For perhaps a hundred years the idea that Ouida could ever have a serious relationship with high-status culture would have been laughable. Her contemporary critics thought her merely pretentious: she claims to be part of respectable culture but she can’t manage it, she emulates the high but doesn’t get it right.
When the Saturday Review (12 July 1873) reviews Ouida’s Pascarèl, a novel set in the revolutionary Italy of the 1860s, it begins by announcing that Ouida’s
“chief literary quality is a flux of words and her dominant characteristic audacity. If we analyse her rushing gorgeous sentences, full of sound and colour as they are, we find only some poor, meagre, little thought as the residuum; and even when her phrases are sentimental, the action of her stories too often appeals to a prurient taste. Her ideas are like an artist’s lay figure, the same thing draped up in a dozen different costumes, but always the same thing underneath, and that thing wooden.”
Ouida can’t, according to this witty reviewer, be bothered to move from the “lay figure” to real people: she remains all pose (as Malcolm Elwin described her in his 1930s book Victorian Wallflowers).
Now when I used the term defined in a previous post, “parergic,” to refer to a failed emulation of high culture that did not undermine but supported it, I wanted to get away from the value judgement implied by the terms “pretentious” (or words often used in a similar way, like “imitative” or “derivative”) to help us think about what was at stake: what are the violent hierarchies we participate in, unconsciously or otherwise, when we dismiss a writer as laughably pretentious? Sometimes the violence takes place in the field of culture, at other times of class, gender, race, age, disability and so on. Sometimes consumer identity which may be “horizontal” rather than vertical is at issue, whereby for instance, supporters of one successful pop group will deny the validity of another which is, in the field at large, in a very similar cultural position. At all times the issue is tribal status: “we” are better than the failed “them”. My deployment of the term “parergy” was intended to create an analytic distance from those struggles, to stand outside them insofar as such is possible (that one cannot stand outside entirely doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try).
Now how far can parergy be related to Ouida’s early work?
First to note is that the critics’ view of Ouida as pretentious only fully emerges after her identity as a woman is revealed. Early comments on her work in periodicals – she had started to contribute to Bentley’s Miscellany in 1859 – suggest that the critics thought “Ouida” a clever gentleman who wrote “brilliant nothings” for pleasure (see e.g. Morning Post 4 February 1862:3). They even thought Ouida had seen military service. So thorough was the deception that the Standard (8 May 1862: 6) wryly interpreted Ouida’s temporary absence from Bentley’s in May 1862 as a possible sign that the author had decided it was too vulgar to write in such a magazine:
“What has become of him? Has he got a notion that it is plebeian to write, or is he only taking a rest from his arduous labours as the chronicler of mythical swelldom?”
Ouida’s morality – but, more, “discretion” – were issues that some papers took issue with: the The Morning Post (8 May 1865: 2) didn’t like “his” article on duelling for the Army and Navy Review mainly because “he” dared to voice opinions that should have been kept within “his” set.
By 1866 that the name referred to a woman author was already public: The Sporting Gazette of June 23 that year refers to her as “she” confirming The Pall Mall Gazette‘s outing of Ouida as a woman in its review of Strathmore (4 May), in which it had defined her novel as “the hen book to ‘Guy Livingstone'” (on which novel see below) and proceeded to slash it for, exactly, pretention:
Soon, Ouida’s real identity becomes more and more public. The Bury and Norwich Post, and Suffolk Herald (23 October 1866: 4) even relates how “she” had spent her childhood in Bury. The next post will think through more specifically the implications of this for an understanding of the parergic.