The Summer of 1871: Ouida and Mario

Today it’s the first day of the 4th Annual conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association. As always, I’m attending and giving a paper. This year’s conference theme is “Hard Cash” and it’s prompted me to think about exchanges where the medium isn’t “hard” at all.

Perhaps strangely, I started wondering about the possible prompts for Ouida’s move to Italy, her increasing interest in politics and in how writing can have a social impact. In 1871, she left for a tour of the continent. The tour turned into a life-time’s decision: from 1871 until her death in 1908 Ouida was to live in Tuscany. Her decision to live in Italy (Florence at first) was motivated, according to her early biographers, by her infatuation with the opera singer Mario who had a villa just outside Florence. Ouida was over 30 and some biographies (and still some more recent critics) have described this as an adolescent passion, a symptom of how popular culture can’t grow up.

As usual, I want to query such a response. As far as I’m concerned, such an understanding is the slave of history and stereotypes. It still continues as a trope that keeps the “soft” – in this case, women and popular culture – in its place. Just the other day I heard someone, who should have known better, reduce this representative of women’s creative engagement with a system that didn’t exactly treat her well (while profiting immensely from her labour)  to a stupid ignoramus “with hundreds of lovers” and no idea of how to manage her money (oh for goodness sake!).  To begin revisioning Ouida (and indeed the despised “soft” in general), I want to consider more carefully what actually happened in the summer of 1871. Not many letters from Ouida survive from this period and certainly she left no revealing diary, but by shifting our point of view slightly we can increase our understanding of history and its operations by thinking about what is at stake in dissing too glibly such excluded and derided figures.

In the first place, Ouida’s enthusiasm for Mario was shared by hundreds if not thousands. It was a collective passion. Mario had fans. The Victorian society hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill remarked on how Mario used to create ‘a perfect furore’ when he appeared, and The Leader in 1854 noted that he had what today would be called ‘stalkers’. Lady Geraldine Somerset recorded his farewell performance at Covent Garden on 19 July 1871 in her diary:


Mario in the role in which Ouida saw him in July 1871: Ferdinand in Donizetti's *La Favorita*

The scene of enthusiasm is difficult to describe, he was in glorious voice and acted quite magnificently. They gave him a tremendous reception, and at the end of the fine 3rd act [of Donizetti’s La Favorita], the ovation was beyond anything I ever saw, the whole house rose to receive him, waving handkerchiefs and hats, shouting showering wreaths and flowers upon him. P[rincess] A[ugusta]’s wreath was the first thrown and she threw it beautifully. HRH [the Duchess of Cambridge] threw him her bouquet and he caught it in his hand in the air as it reached him, so prettily that there was a roar of applause at it. P[rincess] M[ary Adelaid] caught up my bouquet round the corner of the box and threw it to him! Again and again and again he had to come forward, five or six times…

[after the last act] ‘a really delirious excitement, the whole house standing – quite a choking sight! He was quite pale and really overcome… the public were determined to see him yet again!! And called and shouted so he was forced to come on, in his dressing gown and stood all ému, only able to press his hand to his lips to express his emotion.

The almost equally breathless Times account of the performance confirms the ‘overwhelming’ delirium of an audience in which – to the amazement of the correspondent ‑ men were as ecstatic as women.

Ouida was there too and threw Mario a bouquet. Hers had an ivory cigarette case inside it inscribed with the following in mock-Dante Italian:

Pietosi dissero gli Dei

Oda la terra una volta la musica

Del Ciel, e labbre toccaro di …


In English it reads less elegantly: ‘In pity the gods said “May the earth hear once the music of heaven”, and they touched the lips of … Mario.’

What is the meaning of these gifts that are showered on popular artists such as Mario? What is the meaning of the ecstatic applause that follows their performance and the rapt silence that the nineteenth century audience learnt to give during it? Certainly both are in excess of any ticket price or contracted payment the artist receives. The artist and the audience give and also receive in a very curious economics, very different from the hard-headed exchanges of capitalism. For her most recent novel,  Folle-Farine (which was to come out in late August 1871, immediately before she left London) Ouida obtained £900 from her publisher Chapman. This was a considerable advance from what she’d received for her early novels, but not that much compared to her fellow literary stars Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins (and indeed, George Eliot). Perhaps what she participated in in Covent Garden was another way of conceiving the exchange that is “Art”, music, literature — a collective, communitarian conception. Perhaps also a political one? It’s an economics where “cash” isn’t “hard” in the sense of reducible to conventionally agreed quantities. If that is what the conception of art is not, what is it? How are we to understand it positively?

(to be continued)

G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysterious London

It’s hardly surprising that cities demand technology to make sense of them: after all, they are products of technology. Even the most ancient ones (which to us would have been no more than small towns) depended on technology for their creation and maintenance. A former director of the Archaeological Institute in London, Vere Gordon Childe,  listed the technology of writing as the 6th of 10 essential ingredients in an ancient  city (you can see the whole article dating from 1950 here: Writing was necessary to record the division of labour – for in cities not everyone works in the fields or hunts to support themselves. Rather we share resources. Tasks are divided amongst us as some people are better than others at certain things. Some plan or dig irrigation canals (or Victorian sewers) and get given food by the people who grow more and better crops as a result of the irrigation (or money to buy food in Victorian times). Others again specialise in regulating this division of labour and the sharing of resources.  The scribes who wrote down who had done what, who owned what, who exchanged what for something else in what proportion (labour, cattle, wheat) are amongst these regulators of society. Does the same go for *fiction* writers?

A hard, an impossible, question perhaps. But I’m intrigued that I felt compelled to start thinking about cities and technology by going back to the past – exactly as G.W.M. Reynolds does at the opening of The Mysteries of London.

I’m never sure of how to take those opening paragraphs though. They talk about the move of “Civilisation” from the East to the West. Straight away London is put into a huge historical time frame, exactly as I’ve done above. Are we to understand that history halts in London, that “Civilisation” has come home to stay? Well, no. That’s one of the many interesting things about Reynolds’s mammoth serial – it and almost everything it describes is always on the move. No sooner do we hit “Civilisation” than we find its necessary counterpart “Vice”, then Wealth – and Poverty. These binary oppositions don’t seem to fix each other in their places though. Rather such oppositions seem to enter into a dialogue with one another. We see the virtuous, effeminate young man in Smithfield but it doesn’t require much careful reading to realise that that he is is a she. Eliza travels across gender binaries – but how easily? Gender is a major concern of the text. While the  The Mysteries are very explicit about the nature of “WOMAN”, the nature of masculinity is vexed too: already in chapter 2 we find the two brothers, the elder descending into the city below the hill, the younger remaining on its height.

What other binaries does Reynolds present us with in this text? Sometimes it seems to me that the whole text is very strictly organised on a series of binaries. But the binaries don’t  comprise fixed pairs of opposites. Rather they are in constant dialogue with one another, and keep transforming as a result of that dialogue – dialectic indeed.  However, I do wonder if there are less obvious but more fixed binaries that this text is organised upon.

I’m thinking of a binary that I set up in the first Mysteries of London blog: technology and the body. I claimed we needed tech to understand the city as a whole. The Mysteries can, of course, only exist as a result of the technologies of writing and printing, but it’s a very curious and uncomfortable – perhaps ungainly – use of  that technology. It came out as a serial in weekly parts of 8 pages, with an illustration that headed each weekly part.

You might expect each issue to follow a pattern of, first, reprise to remind readers who the characters were and what the plot was, followed by further plot developments, and then a cliff-hanger at the end. But it’s obvious from looking at where the pages end that this was not the case. It was quite normal for each weekly number to end in the middle of a sentence! The above image, the first page of a weekly part, shows very clearly, even if you can’t read the words very clearly, that the 1st sentence is a run-on of a sentence begun the previous week. The issue number is printed at the bottom of the page (the above is number 42).

What can we make of these very technologically determined methods of story telling? Are we to understand that the serial is to be understood not as a serial such as we understand it but rather as a book issues in pieces — as a kind of book paid for in instalments that will only be complete when the title page is issued?

Is London like this book – graspable only in parts, in fragments that by themselves don’t make sense – that don’t even pretend to make sense?

Technology here promises wholeness, complete understanding — but does it really deliver? Do we really understand the city by circling the air on the London Eye?

The Mysteries of London

Don’t we always think of London as mysterious?

Who understands it? Who grasps it? Who sees it?

Isn’t the archetypal vision of London one obscured by a fog that prevents us from seeing clearly? It’s the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes and other period dramas where buildings are misty and human bodies are obscured by the capacious swaddlings of coats and mufflers, bustles and crinolines, cloaks – and daggers.

Yet we insistently ask the London Eye – and soon the Shard – to give us a clearer picture. For didn’t the Eye immediately become one of London’s most visited attractions? In its first 8 years, it received 30 million visitors – the equivalent of half the population of the UK. Unable to make sense of the city on the ground, we want to rise above it to see the patterns the streets make, perhaps, or to bring back and share memories – “Oh, look! We went there last week!” – so we can integrate the city into our own life stories, or to stare at the hills beyond the city and so contextualise it in the landscape. In all cases we want to make London somehow manageable. But then the wheel descends and we emerge again into the hurly-burly of the street and riverside. Again we are plunged into a chaos of sense impressions that often seem to make no sense to us.

It seems we like technology to help us understand the city. Perhaps we need it. Perhaps we cannot comprehend the city with our bodies alone; we need technological prostheses.

Perhaps only cyborgs can grasp the city.

That’s not to say we can’t understand the city through our bodies — just not the city as an entity, as a whole, as a city. Of course we can understand some human interactions in the city; we can feel the unevenness of the pavement under our feet and with our hands the stone of the cattle trough in Clerkenwell Green, the gravestones in St James’s Church, the metal railings of Smithfield; we can smell the dampness of the Thames, the traffic pollution of Piccadilly, the roses of domestic and public gardens; we can see and admire the triumph of reason and engineering in the cupolas of the Royal Naval College and St Paul’s, and observe how the imposition of classical balance and authoritative order of the Bank of England is undercut by the visual chaos around it – an impotent and frosty father whose children are out of control.

The Bank of England

But these are only parts of the whole. We know we cannot generalise from these parts. Unlike in the ideal cities of the renaissance, or the feng-shui’d cities of China and Japan, or Roman new cities like Londinium, with their planned straight streets and systematised reasons why palaces are here, temples there and workshops elsewhere, we cannot predict what is going to come next in London. Metonymy – taking the part for the whole – may work well as a predictive tool in rationally planned cities (if we meet X, then we know Y and Z will follow) but it doesn’t work in cities like London . It’s too layered, too determined by palimpsests, too mired in history. If we meet X, K or M or L may follow — or even something outside the system altogether (e.g. のぞみ – “nozomi” – Japanese for “wish” or “hope”) .

Parts of the city cannot be taken as predictive metonyms, but as metaphors, standing for something else. The classical facade stands for controlling reason, the irregular space before it and the pigeons for unpredictability and fighting chance. The parts of London our bodies encounter need interpretation.

But who decides what that interpretation is? Can we give any meaning to any part? Who decides that “the classical facade stands for controlling reason”? What authority do they have to claim that? What methods did they use to make that interpretation? What methods can we use to determine the meaning of the parts of London we encounter? Can we really interpret the part of the city we experience with our bodies without technology, with our bodies and minds alone? Does the city tell us that our bodies are not enough, that we need other people and the props of technology to help us come to terms with it, arrive at a way to describe it, give it a terminology, understand it?

Surely this question and its implications comprise the fundamental Mystery of London.