When Michael Dirda reviewed Wilde’s Women for the Washington Post last year, he drew attention to two women novelists in particular, writing:
In one fascinating chapter, Fitzsimons writes at length about the two best-selling female authors of the time, Marie Corelli, whose mystical novels, such as “The Sorrows of Satan,” were admired by Gladstone, Thackeray and Queen Victoria, and the sybaritic, luxury-loving Ouida. The latter is now faintly remembered for her foreign-legion classic “Under Two Flags,” but she made her reputation with witty, decadent works such as “Moths” and “Princess Napraxine” that may have influenced Wilde when he came to write his own novel.
Since she is one of my absolute favourites of Wilde’s Women, I have written this longer piece on the remarkable Ouida.
It is 1867. Where in London would an inventive woman with a healthy bank balance, desirous of inhabiting a rarefied world of beauty and luxury, choose to live? Why, the Langham Hotel of course. One of the hotel’s most celebrated residents was Maria Louisa Ramé, known as Ouida, her own childhood mispronunciation of her middle name. Although largely forgotten, she was one of the most successful novelists England has ever produced.
Ouida was born into 1 Union Terrace,her maternal grandmother’s now-demolished modest home in Bury St. Edmunds. Her parents were local woman Susan Sutton, and Louis Ramé, a Guernsey native who made an erratic living teaching French. An exotic charmer who hinted at a close friendship with Louis Napoleon, Ramé was an unreliable presence in his daughter’s life.
Ouida dreamed big and began writing novels in her teens. Before a single word had been published, she convinced her mother and grandmother to move to London on the strength of her future success. Her confidence was rewarded when Tinsley Brothers paid fifty pounds – almost five thousand in today’s terms – for the rights to Held in Bondage, her first novel. It became an instant sensation.
As her celebrity grew, and with it her bank balance, Ouida took a suite of rooms in the Langham Hotel, a luxurious establishment finished to the highest standards with ornate Italianate public areas, modern plumbing, and a series of ‘rising rooms’, hydraulic lifts that carried guests from floor to floor. Her gatherings there were scandalous. Since she considered women ‘ungenerous, cruel, pitiless’, her guest list was made up almost exclusively of men.
One aristocratic woman of her acquaintance complained that Ouida ‘was not charitable to her own sex, and was very intolerant of women who had made a shipwreck of their own lives’. It was said that the only woman she ever invited to her suite at the Langham was the formidable Isabel Burton, wife of explorer, Richard.
Ouida’s decadent novels celebrated a lush aristocratic existence and her aesthetic style kicked against the fetters imposed by Victorian notions of prudence, rationality and worth. She pioneered a new style of language, studded with witty epigrams, which allowed her characters to indulge in the most subversive behaviour imaginable. Her paeans to beauty earned her a devoted following amongst Aesthetes and Pre-Raphaelites, but she was also hugely popular with the shop girls and footmen who frequented the circulating libraries or saved up for six shilling, single-volume reprints of her latest novel.
In appearance and manner, Ouida adopted the standards she set for her heroines. She cultivated a wildly eccentric look and allowed her mane of blonde hair to tumble down her back until she was well into her thirties. Her dresses, made to her own design by Charles Worth, had short sleeves and curtailed hemlines contrived to show off her dainty hands and tiny feet to best effect. She favoured pale shades, white satin in particular, and was said to make her timid mother wear black for contrast.
Yet, a rival described her as ‘small, insignificant-looking with no pretension to beauty, her harsh voice, and manner almost grotesque in its affectation’. Ouida didn’t seem to notice, perhaps she simply didn’t care. She loved to hold court, cutting through the chatter with a ‘harsh and unpleasing’ voice that was likened by an acquaintance to ‘a carving-knife’. When one brave soul shushed her during a musical performance, her indignant reaction was that, since she talked better than others, she ought to be listened to.
Ouida was prolific and wrote by candlelight, propped up in bed at the Langham, scratching a goose quill dipped in violet ink across large sheets of blue paper. When she rose, she would adopt the costume of a character in her current novel, one day a princess, the next a peasant maiden. She accessorised with blooms favoured by her fictional creations.
Above all else, Ouida adored opulence and her extraordinary excesses were funded from the ever-increasing payments she negotiated with eager publishers. Every penny was spent as soon as she got it, often on some fabulous though utterly unserviceable objet d’art. She collected exquisite china and served tea to her guests in priceless Capo di Monte cups, or invited them to wash down platters of uncommon delicacies with the finest vintage wines. Novelist W. H. Mallock recognised this mad extravagance as her attempt to ‘live up to the standards of her heroines’.
In 1871, at the height of her fame, Ouida swapped the Langham for a sprawling villa in Florence; it was falling down around her but it had belonged to a Medici. Returning to London and the Langham for an extended stay in 1886, she accepted an invitation to one of Lady Jane Wilde’s literary ‘Wednesdays’. A fellow guest reported that she
‘spoke in quick disjointed sentences with a peculiar accent, and constantly referred to Oscar – in fact she directed all her conversation to him’.
Wilde invited Ouida to contribute to The Woman’s World, the magazine he edited at the time, and she wrote four articles for him. ‘Have you read my article on War in Oscar Wilde’s magazine?’ she asked a friend. ‘The magazine is so good, its only defect is its title’. In ‘Apropos of a Dinner’, Ouida argued that, although smoking was a ‘silly and injurious habit’, women should be allowed to remain at the dinner table while men indulged; she horrified all of London by doing so herself.
In ‘The Streets of London’, she criticised the ugliness of the city, arguing that a profusion of railings gave ‘almost every house in London the aspect of a menagerie combined with a madhouse’. She despaired of basements, describing them as ‘subterranean places in which nothing but the soul of a blackbeetle can possibly delight’.
In ‘Field-work For Women’, which she illustrated with reproductions of oil paintings she had done in Florence, Ouida postulated that outdoor agricultural labour was far more beneficial to women than unhealthy factory work. In ‘War’, she denounced the evils of combat, which ‘cripples and impoverishes every class of the nation’, and she expressed her vehement opposition to conscription.
Reviewing Ouida’s ‘amazing romance’ Guilderoy in the Pall Mall Gazette, Wilde dubbed her ‘the last of the romantics’. His admiring verdict was ‘though she is rarely true, she is never dull’. Certainly, Ouida was never troubled by pedestrian notions of accuracy. In any case, her fans were always clamouring for another of what Max Beerbohm described as the
‘lurid sequence of books and short stories and essays which she has poured forth so swiftly, with such irresistible élan’.
What appealed to her readers was the unashamed glamour of her situations. That her themes were judged unwholesome only added to her appeal, although her books were often hidden when disapproving visitors called. Seduction, adultery, voyeurism and prostitution were tackled head-on and, although she steered clear of overt homosexuality, her books were undeniably homoerotic.
Ouida popularised the indolent male dandy connoisseur. Her women were strikingly beautiful and aristocratic socialites, loyal to no one but themselves, who spoke in epigrammatic language reminiscent of Wilde’s. While her influence should not be overstated, critics recognised something of her style in his work. In a review of The Picture of Dorian Gray, the St. James’ Gazette opined that while ‘the style was better than Ouida’s popular aesthetic romances the erudition remained nonetheless equal’. Their critic concluded, ‘the grammar is better than Ouida’s – the erudition equal; but in every other respect we prefer the talented lady’.
Writing in McBride’s Magazine, Julian Hawthorne, journalist son of Nathaniel, claimed:
Mr. Wilde‘s writing has what is called “colour,” – the quality that forms the main-stay of many of Ouida‘s works, – and it appears in the sensuous descriptions of nature and of the decorations and environments of the artistic life.
Ouida’s short play Afternoon, which was published in 1883, introduced ‘Aldred Dorian’, a collector of beautiful objects and a painter of portraits.
When Wilde sent Ouida a copy of Dorian Gray, she declared: ‘I do understand it’. She had returned to Florence by then, having spent more recklessly than ever during her four month stay in London. While there, she had ordered a new wardrobe from The House of Worth and lavished £200 a week on ‘turning her sitting room in the Langham Hotel into a glade of the most expensive flowers’. When W. H. Mallock hosted a luncheon for her in the Bachelors’ Club, she arrived:
…trimmed with the most exuberant furs, which, when they were removed, revealed a costume of primrose-colour—a costume so artfully cut that, the moment she sat down, all eyes were dazzled by the sparkling of her small protruded shoes.
Such extravagance emptied Ouida’s purse, obliging her to seek assistance from friends. In The Real Oscar Wilde, Robert Sherard claimed that it was Wilde who ‘furnished her with sufficient money to pay the Margaret Street people [where she had modest lodgings], and rescue her luggage, and then to return to Florence’.
In Italy, Ouida fared no better. When the lucrative publishing deals dried up, she swapped her villa for an ever-degenerating series of lodging houses from which she was sometimes evicted by force. News of her plight reached fellow novelist Marie Corelli, who persuaded the editor of the Daily Mail to establish a fund to assist her. On reading this, Ouida became incandescent with rage and demanded that he never print her name again.
When friends petitioned the Prime Minister to grant her a Civil List Pension of £150 a year, she railed that this sum was ‘only fit for superannuated butlers’. When Ouida was aged seventy and a shadow of her former self, living in a modest lodging house in Viareggio, the Daily Mirror captioned a photograph of an ancient Italian peasant woman ‘Ouida’. The real Ouida protested vigorously; that newspaper made amends after she died of pneumonia on 25 January 1908, by launching a Memorial Fund. When the company of the Lyceum Theatre gave a fundraising gala matinee, a special train was run from Bury to London for the occasion.
The inscription on the Ouida Monument, unveiled on 2 November 1909, reads:
‘This memorial was erected from funds subscribed by readers of the Daily Mirror and by friends and admirers in all parts of the world.’
Ouida Monument, Bury St Edmunds
Part memorial, part drinking fountain, the monument, which is stained and neglected now and obscured for much of the year by trees, also features a bronze plaque depicting an idealised profile portrait of a woman, flanked by Courage, who carries a sword, and Sympathy, who cradles a puppy. An inscription, written by Lord Curzon, former Viceroy of India, reads:
‘Here may God’s creatures whom she loved assuage her tender soul as they drink.’
What would Ouida have made of all this? Not much, it seems. Years earlier, when she had learned that a plaque was to be erected at 1 Union Terrace, she complained to a friend: ‘This tomfoolery in Suffolk annoys me very much. I identify myself with my father’s French race and blood, and I shall be greatly obliged if you would do your best to prevent any inscription of the kind.’
Months after her death, her publisher Macmillan brought out her final novel, Helianthus in its incomplete form. Today, her books are out of print and she is largely forgotten, but they are all available online and are well worth revisiting.
Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women he Knew was published by Duckworth Overlook on 16 October 2015. Follow me on twitter @EleanorFitz