Teaching, pasticceria, and the purposes of education.

What is university education?

What is university teaching? What is its purpose? What should it be?

downloadIf the questions have preoccupied many of us in the UK even before students started to be conceptualised as customers, they were recently brought back to me anew and with unusual clarity, as for the first time for some years I was privileged to teach, in an unfamiliar setting, students of a kind who had been through a very different education system from my students in the UK.

Over ten days in November I was lucky to teach six 2-hour sessions at the University of Macerata to 1st year undergraduates, and 1st year MA (“magistrale”) students in Languages in the Department of Humanities.

The sessions were divided equally between three longer courses, two on the nineteenth-century novel and one on modernist women’s poetry. Unlike in the UK, there are neither elaborate course booklets nor dedicated virtual learning environments such as Moodle   or Blackboard; rather there are basic directions to the students about what set the set texts are and what the general aims of the course are, as follows:

(1st year MA ) http://docenti.unimc.it/silvana.colella/courses/2014/13256 and http://docenti.unimc.it/marina.camboni/courses/2013/12192

1st year undergraduate http://docenti.unimc.it/silvana.colella/courses/2011/9153

Such elegant indications of course content give the teacher great flexibility and, importantly, the ability to keep absolutely up to date by changing research questions and incorporating new material as it emerges during the teaching year – which of course it will do, produced either by the teacher herself or by other academics. This also means it is easy to insert sessions such as mine even after the course has started.

Naturally, I tried to make connections between what I understood to be the focus of the extant courses and my own concerns and expertise, without risking overlap or duplication of material. Talking to the usual teachers of the courses was helpful. But at the same time, the sessions were (in theory at least) open to the public. The result was inevitably something of a mash-up, and had to offer something attractive. Hence the rather sensationalist titles.




Example of page 1 of a "preslide"
Example of page 1 of a “preslide”

The fact that the sessions were to be delivered in English to non-native speakers was another issue. I sought to deal with this by making available in advance what I called “preslides” in the “Teaching documents” section of my academia.edu site and /or on the usual professor’s university site: the usual prof informed the students orally in class that they should download the preslides and read them carefully along with the set texts, electronic copies of which I also provided. The preslides were designed to help students take notes. They comprised PDF versions of black and white PowerPoint slides stripped almost entirely of images, 6 slides to a page, and asked questions and provided quotations with gaps where key words should be. They were based on, but certainly not identical to, the much more elaborate PowerPoint slides I showed in class (these were also made available to students after the sessions, again in PDF, 6 slides to a page, on my academia.edu page).

Since I knew the sessions would not be examined, there was no obvious way that I could properly test the effectiveness of my teaching of the class overall (I always think of exams as testing the teaching as much as the learning). As is my wont, I planned abundant interaction from which I would normally be able gauge a class’s understanding, but I also knew that Italian students were not used to this and would probably be shy. I therefore devised a questionnaire for the students to fill in at the end of my time with them (that is, at the end of the second of the two-hour sessions). Such questionnaires are of course always double edged; they not only inform the researcher of the results, but inform the person completing the questionnaire, in this case making the students reflect on what they really had got out of the sessions and how they could get more out of future ones.questionnaire

I had 35 responses from the 1st year undergraduate class, and 22 from the first MA class, and 9 from the second (31 MA responses in total). It was quite wonderful to see the students take this questionnaire very seriously – it seems, from talking to them afterwards, that they are not used to doing this kind of thing, and that is why they spent so much time thinking about it, no matter how much I insisted it was not a test.

Of course one wants to find out what the students think of one – hence my immediate turn to the question of what I could have done better.  Almost of them were embarrassingly positive in their responses to “What could Andrew have done to help you learn better?”, especially the 1st years. “Involving” (= “coinvolgente”?) occurred in 8 of the 35 1st year responses (28%), “catch our attention” in 3 others, along with numerous generic positives.

“he was very involving, so he couldn’t have done anything more to help me learn better than this”

“it was a fantastic and involving lesson! The slides were useful and the explanation was clear”

“he was very involving and funny in his lesson”

There were just 4 suggestions for improved teaching: more on Dickens (x 2) and talk more slowly (x 2). I was delighted that only two students asked for the latter, as it meant that, for the vast majority, the care I had taken over oral delivery – speed, choice of Latinate vocabulary – had paid off.

beignetThe MA students were slightly – but only slightly – less positive on the same question. 11 wrote “nothing” and there were in addition 13 superlatives. There were, however, 8 suggestions for how I could have improved: more history (x 1); more on the concept of satire (x 1) which in retrospect I agree would have very useful (thank you to whoever wrote this – excellent idea!); don’t wait for responses from the class but just give the answer (x 1 – sorry, but my pedagogic tradition wants you to think for yourselves, not be choux buns – beignets – which I stuff with crème Chantilly!). Two wanted more time to discuss the texts, one of these two sensibly suggesting that what turned out to be a 4 hour session be split over two days. One wanted more videos (we saw just one – a Youtube video of the controversial Royal Opera performance of Salome, with Nadja Michaels, naked executioner and very bloody head). I’m a bit sceptical of this given the time constraints and the purpose of the aim of the session, but I take much more seriously the remark of another that “he could have spent more time on some extracts we’ve quickly seen”. This was echoed by another who wanted to concentrate on fewer texts (and indeed by the one who wanted more time in general). For what I had forgotten was the sheer difficulty of nineteenth-century prose and poetry for second-language learners – not only its unfamiliar vocabulary and syntax, but also its cultural references. I was treating them like UK MA students and that was very unfair of me. I really should have put myself in their shoes (as opposed to choux).

What’s the ONE most important thing you’ve learned from Andrew King’s sessions?

“That learning literature is not about studying in books but getting into the text and asking yourself questions and trying to give answers”
“I hadn’t thought it possible to find advertising language in literary works”
“There’s no limit to desire”
“Realism is a contract between author and reader which demands trust”
“Realism is still dominant in Britain today”

The biggest surprise to me, though, was the variety of the responses to the first two questions. Of the 35 1st year responses to the first question “What’s the ONE most important thing you’ve learned,” 28 wrote something about realism (6 were very specific on realism as a contract between reader and text; while 7 more were also specific in a variety of ways; the remainder more generic – e.g. “I’ve learned better realism in a more specific way”). The real delights lay in the 7 alternative responses, two of which are cited above; two others showed a delight in semiotic theory and in the problem of refusing value judgements in literary discussion. A great deal of variety was evinced in the responses to the second question, that concerning what students wanted more of (these don’t add up to 35 as not everyone wrote something – 10 wrote “nothing” while others left a blank; a very few wrote more than one thing). It’s easier to present the results in tabular form:

  • Household Words
    Household Words

    Dickens (x 6);

  • historical context of various types (x 6);
  • Victorian art (x 4);
  • literary context (x 3);
  • realism and crime (x 1);
  • theory (x 1);
  • effects of journalism and literature on lower classes (x 1);
  • realism (! x 1);
  • comparison of British realism with Italian verismo (x 1);
  • close reading (x 1)

There’s no pleasing a class completely of course. For in response to the question about what the students wanted to study less and why, 9 of the First Years didn’t want Dickens at all as they thought him “boring”; 5 found the theory of realism too hard; 1 wanted less history and 1 didn’t see the relevance of looking at the details of Victorian art. The rest said “nothing” or similar, or left the question blank.

Rather than look at Dickens journalism then, I should perhaps have looked at some short and simple contemporary newspaper articles, perhaps culled from the British Newspaper Archive. I should certainly have omitted the part of the lecture most interesting to me, the part concerning semiotic theory and realism’s aspirations faithfully to represent the world. Yet the students were perhaps right: I wonder now if that part is just me being clever, playing a kind of cadenza, with surprising trills and scales and leaps over the intellectual keyboard. It may be ingenious and of course it IS thematically integrated  – but removing it won’t weaken the overall argument. The students helped me realise that while it is integrated it is not integral. I shall accordingly drop that section in future.

Thank you 1st years at Macerata!

Herod seeks to persuade Salome of the value of his pearls, using techniques derived from contemporary advertising
Herod seeks to persuade Salome of the value of his pearls, using techniques derived from contemporary advertising, including incremental analogy and royal endorsement.

Although less effusive in their praise, the 31 MA students also wished to change less: 5 said they wanted less history, 1 wanted less on women in print. This ties in with students’ desire to focus more on the texts (though on individual questionnaires there was not necessarily a correspondence). In short, I concluded that the MA students wanted help with reading strategies. I don’t think it was just a question of not understanding syntax and lexis but of interpretative frameworks and how to test these frameworks against specific texts through close reading. I sought to remedy this in the last session with the MA students, in which I offered a framework and pretty rigorously tried to apply it to texts and historical data. Explicit feedback from 5 of the 9 students in this session suggested that that worked, but of course there is a severe limit on what it is possible to teach in such a short time. Any significant development of reading strategies requires, I think, at least 20 hours of contact time.

While I am a great believer that questionnaires which indirectly ask students to reflect on their learning have great pedagogic value, perhaps the most valuable of all is the last question: “What could you have done to help you learn better”? The undergraduate class was actually delightfully talkative and responsive, but still 7 wrote that they could have been less shy and talked more. No fewer than 19 confessed that they should have prepared in advance(about 55%) , including printing out the preslides; 10 wrote that they should have paid more attention, including two who said they should have slept the night before and 1 who, with charming candour, admitted that she should have turned off her iphone and not read messages from friends! The MA students were much more tentative and perhaps alarmed by this question: in the first, larger, of the MA classes, a slightly smaller proportion (50%) said they should have prepared for the class, but a larger proportion (25% as opposed to 20%) said they should have talked more in class. One said that the texts couldn’t be unzipped and another said that s/he should have come to both sessions, not just the second. In the second MA class, of the 9 students, no fewer than 8 said they should have come prepared; no-one said they should have talked more as in fact the smaller group did encourage more interaction.

crostata di castagne (chestnut tart)
crostata di castagne (chestnut tart)

What wasn’t captured by the questionnaire, but which I think very important indeed, was the pleasure I felt as a teacher of such socially skilled and charming students. There was a great deal of social stroking of the teacher. From my shoes, this is a great danger, whose nature is visible in the apparent difficulty students had in arriving at conclusions based on evidence independently of the teacher. I found at times compelled to make ridiculous statements to try to get the students to contradict me, even to the point of confusing the gender of the people they saw on the screen. It was hard to get them to dare to draw their own conclusions without a clear guide from me! This was especially notable amongst the larger MA group, who seemed to have been very thoroughly socialised into agreeing with what they perceive to be authority at the expense of evidence.

This certainly does NOT occur only in Italy: the rather exasperated account of an American university teacher here shows that. But I do think that it Italy it is performed with an unusual charm and subtlety. Perhaps it is even connected with the form the students’ self-criticism took (I am interpreting “I should have talked more/ prepared better ” as what they thought I as authority figure wanted them to do). It may also be connected with a short but significant discussion with the first years on the differences between the breakfast news shows on television in Italy and the UK, 1Mattina on RAI1 and its UK equivalent, BBC Breakfast. While we agreed that both involved evidence-based reasoning and the maintenance of human relations and, importantly, of social hierarchy, the balance seemed to be in favour of the latter in Italy. In other words, hierarchy determines knowledge more than disinterested reasoning. This leads me on to a speculation about the different social functions of education in Italy and the UK.

ciambellone maceratese stuffed with chocolate
ciambellone maceratese stuffed with chocolate

Does the teacher in Italy perform less the part of a model of how to draw conclusions from evidence than that of a master patissier who creates and fills beignets and other delightful pastries? An important role that of the pastry chef. I’m a great fan of beignets as well as crostate and ciambelloni maceratesi – but I do worry about how delightful it is to consume them. My concern is not with my waistline in this context. Rather, if students treat themselves as beignets that teachers fill or bake, my worry is who will use them up, and for what end? Do students perhaps need to be taught to be more rebarbative, less consumable, more overtly and independently critical of authority, more self-moving, rather than taught to sit on a shelf oozing charm and creme Chantilly, resigned to their fate? Do students need careful and phased training in specific skills of independent problem identification and solving rather than stuffing with information?

But then, putting myself in their shoes, I wonder if such a powerful focus on distanced, rational problem-solving is really a life-skill that is, or will be, useful for students in their cultural context which is very different from mine? Am I fetishising problem-solving too absolutely, too glibly? Perhaps in the lived experience of their day-to-day lives, social skills of a very particular kind are more necessary — charming consumability to ensure cooperation and loyalty from authority and colleagues, and resignation in the face of opposition to one’s needs and demands.

Is, after all, the best Italian translation of “education” perhaps not what the dictionaries tell us — istruzione or formazione? Maybe, even though we learnt it long ago as a “false friend” meaning “politeness,” it is educazione ?  Is this what teaching as pasticceria would mean?

That’s not for me to decide. I remain an outsider to Italy, still wearing my battered old British shoes, even while delighting in the many charms of Italian choux. It would be irresponsible of me to do other than raise such questions, not least because, alas, I have to confess that my pastry has always been on the heavy side. Though I’m a bit better at the picante.

The Vicissitudes of Biography; or, how to welcome an Other

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.

frontispiece to Elizabeth Lee, Ouida: a Memoir (Methuen, 1914)
opposite p. 89 in Elizabeth Lee, Ouida: a Memoir (Methuen, 1914)

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.1st volume-length biography of Ouida: by Elizabeth Lee (Methuen, 1914) 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 ouida silver crestacquaintance 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 … 

Andrew King, “Ouida 1839-1908: Quantity, Aesthetics, Politics” in Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture, ed. Jane Jordan and Andrew King, Ashgate, 2013: 13-36, p. 13.

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.

Punch 28 August 1881
Punch 28 August 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.

Ouida A Dog of Flanders/ Nello e Patrasche

Ouida, “A Dog of Flanders” (1872)/ Nello e Patrasche (1880)

 editions in English and Italian

1893 Giftbook edition of "A Dog of Flanders", Lippincott's (USA)
1893 Giftbook edition of “A Dog of Flanders”, Lippincott’s (USA)

English edition: A Dog of Flanders edited by Andrew King

Italian translation (large file – be patient): nello e patrasche trans T Cibeo Treves 1880

“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

"A Dog of Flanders" in 1906 Roycrofters edition - it's covered in suede and very tactile --like the fur of a dog!
“A Dog of Flanders” in 1906 Roycrofters edition – it’s covered in suede and very tactile –like the fur of a dog!

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).

The edition that I made is based on the Project Gutenberg text version, which claims to be a checked transcript of the 1909 edition from Lippincott.

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.

A Dog of Flanders edited by Andrew King

Ouida’s Pascarèl (1873): an Encounter with Italy 3

Corinne title page of 1st edition
Corinne title page of 1st edition
consuelo 1842 title page 2
consuelo 1842 title page







 This and the previous two 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. 

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] 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,[4] 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”.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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).


Pascarel, Chapman and Hall 1873, vol 3 p. 355
Pascarel, Chapman and Hall 1873, vol 3 p. 355
pascale chapman and hall 1873 vol 3 p. 356
Pascarel, Chapman and Hall 1873, vol 3 p. 356


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.[8] 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”. [9] 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.[10] 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.

Pascarel, Tauchnitz, 1873 frontispiece and title page
Pascarel, Tauchnitz, 1873 frontispiece and title page


[1] Kenneth Churchill, Italy and English Literature 1764-1930, London: Macmillan, 1980, p. 24.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] Churchill, op. cit., p. 66.

[5] Pamela Gilbert, ‘Ouida and the other New Woman’, Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question, ed. Nicola Diane Thompson (CUP, 1999), pp. 170-188, p. 173.

[6] See Punzi, op. cit., pp. 16-17.

[7] 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.

[8]“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.

[9] Walburga, Lady Paget, The Linings of Life, (Hurst and Blackett, 1928), 2 vols, II, p. 426.

[10] 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.

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.

Ouida’s Pascarèl (1873): an Encounter with Italy 1

The following three 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.

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. 

bound version of 1873 Tauchnitz edition of Pascarel
bound version of 1873 Tauchnitz edition of Pascarel

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. [1] 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”[2]

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.

pascarel in nuova antologia
Pascarello, in Nuova Antologia April 1873, vol 22, p. 812

What was novel for Ouida was that Pascarèl was quickly translated into Italian and serialised in the Nuova Antologia.[3] 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.[4]

[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.[5] 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”[6] ‑ that opened the way for a more thorough-going questioning of the role of art in society than Ouida had previously essayed.

[1] 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.

[2] Athenaeum, no 2370, March 29 1873, p. 405.

[3] 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.

[4] Indice per autori e per materie della Nuova Antologia dal 1866-1930, a cura di Ludovico Barbieri, La Nuova Antologia, Roma, 1934: xii.

[5] 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.

[6] 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).

John Dicks, Publisher, and “Dicks’ English Library of Standard Works”

My thanks to Louis James for the gift some time ago of six volumes (bound as 3) plus 10 monthly numbers of Dicks’ English Library of Standard Works and, in anticipation, to Anne Humpherys’ ongoing research on Dicks and reprinting, to which this post is intended as a small contribution.

To both these remarkable scholars this post is dedicated.

advert of Dicks' various reprint series from Dicks English Library March 1884
advert for Dicks various reprint series from Dicks English Library March 1884

As William St Claire has assertively reminded us on more than one occasion, the bibliophile connoisseur’s fetishisation of the “original” – the first – edition of texts has often occluded how reprints are actually more valuable in telling us about the cultural penetration of texts. The first edition is always to some extent “experimental” on the market. The publisher may have a good idea of who it will sell to and how how many copies will be shifted but the risk remains that he (for Victorian publishers were overwhelmingly male) may be wrong. Reprint editions still carry this risk of course, but to a lesser extent: the publisher already knows that the first edition or, indeed, the many previous editions, have sold and how quickly, and may even have evidence about who bought it, how the critics understood it, and so on. To that extent the risk is less. But reprints can also be aimed at radically different markets, as when Ouida is repackaged and sold in 6d form at the end of the century. The launch of a text in a new market may meet with considerable success, or it may not, so we cannot say with absolute conviction that reprinting involves less risk than first printing.

dicks standard plays
List of Dicks Standard Plays, c. 1884

Anecdotally, one of the best selling series of reprints of the latter part of the nineteenth century comprised a periodical entitled Dick’s English Library of Standard Works. This was issued from one of the most successful London publishing houses of cheap fiction, John Dicks, on which there is almost no work at all outside an excellent volume privately published in 2006 by a descendant of the founder (Guy Dicks, The John Dicks Press, Lulu.com). Nonetheless, Dicks is certainly well known as a name not only to students of Victorian popular reading, to whom Bow Bells (1862-1897), Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper (1850-1967) and Reynolds’s Miscellany (1846-1869) along with Reynolds’s Mysteries of the Court of London  (1849-1856) are all familiar, but also students of the Victorian theatre, for without the over 1,000 “Dicks Standard Plays” (published at a penny each between 1864 and 1907), many theatrical pieces would not be available to us at all.

John Thomas Dicks was born in 1818 and entered the London printing trade aged 14 or 15 “in a very humble capacity” (says the Bookseller in its obituary of Dicks, 3 March 1881). Around 1841 he became “assistant to P. T. Thomas, the Chinese scholar, who at that time was carrying on the business of publisher, printer and stereotyper to the trade on Warwick Square”. In the mid 1840s he started to be associated with  G. W. M. Reynolds and in 1863 seems to have amassed sufficient capital to set up as a printer and publisher at 313, Strand, London, where he entered into formal partnership with Reynolds.  After Reynolds died in 1879, Dicks bought his name and copyrights from his heirs for a very considerable annuity.

A major part of Dicks’ business, however,  already comprised reprinting which he organised into several  series, including “Dicks’ Complete Shakespeare,” and of course “Dicks’ Standard Plays” (see the first illustration in this post).

A measure of Dicks’s commercial acumen is suggested by  his death (in 1881) at his villa in Menton, a resort in the south of France where the European and Russian nobility kept their winter villas. Dicks also had a large house, the Lindens (which no longer survives except in the name of a post-war housing estate), in the exclusive west London suburb of Grove Park, Chiswick (the location was not accidental, for not only does the nearby railway station go to Waterloo, from where Dicks could cross the river easily to his office, but census data reveal that his wife was born in Hammersmith, the next suburb east of Chiswick). His estate, valued at “under £50,000” – a very considerable sum –  was left to his widow Maria Louisa and his sons Henry and John (see Ancestry.com. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010).  Clearly, cheap publishing and reprinting could be a very profitable business indeed.

The indefatigable journalist, gossip and bon viveur George Sala has an amusing anecdote at Dick’s expense, however, suggestive of how despite almost all authors’ interest in money, financial and cultural capitals might be inversely proportional to one another. It’s part of a longer story about his encounter at Nice with a “Captain Cashless”  –“ middle-aged, good-looking, well-preserved…  spent most of his money before he came of age; lived for several years on the credit of his credit; is a widower and spent every penny of his wife’s fortune” (Life and Adventures of George Augustus Sala, volume 2: 293). The Captain cannot understand where Sala gets his money from, but Sala feels he might

sala life and adventures vol 2 294
Sala, Life and Adventures, Cassell, 1895, vol 2: 294

Sala lets us know that he can just toss off this profitable magic, turning the lead of his scribbling pencil into financial gold he can spend (and no doubt dispend) in Monte Carlo with his friend the glamorous rake. His methods of income generation and expenditure here seem to mirror one another in their low “real” value: both are fun, light, silly, worthless entertainments; good times, easily come by, easily left; in all Victorian senses, “fast”. In an analogue of the bibliophile connoisseur’s dismissal of the reprint as repetition, Sala dismisses his tales as the result of iterable alchemical formulae or repeated tricks of prestidigitation he has learned in the trade. Yet besides their illustration of the distance between cultural and financial capitals, such stories by their very comedy can hide from us the very serious business sense that lies behind them. It’s not that the fun is deceitful – on the contrary, without it there would be no commercial success – but that it is only one side of the coin.

dicks english novels Reynolds the seamstress

Dicks English Novels no 102: Reynolds, The Seamstress

 Turning now more specifically to the reprinting side of Dicks’s business, in the 1870s  a series of 6d volume-form reprints under the generic title “Dicks’ English Novels,” began to be published: they cost 6d and seem to have started as reset versions of novels originally serialised in Bow Bells. They also recycled the original illustrations. Many other novels were soon added, including, after the copyrights had been secured, works by G.W.M. Reynolds (see the image on the right for an example). In the end almost 200 titles were published in this series (more of which below). It was so successful a second series was begin in 1894.

After his death, Dicks’s sons developed the reprint with Dicks’ English Library of Standard Works, a periodical consisting entirely of the  serial re-issue of well-known novels. It came out in the usual 3 formats: weekly comprising 16 pages with four illustrations (costing 1/2d); monthly, consisting of the weekly numbers for the month costing 3d, in orange covers comprising mainly adverts; and in volume form of 416 pages plus title page and frontispiece costing 1/6. “Dicks’ English Library” was a quarto – the same size and format as most 1d or 1/2d periodicals such as the London JournalBow Bells or Reynolds’s Miscellany – and was first published on 27 June 1883. It ran for 38 volumes right up to 2 March 1894 whereupon (just as with Dicks’ English Novels”) a new series was started. Percy B. St. John was the editor of the first few volumes (on whom see a subsequent post).

Dicks English Standard Library no1
Dicks English Standard Library no1
dicks standard library title page 1
dicks standard library title page 1


dicks standard library vol 1 frontispiece
Dicks Standard Library vol 1 frontispiece

A typical announcement for the periodical can be seen here, justifying its publication not (of course) in commercial terms but in those of Whig public utility  that could have come from the 1830s. (The following is from the Pall Mall Gazette, but similar adverts were placed all over the press)

pall mall gazette 21 June 1881 15 (2)
The Pall Mall Gazette 21 June 1881: 15

Besides the  list of authors above and the more obvious suspects in the world of Victorian popular fiction – G.W.M. Reynolds, Bulwer Lytton, Charles Lever, G.P.R James, Captain Marryat, Paul de Kock and Dumas ‑  also included were Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and Percy Bysshe’s Zastrozzi, both illustrated by the well-known illustrator Frederick Gilbert – Shelley’s complete “Poetical Works” are published later in the series), Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Hawthorn’s Scarlet Letter and Godwin’s Caleb Williams. Most intriguing (not least from the point of view of copyright) is the heavy presence of Dickens, including, later on, Dombey and Son as well as numerous individual tales.

The reissue of these texts cannot be taken to be an unalloyed index of popularity amongst the readers of cheap publications. The Dicks firm is clearly aiming at respectability and the aspirational reader keen to build up that sign of cultural capital, a “library” – the page numbers of each weekly and monthly number are incremental, asking the reader to keep them so as to build up the volume. The Shelley poetry may have been suggested by the revival of interest in him amongst the literati with Rossetti’s Moxon edition in 1870: it is a mark of what the public should aspire to rather than of already extant popular demand. Publication in this form is no indication that any particular author was read unless the author’s other works are also issued, and even then business reasons other than consumer demand may have prevailed – for example, copyrights might have been bought as a job lot in advance, and accordingly had to be exploited, or there were vacant pages that had to be filled with works whose copyright had lapsed. One also has to take into account what other works were serialised with, before and after any particular text, for it may be any or all of those that carried the periodical through rather than the particular text one is looking at.

What one also has to do is try to establish the publishing history of a series. Adverts are always useful for this and one on the monthly cover of “Dicks’ English Library” (October 1888) shows that by then 197 titles had been published in the “Dicks’ English Novels” series for example. The missing titles were presumably exhausted, but they can be identified by reference to other adverts elsewhere, either in other publications or earlier in the series (cf. the following with the first image of this post).

dicks english novels advert 1 October 1888
Advert from cover of Dicks’ English Library for Dicks English Novels, 1 October 1888

The history of the Dicks reprinting series has yet to be mapped: even a basic bibliography is lacking. After that is done, one of the many questions that can be answered concerns the relations of synergy between the various publication forms: for example, how far did the English Library reprint works previously available in the volume-form English Novels series? More complex questions can also be addressed, including the implications for the history of the canon, its creation, modification and its reception – if any – of the publishing choices of  this financially rich but status-poor house. The use of a garland of portraits of authors as a frontispiece for “Dicks Standard Library” suggests the prioritisiation of some authors over others: this prioritisation needs to be charted and compared to the number and positioning of authors actually published (a front-page author is lent greater prominence than one whose work starts on a middle page, for example).

These, and many other questions about this most interesting publisher, still await answers, and we look forward to them in due course.

Ouida and the Parergic 2

Guy_Livingstone frontispiece
US cheap reprint of Guy Livingstone by Routledge (1867) for both US and UK markets

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 Livingstone had 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 in 1863, 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.

Fig 3 Under Two flags (421x640)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 186566 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 GoodfellowUnder 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 extract on Ouida
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.


Ouida and the Parergic 1.

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.

lay figure
Artist’s Lay Figure from 1870

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:

The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Friday, May 4, 1866  2 review of strathmore Ouida outed cropped
Pall Mall Gazette, 4 May 1866

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.


Parergy and the Beginnings of the Mass Market in the 1840s


1st page of The London Journal 1845

One of the key concepts was what I called the parergic after Derrida, though I used the term in a very different way from him. It was an attempt to explain in a serious and non-condescending but at the same time intellectually rigorous way the particular position in the literary market place of texts right at the beginning of the commercial mass-market: what was the relationship of these texts to the more general field? Here in this first post revisiting what seems like a long ago (and indeed I first came up with the idea in the 1990s), is an extract from the original. Later posts will test the concept against other work.

Having provided paragraph-length biographies of several journalists and marked their career paths – they all started aiming for high status and ended writing for money – I came to a conclusion and then sought to explain that conclusion and link it to curious stylistic features characteristic of these texts, features very different from the Edward Lloyd-type serials I had encountered previously which did not seem to care about their status as commodities. The material I was studying from The London Journal seemed worried about being ‘economic literature’ – how did this worry manifest itself exactly?


… The London Journal was thus a precipitate out of surplus labour which would prefer the greater symbolic (and at this stage usually economic) capitals of the up-market magazines. The desire for a unified cultural field that I discussed in Chapter 2 is visible here, supported sociologically by the very limited socio-cultural group that writers in general came from (Altick, 1989). In that sense, the impression gained from Vizetelly’s description of the magazine as staffed by ‘failures’ is correct.

The longing for the high but exclusion from it that such career paths suggest results in what I term the parergic. This comprises a set of specific textual effects and practices, which, while underpinned by sociological narratives, does not inhere in specific bodies or corpora (a writer, artist, a periodical or even an article may display the parergic or not at various points). It is a system whereby texts are based on originals that are invested with greater symbolic capital and authority. Officially respectful and emulative, the parergic is tinged always with a resentment, caused by exclusion from desired cultural areas, that brings about mutation in what is supposedly emulated. The parergic sometimes raids authority aggressively and seems therefore to attack it, but nonetheless paradoxically buttresses cultural boundaries even in the act of transgressing them. Unlike parody, which always in some sense undermines the authority of its original even while being complicit with it, the parergic fully acknowledges and maintains this authority even when it effaces its model. Unlike straightforward imitation of the high, which depends on large cultural capital to judge its value, the parergic does not use the exclusive codes or high prices that cultural authority wraps itself in to keep out the uninitiated.[1]

The weekly ‘Essays’ furnish typical examples of the parergic in terms of that practice which is ‘style’. Essay L on ‘The English Language’, signed by John Wilson Ross (III: 7-8), begins with the commonplace thesis that ‘the progress of language marks the progress of the human mind’, and swiftly interprets this in a nationalist sense. It continues by placing the ‘rise’ of the English language at the Reformation because then ‘men began to argue’ and to do so ‘they [had to] express themselves with precision’. Thereafter,

Addison was unquestionably the first of our writers who introduced elegance of expression into the composition of English prose. He found the writings of his predecessors disfigured by a loose, inaccurate, and clumsy style. He changed all this, and made himself a model for imitation. In his works we find no forced metaphor – no dragging clause – no harsh cadence, – no abrupt close. He is, also, a happy model for the use of figurative language. They seem to spring spontaneously from the subject: and are never detained till the spirit evaporates or the likeness vanishes. They are just like flashes of lightning in a summer’s night – vivid, transient, lustrous, – unexpected but beautiful, – passing over the prospect with a pleasing brightness, and just vanishing before you catch a sight of all the beauties of the scene they gild. The copious and classic mind of that writer gave our language the greatest degree of elegance and accuracy of which it is susceptible. Since his time fine writing has not improved. Simply, because it cannot be. You cannot give the English language a nicer modification of form, or a greater beauty of feature than Addison gave it. But you can give it more nerve and muscle. And subsequent writers have done so.                                                                                                     (III: 7)

It was Johnson, ‘[t]hat Colossus of English literature’, who provided the muscle. Since his time ‘there has occurred no variation in the style of English prose’ except, possibly, by increased use of the ‘Gothic, whence [English] sprung; and that is a feature in language which our readers will agree with us is more deserving of disgust than admiration, and a variation in style more worthy of punishment than praise’ (III: 8).

The essay’s claims to authority depend largely on the assumption of a common standard throughout the literary field…