- Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction
This new study of the fiction of Victorian popular novelist Ouida (Louise de la Ramée, b. 1839-d. 1908) confirms that we are in the midst of an Ouida revival: with two conferences devoted to Ouida in 2008, the increasing availability of modern reprints of Ouida's novels, and a forthcoming collection of critical essays published by Ashgate, the present book—the first full-length study of Ouida's fiction—follows recent work by Pamela Gilbert and Talia Schaffer, and will introduce Ouida to a new generation of scholars and students.1 The authors have set themselves an ambitious task: twenty-one novels are discussed in detail, from Held in Bondage (1863) to Ouida's last completed novel, The Massarenes, published over thirty years later, in 1897. And an extraordinary oeuvre it is: taking us from sensation to social realism, from male romance to New Woman fiction. Schroeder and Holt demonstrate most effectively the way in which Ouida's unorthodox conception of gendered identity underwent constant revision. It is precisely Ouida's defining restlessness—the perpetual re-imagining of female strategies of survival under patriarchy, the experimentation with so many different literary genres—that marks her out from her contemporaries and makes us revise assumptions about the production and reception of late Victorian popular literature. From her earliest novels, Ouida's "double-gendered" (p. 28) men and women have far greater potential to disturb than Wilkie Collins's sexually ambiguous Marian Halcombe. Her most famous creation, Cigarette, from Under Two Flags (1867), the pretty camp vivandière who can shoot from the saddle, is discussed not in terms of the familiar gender-bending of the sensation novel genre, but as an early example of the phenomenon Schroeder and Holt (taking their cue from Gilbert) label the "Ouidean New Woman" (p. 66). The most significant contribution made by the present study is its tracing of the development of this new kind of heroine, a figure that cuts across literary genres: from the adventure story to the female gothic, [End Page 384] here Musa, the Italian peasant-heroine of In Maremma (1882), lives in an "androgynous paradise" (p. 156) outside society, unbound by social codes, through to the dissatisfied heroines of Ouida's later 'aesthetic' novels that deal specifically with women's discontent in marriage.
Ouida's frank handling of female sexuality is completely at odds with the tenor of British realist fiction of the period: her fallen women never die of shame—indeed, she never conceives of them as fallen women. As Schroeder and Holt point out, Ouida's favored genre, the romance, gives her a certain freedom to discuss female sexuality in ways not available to English realists: Ouida's novels are Zolaesque by comparison (p. 173). Why, then, is there no reference to Ouida's published articles? She wrote over sixty of these for the British and American periodical press, which include essays campaigning against literary censorship, others which demonstrate a wide knowledge of contemporary French literature, and, somewhat contrary to expectations, two late antifeminist essays.2 Surely there should be room for consideration of the issues raised here.
The other central theme running through this study is Ouida's depiction of what Guy Debord has described as "the world of the commodity dominating all that is lived,"3 yet what is missing from this discussion is a consideration of the commodification of Victorian popular literature. It is important to understand how Ouida's novels were consumed. In the character Hilarion, a debauched artist in Ariadnê (1877), Schroeder and Holt recognize, "Ouida voices the popular artist's anxieties about the need to pander to the public's taste while creating art of moral significance" (p. 118). Analysis of Ouida's several essays on the book trade, or indeed her correspondence with Chatto and Windus (to be found in the New York Public Library), reveal just this unresolved tension between Ouida's perception...