In the spring of 2014, just shy of a year into my own journey as a contemporary Ouidaite, collector and blogger Ray Girvan made a wonderful contribution to the global community of Ouida fans. In truth, Girvan simply directed our attention to an issue that most Ouida scholars had already recognized; that is, the fact that one of the most frequently encountered digital images of Ouida on the internet is the result of posthumous misattribution. As of the date of this post, the image in question is still being used as the stock image for the author’s Wikipedia page. From there, we find it on everything from print on demand editions of her collected works to the internet memes of Ouida quotes that circulate on social media. At heart, to the contemporary Ouidaite the image seems practically ubiquitous.
Enter Ray Girvan. In his Journal of a Southern Bookreader post, “Ouida: Misattributed Photo”—a brief but compelling piece—Girvan correctly noted that the only two authorized photographs of the author are: 1) the 1874 photograph taken by Adolphe Beau and 2) the Joseph J. Elliot and Clarence E. Fry photograph that was used for an Ogden’s cigarette card published around 1880. Girvan proceeded, rightly, to ascribe the erroneous identification to a cataloging mistake made by (of all institutions) the highly reputable New York Public Library. As no person, nor institution for that matter, is perfect, Girvan responsibly followed up with NYPL regarding the situation. He received a professional response from their photograph librarian who attempted to explain the mistake while expressing some level of regret for the confusion that this misattribution may have “perpetuated.” I believe that Girvan and the librarian were on the right track when they maintained that the woman in the photo is not Ouida but an American actress. However, the unfortunate passing of Girvan in June of 2015 has left the issue of identifying the woman in the photograph unresolved. Consequently, with the utmost respect to the memory of Girvan, I feel that is appropriate at this time to posit my own solution to this puzzle. I arrived at this solution in a serendipitous fashion, through my many internet searches on Ouida. Firstly, here is an account of what we know for sure:
Fact 1 – The photograph in question was produced in America. The metadata for the original artifact lists the George Rockwood Studio as the company that originally took this photograph. The Rockwood studio was based in New York City during date range provided for the photograph’s creation.
Fact 2 – Ouida never traveled to the United States during her lifetime (nor would she have wanted to, as she generally had a distaste for Americans and their ways).
Fact 3 – Aside from looking nothing like Ouida, the woman in the photograph is wearing an "updo"—a hairstyle convention that Ouida made it a point to defy in her photographic representation.
If we consider these three facts alone, it is impossible for us to give any credence to the notion that the Rockwood image is an authentic photograph of the author.
Now, it bears repeating that both Girvan and the NYPL photograph librarian were inclined to believe that the photograph is actually a picture of an “unidentified actress.” The library has gone so far as to change the title field metadata to reflect this new insight. The assertion, it seems, stems mainly from the fact that the photograph is part of an actress-based sub-collection in the Billy Rose Theater Division archives. Taking all this into account, we can state with some level of certainty that the Rockwood photo is not a photograph of Ouida and that it is probably a photograph of a stage actress of the period.
I am increasingly convinced that the actress featured in the photograph is none other than Lena Aberle. Here are some of the facts about this actress in support of my case:
Fact 1 – Lena Aberle was a relatively known singer and stage actress working in the United States during the late nineteenth century.
Fact 2 – She toured the Midwest and Northeast as a leading member of her father’s stock theater company.
Fact 3 – Her father, Jacob Aberle, ran Aberle’s Tivoli Theater on Eighth Street between Second and Third Avenue up until 1879 when he acquired a church property on Eighth Street between Fourth Avenue and Broadway that he converted into a variety theater.
Fact 4 – Lena Aberle starred in the play “Ouida, Or a Woman’s Vengeance,” which was first produced in 1881 and toured again in 1886.
There is additional evidence to support this claim, albeit on shakier ground than the above listed facts. For one, considering that the drama between Ouida and the Marchese della Stufa and the subsequent publication of her novel Friendship (1878) all occurred just a few years before the production of this play and accepting the well-founded assertion that there was virtually no other celebrity in the world living at that time that would have shared Ouida’s unique name, we can easily conclude that this play was likely to have been loosely based on Ouida's life. At the very least, it is reasonable to assume that there was some connection between the play and Ouida besides the name. Next, there is evidence of a physical resemblance between Aberle, as depicted in the lithographic poster image, and the unidentified actress featured in the posthumously misattributed photograph. Although I haven’t been able to analyze a clear and conclusively authenticated photograph of Lena Aberle, the shared features among the Aberle's poster image and the photograph, attire included, are too obvious to ignore. The only other photograph that I was able to find depicting this actress is a digital surrogate that is too small and grainy to exhibit as conclusive evidence of a match. Even this grainy digital surrogate, however, does not show enough dissimilarity to warrant a nullification of my hypothesis. Until enough evidence is presented to the contrary, I remain convinced that the photograph in question was titled after the character in this play and filed under that name, thus resulting in the ensuing misattribution. It certainly wouldn’t have been the first time a photograph of another woman was mistakenly or even purposely attributed to the author. Personally, part of me enjoys the idea that Americans have inadvertently reimagined Ouida in our image not just textually, but down to the corporeal level. Nevertheless, I am somewhat bothered by the persistence of this image as the new standard.
Brown, Thomas Allston. A History of the New York Stage from the First Performance in 1732 to 1901. Dodd, Mead and Company, 1903.
“On the Bouwerie.” The Literary Digest, 15 Apr. 1916, pp. 1099-1103.
Ford, James L.“The Metropolitan Verdict.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, vol. 57, no. 2, Dec. 1903, pp. 212-218.
Girvan, Ray. “Ouida: Misattributed Photo.” JSBlog: Journal of a Southern Reader, Blogger Monday, 28 Apr. 2014, http://jsbookreader.blogspot.com/2014/04/ouida-misattributed-photo.html. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
Morgan, W. J. & Co. Ouida: A Great Production. ca. 1881-1886. Huntington Library. The Huntington Digital Library, http://hdl.huntington.org/cdm/ref/collection/p16003coll4/id/2643. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.
Rockwood, George Gardner. “Unidentified actress [?].”1860-1899. New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47de-c29c-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017.