Randolph Gordon (1867) is a wildly entertaining collection of short stories and novelettes—a collection, it seems, specifically marketed to Ouida's American audience. Some of the stories in this collection, such as “Blue and Yellow” and “The Marquis Tactics,” were published a few years later in a similarly themed Tauchnitz collection titled Madame la Marquise, and Other Novelettes (1872). Personally, I have become intensely fascinated by the various combinations of her short story and novelette compilations as a subject of inquiry. However, as I am eager to suggest my own theories regarding the different circumstances behind the choices made for each of the compilations, I will refrain from doing so at length in this review.
Still, there might be some truth to the claim that not enough scholarly attention has been devoted to Ouida’s short story writing. Perhaps this claim is further substantiated by the fact that the only scholarly book expressly dedicated to close readings of her works, Ouida the Phenomenon (2008), focuses solely on her novels. In terms of what we do have, previous scholarship on Ouida has suggested that the author regularly wrote these shorter pieces with the aim of fully exploiting her potential for commodifying her creative writing. Even if there is a certain degree of truth to this assertion (which I have no problem acknowledging), the condition would not preclude an authorial devotion to producing high quality works through this form of storytelling. Ouida (1895), for example, in her article “Literature and the English Book Trade,” maintains the following:
“Padding” is, as I understand this much-abused word, irrelevant matter injudiciously and inharmoniously introduced into a story to make it longer than it would naturally be. It is not conceivable that a writer of any genius, or even any talent, would do anything of the sort. Inferior writers might do so, but then the whole of their work is padding, where it is not piracy. A writer of intellect and judgement knows, of course, that there are themes which require slight and suggestive treatment, and others which require long and elaborate development; he composes a short story or a long romance, according to the exigencies of his subject. I could not have stretched out Pipistrello or The Dog of Flanders into three volumes without to ruin them… You do not paint a miniature on a six-foot wall, nor a fresco on a square inch of ivory. (160)
Clearly, the short story as a form of composition was one that the author herself took very seriously. But, what I seem to love most about Ouida’s short fiction is the way in which we find her testing out different themes, scenarios, characters, and settings in a kind of beta mode for her more dedicated fan base. This idea, perhaps, runs contrary to her own description; but at least in my own estimation, her most loyal readers could usually expect to find literary sketches, or titillating morsels of subjects that were often later expanded upon in interesting ways in her novels.
The characters in these stories are classic Ouida. Present are her dashing heroes, her naive and dove-like innocents, her jaded aristocrats, her conceited middling sorts, and her hopeless artists.
In keeping with this broad assessment of Ouida’s shorter works, the overarching theme in Randolph Gordon is that of motion. In “Randolph Gordon,” there is the drumbeat of the military march that breathes vivacity into the domiciles of a sleepy town. In “Belles and Blackcock,” it is the push and pull of the hunt that keeps the pulse of the narrative. In “How One Fire Lit Another,” “Blue and Yellow,” and “Trente-Et-Un” the relentless chugging along of the train transports readers alongside a colorful cast of characters. And, in “How I Was Tracked by the Trappers,” we can all but feel that cool ocean breeze upon us as we embark aboard the steamer for our next misadventure. It is fitting to note here that in 1867, the first U.S. transcontinental railroad was nearing completion, just two years from opening at the time of the book’s publication. Moreover, the Alaska Purchase transacted that year signaled to the world that manifest destiny, both in principle and in practice, was fated to reach toward the very tip of North America. From American expansion in the northwestern states and territories to Reconstruction in the South, the United States had been mired in the throes of sweeping change when this book first came out. I can imagine, then, that the collection’s theme of motion, though perhaps not explicit, was able to capture the mood of public sentiment. If this was not the result of clever marketing on behalf of the Lippincott publishing company, then historical accident certainly worked to the author’s favor.
All inferences aside, the evidence for both the marketing operation and the public reception for this volume during the time of publication is rather scarce. In typical fashion, we find a promotional blurb (from the Cleveland Leader) showcasing Ouida’s writing style over the substance, whereas a short review in Godey’s Magazine (1867)—a women’s magazine published out of Philadelphia—thought it appropriate to denounce both the author and her work on the merits alone. As for the latter, this openly biased review supposes that “we cannot, from a perusal of the initial story of the volume, do less than express our opinion that no one can be benefited by reading them” (357). Sadly, these reviewers did not even bother to read the work before issuing their unrestrained dismissal of it.
Another interesting feature of this collection is that it manages to anticipate aspects of Western modernity that were either nascent or had yet to develop at that point. The story “How One Fire Lit Another” is centered upon the increasingly popular medium of photography. In “Trente-Et-Un,” we find a very early description of electric light in the gaming casino accompanied by the existential angst created by the momentary excitement of gambling over a pure and infinite love—think of Pascal’s description of the wager in Pensées (1670). Her “Blue and Yellow” story foregrounds the modern political machine; and her portrayal of corrupt electoral politics on a regional scale is as close to as cynical as anything that one would find in the chronicles of contemporary political journalism. As Ouida grapples with the problems of modernity and industrialization in many of her later works, to see her thinking about these issues so early in her writing is truly intriguing. Obviously, she laments the rushing pace and graying spaces of the “modern world.” Nevertheless, she has a unique talent for articulating her anxieties with an air of extravagance that serves simultaneously to amuse the senses and to provoke serious reflection on an intellectual level.
The characters in these stories are classic Ouida. Present are her dashing heroes, her naïve and dove-like innocents, her jaded aristocrats, her conceited middling sorts, and her hopeless artists. Pay close attention, however, to the names. Names like Randolph Gordon, Sunshine, Miss Clementia, Mrs. Rocksilver, Pop, Fitzhardinge, Fitzcorrie, Adeliza Vandeleur, De Coquelicot, Leonard Villiers Hervey, Cassagnac, Sir Cadwallader, Mounteagle, Spicer, Stickleback, Mr. Molyneux, and Podilirious M’Dougall are a testament to Ouida’s habit of using names to provide the reader with an additional glimpse into the nature of her characters. She performs this trick in virtually all of her fiction, but the habit seems pronounced in this volume.
The collection is no less lacking in memorable characters. I loved the dynamic between the warmly obtuse Pop, who was rough on the outside but tender within, and the seductively enigmatic Trevelyan, whose handsome exterior concealed a rather multilayered temperament. I found Dyneley to be somewhat of a prototype for Sir Fulke Erceldoune. I shamefully enjoyed the self-righteous indignation of Leonard Villiers Hervey. Most of all, perhaps, I appreciated the tenacity and dedication of the collection’s unsung hero, Beau, the election campaign manager in “Blue and Yellow.”
Finally, there are a number of interesting meta-literary quirks in this collection, including a not-so-subtle depiction of the fraudulent practices of the Spiritualist movement, a poke at the pretentiousness of the Pre-Raphaelites, and a self-referential passage that alludes to a widespread rumor that Ouida was actually a man. To quote the passage directly, “…I put myself in the express for Folkestone with a dear, dashing little widow (who was perusing Bentley, and asked me if I did not ‘think that fellow Ouida had been jilted by some woman, he was so spiteful on the beau sexe’s shortcoming,’) and got on board the Lord Warden” (Ouida 293). The mention of this rumor is particularly humorous when one recognizes that it continued to spread unchecked well into the time of the book’s publication. A review in the Charleston Daily News (1867) declared, “We regret to say that we are unable to throw any light upon the great problem, that puzzles the novel reading public, whether ‘Ouida’ belongs to the fair or unfair sex, but we incline to the feminine theory.” I am sure that reviews of this type only put a smile on Ouida face.
Altogether, this book is a great read. It is entirely satisfactory and delivers on all the right notes. So, if you haven’t had the chance to read through all of Ouida’s short fiction yet, I would definitely suggest keeping this one on your list.
Ouida, “Literature and the English Book Trade.” The North American Review, 160.459, 1895, pp. 157-165.
Ouida, Randolph Gordon and Other Stories, Lippincott, 1867.
The Round Table: A Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Society, and Art, 14 Sep. 1867, p.180.
The Charleston Daily News, 5 Sept. 1867, p. 3.
“Literary Notices.” Godey’s Magazine, vol. 75, 1867, p. 357.