If you are new to the world of Ouida, then, take it from me, you should probably avoid starting with this one. Personally, I feel relieved that it turned out to be the 22nd novel in my somewhat arbitrary reading sequence as opposed to a chronological sequence which would have placed it as either 3rd or 4th on the list. Reading more than twenty Ouida novels prior to this one prepared me for the wild ride that I took when I read Chandos (1866).
This novel is definitely not Ouida light! Firmly grounded in the sensational novel sub-genre, it has more sex, drugs, and depravity than the lion’s share of her other society stories. The language and characterizations in the book—though complex if one considers the historical context and larger corpus of the author in her development as a writer—are at times coarse and offensive to contemporary sensibilities. Despite taking some pretty dark turns, however, the narrative also reaches some lovely high notes that serve to punctuate the interwoven plot-lines with melodramatic light. The melodrama, some will find, is carried to absurd levels when compared with modern standards—but why must we engage in such fruitless anachronistic comparisons anyway? For a true Ouidaite, the melodrama is a heartily delicious delight, and even more so because it is thoroughly laced with the author’s timeless similes and powerfully vivid descriptions of scene and setting.
In essence, Chandos is a time-honored tale of vengeance. It is a Monte Cristolike story glossed-up with the Ouida literary couture. No spoilers here, but I’ll warn you that you should be prepared for some major plot twists. Chandos begins, of course, with the handsome protagonist from which the novel derives its title. The main character, Ernest Chandos, is an effeminate aristocratic spendthrift with his head in the clouds and a penchant for writing. In a manner that manages to be casually patronizing without trying to be, Chandos finds himself the dupe of those who wish to profit from his boundless generosity. Actually, it seems that Chandos has made himself a couple of secret enemies, one of which, John Trevenna, a man cast as his nemesis, is a dangerous wolf in sheep’s clothing. Worst of all, nearly all of the hero’s peers can see through the various schemes of these wicked “adventurers” who work to destroy him, but Chandos, in his magnanimous faith in humanity and the bonds of friendship, fails to acknowledge their warnings. Consequently, he inevitably and unwittingly falls prey to the worst of their sadistic designs.
Firmly grounded in the sensational novel subgenre, it has more sex, drugs, and depravity than the lion’s share of her other society stories.
Fast forward about twenty years and the story then shifts to one of redemption and perseverance. It becomes the story of Chandos in his quest of overcoming the obstacles of bare necessity, to one of him working to realize his childhood dreams of achieving intellectual greatness as a writer, and, most expectedly, to one of a man who finds a love that’s true and his desire to embrace it. That’s conveniently where the beautiful young Castalia enters the picture. We find that Chandos, having managed to surmount the financial ruin and despair foisted upon him by his secret nemesis, has had to wander as an exile in relative obscurity while the wealth and status of his enemy has risen with an almost reciprocal velocity. Can Chandos overcome his own desire for vengeance and defeat that cancer which threatens to destroy his attempt at returning the devoted affections of the young Castalia? If you’re a fan of Ouida’s novels, I’m sure you know that anything can happen; so take the ride for yourself.
I’ll close this review by noting that this book portrays one of Ouida’s most contemptible villains in John Trevenna. As a character, I found that his behavior was cringingly appalling throughout the novel. Travenna’s attitude, however, at times is actually even worse than appalling, it’s downright detestable. I couldn’t root for him at all, despite my being able to share a certain affinity with his core grievance. And yet you have to hand it to him, for he does attain remarkable political success through his prowess, his savvy, and, especially, through a calculated ruthlessness that spreads its poison with snarky sarcasm.
Jordan (2013) has linked this novel with Strathmore (1865) and Under Two Flags (1867) to form a sort of homoerotic trilogy (pp. 53-69). One the hand, this is a reading into the author’s work that I find to be fascinating and, for the most part, revealing in terms of our current understanding of her views on gender and sexuality. On the other hand, as much as I’ve come to admire Ouida’s confounding of gender conventions in her characters, and as much as I agree that these three novels can be loosely tied together in such homoerotic terms, I feel that the idea that Trevenna was subconsciously lusting after Chandos on an erotic level is bit of a stretch for me (refer to Schroeder and Holt 2009, pp. 54-62). I think that this reading is a classic example, perhaps, of reading into a character a little too deeply. I will concede that, at points, Trevenna is manifestly homophobic in his derisiveness, yet I think that his aversion to women in general is more about his greed than anything else. Maybe I just can’t get over the deeper nature of their relationship; still, a more superficial reading of the character, in my opinion, allows for an interpretation in which Trevenna is simply a driven and demented self-aggrandizer. Ashamedly, I’ll admit that I nearly found him to be sympathetic after fully taking in the closing confessional in his last scene of the novel. Altogether, Chandos is another five star work by the Lioness with the "quill of steel." Read it and enjoy.
Jordan, Jane. “Between Men.” Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture. Ed. Jordan, Jane and Andrew King. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. Print.
Schroeder, Natalie, and Shari H. Holt. Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2008. Print.