It was a pleasure to discover that Ouida’s final novel was also one of her most political. I’ll begin this review by stating that I found Helianthus (1908) to be a most intriguing novel. Practically every page pulled me deeper and deeper into a state of perpetual captivation. Then again, pretty much every Ouida novel I’ve read has produced a similar effect.
In completing this book, I have completed what I have appropriately termed “the Rose Challenge.” This was essentially a personal reading challenge which roughly consisted of reading all of her three-decker novels. The Rose Challenge has been a wonderful reading journey for me. I can vividly remember the strange blend of curiosity and reluctance that I felt when I began reading my first Ouida novel. The novel was Under Two Flags (1867). I still find it astonishing how she instantly became my favorite author above all others after I read that amazing military romance. I also remember putting down Under Two Flags and (immediately following a lengthy and heartfelt applause) picking up the Lippincott edition of Moths (1880) that I had already received in the mail and opening it up to the title page. Not surprisingly, I found myself getting sucked right into that one too. Needless to say, I was hooked for life.
As I indicated at the onset of this review, Helianthus is a remarkable work of fiction by any standards. For those who appreciate Ouida’s novels in particular, for as much as we get in Helianthus, it has all of the essential ingredients: beauty, philosophy, treachery, and, of course, love. Being her final work, when it comes to the book’s visual setting, in addition to spaces which are electrically monochrome there are charmingly rustic landscapes written in nostalgically warm tones and lush hues. And there are some pretty rousing nautical and train scenes that connect the two ends of the spectrum as well.
I had no logical order; instead, I followed a random sequence based entirely on personal impulse and sentiment.
At its core, Helianthus is a story of royal succession. Consensus suggests that the novel represents a scathing attack on royals in particular and the aristocracy in general. If Ouida’s The Massarenes (1897) is thought to lampoon an increasingly devolving titled class, Helianthus is believed to have delivered a more crushing blow to privileged society. However, I personally hold the opinion that, much like her novella An Altruist (1897), this book offers more of a nuanced exploration of politics than an outright invective. Ouida, who had been seriously absorbed in the subjects of current affairs and foreign policy during the later years of her life, was giving us one last glimpse into her sophisticated meditations on monarchism, imperialism, republicanism, democracy, and socialism. A deeper reading unearths some of her stronger feelings regarding the nature of war, of progress, and of the advance of industry and commerce through the ascendancy of science and technology over pre-Industrial societies. The narrative follows the intra-political scheming of the ruling family of a kingdom called “Helianthus.” Helianthus is a fictional country that Ouida created which is sort of an amalgamation of Italy and Greece. Ouida only broadens her inventiveness and creative elasticity when she fashions fictional places for her stories and uses setting as a tool to etch some of her more provocative observations on art, culture, and modernity into her writing (e.g. In a Winter City).
In Helianthus, the first plot we encounter involves the aging king, John Gunderode. King John’s principal desire at the beginning of the novel is to both emulate and stave off the military might of his menacing nephew, the “Guthonic” Emperor Julius. Not long into the novel, however, we learn that the main storyline really concerns the king’s second son, Prince Elim, otherwise known as the Duke of Othyris. As readers, we follow the young philosophic duke in his earnest attempt to reconcile the sordid history of the Gunderode family with a disenchanted and largely disenfranchised people. Prince Elim, it seems, has the unfortunate condition of sympathizing with democratic ideology. Consequently, he does not hold the belief in the inherent superiority of his royal breeding—a belief that is shared by every other member of his family. Eventually, Elim falls in love with Ilia—a young descendent of the republican Illyris family line. It was Platon Illyris who had won the most critical military victories against the nation’s foreign rulers in an earlier generation. However, not long after helping to secure the rise of the Gunderode family, Platon Illyris was deceived by these new usurpers. Platon and his progeny were unjustly branded “enemies of the state,” and they were treated with disdain by the Gunderode line thereafter. This history established a feud between the two families. The chief problem for Elim, then, emerged as one of evading his royal obligation to one day assume his role as the king of the Helianthines in hopes of somehow opening the cold heart of Ilia Illyris to the possibilities of his intensifying esteem and affection for her.
Like the other three-deckers, this book has some really brilliant characters in it. I found Elim, for instance, to be a marvelously thought-provoking and acutely pathetic character. His pathetic condition, in fact, succeeded in evoking my sincerest sympathies. His brother, moreover, the Prince of Tyras, provided a delightful sense of comic relief. I found him to be an appallingly relatable character that would fit right in with contemporary Hollywood celebrity culture. King John was so realistically detestable that I continually caught myself rooting for his demise. And Ilia Illyris, the novel’s angel woman, stands out from many other characters of this type on the account of her shrewd obstinacy and her commitment to uphold a grudge against her would-be royal suitor despite all of his irresistible advances. In Helianthus, it appears that Ouida provides readers with the time-honored “handsome prince/damsel in distress” motif of the chivalric age. Ouida offers this classic dish, however, with a unique and tantalizing touch of unconventionality that allows for layers of sub-plots to be fueled by an array of conspiratorial dealings. The inevitable result is yet another page-turner from the wild imagination of De la Ramee, the Queen of the Pen.
The only issue I have with this novel is that is an unfinished one. Granted, it manages to end on a sentence that delivers a suitable conclusion to the final scene. Yet, one definitely gets the impression that one of the author’s trademark dramatic conclusions tragically failed to see the light of day. I have already imagined a number of different possible endings for the book. In any case, I am more than happy to have read it. And I can confidently state that reading Ouida’s set of nineteen three-deckers has irreversibly changed my life for the better.