Friday, November 9, 2012

The Thrilling and Shocking Tales of Ouida

Books keep leading me to more books. Sometimes I choose a book based on the fact that a character liked it. But sometimes I choose a book because it was too scandalous and shocking for a character to read. That's what happened when I read Louisa May Alcott's An Old-Fashioned Girl. In An Old-Fashioned Girl, good girl Polly refuses to read the thrilling novels that her city friends love. And that made me want to read one of those thrilling novels.

(Girls in the latest fashions from Godey's Lady's Book, 1874.)

Polly's friends in An Old-Fashioned Girl  are sophisticated bad girls. Alcott describes them as "a room full of young ladies ... all very much dressed, all talking together, and all turning to examine the new-comer with a cool stare which seemed to be as much the fashion as eye-glasses. ... Several of the more frolicsome were imitating the Grecian Bend, some were putting their heads together over little notes, nearly all were eating confectionery, and the entire twelve chattered like magpies." These girls wear only the latest fashions, are more interested in love affairs than school, and behave as if they're in their thirties, even though they are teenagers. This is what Gossip Girl would be like if it were set in Boston in the 1860s. (And I would love that show so much; someone please make it!)

(The Grecian Bend was a trendy and scandalous dance, and also the name of the fashionable posture caused by wearing a tight corset and a big bustle.)

Here's what one of the fashionable crowd in An Old-Fashioned Girl has to say about books:

"'Oh, have you read The Phantom Bride? It's perfectly thrilling! There's a regular rush for it at the library; but some prefer Breaking a Butterfly. Which do you like best?' asked a pale girl of Polly, in one of the momentary lulls which occurred.

'I haven't read either.'

'You must, then. I adore Guy Livingston's books, and Yates's. 'Ouida's' are my delight, only they are so long, I get worn out before I'm through.'"

(She's a library patron!)

And that's when I decided that I had to read a thrilling novel by Ouida. "Ouida" was the pen name of author Maria Louise Rame (1839-1908). She wrote historical romances that shocked some Victorian sensibilities. She also wrote A Dog of Flanders, which I will never, never read, because I have a thing about tragic dog stories. Instead I read Cecil Castlemaine's Gage, Lady Marabout's Troubles, and Other Stories.

I can see why teenage girls in the 1860s might have loved Ouida. Her stories are full of bad role models: unbelievably beautiful ladies who drip with diamonds and leave trails of broken hearts behind them. One lady fleeces her suitor out of all of his money. Another one literally kills a man by rejecting him. The men in Ouida's stories tend to be careless dandies who gamble, drink, and toy with ladies' affections -- until they meet the right girl. Or they are silent, heroic soldiers whose reserve is broken down by love. I have to admit that I love that kind of romance, and here it is in its purest form.

(The super glamorous Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha, painted by Charles Phillips in 1736. This is how I imagine Cecil Castlemaine, only with more jewelry.)

For example: 

"The new-comer was a tall and handsome man, of noble presence, bronzed by foreign suns, pale and jaded just now with hard riding, while his dark silver-laced suit was splashed and covered with dust, but as he bowed low to her, critical Cecil Castlemaine saw that not Belamour himself could have better grace, not my Lord Millamont courtlier mien nor whiter hands, and listened with gracious air to what her father unfolded to her of his mission from St. Germain, whither he had come, at great personal risk, in many disguises, and at breathless speed, to place in their hands a precious letter in cipher from James Stuart to his well-beloved and loyal subject Herbert George, Earl of Castlemaine.”

If you made it all the way through that sentence, you might like this book. Ouida's stories are short, but her sentences will wear you out. Also, I think that this book might contain the most vocabulary words I've ever had to look up, starting with "gage" (a pledge, or an object left as a guarantee of good faith). Basset? Minauderies? Pulvillios? Lappets? Bohea? (All words I had to look up just in the first few pages of this book! They turn out to be, respectively, a musical instrument, small ornamental cases, powders for wigs, decorative frills, and a strong China tea.)

(A powdered wig and lots of decorative frills on Mrs. Grace Dalrymple Elliott, painted by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778.)

But if you can put up with all that, there are some wonderful and hilarious moments in this book. I love some of the satirical things that Ouida says about her aristocratic characters: "Lady Elmers's pride was to possess the smallest terrier that ever took daisy tea and was carried in a monkey-muff." And my favorite line: "She is about as tenacious and resentful of objectionable contact as a sea-anemone."

(Fancy lady from a 1760s engraving.)

Reading the stories of Ouida might make you feel like a fashionable Victorian teen. Get ready to swoon over the romance and giggle over comic scenes, like the following one from "Lady Marabout's Troubles." Lady Marabout has been trying her best to arrange a marriage for the Hon. Val, but Val's iciness is making it difficult. In this scene, Val admits to Lady Marabout that the eligible bachelor -- the one they have been expecting to propose at any minute -- is leaving London without proposing. He's abandoning the icy Val for an even icier sea voyage and hunting expedition:

"'Well, love, what did he say?' asked Lady Marabout, breathlessly, with eager delight and confident anticipation.

Like drops of ice on warm rose-leaves fell each word of the intensely chill and slightly sulky response on Lady Marabout's heart.

'He says that he goes to Cowes to-morrow for the Royal Yacht Squadron dinner, and then on in the Anadyomene to the Spitzenbergen coast for walruses. He left a P.P.C. card for you.'

'Walruses!' shrieked Lady Marabout.

'Walruses,' responded the Hon. Val."


  1. Wow. There's definitely a need for more full stops in that sentence. It made my head hurt. I've always wanted to read some Ouida, since, as you say, she's mentioned all over the place in other books. But now... Hmm.

  2. Yes, she was so popular, but -- do you know the Bulwer-Lytton bad sentence contest? Most of Ouida's sentences could win it, easily. Maybe her longer fiction is better, but now I'm kind of scared to try reading it.

    1. Oh yes, love Bulwer-Lytton almost as much as the Bad Sex award!

  3. A kindred soul - I first read Lady Audley's Secret because Fanny in An Old-Fashioned Girl was curling up with it by the fire one snowy day.

  4. Ouida is by far my all time favorite author! With 26 novels and more than 50
    titles to her name, she is definitely a force to be rekoned with. She has changed my life! Reading her books makes me work harder to be a better person.