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.

Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula Part 3

The previous post closed with a perhaps outrageous claim to have noticed something that specialised music critics have not. But the point is not difficult to argue. Let’s look again at the extract from the score I printed in the previous post.

Lulu centre again - but note the direction to the performers to put mutes on their instruments

Notice the directions nehmen Dpf in the middle of the page – put the mutes on. For the music is played backwards with all possible instruments muted. This signals a difference from the first half, an addition subtle on the page but decidedly audible in performance. To an audience listening as opposed to a reader reading, that is, with the remediation of the text through the technologies of musical instruments from the visual to the aural, the palindrome does not signal a suspension of the arrow of time. Rather, it emphasises time’s passage by highlighting difference in similarity.

This is certainly the case with the narrative palindrome that Berg creates. By the last scene, when the husbands start returning and taking their revenge, we in the audience have been so well trained we know the narrative law.  And we are given a choice. Do we simply accept the law as an inevitable given, as part of the human condition, or do we rebel against its violent inflexibility? Do we want this structure to be enacted? I want the ending to be different. I want Lulu to escape Jack and for the self-sacrificing Countess to study law and fight for women’s rights. I do not want men to take revenge, as by this time I, though a man, have come to see Lulu as a human being. I want transcendence from my own gendered, socialised subject position, I want the cycle of suffering to be broken. My engagement with the performance has caused me to distance myself from a community of people who automatically assume the rightness of the lex talionis.

Alternatively, if I do want it – and parts of me do, confiteor – I am encouraged to ask myself about the moral stature of my sadistic desire, my conservative desire to remain within a community of vengeance.

Lulu in the final scene puts my desires in dialogue with one another.

By listening to and watching, by experiencing a performance on stage, I, already split, have also become linked to Lulu. If the title of the opera follows the tradition of naming a work after the solitary protagonist like Tosca and Fidelio – it’s not Tristan und Isolde, or A Village Romeo and Juliet ‑ I nonetheless supply both the conjunction the missing adjunct: Lulu and me. Who of these is the angel, who the demon? Am I Jack or Lulu or both? The and here is not, as I’ve already explained in a previous post, a simple conjunction: it is an implied copula. It suggests identity through linkage. Lulu and me suggests I wonder whether I am Jack or Lulu or both?

There is one of the many recurrent passages that is never subject to palindromic treatment. This is the music of Lulu’s desire to be loved by Dr Schön, her third husband and the man she wanted to be married to at the start. She wants him to recognise her as a valid human being. She him to recognise that she is. It’s all she’s ever wanted, as she says in one of the terrible quarrels they have. The first time the passage appears she recalls her childhood as a street urchin and thief in spoken words that ensure the audience understands them:

“My husband… If I belong to anyone in this world, I belong to you. Without you, I don’t know where I’d be. You took me by the hand, you gave me food and clothes, even though I was trying to steal your watch. Do you think I can forget that?”

Alban Berg, Lulu, vocal score, Universal Edition, 1936: 81 (“Coda der Sonata”)

Memory binds Lulu to Dr Schön. And indeed, it is the power of memory that binds me to Lulu as I watch that last scene. I remember her story, and that is why I partly become her.

What does Lulu give me in that memory? She does not give food and clothes. Instead she gives me the story of her life, an Other to my own. And then, to complicate the act of generosity that art always involves, the actress who plays Lulu gives me her labour and her skill. If successful, this is a gift beyond price, signalled by the ecstatic applause at the end of a performance which pays the artist beyond her fee, an act of recognition all of us who have performed need and know in our flesh.

Now, though no previous critic has pointed this out, I think it clear that Lulu’s gratitude  music owes a debt to the very first motif in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The first four notes have the same intervals but are played backwards and upside down, the whole filtered through the emotional and orchestral lens of late Mahler (itself deriving from Wagner).

How the opening bars of Wagner's TRistan und Isolde become the theme of the heroine's Gratitude/ Love in Berg's Lulu

Lulu’s music of gratitude and love is by no means the music of absolute modernity and abstraction from history. Its reworking of Wagner declares itself to be very firmly within tradition, within a historical community of texts: Berg and Wagner, not Berg in splendid isolation. The reworking is a memory and acknowledgement of history, of community, of society — and therefore necessarily of ideology. The music of gratitude can even be said to acknowledge its debt by mirroring back its donor. This is exophoric reference, an intertextual repetition. It is not the abstract kind of repetition without ideology that Adorno and his followers have praised. It is an and of textual community.

My point is that repetition, even the retrograde of the palindrome, does not necessarily mean timelessness, the absolute of utter novelty that is high modernity, or a refusal of ethical intervention into society. On the contrary – repetition of the intertextual kind (and there are many such in Berg) and even palindromic repetition, necessarily implies memory, a coupling of the past to the present that enables future action.

I remember and I am  reminded of Lulu’s gratitude to Schön and her desire to be recognised by him every time this music recurs.  Its last appearance is in her conversation with Jack, the reincarnated Schön, when it is conjoined effortlessly with the music of her beauty that we first hear when she is presented by an animal tamer in the Prologue. Jack and Lulu discuss money: he, rather than she, takes more and more in incremental demands, an inversion of her financial dependence on Schön – except that he takes everything. (“Gib mir das ganze” he demands at 4.02 in the video; “In Gottes Namen” – “In God’s name” replies she, as if acknowledging the operation of Biblical lex talionis)

When Jack cuts Lulu we have been reminded he is killing a human being who only wants to be loved as she is. When he kills the Countess we have been reminded, and afterwards in her Liebestod will be reminded again, that he is killing a human being who only wants to live for others. Our Weinigerian misogyny at this moment will be pressured by our affective involvement, by our feeling for and with Lulu and the Countess.

That sounds very sentimental. Indeed it is, in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sense. This is a political tradition of sentiment that in the nineteenth century was practiced especially by women for the sake of women and other oppressed people – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin is perhaps the most famous and impactful example of its deployment. Ouida operated within it, as did the American mass-market abolitionist and proto-feminist novelist E.D.E.N. Southworth. Better known today is the political sentimentality of Dickens.

This is not the sentimental tradition of, say, Violetta or Mimi – those archetypal operatic women who are thrown away when used up, who die of consumption literally and metaphorically and whose voluptuous deaths we uncritically enjoy so much, as we are reminded by Catherine Clement in her famous 1979 book on Opera and the Undoing of Women. That is the version of commercial sentimentality that Adorno hated. Instead, we are talking of a use of emotion to stir the audience to political action. Such action may stem from a humanistic ideology that not so long ago it was the fashion to excoriate and altogether repudiate. But at least action is possible (indeed necessary) in that ideology.

We also have to ask if Adorno’s belief in the possibility of escape from ideology and the personal is actually only a blindness to the very material conditions which permit that belief. After all, Universal Edition, Lulu’s publishers, were and remain a very canny publishing house as moiled in capitalism as any Hollywood studio. Adorno depended on a printed text produced by Universal to  show how Berg was unideological and passive, resistant to action. My main issue with him here is not blindness to the capitalist materiality of what enabled this anti-capitalist’s praise of inaction and formal perfection, nor his praise for the hard, the difficult, the challenging, the unpopular,  but  his rejection of the sentimental through praise of the abstracted.

Sentimentally, I refuse to be abstracted.

To move us to action a link must be made with  us.  And this is the conjunction-copula that binds the work of art to us. Lulu’s escape from ideological constraint, pace Adorno, lies not in its mystical abstraction of structure and a purity of absolute decontextualised modernity. That idea relies on the media technology of printed scores, itself a product of industrial modernity of which Adorno was the salesman of a specific sector. Instead, opera, when it is successful, like theatre in general, offers us the conjunction-copula – the and – of Carmen and Don Jose, Lulu and Dr Schön, murdered and murderer, actor and audience.

I stand with Cixous in her remarks on opera and theatre. Lulu offers the time of pity in its examination of the uncertain differences coupled and defined by a conjunction, the messy relation of memory, of today and yesterday, of the popular and exclusive, of men and women, of Angels and Demons, of Conservative Communities and New Possibilities, Others and Us. And is not a simple parataxis devoid of force; it is a part of speech that, when examined, can and should result in calls to action. What that action is depends on the force of  copula and conjunction.

Christine Schafer as Lulu in prison, from the palindromic film at the centre of the 1997 Glyndeborne production.

Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula Part 1

In 2010 I organised a conference on Angels and Demons at Canterbury Christ Church University. This resulted in a  special number of Critical Survey on the topic in 2011. Keen to promote my colleagues’ work rather than mine in the limited space available, I never expanded and published the paper at the conference that I had to give at only a few days notice when a speaker had to withdraw. The other papers looked at the first and last words of the title. Typically for me, I examined the smallest, neglected word: the ‘and’ of the title.

Here it is, more or less as delivered, in three parts.

Angels and Demons: Lulu and the Copula

Part 1

Nothing like beginning at the end, especially the end of Alban Berg’s unfinished opera Lulu, and a double murder by Jack the Ripper, of someone we hear described as an “angel”, and of the woman in love with her, a personification of the New Woman, the Countess Geschwitz, who plans to leave the garret to go to university to study law and fight for women’s rights. The 9 minute video in the link unfortunately doesn’t have English subtitles: the last 4 minutes are crucial for the argument (if you understand German – or Japanese subtitles).

or there are several other excellent productions on YouTube.

The important point is that this scene, the last from the opera, pretty unequivocally suggests that men really don’t like women!  Men really are devils, aren’t they? From the way the countess’s decision to fight for women’s rights is thwarted by her murder, you may have decided already that Jack is a representative figure of something beyond himself, perhaps standing for the general category “misogynistic, conservative, reactionary man”. Certainly the idea that Jack represents the revenge of men  on uppity women is a very common interpretation. For some critics, the work even becomes the tragedy not of Lulu, but of men who are forced to violence by such women.

And then the music… this isn’t just any old double murder of women by a man, of course, but a double murder in the 1930s high modernist opera by Alban Berg: Lulu, a work championed by no less an enemy of mass culture than Theodore Adorno.

One might well ask whether the demon is not Jack the casual murderer of would-be liberated New Women, or even women who supposedly make men behave in violent ways,  but exclusive avant-garde texts like Lulu. After all, everyone knows who Jack the Ripper is – he has generated a vast amount of material dedicated to him. We might say he has a vast fan base. We even go on Jack the Ripper tours in London’s East End. Jack is popular.  Berg’s Lulu, by contrast is hardly the Glaswegian singer who won the 1969 Eurovision  Song Context with “Boom Bang-a-Bang”. It’s “hard”, difficult, unpleasant; this Lulu doesn’t follow the musical rules we are familiar with.

Yet it’s clear just from the inclusion of the figure of Jack that the opera attempts to take on board the violent hierarchy of popular and exclusive. For the conjunction “and” can be used in various senses – inclusion yes, but also to signal and interrogate a hierarchy of difference: good and evil, man and woman, angel and demon. In questioning the hierarchy of popular and exclusive as well as the other binaries I’ve just mentioned, Lulu is like many operas of the period, such as Ernst Krenek’s Johnny spielt auf, or several of Franz Schreker’s operas (perhaps most of all Die Gezeichneten). Certainly in some places it reworks then popular dance forms, jazz rhythms and instrumental colourings.  Lulu even takes on the film industry – already dominated by Hollywood by the time it was being written between 1927 and 1935. A performance of Lulu as Berg wrote it has a film at its very centre, a 3-minute action-packed short very different from Pabst’s lingeringly aesthetic film on the same subject as the opera, Pandora’s Box of 1928, starring the wonderful Louise Brooks. Despite the claims of a few breathless writers, even the Pabst film was never “popular” in any sense. When it premiered in Berlin in January 1929, it was almost entirely ignored in the excitement of the new “talkies” that were grabbing public attention in Europe and America. Brooks herself was slashed by the critics. It took until the 1950s for the film to be appreciated by the cognoscenti in the art house. Despite the retellings of the tale and figure that Karen Littau and Shelley Berc have detailed for us, the Lulu I’m writing of here has never been popular for all its engagement with elements of the popular. Does that mean that I, as a historian of popular narrative, cannot or should not engage with it?

Like Pabst, Berg based his work on a pair of plays by the fin-de-siècle German playwright Frank Wedekind, Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box which Wedekind worked on between 1892 and 1913. Many of the music critics who discuss the opera love the music. It is a highly ingenious form of dodecaphony and full of the signs of exclusive distinction that requires long training to decode.  But they regard the plays as belonging on the junk heap of literature, too low for the sacred realms of opera. What was Berg doing when he chose to set this shabby little shocker that sold out to contemporary bourgeois notions of the femme fatale and comprised a collage of the vulgar misogynistic commonplaces that Otto Weininger systematised in his 1902 Sex and Character? Wedekind’s Lulu plays seem uncannily to agree with Weiniger’s fantasy that Woman has no ethics, logic or soul and therefore can only see with a blank stare, that Woman is totally materialistic and has no spiritual or intellectual side. It’s all wonderfully summed up in a notorious quotation from Weininger, “Man possesses sexual organs, her sexual organs possess Woman.” The New Woman we see murdered at the end, who plans to go to university to study law so that she can fight for women’s rights was, so her beloved Lulu tells her, half a man. Lulu herself can be regarded only too easily as the quintessence of Weinigerian Woman, as a one-sentence narration of her life will demonstrate. Having started as a child prostitute and thief, Lulu goes through three husbands, murders the last of them, escapes from prison through the machinations of her lesbian friend, runs off to Paris with the son of her third husband, and ends in a London garret as a prostitute.

Wedekind wrote his original version as Die Büchse des Pandora, ein Monstretragödie (“Pandora’s Box, a Monster Tragedy”)  between 1892 and 1894 as a single 5-acter, monstrous both in length and subject matter. If you thought the ending in the opera was shocking, in the original Jack the Ripper explicitly knifes out Lulu’s genitals and fantasises about how much the London Medical Club will pay for them. Partly because of this ending Wedekind’s publisher thought the Monstretragödie would provoke prosecution for obscenity. He therefore persuaded Wedekind to publish just the first three acts of his play which dealt with Lulu’s marriage to each of her three husbands. Subsequent versions of the play which Wedekind wrote attempted to negotiate a path between the censors and desire for popularity through sensation. Berg condensed his opera from the published two-play version – we know from a surviving seating plan that he went to a private performance of the second play in 1905 and that this performance and its paratexts influenced him. By recombining the two plays, therefore, Berg was returning them to their original structural integrity.

To me just as shocking as the murders is the number of music critics who choose to ignore what they regard as an unworthy text to concentrate instead on analysing the fabulous intricacy of the music – Adorno amongst them. What is at stake in this violent excision of words? This what the other parts of this blog will seek to answer.

(to be continued)

The Summer of 1871: Ouida and Bulwer Lytton

(a continuation of a previous blog on Ouida and Mario)

What “Art” was and its relation to her writing were very much on Ouida’s mind in mid-1871.

We know from surviving letters that in the early summer Ouida had become concerned with the discussions around a proposed Dogs Act which would give any summary court powers over the destruction of stray, dangerous and rabid dogs. Determined to block the passage of this Act, in early June, having already been told that he liked her work, Ouida contacted Edward Bulwer-Lytton to elicit his support. He wrote her a kindly response and thereupon she invited him to visit her at the Langham Hotel where she had lived with her mother since 1867. He came several times, much to her delight.

[Picture: Edward Bulwer, (Lord Lytton.)]
Edward Bulwer Lytton
Bulwer-Lytton was a key figure in the development of popular fiction. His help to Mary Braddon is well documented, and, though to a much more limited extent, he acted as Ouida’s mentor as well. After she had left London for her tour of the continent, he wrote Ouida a long but positive critique of her latest novel Folle Farine. His letter does not survive, but Ouida’s response to it does. She wrote it at the Hotel de York, Spa (Belgium), the hotel Baedeker and Bradshaw recommended for English visitors to this already faded (though still respectable) resort. Ouida’s letter is keen to associate her novel with ‘Art’ by attributing it aesthetic value through the conventional eighteenth-century criteria of ‘judgement’ and ‘sympathy’ (I always think of Elinor and Marianne in Austen’s 1811 Sense and Sensibility when I think of those). Ouida ends by justifying her exploration of painful emotion and unconventional sexual arrangements as ‘Art’ and the duty of the artist.

It would be terrible to me to think that I had wrought an injury to any Soul, but it always seems to me that the artist has one duty that he must place before all ‑‑ i.e. to seek earnestly for the truth with all his strength & as he beholds it so to endeavour to set it forth.

She was in November to write to Isabel Burton (wife of the explorer, diplomat, orientalist Richard) and, the following year, to the conservative politician, poet and literary patron Lord Houghton that Folle-Farine should indeed be considered primarily as ‘Art’. Whether this was a retrospective judgement supported by the favourable reviews that compared the Folle-Farine‘s ‘art’ to that of ‘our pre-Raphaelite painters’ or whether the novel had been written intentionally as an ‘Art’ (as opposed to commercial) novel remains unclear. Even though an artist figures very prominently as a heartless Lovelacean seducer in the novel, the nature of art  is not substantially discussed in it compared to in Ouida’s novels of the 1870s. Likewise in her response to Bulwer, Ouida doesn’t set out an aesthetic credo beyond saying that in her view the artist should always try to represent the truth  without causing  “injury to any Soul” – an unambitious and generic programme. As mentioned in a previous blog, for Folle-Farine Ouida had managed to get £900 out of her publisher Chapman – considerably more than she had received for her earlier novels. Ouida certainly knew about the hard cash aspects of art, but her letters suggest that she was at this stage just wondering about what other symbolic systems art might be involved in.

There is another letter that needs to be mentioned here too — a previously unnoticed one from Ouida in the press. On 12 June 1871, the Morning Post published a letter to the Editor from her in response to an article supporting the Dogs Act that had appeared in the paper the previous week. Ouida wrote that while the Morning Post’s position was a very reasoned stance, she wished to add that ‘the emotional side of the subject is one which may be most fairly taken into consideration’ – for dogs are friends who can teach us ‘lessons of faith and fealty.’ Ouida must have been proud of this letter for she sent a cutting of it to Bulwer Lytton. The basis of the letter’s argumentation is the binary of  “reason” and “emotion”. It is not too great a leap to match this both to the “judgement” and “sympathy” opposition in Ouida’s later letter to Bulwer and to the sentimental tradition of writing in general whereby the sharing of emotions is regarded as a way to form communities.  The purpose of “Art” in this understanding is indeed to forge communities through “sympathy” – common feeling – with the “truth” arrived at through reason/ judgement. To forge a community is necessarily a political act which involves ethics. Ouida is trying to forge a community around an ethical cause and thereby cause political change.

It is not I think too far to claim that we see in this brief letter to the Post Ouida publishing for the first time with a purpose beyond the commercial, and also beyond the economic interests of herself and her family. She may not have found a reason for her ‘Art’ yet, but she has found, on a miniature scale, a reason for writing: to change society for what she believed was the better by appeal to common emotions without thought of payment. A week before the collective ecstasy of Mario’s last performance, Ouida’s explicit political and economic engagement had begun.

An encounter in Brussels would very soon sharpen the edge of her desire for something in her aesthetic and economic life beyond hard cash.

(to be continued)