Apart from Folle-Farine, Moths is definitely my favorite of Ouida’s novels. It was the second novel from the author that I read, right after I had finished reading Under Two Flags in the Summer/Fall of 2013. Really, it is one of my all-time favorite novels written in any language, from any point in the history of literature, period. In this installment of Ouida’s marvelous wordscapes, the author takes us through another journey of Victorian Era marriage, this time, however, from the vantage point of marriage as prostitution.
In her usual way, Ouida sets up her “angel-woman” (see Schroeder and Holt, 2008, Ouida The Phenomenon) for a grand enough entrance, and, like Etoile in Friendship, and Katherine Massarene in The Massarenes, the angelic qualities of inner-virtue amidst corruption are the more pronounced in this particular instantiation of the sublime. The story, in brief, can be summarized as follows: the clear victim and central character in the story, Vere, or Vera (and this symbolic name interchange varies as the story develops), is maliciously tricked by her mother, Lady Dolly, into a profitable marriage arrangement that turns out to be more profitable to her than to her newly-wedded child. The drama lies in the unfortunate scenario of the virtuous Vere having been persuaded through her mother’s lies to marry a man whom she detests to the most virulent degree. This man is a gentleman brute called Prince Sergius Zouroff. The aristocratic Russian Prince(ss) is another one of Ouida’s archetypes that appears in variants (Wanda, Princess Napraxine, A House Party, etc.), but in Moths, Prince Zouroff is a man who uses a family wealth that could easily buy him into or out of any sin as an advantage in the game of vigorously exercising the magnitudes of pleasure-seeking, in the unceasing effort to bolster his already inflated sense of egomania. Vere, on the other hand, simultaneously must resist the indefatigable cultivation of a love affair with a beautiful young idealistic opera singer who is secretly in love with her, whilst enduring graduated levels of abuse from a husband whose hardhearted and callous disregard for those who dare to exhibit any kind of genuine integrity (i.e. his wife) is overshadowed only by his lust and proclivity for sadism. Meanwhile, Correze, the 19th century rockstar of Vere’s wildest dreams, must stand by and watch the love of his life perpetually disrespected and violated, being almost powerless because of his social status and rank to do anything about the affronts to their mutual dignity. It is a marvelously romantic tale that pours off the page in rich word pictures.
The scenes and characters really come to life in this novel, bearing with them all the vivid colors of opulence-infused sentiment that we’ve come to know and love in Ouida.
Admittedly, this book is not the most aesthetic of Ouida’s works; however, one can firmly assert that it is one of her most beautifully crafted. The scenes and characters really come to life in this novel, bearing with them all the vivid colors of opulence-infused sentiment that we’ve come to know and love in Ouida. Lady Dolly, for example, the “wicked mother” of the narrative, is a character that is hard for us not to adore. We feel ashamed for sympathizing with her, but, on at least some levels, we feel compelled to sympathize with her nonetheless. One finds her to be a shallow, yet paradoxically multi-dimensional character. She is at once one of Ouida’s more tragic characters and, by long shot, one of the most, if not the most, comedic (aside from, perhaps, “Mouse” Kenilworth from The Massarenes). She is a tragic character for her inability to see any character flaw in herself whatsoever (she dreads the notion!), and yet, this distillation of vanity in a character gives this villain a charisma that is irresistible in every scene in which we are graced by her presence. Witness, for example, how Ouida uses Lady Dolly’s comic relief to open up a novel that holds, at its core, such highly controversial themes as patriarchal injustice and domestic abuse, almost trivializing them from the onset:
“Lady Dolly ought to have been perfectly happy. She had everything that can constitute the joys of a woman of her epoch. She was at Trouville. She had won heaps of money at play. She had made a correct book on the races. She had seen her chief rival looking bilious in an unbecoming gown. She had had a letter from her husband to say he was going away to Java or Jupiter or somewhere indefinitely. She wore a costume which had cost a great tailor twenty hours of anxious and continuous reflection…”
Although this kind of ironically humorous overtone is maintained throughout the work, the story becomes deadly serious at points, as Ouida attempts to tackle difficult ideas. Again, themes include the idea of marriage as more of an economic farce than any kind of moral institution, and more so, the difficulty of staying to true to oneself when surrounded by an environment of moral toxicity whose social virtue is wholly exterior and about as trustworthy as a "terms of agreement checkbox."
Through all the laughter and pain, however, the story has some of Ouida’s more charming love scenes. Ouida, for example, loved flowers in life, and she achieved incredible feats in the myriad of ways that she was able to integrate flowers into her novel’s themes and settings. You can observe in the following passage how the author has used flowers to move the romance between Vere and Correze forward:
“Princess,” said Correze, “You have walked several miles by this, and that stick parasol of yours is no alpenstock to help you much. Look at those hills through the trees; one sees here, if nowhere else, what the poets’ ‘blue air’ means. Soon the sun will set, and the sapphire blue will be cold grey. But rest a few moments, and I will gather you some of that yellow gentian. You keep your old love of flowers, I am sure?"
Then, she can’t resist couching in a political jab as the dialogue continues, adding substance to the style with:
Vere smiled a little sadly. [“Indeed, yes; but it is with flowers as with everything else, I think, in the world; one cannot enjoy them for the profusion and the waste of them everywhere. When one thinks of the millions that die at one ball! — and no one hardly looks at them. The most you hear anyone say is, ‘the rooms look very well to-night.’ And the flowers die for that.”
There are many more beautiful literary flowers like the passage above to seduce both the first time and the returning reader of Ouida’s Moths (or virtually any of her other works for that matter).
To close the review, I’ll confess that even today, some might find her rich descriptions to be wordy, her ability to penetrate the human heart, melodramatic, and her concomitant depiction of both the sublime and the sordid, cognitively jarring when compared with the works of her contemporaries as well as ours. Those readers, however, that truly get Ouida, truly get her; she is OUIDA! and that pretty much says it all. Whether you’re a newcomer to her novels, or a longtime fan, Moths will not disappoint. There’s a reason it flew off the shelves when it first came off the press in 1880 and sold well for decades after. It has only been a generation or two since it has disappeared from sight, and I can only but rejoice that I have lived to see its recent resurgence into contemporary readership.