send the manuscript to the publishers, they decided to delay Moths to January 1880 (16). By April, Chatto and Windus, influenced by the initial controversy of the reviewers and fearing that Moths might “injure” Ouida’s popularity, began considering publishing a cheaper editions 1 in order to stimulate interest (19), a decision which infuriated Ouida (Stirling 137; Weedon 147). No wonder that Ouida wrote a string of strongly worded letters to her publisher; such a determined attempt to generate sales of the novel was unusual in Victorian publishing practice. The common time period between first edition and a cheaper reprint varied but was usually between one to three years. Therefore, the hasty reprint of Ouida’s novel perhaps signaled her publisher’s reluctance to stand behind their author and her polarizing work of fiction.
Chatto and Windus first had to check with Mr Mudie (of Mudie’s Lending Library) that such an unusual decision would not impact his business interests, but it appears he assured the publisher that he did not require further copies and was even considering withdrawing the book as a result of its earlier unfavorable evaluation in The Saturday Review (Nieman 21). This conservative publication attacked Ouida for “writing rant and filling her books with folly,” and concluded by criticizing the novel’s apparent lack of morality: “rant, however, might be forgiven, and folly might be laughed at. But there is much in this ignorant, dull, and disgusting story which no person whose mind is not utterly corrupt can either forgive or make a subject of laughter” (“Moths” 550). Within an intermingling of critical opinion, the Victorian reading public could not get enough of Ouida’s latest work. It appears the book’s supposed lack of morals did not affect its popularity.
The publishing success is documented by many of Ouida’s biographers — Eileen Bigland, for example, notes, “the libraries were besieged by people clamouring for copies, the booksellers could not keep pace with the demand” (152). A favorable review of Moths appeared in the Times a month after the book’s initial publication and stated that: “we doubt whether ‘Ouida’ has ever written a more clever novel than Moths. . . . It displays her powers as strikingly as it displays her extravagances” (“Recent Novels”). Ouida believed she could get away with such extravagances in her writing by distancing herself from English novelists and their lack “of knowledge of the world” (“Letter to the Editor”). As a writer of romance fiction Ouida relied on the exoticism and glamour of a continental setting, as well as the resonances of the French literary tradition, to present a picture of society that was, in her own words, “nothing that I have not seen” (“Letter to the Editor”)
In “Ouida at Home,” a Tuapeka Times article from 1894, the London correspondent for the small New Zealand newspaper takes pains to describe the Florentine villa where she resides, an account which echoes scenes from a later novel, Princess Napraxine (1884):
For the past twenty years Ouida has resided on the outskirts of Florence, in a villa which formerly belonged to one of the Medici. The room in which she works is truly picturesque. Its walls are painted with exquisite old Italian frescoes, and inlaid tables laden with pots of flowers (lilies and hyacinths abounding) line the walls. There is a priceless Persian rug before the hearthstone, where she likes to lie and dream.
Ouida’s earlier extravagant life at the Langham hotel in London is often well noted in her biographies. W.H. Mallock recollects her sitting-room there as a “glade of the most expensive flowers” (125). He also remembers Ouida arriving one evening “trimmed with the most exuberant furs, which, when they were removed, revealed a costume of primrose colour—a costume so artfully cut that, the moment she sat down, all eyes were dazzled by the sparkling of her small protruded shoes” (ibid.).
In her early years in London, Ouida was renowned for entertaining various society figures, including Oscar Wilde and Robert Browning. These days the Langham hotel proudly recognizes one of its most famous guests from the nineteenth century, 2 advertising itself as the place where
[Ouida] lived an exotic life for four years, receiving visitors while lying in bed and writing manuscripts. Her preferred way of work was by the light of scores of candles, with black velvet curtains forever drawn to keep out obtrusive daylight, surrounded by masses of purple flowers; she frequently ran up florist bills alone of £200 per week. (“The Langham, London”)
Ouida was truly a practitioner of Aestheticism. As her financial circumstances altered for the worse, she was able to live out her fantasies of fashion and interior decoration through her fictional female aesthetes, like Princess Napraxine and Lady Dolly.
By Kirby-Jane Hallum, University of Otago
Kirby-Jane Hallum completed a PhD at the University of Auckland and now teaches at the University of Otago. She is particularly interested in Victorian popular culture and currently carries out research on the figure of the New Zealand New Woman.
1 Chatto and Windus produced cheap editions of the novel in 1880, 1881, 1986, 1919, 1924 and 1932.
2 Today the hotel even has a loyalty program called ‘Ouida’ that rewards its frequent visitors.
Bigland, Eileen. Ouida, The Passionate Victorian. London and New York: Jarrolds, 1950.
Dobrée, Bonamy. Milton to Ouida: A Collection of Essays. London: Cass, 1970.
Elwin, Malcolm. Victorian Wallflowers: A Panoramic Survey of the Popular Literary Periodicals. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1966.
Fiske, A.K. “Profligacy in Fiction: Zola’s Nana. Ouida’s Moths.” 1880. Schroeder 550–4.
“The Langham, London.” Cosmopolis 17 Jan. 2011. 15 Jan. 2012.
Mallock, W.H. “Memories of Men and Places.” Harper’s Monthly Magazine 141 (1920): 124–25.
“Moths.” 1880. Schroeder 546–50.
Nieman, M.J. Recasting a Victorian Woman Writer: Chatto and Windus’ Letters to Ouida. Master’s thesis. University of Reading, 1994.
Ouida [pseud. of Marie Louise Ramée]. “Letter to the Editor.” Times 13 Apr. 1880: 5.
-----. Moths. Ed. by Natalie Schroeder. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2005.
“Ouida at Home.” Tuapeka Times. 15 Aug. 1894: 5.
“Recent Novels.” Times 27 Mar. 1880: 12.
“Review of Moths.” Morning Post 2 Feb. 1880: 3.
Stirling, Monica. The Fine and the Wicked: Life and Times of Ouida. London: Victor Gollancz, 1957.
Weedon, Alexis. Victorian Publishing: the Economics of Book Production for a Mass Market, 1836–1916. Aldershot, and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003.
Rhoda Broughton (1840-1920)
Born at Denbighshire in Wales in 1840, Rhoda Broughton began writing novels from a young age. Not Wisely but Too Well (1867), published after Cometh up as a Flower, was her first work and was composed over a six-week period. In 1893, Helen C. Black recounts Broughton’s motivation to write the novel:
She says she remembers a certain wet Sunday afternoon when she was about twenty-two; she was distinctly bored by a stupid book which she was trying to read, when the ‘spirit moved her to write.’ It was on the leaves of an old copy-book lying at hand that she delivered her soul of the ideas which poured in on her brain. Day after day, night after night, she wrote swiftly and in secret, until at the end of six weeks she found a vast heap of manuscript accumulated, to which she gave the title Not Wisely but Too Well. (41)
Both Black and Broughton’s biographer, Marilyn Wood, suggest that she wrote the novel after reading a popular contemporary book and believing herself capable of producing a superior work of fiction (Wood 1, 9). Despite realizing her ambitions, Broughton set aside the manuscript and neglected to pursue a literary career at that point.
Michael Sadleir considers another catalyst for Broughton’s early writing and suggests that she perhaps drew inspiration from her own romantic experiences. He argues that the “ill-fated love affairs” and the “heart break of her deserted girls” in Not Wisely and Cometh Up were “written from experience and not imagined” (87). Whether or not Broughton was attempting to expel her own romantic sufferings through fiction is of little consequence to her successful literary career. Rhoda Broughton never married but she found contentment in the Victorian literary world. Eliza Lynn Linton’s 1887 article in Temple Bar points out that she was“independent and high-spirited” and “she has contented herself with doing her work to the best of her powers” (196). Indeed, Broughton received just as much attention for her own character as she did for her literary ability (Wood xii). Described by Anthony Trollope as being “full of energy” (215), Broughton was a well-liked individual not only in literary circles but in wider British society and she “reigned as queen both of the circulating library and of Oxford society” (Louis James 194). Broughton’s social reputation grew with her budding writing career until “the name ‘Rhoda Broughton’ on a title-page, or as a symbol of conversation of witty but alarming pungency, was almost a national institution” (Sadleir 84). This acknowledgment of her status as a cultural icon firmly situates her within the Victorian popular fiction tradition.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Broughton’s name was conspicuous amongst other popular writers of her day, because although she was evidently aware of the literary tastes of her audience, her books stood out for their “unmistakable individuality” (Austin 202) and “brilliant understanding of humanity” (Sadleir 95). Broughton began her literary career with her success in the expansive three-volume novel, which dominated the market at the time. Both Not Wisely but Too Well and Cometh Up as a Flower were initially published in serial form before they were revised and reprinted as longer novels. 1 Regardless of Broughton’s dislike for the three-decker novel, and the adverse effects she believed it to have on her writing quality (Wood 14), it served her well in terms of commercial success.
However, when her twelfth novel Alas (1890)failed to win public approval to the same degree as her earlier works, she resolved to “forswear the 3 vol. novel” (qtd. in Sadleir 86). From then on, Broughton’s literary output changed to better-quality one-volume works, but these did not comply with popular public taste to the same extent as her former books. Even though she still received a modest income from her writing, she was no longer “top of the library lists” (Wood 95). As Sadleir points out, “paradoxically, then, Rhoda Broughton won abuse, financial profit, and a name in literature by books inferior to those which earned her none of these things” (86). While Not Wisely but Too Well and Cometh Up as a Flower are the most widely known of her novels, her posthumously published A Fool in Her Folly (1920) is said to be a superior work of fiction because of its noted improvements in style: “although this novel recaptures the spirit of those early works it shows, in its construction and language, the craftsmanship of the mature author” (Wood 118). Despite falling from public favor to some extent, Broughton remained an enduring Victorian popular literature figure, as her obituary in the Times noted in 1920: “Rhoda Broughton’s books were many and entertaining: they have a place which is very much their own in the tale of fiction; but it seems almost impossible to speak of them without recalling at once that she herself filled their place far more brilliantly than any of her Joans, or Nancies or Belindas” (“Miss Rhoda Broughton”).
By Kirby-Jane Hallum, University of Otago
Kirby-Jane Hallum completed a PhD at the University of Auckland and now teaches at the University of Otago. She is particularly interested in Victoroan popular culture and currently carries out research on the figure of the New Zealand New Woman.
1 Not Wisely but Too Well appeared in the Dublin University Magazine in twelve installments from August 1865 to July 1866 (Wood 175). Bentley and Son offered to publish this novel if she extended it to a three-volume length but she refused and offered it to Tinsley Brothers, where ironically it was expanded and published in 1867 as a three-volume edition (14).
Austin, Alfred. “The Novels of Miss Broughton.” Temple Bar 41 (1874): 197–209.
Black, Helen C. Notable Women Authors of the Day. 1893. Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1993.
James, Louis. “The Rational Amusement: ‘Minor Fiction and Victorian Studies.” Victorian Studies 14.2 (1970): 193–9.
Linton, Eliza Lynn. “Miss Broughton’s Novels.” Temple Bar 80 (1887): 196–209.
“Miss Rhoda Broughton: A Novelist of English Character.” Obituaries. Times 7 June 1920: 17.
Sadleir, Michael. Things Past. London: Constable, 1944.
Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. 1883. Berkeley and London: Univ. of California Press, 1978.
Wood, Marilyn. Rhoda Broughton: Profile of a Novelist. Stanford: Paul Watkins, 1993.