Ouida’s Pascarèl (1873): an Encounter with Italy 2

Frontispiece to 1873 Tauchnitz edition of Pascarel
Frontispiece to 1873 Tauchnitz edition of Pascarel

The previous and the following blog posts were originally published as  “The origins of Ouida’s Pascarèl (1873): the  combination novel, myths of the female artist and the commerce of art.” In: Anglistica Pisana. 6.1 (2009) Edizioni ETS, Pisa, Italy, pp. 77-85. ISBN 9788846725967. Please see the first post on the purely visual additions. This post mainly concerns the plot of the novel.

Pascarèl opens with a third-person description of Carnival in Verona, a place familiar to all the novel’s expected readership through Romeo and Juliet, as the narrator points out (as so many commercial novels do, this one flatters us with what we already know). The heroine and principal narrator is Speronella, usually called the “donzellina”. She is the illegitimate daughter of a male English aristocrat (who abandons her when she is a child) and a female Italian opera singer who dies when the donzellina a little later. She has as a playfellow, ’Ino, a youth with a “pretty, curly, golden, Venetian head” (p.11).The plot begins with the donzellina, now fifteen, needing money to buy bread for her and her sole remaining guardian, an old nurse. What can she do but sing? ’Ino discourages her from singing in the opera, but suggests singing in the street instead. He plays the lute and she sings to the acclamation of an assembled crowd, a shower of coins, and the gift of a ring with a mysterious stone engraved with a pictures of the Fates. Soon after she hears the crowd cry “Pascarèl!” but instead of following the cry, she tries to run back to her nurse to give her money. She finds it hard to run laden with coins and

She sank down upon a flight of steps, her skirts glided from her hands, her treasures rolled to the ground and were scattered. She sobbed as if her heart would break.

‘That is ungrateful to the people, cara mia,’ said [’Ino] softly, ‘Is it that stone with the Fates that has chilled you?

 ‘Nay she is right,’ said a voice above them. ‘Count art by gold, and it fetters the feet it once winged.’

(Pascarèl, I: 22-3)

The voice belongs to the donor of the ring, but he disappears too quickly to be questioned. She realises suddenly that donor is Pascarèl and, immediately and shockingly, in the final paragraphs of chapter 2, the narrative voice becomes first-person, spotlighting in an extreme manner the very act of the story’s narration. The heroine has, through recognising the hero, been enabled to speak in her own voice. In the following six chapters she gives us her history. Returning to the opening time frame in chapter 9 but retaining her narrative voice, the donzellina reaches home. The nurse refuses money made in a shameful way on the streets and dies of starvation in the night, whereupon the donzellina goes in search of her father.

illus from Pascarel opp p. 163
Firenze Panorama: photo from Pascerel opp.p. 163

In Florence, she is found and taken up by Pascarèl. He turns out to be a wandering actor and improvisatore. They slowly fall in love in a curious process which comprises her listening to him rhapsodising over the virtues and beauties of Italy while they tour the towns and villages with his acting troupe. They exercise their art for money – only enough to live ‑ and for their own pleasure. This structure allows for poetic vignettes of specific places and edenic descriptions of natural phenomena which gratuitously interrupt the plot in the same way as the hero’s monologues. Pascarèl is thus able to combine guidebook with improvisations on politics and aesthetics, together with novel and (for those who know) autobiography.

PIsa Panorama dalla Torre della Cittadella, photo opp. p. 310
PIsa Panorama dalla Torre della Cittadella, photo opp. p. 310

When the heroine discovers that her beloved has been having an affair with a woman he had claimed was his sister, she flees back to Florence. She is eventually found and acknowledged by her father, who is now fabulously wealthy. Pascarèl, meanwhile, in despair at losing the donzellina, learns the importance of selfless political commitment, goes to fight in the Italian war of independence and returns a hero. To narrate Pascarèl’s adventures the novel finally allows him to speak in his own voice, rather than have it relayed through the donzellina’s consciousness. He has at last, it seems, discovered his own social role and identity. In his adventures he encounters ’Ino, who has developed a talent for drawing, and becomes his patron. ’Ino meets the donzellina in Florence and brings news of her to Pascarèl, having  also informed the donzellina about Pascarèl. She now gives up her new-found wealth and goes to find him, encountering him making a political speech in favour of Italian unification. He begins with a story of how St Michael created the Italian people from a “sunbeam …a mask of velvet, a poniard of steel, the chords of a lute, the heart of a child, the sigh of a poet, the kiss of a lover, a rose out of paradise, and a silver string from an angel’s lyre”, blessed with the smile of God (Pascarèl, III, p. 341). But then Satan in envy fired a poisoned arrow into the heart of this creation:

“Some call this barbed shaft Cruelty; some Superstition; some Ignorance; some Priestcraft; maybe its poison is drawn from all four; be it how it may, it is the duty of all Italians to pluck hard at the arrow of hell, so that the smile of God alone shall remain with their children’s children.

“Yonder in the plains we have done much ; the rest will lie with you, the Freed Nation.”

(Pascarèl, vol. III, p. 342)
 

Pascarèl goes on to urge his audience to think of Italy as a unified nation with a glorious history. “We are Italians,” he concludes with enormous dramatic effect. “Great as the heritage is, so great the duty likewise.” (Pascarèl, vol. III, p. 347).

The donzellina, like the audience, is overcome. Whereas before she had been critical or at most delighted by Pascarel’s power of story-telling, now she “worships” it, not in the uncomprehending way Folle-Farine had adored the art of her sculptor, but because she recognises the great social purpose to which it is being put. Of course, hero and heroine end united in bliss.

It will be evident from the foregoing summary that the narrative progresses from a commercial version of art, where the donzellina is forced to sing for bread, through an enraptured erotic art which is a aesthetic celebration of beauty, to one dedicated to social utility, a view of art consonant with what Diana Maltz has called “missionary aesthetics”.[1] For all that one may decry Pascarèl’s rhetorical commonplaces and sentimental allegory, his political intention is unambiguous.

This seeming political commitment is, however, constructed along commercial lines with the tried and tested formulae of a “combination novel”. Pascarèl has clear relations to several works, including Tricotrin (1869) which prefigures it by presenting as the central characters a waif heroine and an older male wandering genius who refuses to be fettered by convention. The most flagged up source is, however, William Morris’s closet verse drama Love is Enough which provides an epigraph and quotations right at the beginning of the novel and then right at the end. It is difficult to see how Morris’s poem could have informed the whole work, however. Love is Enough appeared in November 1872, while Pascarèl was published in just the February of the following year. The donzellina and Pascarèl may be like the emperor and empress in Morris’s frame narrative in that war separates them and love conquers all, but the dating does not permit more than a superficial deployment of the poem by Ouida. She may have been inspired to quote Morris’s poem at the proof stage, recognising its fit with her novel, but she cannot have known it well enough for it to act as a palimpsest. Rather, I believe the most significant models are two picaresque female kunstlerromanen, both key documents for generating the mythology of the women artist in the early nineteenth century, Madame de Staël’s Corinne and George Sand’s Consuelo.[2]


[1] Diana Maltz, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People, Palgrave, 2005.

[2] A reviewer of the French version (Pascarel, roman imité de l’Anglais, avec l’autorisation de l’auteur, trans. by J. Giraudin (Coulomnier, 1878), reviewed in Polybiblion, Revue Bibliographique Universelle, January 1879, 2nd series, vol. 9, pp. 18-20) remarked en passant on Pascarèl’s connection with Consuelo, but its link with Corinne has remained unobserved to my knowledge.

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Andrew King

Andrew King is Professor of English Literature and Literary Studies at the University of Greenwich. He has always been interested in how and why certain texts are kept for posterity and others disappear. His first degree was in classical and medieval Latin, and he has MAs in Medieval Studies and English. He completed his PhD in English at Birkbeck, supervised by Laurel Brake. He taught for many years at Universities overseas, though immediately before he came to Greenwich in May 2012, taught at Canterbury Christ Church University. His official profile can be found at http://www2.gre.ac.uk/about/schools/humanities/about/departments/cca/staff/andrew-king.

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