Bebee sprang out of bed at daybreak. She was sixteen.
It seemed a very wonderful thing to be as much as that — sixteen — a woman quite.
A cock was crowing under her lattice — he said how old you are! — how old you are! every time that he sounded his clarion.
She opened the lattice and wished him goodday, with a laugh. It was so pleasant to be woken by him and to think that no one in all the world could ever call her a child any more.
There was a kid bleating in the shed. There was a thrush singing in the dusk of the sycamore leaves. There was a calf lowing to its mother away there beyond the fence. There were dreamy muffled bells ringing in the distance from many steeples and belfries where the city was; they all said one thing: “How good it is to be so old as that — how good, how very good!”
Bebee was very pretty.
No one in all Brabant ever denied that. To look at her it seemed as if she had so lived amongst the flowers that she had grown like them, and only looked a bigger blossom — that was all.
She wore two little wooden shoes and a little cotton cap, and a grey kirtle — linen in summer, serge in winter; but the little feet in the shoes were like rose-leaves, and the cap was as white as a lily, and the grey kirtle was like the bark of the bough that the apple blossom parts when it peeps out to blush in the sun.
Draft of a talk for the University of Macerata to a general audience at 11am on the 11th of November 2014. The elaborate PowerPoint, contrapuntal with and not duplicative of these words, can be found here, along with a spoken word recording of the presentation.
The Vicissitudes of Biography; or, how to welcome an Other
Le vicissitudini del raccontare una vita; o come accogliere un Altro
Almost everyone I meet asks me what I am doing in Macerata. To those in the street I give a simple linear answer: a guest of the new Collegio Matteo Ricci at the University, I’m finishing a biography of the nineteenth-century popular author Ouida, planning a European networking project with colleagues here, and exchanging ideas about teaching and curriculum design (a reflection on which can be found here) .
But I think you here, kind enough to host me in the University and to welcome me in this splendid nineteenth-century aula, deserve something more than that plain list. And it’s the relation of welcome and biography that I want to spend these few minutes thinking about with you.
In 1908, shortly after Ouida had died in Viareggio after almost 40 years in Tuscany, a woman journalist from New York, a Miss Welch, wrote to an old soldier, now retired and staying in Viareggio, to ask if he could help her with information or letters about this woman author whose works sold by the million all over the world. He replied that, yes, he had known Ouida when he was in the military and, yes, he had renewed her acquaintance recently and exchanged a number of letters with her, and, yes, he would let Miss Welch see these letters. However, he warned, writing the life of Ouida would be very difficult. This wasn’t because of a paucity of information but because of the peculiar qualities the biographer of Ouida would require. Chief amongst these qualities would be what he thought was an already outmoded sense of chivalry towards the subject.
In his next letter to Miss Welch he changed his mind: he wouldn’t let her see the letters after all. Knowing Ouida’s hatred of biographies and the publication of private lives in general, he wanted to respect her wishes. Though he doesn’t say this in so many words, it’s clear that he feared Miss Welch would not treat Ouida chivalrously.
Miss Welch never wrote the biography. After the many, many obituaries of Ouida after her death on 25 January 1908, the first substantial volume-form biography was published in 1914 by Elizabeth Lee, the sister of the editor of the British Dictionary of National Biography. This was followed by three more full-length biographies, the most recent of which appeared in 1957.
But the old soldier’s warning still appertains 106 years after it was written. We might regard the term “chivalry” as problematically patronising today, but we can and should think about the moral issues of biography, of writing or telling a life. To do that, I’m prompted here by something we have learnt, through what I think of as “Mediterranean” theory, to call over the last 20 years hospitality – but which we might well call “welcome” or accoglienza. I’m not going to explore the delightfully tortuous paths of Derrida’s thinking on hospitality here, now, in this welcoming aula, or the way it interacts in dialogue with his interlocutor Anne Dufourmantelle, but rather, inspired by his work, to think about the vicissitudes — the perils, pains and transformations — of writing a life.
If we have learnt anything from Derrida, we know that there are many and contradictory ways to write — many ways to approach an Other. I can for example use the life of another to celebrate myself, to parade him or her like a jewel on a breast or on my cuffs or, demonstrating my acquaintance with her as one of my possessions, to flash her as a claim to my status in a defined community. So, for example, I could write a biography merely to forward my career, or to claim membership of a specific elite — let’s call them humanities academics — by using the life to promote a specific ideology, or to fulfill a publishing contract. I can do that efficiently, careless of the specific nature of the Other. We’ve all read biographies like that.
We can also “welcome” the Other through biographical rituals, helping them cross the threshold in ways that long use has sanctioned. We can think of these rituals as conventions or characteristics of a genre. I have followed this ritual route myself, as in my chapter last year on the publishing history of Ouida:
Marie Louise Ramé was born on 1 January 1839 to Susan Sutton and Louis Ramé in her maternal grandmother’s house, 1 Union Terrace, in the small provincial English market town of Bury St Edmund’s. Nominally a French teacher, her father was rarely en famille …
But those are both very egocentric welcomes, the first using lives as things, as exchangable commodities (a life in return for a measurable amount of status or pay), the second, ritualistic, incorporating the Other, or perhaps making the life fit our dimensions and rules as Procrustes stretched or chopped the bodies of his guests to make them fit his bed – the biographer as butcher indeed. To those extents, both are problematic. Neither truly welcomes the life of the Other.
How then would we rightly welcome a life?
First of all, it wouldn’t mean the exclusion of the previous parading of the Other I’ve just seemed to reject. How terrible if we were not proud to be seen in the company of the Other! It wouldn’t mean rejecting the Other as jewel, or even as exchangeable object in a social transaction, ideological or commercial. Neither would it mean a refusal of form, though one would hope it not Procrustean. But it would mean, in addition to and in excess of those, recognising the Other as other — taking the trouble to find out how this person is different from me and from my social groups.
In life, we can ask our guests what they need in ways direct or subtle – and guests can tell us even before we ask; in writing a life of the dead, in welcoming a stranger into our community from not only another place but another time, we cannot ask directly. They not only do not speak the same language as us, they do not speak at all, as Ouida well knew and feared — that was why she hated biography. But we needn’t give up in the face of her opposition. We must, to write a life, learn to read the signs of demand and desire without being able to ask, and without too much imposition. That in turn requires a plan and clear methodology that while organised and strategic, must seek to accommodate, to welcome, to be open to alterity and the unexpected. Without those one cannot expect to see Otherness. And here lie the vicissitudes: the pains and the transformations.
If these points are relevant to the writing of all lives and all welcomes we give, what are the specific requirements of Ouida’s? Apart from my own short accounts of Ouida of course (!) – the longest just 10, 000 words – previous biographies have all been problematic.
The best is the first, issued in 1914 by Elizabeth Lee. Since many of the players in Ouida’s life were still alive, both fear of libel and a sense of chivalry to the living as well as dead forced Lee to conceal a good deal. It also meant that she was unclear as to many of her sources, several of which are untraceable, and that she placed Ouida in her context only superficially. Nonetheless, we can see that within the limits of fear and chivalry, Lee did at least try to be responsible to her subject.
The three subsequent major biographies are all, however, examples of treating the other as object—I’ll not name them here because I don’t want to give them the oxygen of publicity. They essentially treat her like this Punch cartoon from 1881.
For them Ouida is nothing more than a figure of fun, a bag of bright feathers with no hat to put them on, all extravagance and no substance. The three biographies are very amusing and for that reason have been very influential from the Wikipedia entry on Ouida to the first monograph devoted to Ouida’s novels which came out in 2008. But they mistranscribe letters, misspell key names and alter evidence for comic effect just as the Punch cartoon does (Ouida never smoked for example). For them Ouida remains a thing, an object of ridicule, a piece of meat, a way of extracting money by amusing audiences. There’s no chivalry and certainly no hospitable treatment of Ouida as a welcomed Other or, to use Derrida’s term in On Hospitality, a foreigner (starniero, étranger).
Like many of the best known women writers of the nineteenth-century, George Eliot and Mary Braddon for example, Ouida was not pretty or conventional. But unlike most of them, neither was she accommodating or charming. Nor did she have a man to help her transact business. She was very assertive, outspoken, as this quotation from the introduction to an 1888 Italian translation to some of her short stories shows.
Si direbbe che Ouida è invasa dalla mania di proclamare ai quattro venti l’infamia di quella classe [mondana], di palesare che tutto, in essa, è fango, orpello, ignavia, ipocrisia, e che quanto havvi di più cretino ed ingiusto pullula in quelle alte sfere ove … le tignuole rodono l’ermellino e il mondo bacia il lebbroso sulle due guancie.
“Memini” « Appunti critici » in Affreschi ed altri racconti di Ouida, Milano: Treves, 1888: v-xix, p.xi.
What “Memini” could have said, had s/he written 20 years later, was that Ouida refused to respect money, wrote tirelessly in favour of political individualism, animal rights, and the conservation of old buildings. She mercilessly denounced capitalism, militarism and masculine performance, told political leaders that terrorism was their own fault, complained bitterly that Italy had failed to live up to the ideals of the risorgimento, dared to give voice to the poor and exploited, and had a keen sense of the aesthetic, the creation and conservation of which she held up as a necessary moral alternative to the violences of war and greed. Anticipating Bhutan, she extolled gross national happiness over gross national product.
She wrote the first known novel in which a divorced woman ends happily unmarried living with her lover – Moths curiously is the only novel of her 40 in Macerata libraries. She wrote in both her published works and private letters of unorthodox sexual preferences and practices from male homosexuality to female masochism, and refused to condemn any except when lack of consent and discretion were involved. She solidified the term ‘New Woman‘ to describe the calls for women’s work, political and artistic representation in the 1890s.
A liberal perhaps like the dominant norm amongst humanities academics in the west? She sounds like one of us.
But then not: Ouida hated the New Woman for her hypocrisy in calling for a freedom that she thought would enslave others. Ouida was also anti-Semitic and often misogynistic. She hated doctors, medical intervention and scientific progress in general; she hated democracy as tending to a dull level of conformity. She championed instead an aristocracy of intellect and land – but only as long as both the landed and intellectual aristocrat was cultured, refined and responsible (rather like the hero in her last, unfinished, novel Helianthus).
Ouida could never have been my friend. I disagree with her solutions to the problems she saw and indeed some of what she saw as problems. And she would have been hell to work with as a colleague. She remains very different from me.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t listen to her carefully and try to understand this very other person, above all seeking the right questions to ask: what do you really need to be understood today, here, now? What do you really want? How can I encourage you to tell me so that I do not silence you with the violence either of my desires or of my parade, or cut you on the butcher’s bed of convention, ritual or ridicule? This attempt to listen through the static of the day for the voices and requirements of the dead, this attempt to become an Echo as opposed to a Narcissus — this certainly invites vicissitudes: misfortunes because the project is inevitably fraught, fated to imperfection and sacrifice on both sides, but also, I dare hope, vicissitudes in the sense of transformations both of the past and of the present, and hence a new path into the future.
So what am I doing at Macerata? Besides writing bids with my esteemed colleagues here, teaching and exchanging ideas, trying to answer these difficult questions, variants of which, despite their vicissitudes, we all answer, consciously or not, every day, in our own ways.
“A Dog of Flanders: a Story of Noel” was originally written as a Christmas tale for the American Lippincott’s Magazine, where it appeared in volume 9, January 1872, pp.79-98.
Later that year it was published in London, Philadelphia and (again in English) in Leipzig as part of a collection of short stories given various titles but which was (in textual terms) virtually the same: A Dog of Flanders and Other Stories (London: Chapman & Hall) with illustrations by Enrico Mazzanti; A Leaf in the Storm, and Other Stories (Philadelphia: Lippincott); A Leaf in the Storm; A Dog of Flanders; and other stories (Leipzig: Tauchnitz).
In 1873 there was a pirated Australian edition – and soon a flood of translations (some pirated and some not) in various languages. Beyond the usual French and German, there were also Russian, Polish, Finnish, and eventually Japanese, Korean and – surprisingly perhaps given its specifically Christian setting – Yiddish, as well as an enormous number of pirated American editions in English. There are at least 11 film and TV versions (the 1999 film can be found in its entirety here ) plus a documentary made in 2007 on the story’s incredible popularity still in Japan.
There was of course an Italian translation (called “Nello e Patrasche”). It came out in 1880 with the Milanese publisher Fratelli Treves, with whom Ouida published translations of several of her novels as well as collections of stories. “A Dog of Flanders” was, however, a makeweight in a volume whose principal part – and the only one mentioned on the title page – was Zola’s short novel / long short story “Nantas” (1878). Besides “Nantas” (pages 5- 177), the volume in fact also contained “Storia d’amor sincero” by Dickens (pages 181-196; actually an extract from chapter 17 of Pickwick Papers – the tale of Nathaniel Pipkin); “Nello e Patrasche” (pages 199-238); “Una Strage in Oriente” (pages 241-313) by the Russian journalist and traveller Lidia Paschkoff (or Lydia Pashkoff and other variant spellings in Roman script).
I’ve made an uncorrected PDF of Nello e Patrasche taken directly from this out of copyright edition. It is a very large file as it comprises images of the pages. It you missed it at the top of the page, here it is again: nello e patrasche trans T Cibeo Treves 1880
This translation is significantly different from the English not in its plot (though a significant name is changed) but in its lack of interest in sound and rhythm. Several descriptive passages are simplified it seems to me, which is strange as these were one of the key things Ouida was most appreciated for in Italy as elsewhere. This is how “Memini,” the translator of some of Ouida’s short stories as Affreschi ed altri racconti (Milano: Treves, 1888), described her powers of painting the Italian landscape in words:
I suoi paesaggi sono mirabili illustrazioni descrittive; alcune pagine… raggiungono la perfezione del genere e ci obbligano all dolorosa confessione della nostra inferiorità nello studio e nella descrizione letteraria del nostro paesaggio… (pp. xvi-xvii of the “Appunti critici”)
Why therefore did “T. Cibeo”, the translator of “A Dog of Flanders,” choose not to try to aim for similar effects in Italian? Why too is the title changed from a representative animal to the names of the two main characters? It’s a quite common title change in translations of this tale – try searching for “Nello e Patrasche” online – but we must ask what the implications of such a change might be.
And then there’s another curious thing. “Nello e Patrasche” was not reprinted in Italian so often as other Ouida stories. Her children’s story “La stufa di Norimberga” (“The Nurnberg Stove”) is very easy to find, for example, and has been translated several times, whereas the 1880 translation of “Nello e Patrasche,” buried in a volume whose main attraction was Zola and not even mentioned on the title page, was the only one I could locate really to exist (others turned out to be mistakes). Why was this story not so popular in Italy when it is so popular elsewhere? That is surely a question for investigation. It can’t be just the quality of the 1880 translation but something about the story itself. What values does it suggest that might prove unattractive to the Italian market? That is something that can and should be discussed in dialogue with Italian native speakers.
We’ll never know how many copies and translations of “A Dog of Flanders” were sold or how many people read this story. Certainly many millions in Japan alone beside the many millions in other languages. All we can say is that it was very successful amongst a very wide cross-section of society in many countries, including not only the general public but also amongst the elite. The artist Burne-Jones wrote a letter to a friend telling a lovely story of how he recalled (the influential Victorian art-critic) Ruskin and Cardinal Manning (Archbishop of Westminster and head of the Catholic Church in England from 1865 until his death in 1892) one day grubbing about on the floor desperate to find a copy of this story they both loved.
There are various free online editions of “A Dog of Flanders” available in English though none in Italian besides the one I’m offering you here. Some of the English texts are digital versions with little indication of what the source volume was, though you can find PDFs of actual books containing the texts through the very useful http://archive.org/details/texts site (see for example the beautiful – and certainly pirated – American Christmas gift-book version with lots of illustrations or the equally lavish 1909 Lippincott version illustrated by the famous children’s illustrator Louise M. Kirk).
I have, however, checked the Gutenberg edition against both the 1909 Lippincott version, the original serialisation and the first British edition by Chapman and Hall (no manuscript seems to have survived). I have edited so as to return the spelling to British standard (which Ouida always wrote in) and also adjusted the paragraphing again to the original (the Gutenberg text was in fact very faulty and didn’t even accord fully with the Lippincott edition, let alone the original).
If you missed the link at the top of the page, here it is again. It’s not a large file as it’s a PDF created from Word.
Corinne, as is well known, was “one of the most important documents in the growth of the English Romantic image of Italy” and the favourite guidebook to Italy of the first half of the nineteenth century. Following the pioneering efforts of Ellen Moers in the 1970s, more recent work has reminded us that it offered a way for women to discuss aesthetic matters not only by generating a new myth of a woman artist, but also by providing a transgeneric model in which novel, tourist guide, autobiography and aesthetic tract all intersect. Sand’s Consuelo has been less studied until recently, but was equally influential, offering an alternative model for the female artist as the divinely inspired “sophia” as opposed to the self-expressing, “political sybil” of Corinne. Like the de Staël, Consuelo offers a nationally hybrid, displaced, orphan heroine with traits derived not only from Sand herself but also from Sand’s friend, the operatic diva Pauline Viardot-Garcia; in terms of genre, it is as hybrid as Corinne, mixing gothic, political, religious and aesthetic tract with silver fork (the guide-book element, while present, is much less visible than in Corinne).
Pascarèl follows these texts not only in its transgeneric nature but also in plot elements. Ouida teases us by seeding expectations of Consuelo early on. The donzellina’s singing, references to the opera suggest Sand’s heroine just as ’Ino’s Venetian origins, physical appearance, relationship to the heroine, the way he appears substantially at the beginning, appears to be forgotten by the plot but then returns towards the end as the catalyst for the eventually union of the lovers, links him to Consuelo’s childhood love Anzoleto. Just as Consuelo has an aged and embittered music teacher in Porpora, so does the donzellina in Ambrogio Rufi.
At the point where the heroine recognises Pascarèl, however Corinne is introduced. Just as de Staël’s Lord Nelvil falls in love with a Corinne idolised by the people and learns her name when it is shouted by them, so the donzellina learns the potency of Pascarèl’s name when it is acclaimed by the crowd. Both of course, figure the artist’s ideal audience, but Ouida reverses de Staël’s gendering by making a man’s name allow the heroine to speak. If later Pascarèl speaks in his own voice, he can do so only when he has lost the donzellina: she does not bestow identity upon him. The donzellina may abandon her singing like Consuelo, but unlike in the Sand, the role of artist is decisively taken over by Pascarèl. In place of de Staël’s female improvisatrice who lectures her beloved but rather stupid Lord Nelvil and takes him on a tour of Rome and Naples, Ouida offers a male improvisatore who lectures his beloved donzellina and takes her on a tour of places the English had “discovered” in northern Italy in the 1820s and after. Corinne is masculinized as Pascarel. Insofar as Pascarèl takes on board conventional paradigms of Gothic Italy, then, it does not seek to reconfigure them to present Italy as a figure for a proto-feminist lost matria as Barrett Browning had done. Instead, Ouida energetically puts the lost father at the centre: twenty years older than the heroine, there is never any question that Pascarèl is caringly paternal, the antithesis of the heroine’s (and Ouida’s) biological father.
If Ouida’s Corinne is rewritten as Pascarel then, Consuelo is the donzellina. Consuelo is a female Orpheus who leads her beloved out of the caverns (literal and metaphorical) of his solipsistic madness so that he may be reborn (eventually) as a member of a Saint-Simonian secret society. This is the donzellina’s function: she enables Pascarel to achieve his rightful place in society as social activist.
The national hybridity of the heroine refers to both Consuelo and Corinne. Pamela Gilbert remarked that “racial /cultural hybridity both grants [Ouida’s heroines] more freedom to act, and dooms them as tragic characters for whom no narrative is ultimately possible in the normative social world into which other characters must be integrated”. This is as true of Corinne as it is of those heroines of Ouida that Pamela Gilbert discusses (Folle Farine and Cigarette of Under Two Flags). De Staël indeed was pessimistic about women’s place in the arts, commenting in an essay that the position of the woman genius was ineluctably that of an exile to society. But in mass-market narrative and at the other end of the cultural continuum, Elizabeth Barrett Browning with her decidedly restricted-market Aurora Leigh, a tragic outcome for hybrid women was by no means the only option. Likewise, the donzellina ends her story in the embrace of her beloved and “the paradise of LOVE” (Pascarèl, III: 356).
Essential to this journey towards paradise is, however, the abandonment of the self for both hero and heroine. Pascarèl has to give up the Bohemian life he loves in favour of dedicating his art and his life to social improvement. Having witnessed such selflessness, the donzellina also gives up her new-found wealth and wilfully reduces herself to being “nothing”. While the text emphasises that he has nothing while she is nothing, a balance between them rich in ethical questions for feminism (Pascarèl, III: 349, 354), the real point is that both abandon their possessions and desires to become selfless. Now while de Staël had believed that it was the duty of women to be selfless, for Sand self-sacrifice was a duty for both sexes. She had ended La comtesse de Rudolstadt (1845), the continuation to Consuelo, with the heroine, having given up singing and joined her husband’s secret society in a paradise garden, an analogue of Ouida’s “City of Lilies”. But importantly, in the Sand, the heroine’s beloved Albert has sacrificed everything as well. Pascarèl has in the end preferred Sand’s call for both men and women to give up personal ambitions – Satan’s poisoned arrow ‑ and instead perform their “duty” (Pascarel’s last point in his political speech), It is only then that they truly enter the terrestrial paradise of Florence (an echo of the Comtesse de Rudolstadt finale in a paradise garden).
This seems a disingenuous conclusion, that the gorgeous envoi (like Sand’s precursor) seeks to conceal: after all, it is Pascarèl who ends as the public social actor and the donzellina merely his support. If one is also reminded of the similar situation at the end of Pascarèl’s contemporary, Middlemarch, Ouida’s regendering of Corinne needs to be seen in a different and specific commercial context. When Corinne was presented as a metonym for Italy it was playing into the Gothic vogue for presenting women in this way. By the early 1870s, however, Italy had came to be figured in Britain as a gentlemanly military hero of the Garibaldi mould. Ouida’s combination and partial regendering of two key female kunstlerromanen can be viewed, thus, as an attempt to meet the demands of the early 1870s British culture industry. She was also, of course, publishing the story in an Italian periodical where political articles were generated by the pens of men. But Ouida’s masculine image of an Italian unity achieved through male artists is contradicted both by the donzellina’s narration of most of the novel and by Ouida’s own signature upon it. In the end, women mediate and so control both the narrative and its politics in a very marked way. What is interesting is that the Nuova Antologia seems to have felt threatened by this, removing the most flagrant declaration of female agency over the narrative act by deleting the entirety of the last section of chapter 2, where the donzellina so shockingly bursts through as a speaking subject in her own right. Its very amputation seems a sign that it was aware that while men may be shown as the public faces of art, women were contesting that. This is tension that Ouida does not explore until Ariadne four years later
That Pascarèl is only the first of several novels to discuss the nature and role of art suggests that its composition made Ouida conscious of problems that she needed to work through. The promotion of nationalist politics she regards as a duty here, like her gendering of the artist, did not remain unchallenged, indeed. In a diary entry for 29 April 1887, Lady Paget would write that Ouida now hated Italy ‑ “which seems extraordinary after Pascarèl and Ariadne”.  In 1878, Ouida had started to write protest material for the Whitehall Review and, the following year, a stream of letters to the Times. By the time of A Village Commune (1881), she was denouncing the modern Italian state so ferociously that, along with her letters to the Times, it caused her to be banished from the Italian royal court. While deplored as inaccurate in some quarters, Ruskin recommended it as ‘photographic’ in its veracity. It was immediately translated into Italian – unauthorised –with a preface declaring it so important that all Italians should read it. By this stage, the woman artist for Ouida was a social activist. She had herself become a Pascarèl. If in the result of her first encounter with Italy she did not yet pursue her politics with as little recourse to economic self-interest as she later would, we nonetheless see there how, paradoxically, the exploitation of commercial combination opened up the possibility for the first time.
 Kenneth Churchill, Italy and English Literature 1764-1930, London: Macmillan, 1980, p. 24.
 Ellen Moers, Literary Women (The Women’s Press, 1976), pp. 173-210. On Corinne’s hybridity, see Maddalena Pennachia Punzi, Il mito do Corinne: Viaggio in Italia e genio femminile in Anna Jameson, Margaret Fuller and George Eliot, Roma: Carocci, 2001, p. 11.
 On this binarism, see Linda M. Lewis, Germaine de Staël, George Sand, and the Victorian Woman Artist, University of Missouri Press, 2003. For a useful related analysis of the female kunstlerroman, see Kari Lokke, Tracing Women’s Romanticism: Gender, History and Transcendence (Routledge, 2004).
 For key role quadroon women play in mass-market fiction of the 1850s, see Andrew King, The London Journal: Periodicals, Production and Gender (Ashgate, 2004), pp. 203-4.
“Liberty, Equality and Sorority: women’s representations of the Unification of Italy”, Unfolding the South: Nineteenth-century British Women Writers and Artists in Italy, ed. Alison Chapman and Jane Stabler (Manchester University Press, 2003), pp.110-136; Maura O’Connor, The Romance of Italy and the English Imagination (Macmillan, 1998), ch. 5.
 Walburga, Lady Paget, The Linings of Life, (Hurst and Blackett, 1928), 2 vols, II, p. 426.
 Ruskin, Art of England, 1883, quoted in Lee, op. cit., p. 110. Un Comune rurale in Italia. Racconto di Ouida, trans. by Sofia Fortini-Santarelli (G. Barbera, 1881). This precedes the better-known version by Isabella Ada Spinelli, Il tiranno del villaggio : Delizie dell’Italia rigenerata (Tip. Degli Artigianelli, 1890), based on an earlier French translation, Le Tyran du village, moeurs de l’Italie régénérée, trans by Victor Derély (A. Mame et fils), 1886.
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.
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.
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”. 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.
 Diana Maltz, British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes, 1870-1900: Beauty for the People, Palgrave, 2005.
 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.
Since that volume is out of print, I reproduce it her with the kind permission of Giovanni Campolo of Edizioni ETS.
I have added my translations of passages in Italian and also a few images not in the original version from a beautiful version of the 1873 2 volume Tauchnitz edition. This is bound in white paper with red and gold stampings, illustrated with actual photographs cut and pasted onto appropriate additional pages. My copy (of only volume 1) has been bound by Giulio Giannini whose business was at the Piazza Pitti in Florence. They are still one of the foremost book binders in Florence (see http://www.giuliogiannini.com/). The date is not given, though there is a dated owner’s signature on the inside – S.M. Schieffelin, 1890. I have also added a few images from the Nuova Antologia, and, in later posts, from editions of Corinne and Consuelo Apart from those visual additions and a bit of colour in the text to help orientate the reader on the screen, the text is the same as published.
In musing over the villas of Florence in her Scenes and Memories (Smith, Elder, 1912), Ouida’s friend Walburga, Lady Paget finally comes to the Villa Farinola, where Ouida lived between 1874 and 1888.
Ouida was certainly a genius; she had a power of language, a love of nature, and, above all, a flair for couleur locale almost unequalled. If you consider that she wrote Pascarel when she had been but three weeks in Italy, you must confess that the achievement is second only to Byron’s lines on the Dying Gladiator, after having seen it for the first time. (pp. 321-2).
Two of Ouida’s biographers go so far as to take the travels and feelings of Pascarel’s heroine as a straightforward transcription of Ouida’s own.  This article queries Lady Paget’s hyperbole and asks what Ouida’s first encounter with Italy actually meant. I suggest that it was a new audience and new source material that led her to compose what the Athenaeum recognised as a fresh development in her oeuvre “far in advance of [her] earlier novels”
Soon after its publication in triple-decker form by Chapman & Hall in early 1873, Pascarèl was brought out in a single volume by Lippincott’s in America and in two-volume form by Tauchnitz in Leipzig (Ouida had had a business relationship with these firms since 1865 and 1867 respectively). Such transnational distribution is to be expected for a writer best known for her part in forwarding the popular culture industry: there is nothing new here.
What was novel for Ouida was that Pascarèl was quickly translated into Italian and serialised in the Nuova Antologia. This latter had been started in 1866 by Francesco Protonotari to mark the spiritual and cultural life of the newly emergent Italian nation now that the capital was in Florence. It promoted a new form of writing
con un immediato senso della realtà attuale, con una scioltezza vivace che attraessero il pubblico alla lettura e rendessero possible la trattazione chiara e piacevole di qualsiasi argomento.
[with an immediate sense of current reality, with a lively fluency which would attract the public to reading and render possible the clear and pleasing treatment of every kind of theme]
One of its many interesting features is the role of the woman writer in it: its Indice per autori shows how women were, on the whole, confined to contributing fiction, suggesting a strongly gendered vision of writing in which women had to be contained. As a fiction writer, Ouida fitted in.
But it is also significant that Protonotari must have understood Pascarèl to fit his nationalist agenda and its popular and “immediate sense of current reality”. The nature of Ouida’s arrangements with Protonotari are not clear, though given the speed with which the translation appeared, one can imagine that she had been negotiating with him for some time. It is probable therefore she wrote the novel with one eye on the Italian market and the other on her established Anglophone one. Perhaps Protonotari had urged her to address the issue of national unity early on in the novel’s composition, or she herself realised what its readers wanted. Either would explain why she changed direction and started to think about the social utility of her art. What is clear is that Ouida, for the first time, was understood to have written a novel suitable for a periodical with a specific social programme: Pascarèl is a novel with a political and social agenda.
I want to fit Pascarèl into a story of Ouida’s overall literary development that queries the usual riches to rags narrative of a pathetic grotesque. During her time in Italy Ouida gradually turned towards non-fictional interventions in high-status British and American periodicals. After 1899, however, Ouida published very little at all, though she continued to write politically opinionated letters to her acquaintances along with a handful of political poems. A few of the latter appeared in The Times; others, considered too libellous for print, remained in manuscript form, circulating only amongst her network of correspondents. The poems – when they have been mentioned at all – have uniformly been taken as examples of how little Ouida knew of real political process. Whatever their degree of political sophistication, they demonstrate Ouida’s commitment, at this last stage of her writing career, to art as a political intervention beyond economic exchange. Believing in the paternalist idea that genius had very definite duties to society, Ouida now was using poetry and correspondence, both public and private, as the least commercially profitable modes of writing in order to make political statements, locating her art beyond exchange value into pure, if necessarily limited, utility.
Ouida’s aesthetic trajectory to this point was not straightforward or linear. Yet her move from the purely commercial can be located best in a handful of works from the 1870s set in Italy. Central to all of them is the status of art and artists: Signa (1875), In a Winter City (1876), Ariadne (1877) and Friendship (1878) all deal with the relation of various arts to the market and, more generally, the place and function of art in society. Pascarèl (1873) initiates this series.
In Ouida’s work from the 1860s, the idea that “art” and “genius” might have an ethical or social role had been portrayed as ridiculous. The odd reference to them in Under Two Flags (1866) reduces their social utility to the teaching of etiquette for profit or the making of figurines in imitation of one’s fellows to supplement a meagre income, a metonym for commercial stories that follow formulae already tested in the market. Art is commercially imitative and combinatory. Folle-Farine (1871) portrays the artist as so egotistical as to be heedless of the sacrifices made for him:
He was not cruel. To animals he was humane, to women gentle, to men serene; but his art was before all things with him, and with humanity he had little sympathy. (Folle-Farine, Chatto and Windus reissue, 1883, p. 219).
What the artwork and the artist do is not clear except bring financial reward and fame. The eponymous heroine sells her body so that her beloved sculptor can become famous, but she views what he does in the haziest terms:
This art, which could call life from the dry wastes of wood and paper, and shed perpetual light where all was darkness, was ever to her an alchemy incomprehensible, immeasurable; a thing not to be criticised or questioned, but adored in all its inscrutable and majestic mystery. (Folle-Farine, p. 298).
Tricotrin, the artist hero of Ouida’s next novel, ensures “Art” is kept as his “handmaiden” not his “mistress” by choosing a wandering life of minstrelsy (Tricotrin, 1871, I, p.64). Art generates “treasure” for its possessors (II, p. 357), offers delights both spiritual and sensuous, but is also a place where the artist can “vent” his emotion (I, p. 248), a quiet remove from the tumult of the world, a “tuft of rushes” (II, p. 380). Such “expressive” art is beyond price, of course. There may be a faint echo of Shelley’s notion of the poet – “A statesman rules ay, for a lifetime; but it is only the poet whose sceptre stretches over generations unborn.” (II, p. 438) – but this seems just another aphorism of the kind that Ouida frequently puts in the mouths of conversationally combative characters. Described in utterly conventional ways, the role of art is never seriously debated in Tricotrin. Art is a source of firstly income and secondarily glory in these early works, mirroring Ouida’s own position as a worker in the commercial culture industry.
That Pascarèl was written to sell like its predecessors is beyond doubt. Ouida was not yet at the stage where she was a producer of a pure art for society’s sake. However, it is also the case that, along with her new politically-conscious Italian market, the established sales-generating technique Pascarèl employed – its reworking of well-known narratives in the fashion of a “combination novel” ‑ that opened the way for a more thorough-going questioning of the role of art in society than Ouida had previously essayed.
 Yvonne ffrench, Ouida: A Study in Ostentation (Cobden-Sanderson, 1938), p. 81 and Monica Stirling, The Fine and the Wicked: the Life and Times of Ouida, (Gollancz, 1957), pp. 47-8.
 trans. as Pascarello, in Nuova Antologia 1873 April – September, vol 22, fasc. 4, pp. 812-861; vol. 23, pp. 101-147; 400-456; 588-635; 817-881; vol. 24, pp. 61-117. No translater is given.
Indice per autori e per materie della Nuova Antologia dal 1866-1930, a cura di Ludovico Barbieri, La Nuova Antologia, Roma, 1934: xii.
 See Elisabeth Lee, Ouida: a Memoir, Fischer Unwin, 1914, pp. 183-5; Eileen Bigland, Ouida, The Passionate Victorian (Jarrold’s, 1950), p. 236. See also ffrench, , op. cit., pp. 159-60 and Stirling, , op. cit., p. 204.
 A coinage of Mary Braddon’s in her 1863 serial The Doctor’s Wife: “The combination novel enables a young author to present his public with all the brightest flowers of fiction neatly arranged into every variety of garland. I’m doing a combination novel now – the Heart of Midlothian and the Wandering Jew…” (quoted from Andrew King and John Plunkett, Victorian Print Media (OUP, 2005), p. 310).
Ouida, of course, from when her first story appeared in Bentley’s (she was just 18), had had to write for money. She knew where the power and money lay, and “mythical swelldom” was one place. In 1857 George Lawrence’s Guy Livingstonehad appeared. It went through at least 6 editions by the mid-60s (the image is of an 1867 reprint by Routledge who evidently thought it worthwhile to print – and so establish copyright – in the US as well) and started the cult of the “muscular” hero. Even Dickens had to respond to it (see Nicholas Shrimpton’s excellent article on Lawrence and the “Muscular School” of heroes in Dickens Quarterly, 29: 2). Lawrence himself was given no less than £1,000 for his novels – a very high sum indeed – by his publisher Tinsley, and Tinsley it was who published in volume form Ouida’s first novel, Held in Bondage in1863, a novel which combined the dashing muscular school with bigamy and sexual deception, themes newly marketable since Lady Audley’s Secret. Ouida though only managed to get £50 from Tinsley for the rights to publish it (though she did manage to negotiate that he should only keep the copyright for a limited period. Tinsley, rather unpleasantly, wrote that he could have got the complete copyright had he driven a hard bargain). Strathmore followed the same publication pattern, though published, after negotiations, by Chapman and Hall who were now to become Ouida’s regular British publishers. She managed to sell them the short-term copyright for just £75.
Even to get these small sums was an effort. Ouida, a half-foreign woman of 20 from Bury St Edmund’s with no real connections, had to work out a way to make money in the cut-throat male world of London publishing. Hers is in a sense “surplus” labour which has to make itself needed: she is an outsider who has to get in. The solution Ouida seems to have arrived at was to reflect back to power the image of itself it seemed to like. This is where the concept of parergy starts to become useful.
There is an oft-repeated story that Ouida used the conversations she heard between men at her Langham gatherings for her now most famous novel, Under Two Flags. But, as Jordan demonstrates in her chapter for Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, Ouida’s knowledge of military life was derived from reading rather than from conversations with military men. Such textual knowledge is legible from her earliest publications, the short stories she had published in Bentley’s in the early 60s, several of which we can read today as devastatingly critiquing male pomposity exemplified by the soldier (e.g. “Little Grand and the Marchioness”). But they can also be read as simply amusing in their accounts of masculinity. That they concern “mythical swelldom” as opposed to what the male critics regarded as reality is key: Ouida doesn’t get it quite “right” i.e. she presents the men from the outside, exposing men’s little blind spots and tricks of evasion. At this stage, that doesn’t matter: for the critics these deviations – these failures to adhere to the powerful norm – are a laugh, “brilliant nothings”.
By the mid 60s Ouida’s prices had risen slightly. Over 1865–66 she received £6 per monthly instalment for Under Two Flags in the British Army and Navy Review, a monthly to which she had contributed a series of stories and non-fiction articles on military matters since July 1864. Just as Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret was left incomplete in its first manifestation as a serial in the twopenny weekly Robin Goodfellow, Under Two Flags was unfinished when the British Army and Navy Review folded in June 1866. Bentley had taken over the Review in December 1865 but failed to save it. He later refused to publish the novel in volume format on the advice of his reader Geraldine Jewsbury who concluded that ‘the story would sell but … you would lower the character of your house if you accept it’. Ouida wrote to another potential publisher, Frederick Chapman, a few months later claiming that the premature termination of the serial had left ‘military men’ waiting ‘with intense impatience’ to read the end. Her sales pitch to Chapman worked, for he published it as a triple-decker in November the following year. The American publisher Lippincott gave her £300 ‘by trade courtesy’ for his one-volume edition, and the continental publisher Tauchnitz brought it out in 1871. Three years later, Ouida was to sell her copyright outright to Chapman for less than £150.
This was to prove a costly mistake for, contrary to what has been claimed, the novel was initially only moderately successful. Its real success came in the 1890s when it sold in enormous numbers in cheap editions: Chatto and Windus, who bought the copyright from Chapman in 1876 as part of their vigorous expansion policy, were to print around 700,000 copies. Ouida got nothing from this. No wonder she was to write to her solictor in November 1884 that “Chatto & Chapman are two rogues who play into each other’s hands to keep down prices like the publisher in ‘Pendennis.’” Men still ruled the publishing industry, as they rule the wider media today.
By the 1890s, then, Ouida’s fiction has migrated downmarket. Interestingly, the penny papers do not treat her with the same attitude as the up-market expensive magazines and newspapers. On the contrary, for them she is “the leading female novelist of England” who has
“no rival in passionate eloquence, and the pathetic, emotional power by which she can change the lowly and the sinning into a glorified humanity, and lift up and ennoble and sanctify even the rudest nature by some one divine gem of supreme manifestation of sacrificial love” (Bow Bells 17 January 1890).
By this time, too, she had herself become comically wicked in that market. Unlike with the negative high-culture reviews of the 1870s and 1880s, this is surely a marketing ploy which positions Ouida as safely transgressive: her eccentricity is part of her scandalous appeal. One can have one’s desires enacted by someone else on the page without ever having to confess them as one’s own. Ouida is contained: once again we don’t have to read her seriously.
London Journal 3 September 1898
To return again to parergy.
Parergy is not dismissal de haut en bas by critics who claim to know better – it is not a weapon in cultural warfare that the powerful wield. It is a wheedling weapon of the disempowered, a demand to be heard which knows it will fail, an attempt to participate in power while knowing that the odds are stacked against it. Is this what Ouida does in her early work?
I don’t think Ouida’s imitations of the “Muscular School” fail in an unambiguous way so much as lay that school open to the possibility of ridicule or parody: they depart from it certainly, exposing its weaknesses and limitations and hidden assumptions. We are never allowed to forget that the hero of Under Two Flags is nicknamed “Beauty” and that he’s much more interested in his horse and his male friend “Angel” than in the heroine Cigarette or the paragon Lady Venetia or the actress he keeps (powerfully objectified as merely “the Zu-Zu” ) or his aristocratic mistress with the absurdly accurate name “Guenevere”. The women Beauty has a relationship with are all part of the appearance of masculinity. Even Beauty’s affair with Lady Guenevere is part of the system of masculine show: everyone knows about it and yet, in that complex game of respectability, at the same time they don’t. In any case, we are shown how this affair adds a potency to Beauty’s allure. How are we to take this exposure of the structuring of masculine power and image? Is it a flattering celebration or a merciless critique?
If the parergic can be found in Ouida it is gendered: excluded from literary-economic power, she mirrors back those representations of masculinity which generate it, while at the same time departing from them by the acuteness of her vision and anxiety as an outsider.
It is very different from the non-gendered, generic parergy I located in the 1840s. If anything, that kind can still be found in the penny paper reviews of the 1890s – think of the rather strained description of Ouida in Bow Bells, with its anxious determination to dazzle with rhetorical devices (most notably a tricolon) at all costs, or the anecdote in the London Journal which could be funny were its rhythms more bouncily organised, and were it less determined to excuse its subject as distracted.
Whether Ouida’s vision of men is parergic or parodic depends on whether we read it as undermining or supporting that masculinity. I think her version of muscular literary power in her early work walks a tightrope between parergy and parody: can we say with absolute conviction that her early work parergically supports its models while failing to live up to them or parodically undermines them by exaggerating and revealing? It does both, sometimes simultaneously but mainly, I think, it lurches from one to the other from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, page to page. The reader is in any case left uncertain, able to take from it in the end what she or he wants. Indeed, the ability of Ouida’s writing to have it both ways in terms of gender is one of the secrets of its success, and why it gives us such scope to write about this author and gender in what seems a mini-Ouida revival in the teens of the twenty-first century.
Over a hundred years after her death, we have started to find ways of reading Ouida again.
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.
When Ouida stopped in Brussels her encounter with the paintings of the recently deceased Anton Wiertz provoked her into an explicit and public aesthetic statement. In a previously overlooked article in the shilling monthly London Society, Ouida offers a portrait of Wiertz as ‘the ideal artist … [whose] life was consecrated to one passion, and that passion—Art.’
The major concern for Ouida in this essay is conventionally Ruskinian – an interesting departure from her satirical view of Ruskin and Ruskinianism in her early two-part short tale “Beatrice Boville” . Her target is the deleterious effect on art of industrialisation and commercialisation. Only the artist who gives in to them will gain public acclaim she says. But public acclaim is by no means the most important criterion of value. Wiertz remains unknown and created no school, says Ouida, because, believing that ‘gold was the murderer of art,’ and ‘a cancer in the breast of humanity’ (‘un cancer [sic] au sein de l’humanité’), he refused to enter the commercial and industrial marketplace. ‘Exalted on the heights of a superhuman purity of purpose and idealism of belief, he had no common bond of connection with the sheer materialism and venal practices of the modern world.’ Wiertz was an anachronistic figure, having more in common, Ouida continues, with the artisanal aims and practices of Italian renaissance artists and of Rubens than with an era in which ‘the colours are bought ready-mixed, the oils are indifferent, the varnishes are adulterated…’ Out of time and out of place, his whole life was a martyrdom. Indeed, Ouida ends her essay with what appears to be a facile comparison of Wiertz to the type of all martyrs, Christ.
They say that when he lay there, lifeless, the peace refused to him throughout his arduous years came on him at the last; and that when the summer sunrise streamed through the ivy shadows of his casement in the glory of the morning, his face was as the face of his Christ ‑ his Christ, who brake asunder the bonds of the grave and rose triumphant in the power of God.
Is Ouida simply promoting in commercially commonplace terms an artist who refused to do so himself – in other words treating Wiertz as the very object of commerce that he refused to become in life? She is doing that, of course. She presumably is getting paid for this article (unlike for her letter to the Morning Post I mentioned in a previous blog) but she is also imagining a Wiertz that has created himself in the image of his own art.
In Ouida’s vision he has managed to overcome after death the alienation from his labour that he had increasingly felt in the last part of his life: in death he returned to become what Ouida regarded as one of his own best art works, the earlier Triomphe de Christ. To show that, Ouida has drawn for us a word picture of his head that Wiertz himself, the artist of horrible decapitations, might have painted had he stuck to his original principles.
Throughout the second half of her article, Ouida criticises late Wiertz for too great an emphasis on the horrible. Instead, she says, Wiertz should have concentrated on the ‘intrinsically beautiful by proportion, by colouring, and by meaning’ as he had done in his earlier works. It is as if her conclusion were restoring to Wiertz the self Ouida felt he should have been. In some senses too, Ouida’s most famous short story, ‘A Dog of Flanders’ which dates from this time, is also a gift to Wiertz of his lost identity: the underdog hero Nello, like Wiertz, came from a very poor background, was self-taught and, when he came to Antwerp, was ‘entranced and subjugated’ by the Rubens altarpieces in Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal in Antwerp. In this sense “The Dog of Flanders”, like the article, is an analogue of the ivory cigarette case she threw to Mario. She is trying to interpret and give meaning to powerful feelings that art has aroused.
Ouida is conjuring from the dead an anti-sensationalist, anti-commercial aesthetic of the romantic period, where the pen or brush mediates a sincere relation between body and text, and the individual imagination is given priority and autonomy. Of course in these “restitutions” she’s thinking about herself and the purpose of her own art. Why write about passion? From the early short stories she had excoriated the use of other people to satisfy one’s own ends and feelings – a conventional enough condemnation of selfish passion. Real love always means accepting the other for what they are and if necessary standing and holding back. Hitherto, even in the novel about the revolutionary heroine Idalia, the personal had triumphed over the political.
Yet the three encounters I have outlined in these three posts – with Mario, with Bulwer-Lytton and with Wiertz – combined with our knowledge of what comes next – the political and aesthetic celebration of a unified Italy in her next novel– suggest that Ouida was turning towards and looking backwards to a political, communitarian romanticism as an alternative to a purely commercial art, seeking to give it the gift of life that the Judas kiss of selfish commercialism had betrayed. Was this one the elements in that complex of factors that guided Ouida towards Italy in 1871?
Oscar Wilde certainly recognised Ouida’s romantic lineage in a review of her novel Guilderoy in 1889:
Ouida is the last of the romantics. She belongs to the school of Bulwer Lytton and George Sand, though she may lack the learning of the one and the sincerity of the other. She tries to make passion, imagination, and poetry part of fiction. She still believes in heroes and in heroines. She is florid and fervent and fanciful. Yet even she, the high priestess of the impossible, is affected by her age….
His attribution to Ouida of affiliation to Sand and Bulwer is certainly correct. Jane Jordan (“The English George Sand? Ouida the French Novel and Late Victorian Literary Censorship”, Anglistica Pisana VI/i (2009): 107-16) and I have discussed the former, and the three encounters I have described suggest the latter and more.
But is there also a fourth encounter in 1871, one with a ghostly revenant that has left only indirect and indistinct traces? All I dare remark for now is that William Rossetti’s edition of the Complete Poetical Works of Shelley had come out with Moxon in 1870 – followed famously by Mathilde Blind’s corrections in the Westminster Review – and that 20 years later Ouida was to publish a long article praising Shelley as the best romantic poet because, according to her, he had “the sentiment and passion of [Italy’s] natural beauty” — and because love underlay his vehement political engagement, just as she was to portray the hero and heroine’s in her next novel, the lyric prose poem in praise of Italy, Pascarel. Did Ouida encounter Shelley too in the Summer of 1871, and was this yet another coal in the steam engine that transported her south? Just as with her enthusiasm for Mario, Ouida would not have been alone in responding to Shelley’s paeans to the visual and narrative pleasures of Italy such as Julian and Maddalo, a poem much praised by Rossetti in his preface, for
How beautiful is sunset, when the glowOf Heaven descends upon a land like thee,Thou Paradise of exiles, Italy!
What “Art” was and its relation to her writing were very much on Ouida’s mind in mid-1871.
We know from surviving letters that in the early summer Ouida had become concerned with the discussions around a proposed Dogs Act which would give any summary court powers over the destruction of stray, dangerous and rabid dogs. Determined to block the passage of this Act, in early June, having already been told that he liked her work, Ouida contacted Edward Bulwer-Lytton to elicit his support. He wrote her a kindly response and thereupon she invited him to visit her at the Langham Hotel where she had lived with her mother since 1867. He came several times, much to her delight.
Bulwer-Lytton was a key figure in the development of popular fiction. His help to Mary Braddon is well documented, and, though to a much more limited extent, he acted as Ouida’s mentor as well. After she had left London for her tour of the continent, he wrote Ouida a long but positive critique of her latest novel Folle Farine. His letter does not survive, but Ouida’s response to it does. She wrote it at the Hotel de York, Spa (Belgium), the hotel Baedeker and Bradshaw recommended for English visitors to this already faded (though still respectable) resort. Ouida’s letter is keen to associate her novel with ‘Art’ by attributing it aesthetic value through the conventional eighteenth-century criteria of ‘judgement’ and ‘sympathy’ (I always think of Elinor and Marianne in Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility when I think of those). Ouida ends by justifying her exploration of painful emotion and unconventional sexual arrangements as ‘Art’ and the duty of the artist.
It would be terrible to me to think that I had wrought an injury to any Soul, but it always seems to me that the artist has one duty that he must place before all ‑‑ i.e. to seek earnestly for the truth with all his strength & as he beholds it so to endeavour to set it forth.
She was in November to write to Isabel Burton (wife of the explorer, diplomat, orientalist Richard) and, the following year, to the conservative politician, poet and literary patron Lord Houghton that Folle-Farine should indeed be considered primarily as ‘Art’. Whether this was a retrospective judgement supported by the favourable reviews that compared the Folle-Farine‘s ‘art’ to that of ‘our pre-Raphaelite painters’ or whether the novel had been written intentionally as an ‘Art’ (as opposed to commercial) novel remains unclear. Even though an artist figures very prominently as a heartless Lovelacean seducer in the novel, the nature of art is not substantially discussed in it compared to in Ouida’s novels of the 1870s. Likewise in her response to Bulwer, Ouida doesn’t set out an aesthetic credo beyond saying that in her view the artist should always try to represent the truth without causing “injury to any Soul” – an unambitious and generic programme. As mentioned in a previous blog, for Folle-Farine Ouida had managed to get £900 out of her publisher Chapman – considerably more than she had received for her earlier novels. Ouida certainly knew about the hard cash aspects of art, but her letters suggest that she was at this stage just wondering about what other symbolic systems art might be involved in.
There is another letter that needs to be mentioned here too — a previously unnoticed one from Ouida in the press. On 12 June 1871, the Morning Post published a letter to the Editor from her in response to an article supporting the Dogs Act that had appeared in the paper the previous week. Ouida wrote that while the Morning Post’s position was a very reasoned stance, she wished to add that ‘the emotional side of the subject is one which may be most fairly taken into consideration’ – for dogs are friends who can teach us ‘lessons of faith and fealty.’ Ouida must have been proud of this letter for she sent a cutting of it to Bulwer Lytton. The basis of the letter’s argumentation is the binary of “reason” and “emotion”. It is not too great a leap to match this both to the “judgement” and “sympathy” opposition in Ouida’s later letter to Bulwer and to the sentimental tradition of writing in general whereby the sharing of emotions is regarded as a way to form communities. The purpose of “Art” in this understanding is indeed to forge communities through “sympathy” – common feeling – with the “truth” arrived at through reason/ judgement. To forge a community is necessarily a political act which involves ethics. Ouida is trying to forge a community around an ethical cause and thereby cause political change.
It is not I think too far to claim that we see in this brief letter to the Post Ouida publishing for the first time with a purpose beyond the commercial, and also beyond the economic interests of herself and her family. She may not have found a reason for her ‘Art’ yet, but she has found, on a miniature scale, a reason for writing: to change society for what she believed was the better by appeal to common emotions without thought of payment. A week before the collective ecstasy of Mario’s last performance, Ouida’s explicit political and economic engagement had begun.
An encounter in Brussels would very soon sharpen the edge of her desire for something in her aesthetic and economic life beyond hard cash.