There is no doubt that Victorian writers, to this day, still form a mighty slice of our book-reading. But, for all those that we still read and remember, many more are forgotten. In the case of Ouida, that may be the kindest fate – at least as far as her writing is concerned.
Ouida (1839–1908) was the nom de plume of Marie Louise Rame, the name itself said to be derived from her early attempts to say 'Louise'.
She was born in England, in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to an English mother and a Guernsey-born father, a teacher of French, sometime friend of Napoleon III1, given to mysterious disappearances and adventures. He, the father, managed to dissipate his wife's inheritance and disappeared finally in 1871, possibly killed in Paris during the Prussian siege. He was nevertheless a clever and inspirational man, responsible for much of Ouida's education, and a considerable influence.
Or was she? Some sources claim an American parentage and English adoption, and yet others talk of French origins. She never revealed the truth.
The public has no business with what my name is or is not. Ouida is all they have a right to know.
Her teenage years were spent in Suffolk where she was busy imagining falling in and out of love, and forming attachments to pets, particularly dogs. In her early twenties, she came to London with her mother to live in Ravenscourt Park, Hammersmith (the house now blue-plaqued) and had some tales and short stories published in monthly magazines. She was able quite quickly to support the household through her writing.
Ouida's Writing Career
Her first novel was originally published over three installments in magazines, and then as a single volume in 1863 with the title Held in Bondage2. It was considered somewhat 'racy' at the time, and notoriety began to surround her. More novels quickly followed, as did publication in America, France and Germany. Her German (and later pan-European) publisher, Baron Tauchnitz, became a firm and lifelong friend. Tauchnitz was friends also with many prominent literary figures of the day, including Dickens and Trollope. One wonders at his interest in Ouida, as, in modern eyes, her talent seems modest in comparison with the other authors he befriended. She enthusiastically joined the celebrity circuit of the time.
She went on to write a further 43 novels and numerous short stories and novellas in a variety of genres. Some dealt with the racier side of upper society, some were outrageously sentimental, others were romances set in sunnier climes, addressed with little sense of geography – which attracted much mocking criticism – but much sympathy for the downtrodden and badly treated, especially animals. She was also an inveterate letter writer.
Such was her success that she began to attract visitors, especially gentlemen, to her modest soirees. She took an apartment in Welbeck Street, in the West End of London and then, two years later, was able to install herself in the Langham Hotel where she wrote from her candlelit bed. At the Langham, she would entertain many of the great and good of the day at her now rather grand salons, running up huge bills as she did so3. At the height of her success, she was easily able to finance her extravagance. Perhaps because of her father, she had a particular, if superficial, interest in European history and pronounced often on the direction government policy should take with regard to Europe, with total confidence that the government of the day would act on her generously given advice.
In 1871, the year of her father's death in Paris, she upped sticks and travelled slowly through a chaotic Europe, accompanied by her mother. Her sentimental stories remained popular. It was during this period that she wrote Dog of Flanders, perhaps her best-remembered work, though somewhat florid to modern tastes. It is still read, especially at Christmas, and the source of both a feature film and a Japanese anime film. The dog in question was called Patrasche.
Patrasche had been born of parents who had laboured hard all their days over the sharp-set stones of the various cities and the long, shadowless, weary roads of the two Flanders and of Brabant. He had been born to no other heritage than those of pain and of toil. He had been fed on curses and baptized with blows. Why not? It was a Christian country, and Patrasche was but a dog. Before he was fully grown he had known the bitter gall of the cart and the collar. Before he had entered his thirteenth month he had become the property of a hardware dealer, who was accustomed to wander over the land north and south, from the blue sea to the green mountains. They sold him for a small price, because he was so young.
She settled eventually in Florence. Her travel writings, usually written as letters, were evocative and creditable.
The great white Seasons of the Santa Trinita rose like snow against the golden air. Monte Oliveto towered dark against the rosy glory of the west. There was a sweet sea wind blowing which fanned out as it went all the spiced odours of the pharmacies and all the scents of the budding woods. The shops of the goldsmiths, mosaic sellers, and alabaster workers gleamed and sparkled in the light. Everywhere there was some beauty, some fragrance, some treasure ; and above it all rose the wondrous shaft of the Campanile, glancing like gold and ivory in the sun.
She enjoyed Florentine Society, finding it far less stuffy than that of London. She met Italian royalty and took a shine to one Marchese Lotteringhi Della Stufa, a well-placed courtier. She wrote continuously and rented a grand villa. To pay the rent and staff wages required both a large income, which she continued to earn, and a prudent business management, alas not one of Ouida's talents. The villa soon became the base for her Monday soirees attended by everybody who was anybody either in Florentine society or passing through on their 'Grand Tours'.
This first period in Florence was perhaps the high point of her career. Inevitably her star began to wane. She published a Roman à clef which detailed her affair with the Marchese and other indiscretions. It was not well received by its easily recognised protagonists. She took to paying money to sundry ruffians for 'stray' dogs, some of which were later claimed by their true, displeased, owners. Her Italian (and French) was described as fluent but not perfect and so heavily accented as to be poorly understood by native Italians. She was often rude to women, but welcoming to their husbands. Publishers became reluctant to fork out large advances as royalties became the more usual way to pay authors. Stufa had tired of her and moved to Rome. Her writings began to focus on the plight of the peasants and she wrote a novel espousing their cause, which caused a deal of ill will among the circles that she was beginning to rely on to bail her out of her money problems. Such was the animosity she roused that a half-hearted attempt was made to assassinate her.
She began to travel again, visiting Rome in pursuit of the Marchese, and then London. Here, she resumed her 'salon' at the Langham, and met with government ministers, newspaper editors and the likes of Robert Browning,Oscar Wilde and John Millais. Unfortunately she could not pay her hotel bill and a group of fans had to rally and fund her return to Florence.
Her later years in Florence were marked by struggles with money and a new interest in litigation emerged. With middle age, her sense of her own dignity and importance increased (if that were possible) and she was likely to take umbrage, and to the courts, at the slightest provocation. Her writing continued, particularly in letters to The Times in London and to the great and good around Europe. Eventually, she could no longer pay her rent and her landlord, a Marchese Farinola, decided to repossess his villa. Her furniture (which was not actually hers, she had sold it to raise funds to a friend who had allowed her to keep it), possessions and manuscripts were auctioned and Ouida and her dogs (at this time about 20) began a trail from hotel to hotel, rented villa to rented villa, always moving on when the pressure of creditors grew too great. Her mother, her constant companion through all these years, died. Throughout all this Ouida continued her writing.
In 1894, she moved first to Lucca and then to San Alessio, just outside the city, where she was able to stay, with her dogs, for ten years. She was writing short stories and children's tales, reportedly of some charm. She continued to think her opinions of value and wrote frequently to The Times Newspaper, and to prominent figures in London, advising them on the conduct of the Boer War, the desecration of Venice, and the relative merits of prominent writers, artists and poets. Ouida wrote, in this period The Masserenes, her last full-length novel.
In 1903, the villa's owner, a Madame Grosfils, wanted the villa back. Protracted negotiations had no result and eviction followed. Unfortunately this was badly done, with a group of hoodlums, led by the owner's sons, attempting to turf her out on the wrong day, the day before eviction was due. Force was used, belongings seized, blows landed and damage done. She left the next day, moving with little more than her dogs, to a hotel in nearby Viareggio, a fashionable resort on the coast. After some months spent recovering her energy and dignity, she initiated a law suit against the Grosfils family for damages following the botched eviction. Her writing continued.
She moved from Viareggio to Bagni di Lucca, a nearby spa town of suitably fading popularity where the Brownings had a villa and there was a small English community. It may not be coincidental that the mother and sister of her father's friend, Napoleon III, also lived here. Characteristically she both liked and hated the place: Shelley loved this place, the walk by the river, and so do I... I hate the place, the sun rises at 10 and goes over the hills at 4, in summer! A great many, many letters were written from here.
Much of her remaining energy was given to the law-suit against the Grosfils. And, to everyone's astonishment (other than her own), she eventually won the case, plus costs! However the required fines were not paid, nor did the Grosfils serve their sentences, fleeing the country instead. Several appeals went in Ouida's favour and she returned to Viareggio hoping for some restitution at least from the case.
The Latter Years
In 1907, three years later, an article was published in the Daily Mail, in London, reporting that the once great Ouida was in want and great distress. The suggestion was made that a fund be started to help her. Ouida was indignant. She wrote an angry telegram to the editor denying penury and forbidding any further mention of her by the paper. The Prime Minister was prevailed upon to procure her a civil list pension of £150 a year for the rest of her life. This she characteristically declined, possibly misunderstanding the amount on offer: What right have they to offer me a pension fit only for superannuated butlers! She accepted some cheques from friends and publishers sufficient to keep her, and her dogs, going. She died of pneumonia in January 1908 and was buried (rather grandly – funded anonymously) in the English cemetery at Bagni di Lucca.
Her legacy, her writings, are not much remembered despite the attention-attracting oddity of her name and are no longer in print. Nevertheless it is difficult not to admire the energy, the creativity, the self confidence and sheer force of personality of this remarkable Victorian woman.
Much of the information for this piece is taken from Ouida: A Memoir by Elizabeth Lee written not long after her death, from which comes the following quotation:
Many of Ouida's books possess qualities that make them attractive in spite of their many absurdities and inaccuracies. Whatever in them is meretricious and exaggerated, her love of beauty, whether it is to be found in nature or in art, her hatred of oppression and injustice, whether practised against man or beast, her sympathy with suffering in all forms, was genuine and sincere, however extravagant the terms in which she too often voiced her feelings.
The 'usual sources' will give you a bibliography.