Ouida’s Beautiful Nightmare: When Lolita, Steampunk, and Afrofuturism converge in Neo-Victorian Aestheticism
The Ghost Dressed in Lace and Leather
Ouida’s ghost is dwelling today among the living, and it is likely that her spirit is simultaneously consumed with fascination and repulsion. By Ouida’s standards, our contemporary society is a world vulgar and defiled. She wasn’t shy in expressing her disappointment regarding what she perceived as civil society in decline. In an essay titled “Vulgarity” (1895), Ouida warned, “Exaggeration of our own value is one of the most offensive of all forms of vulgarity, and science has much to answer for in its present pompous and sycophantic attitude before the excellence and importance of humanity” (336). Imagine how she would look upon a generation that worships celebrity culture and perpetually indulges in broadcasting the private life on social media. I think we can assume that Ouida would find the “selfie” the epitome of everything wrong with the age. Also, paramount among her concerns was the degradation of the world’s natural and artistic beauty. In “The Ugliness of Modern Life” (1900) she links the two in no uncertain terms:
"The loss of beauty from the world is generally regarded as the purely sentimental grievance of imaginative persons; but it is not so; it is a loss which must impress its vacuity on the mine fatally on the human mind and character. It tends, more than any other loss, to produce that apathy, despondency and cynical indifference which are so largely characteristic of the modern temper." (212)
Indeed, much of the destruction associated with the Second Industrial Revolution has already wrought its havoc upon the globe. Gratefully, climate change aside, at least in the “developed world” we dwell in an aftermath that is instead defined by comparative environmental restoration.
In recognition of the completion of the inaugural year of this fan blog, it is with great pleasure that I present this latest post on my passion for collecting Ouidiana. I have several life goals with respect to my dreams of revitalizing a readership for the author in the twenty-first century. I am currently working on a specialized descriptive bibliography of her works. In time, I hope one day to help establish a literary association devoted to the preservation of her legacy. Paramount among my goals, however, is to build a sizable transnational Ouida library with an emphasis on the Lippincott editions.
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.
If Ouida is remembered for a singular contribution to the advancement of creative writing among her many talents in the art of wordcraft, then recognition should go to the rich descriptions of setting found in several of her greatest novels. Almost every novel in the Italian set, for instance, contains descriptions of Italy that have been widely regarded as some of the best of their kind. Listed here are six of her most visually compelling narrative settings—all of which include vivid sketches of place written in the author's trademark style:
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.
In an editorial response to Maurice Francis Egan’s article “Dinner with Novelists” (originally published in The Literary Northwest)—an article devoted to the “art of dinning in literature”—it is quickly brought to our attention that Dr. Egan found some of the most tantalizing literary dishes in the novels of Ouida. I would certainly have to agree with Dr. Egan on that point. So much so, in fact, that with the goal of enriching the experience of reading her novels and short stories, I took several opportunities to try some of the food and drink recipes found in her work while reading them. In the spirit of bringing the literary dining experience to life, I am presenting a list of five appealing Ouidean food and beverage mentions. I haven’t tried all the recipes listed here; nevertheless, I still recommend matching these meal and drink choices with their corresponding stories for the full effect:
For all the fame and success that Ouida achieved during the height of her career, the fact remains that she was extremely guarded when it came to her personal life. She was fervently against doing interviews with press, and she refused to write a nonfictional autobiography or memoir during her life. Her desire to keep her private life out of the scrutinizing ink of the press, in part, must have contributed to the widespread rumors and speculations that proliferated concomitantly with her growth in popularity in the public sphere.
If you are new to the world of Ouida, then, take it from me, you should probably avoid starting with this one. Personally, I feel relieved that it turned out to be the 22nd novel in my somewhat arbitrary reading sequence as opposed to a chronological sequence which would have placed it as either 3rd or 4th on the list. Reading more than twenty Ouida novels prior to this one prepared me for the wild ride that I took when I read Chandos (1866).
You may disagree with my personal list of eight of Ouida’s best protagonists, but it shouldn’t be difficult to acknowledge that the list includes a wonderful cast of characters. Obviously, Nello is inspiring enough to be loved in many nations, and, as the number one hero on the list, I also consider him to be a truly inspirational figure. Folle Farine, a close second, with her unwavering devotion, her stoicism, and her boldness, is probably one of Ouida’s most compelling heroines. It was this character which made the novel of the same name my unsurpassed favorite work of fiction. Similarly, although the character Cigarette from Under Two Flags isn’t one of Ouida’s more principled heroines, her proud and eccentric personality has allowed her to be appreciated by readers for generations. Read the list for yourself and see whether you concur with my selection.
I’m pretty sure that the Americans were among the most dedicated of the Ouidaites, but it appears that there were contenders among the Australian fans as well. I found this poem in a December 2, 1907 issue of The Lone Hand, and I instantly fell in love with it. Founded by Jules François Archibald and Frank Fox, The Lone Hand was an Australian literary magazine which ran from 1907 to 1928. It is in the second volume of the 1907 issue where we find this delightful little poem dedicated to Ouida and her work. Timely, it was released just a little over a month before her death in January of 1908. The poem was submitted by an individual who identified his or herself simply with the initials “N.E.T.” Sadly, I wasn't unable to track down the name of this contributor. In the poem, readers mature along with Ouida’s corpus as they read through each stanza. The sequence allows readers to reminisce about the pleasant times they’ve had in experiencing Ouida’s wonderful novels. Without further delay, I would like to present the poem in full: