Politician and orator Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899) once confessed in 1894 that Ouida was the world’s “greatest living novelist.” Praise from a man who outsold Oscar Wilde on the lecture circuit was not insignificant. Had I been alive during that time, I would have echoed his sentiments. It is heartening to discover, then, that Ouida’s name appears in at least a smattering of novels from the last years of her life to the point when her readership truly started to disappear in the West. In some cases (as noted in my post on her literary legacy), Ouida’s name is mentioned as an affirmation of a personal fondness for the author’s work. Cleary, this is the case with her appearance in the writing of Van Vechten and Richardson. In other instances, such as in Merrick’s Quaint Companions (1903) and Tillman’s turn of the century novella, her memory is evoked as a device to convey information about the characters being described. Here is a short list of some of the more notable mentions in fiction:
1. Katherine Davis Tillman, Beryl Weston’s Ambition: The Story of an Afro-American Girl’s Life (1893)
One of the earlier instances of name-dropping Ouida in a work of fiction is one of the most remarkable to me. It provides literary evidence for a late nineteenth century, middleclass African American readership for the author. In this novella—originally printed in the African Methodist Episcopal Church Review (Volume 10, Number 1)—the young and vivacious Cora Grey reads Ouida’s novels as a form of entertainment. Tillman points out this habit as a way to convey a strong, almost epicurean sense of secularism in this supporting character.
2. Leonard Merrick, Quaint Companions (1903)
London-based publisher Grant Richards was the first to release this fascinating fictional account of interracial marriage in late nineteenth/early twentieth century England. It is difficult to tell whether Merrick himself appreciated the works of Ouida, but he uses her name, almost derisively, as a signifier for the popular, perhaps superficial consumption of novels by a largely uneducated reading public. Still, the mention of the author and her first novel in this story feels sharp, and it comes at pivotal point in the narrative.
3. Dorothy Richardson, Pilgrimage: Backwater (1916) and Honeycomb (1917)
Published in America by Alfred A. Knopf, the second and third books in a fourteen-volume novel sequence exalts Ouida and uses her books as a means for searching out the intellectual development of the protagonist, Miriam Henderson.
4. Archibald Marshall, The Hall and the Grange (1921)
Archibald Marshall, the prolific “successor” to the realist style of Trollope, penned this Dodd, Mead and Company novel when he was trying to make it as a novelist. Recall that Trollope’s literary realism was an approach that Ouida felt was open to criticism for its narrative failings. Nonetheless, Ouida's name creeps into this modern society novel in a way that, strangely enough, closely resembles Ouida’s original critique of Trollope over the tension between romance and realism.
5. Carl Van Vechten, Blind Bow Boy (1923)
Another title from Alfred A. Knopf, this Jazz Age novel mentions Ouida in at least three different scenes in the narrative. In addition to the highly descriptive writing style contained therein, Van Vechten’s name-dropping, perhaps, pays quiet homage to the author.