I am sure that I have written before that I have yet to read a novel from Ouida that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. Her characters and plots never fail to keep me entertained. I will confess, however, that even though the novel Signa did not make the top five of my favorite Ouida books list, I still found it to be nothing less than exquisite in terms of its use of language and its interlacing of theme and allegory. I am in no way a literary scholar, but having read a great deal of the scholarly literature on this author’s works, I am certain that this particular title could benefit from further academic investigation.
The book tells the story of a boy genius born to relative poverty and obscurity, and it follows him through his meteoric rise and fall at the hands of society and love, thus making the story at once reminiscent of the central theme of Rousseau’s Emile and also of the book of Genesis in the Bible. Although the book is named mutually after the character of Signa and the region in which the majority of the plot is set, the story really has the relationships between the central characters as its protagonist, that is, insofar as relationships in and of themselves can be viewed as being the driving forces in a work of fiction. Hence, we really get dual narratives of Signa and his uncle, Bruno, who is also his guardian, as their stories diverge and intersect. The central story of this uncle/nephew (surrogate father/son) relationship, then, is augmented by the additional stories of the book’s supporting characters in Lippo and Nita and Gemma and Palma, each of whom contains their own subplots and thematic dimensions.
It felt mostly warm throughout the main body of the story, with Ouida’s rich descriptions of the Italian countryside which are really second to none in the English language.
As the story opens, we encounter first the miraculous voice of the boy Signa, a bastard child of the Lastra a Signa community and a maternal relation of Marcillo family. Signa was found by his uncles in a flood clutching his dying mother. The brothers quickly come up with a scheme to raise the child, mostly out of a sense of guilt that the older brother Bruno feels for his treatment toward his sister, Pippa, the boy’s mother. The boy, Signa, is a born genius who can hear the music of the angels in the environment all around him and translate these sounds into beautiful music for his entire village to enjoy. He is virtually gifted at playing every instrument that he touches, and he sings with a pure and angelic voice as well. Signa must spend the first part of his life being starved and abused in the care of another uncle, Lippo, and Lippo's wife, Nita, who is the more abusive of the two. Eventually, he receives the dual emancipation of obtaining the instrument of his desires, in this case, a violin (the “Rusignuolo”), and, also, the guardianship of generous and self-sacrificing Bruno. Through Bruno’s hard work and faith in his nephew's abilities, Signa is able to formally study music as a young adult and subsequently compose and release a full-scale opera. All seems as if the hero will begin to taste his dream of becoming a great composer. Signa’s true weakness, however, is his unrequited love for a village coquette turned adventuress. This love waits patiently, germinating the seeds of corruption until it can destroy all that he and his uncle have built together, as the powers of deception eat away at the music of truth. Signa loves his music entirely, but it appears that he is also willing to compromise everything that he believes in for a single person, Gemma, the girl he adores. Gemma is a fair skinned and vain beauty that is as egotistical and conniving as Lippo is opportunistic. She grows up to become the famed, ironical “Innocence” that represents the Achilles’ heel for Signa’s future happiness, and thusly, Bruno’s redemption.
This book sent me through a spectrum of emotions as I read it. It felt mostly warm throughout the main body of the story, with Ouida’s rich descriptions of the Italian countryside which are really second to none in the English language. However, one still felt the undying faith of Palma as she prayed and toiled for those she loved, the tortured temptation of Signa as he fought always to stay true to his uncle, and the flaming, indignant rage of Bruno as he battled all those who would come between the happiness of his beloved nephew. These emotional dynamics were, at points, powerful enough to bring me to tears, especially given the gorgeousness of Ouida’s word craft.
Many readers have grouped this book with Ouida’s other novels set in Italy (In Maremma, Pascarel, In a Village Commune, etc.) and that is entirely appropriate I think. Nevertheless, I would also view the work in conjunction with Tricotrin, Folle-Farine, and In Maremma, primarily in the sense that they each involve the rearing and moral development of an abandoned child. Firstly, all four of these Ouida novels have a child at the center of their plot, a child that at first is abandoned, and then gets adopted and raised by new guardians. In some cases these guardians are selfless, providing a moral core for the character (i.e. Tricotrin, Grand Mere, Jocanda, and Bruno), but, in other cases, they are exploitative, selfish, and abusive. Secondly, in each of these novels, the parentless child grows into maturity and must contend, at some point, with the tensions between great love, a powerful devotion, and the corruption of society. I feel that reading this novel with these other three in mind makes for a more substantive engagement with the text. I hope you will enjoy reading this book as much as I did.