An Appreciation of Ouida

An Appreciation of Ouida

By

G. S. Street



I

THE superfluous champion is a foolish being, but his super-
fluity lies, as a rule, not in his cause, but in his selection
of adversaries. In a world of compromises and transitions there
is generally much to be said on both sides, and there are few
causes or persons for whom a good word, in a fitting place and
time, may not be spoken. I acquit myself of impertinence in
stating what I find to like and to respect in the novels of Ouida.
For many years, with many thousands of readers they have been
popular, I know. But ever since I began to read reviews, to learn
from the most reputable authorities what I should admire or avoid,
I have found them mentioned with simple merriment or a frankly
contemptuous patronage. One had, now and then in boyhood,
vague ideas of being cultivated, vague aspirations towards
superiority : I thought, for my part, that of the many insuperable
obstacles in the way of this goal, this contempt of Ouida's novels
was one of the most obvious. I enjoyed them as a boy, and I
enjoy them now ; I place them far above books whose praise is
in all critics' mouths, and I think I have reason for the faith that
is in me.

One

168 Ouida

One may write directly of " Ouida " as of a familiar institution,
without, I hope, an appearance of bad manners, using the
pseudonym for the books as a whole. The faults alleged against
her are a commonplace of criticism : it is said that her men and
her women are absurd, that her style is bad, that her sentiment is
crude or mawkish. It is convenient to make those charges points
of departure for my championship.





II

Everybody has laughed at Ouida's typical guardsman, that
magnificent creature of evil life and bitter memories, sumptuous,
reckless, and prepared withal to perform heroic feats of physical
strength at a moment's notice. Nobody, I admit, has met a
guardsman like him ; I admit his prodigality to be improbable in
its details, and the insolence of his manners to be deplorable. But
if you can keep from your mind the unlikenesses of his superficial
life, you come upon an ideal which is no doubt falsely elaborated, but
which, too, is the reverse of despicable. With all his faults, Ouida's
guardsman is a man, and a man of a recognisably large nature.
The sort of man whom Ouida has set out to express in him, often
with unhappy results, is a man of strong passions and a zeal for
life. He grasps at the pleasures of life, and is eager for all its
activities ; he will endure privations in the cause of sport and dis-
comforts in the cause of friendship and risks in the cause of love.
His code of honour may not keep him out of the Divorce Court,
but, except in that connection, it saves him from lying and trickery.
His social philosophy, that of the essential male in a position of
advantage, is not enlightened, and his sense of humour is elementary ;
but his habit of life is clean and active ; he is ready to fight, and

he

By G. S. Street 169

he does not swagger. His one affectation is, that if by chance he
has done something great in the ways of sport or war, he looks as
if nothing had happened. There are things in life which he puts
before the main chance. Such, more or less, is the sort of man in
question, virile certainly, and one whom only the snobbery of intel-
lect can despise. His is not a very common type in a materialised
age, when even men of pleasure want their pleasure, as it were, at store
prices, and everybody is climbing pecuniary and social ladders ; it
is a type that, I confess, I respect and like. At least it is indis-
putable that such men have done much for our country. Now
Ouida, as I have admitted, has made many mistakes in her deal-
ings with this type of man : who has altogether avoided them ?
They are many who find the pictures of him in Mr. Rudyard
Kipling, superficially at least, far inferior to Mr. Kipling's
" natives," and his three immortal Tommies. Ouida has made
him ridiculously lavish, inclined to translate his genuine emotions
into terms of sentimentalism, and to say things of his social
inferiors which such a man may sometimes think, but is careful
not to say. To affirm that the subject is good and the treatment of
it bad, would be to give my case away. My contention is that
the treatment, with many imperfections, leaves one assured that
the subject has been, in essentials, perceived.

But her guardsman belongs to Ouida's earlier manner, and it is
most unfair, in estimating her, to forget that this manner has been
mellowed and quieted. In " Princess Napraxine " and in
" Othmar "—the two most notable books, I think, of her later
period—there are types of men more reasonably conceived and ex-
pressed more subtly. Geraldine, the cosmopolitan, but charac-
teristic Englishman ; Napraxine, the amiable, well-bred savage ;
Des Vannes, the calculating sensualist ; Othmar himself, the dis-
appointed idealist, these are painted, now and then, in somewhat

glaring

170 Ouida

glaring colours, but you cannot deny the humanity of the men or
the effectiveness of their portraits. And when you remember
how few are the male creations of women-writers which are in-
dubitable men, you must in reason give credit to Ouida for her
approximation.

I submit that it is not an absolute condemnation to say of
Ouida's women that they are " hateful." There are critics,
I know, who deny by implication the right of an author to
draw any character which is not good and pleasant. That there
may be, at one time or another, too pronounced a tendency to
describe only people who are wicked or unpleasant, to the neglect
of those who are sane and healthy and reputable, is certain ;
but the critics should remember that there is no great author
of English fiction who has limited himself to these. One may
regret that any writer should ignore them, but only stupidity or
malevolence refuses to such a writer what credit may be due to
him for what he has done, because of what he has left undone.
Of Ouida's women much the same, mutatis mutandis, may be
said, as has been said so often of Thackeray's : the good women
are simpletons or obtuse, only the wicked women interesting.
That criticism of Thackeray has always seemed to me to be
remarkably crude, even for a criticism : it argues surely a curious
ignorance of life or lack of charity to deny any " goodness " to
Beatrix Esmond or Ethel Newcome. But of Ouida it is
tolerably fair. There is an air of stupidity about her good and
self-sacrificing women, and since there is nobody, not incredibly
unfortunate, but has known women good in the most conven-
tional sense, and self-sacrificing, and wise and clever as well, it
follows that Ouida has not described the whole of life. But
perhaps she has not tried so to do. It is objected occasionally,
even against a short story, that its " picture of life " is so-and-so,

and

By G. S. Street 171

and far more plausibly can it be objected against a long tale of
novels : but I have a suspicion that some of the writers so in-
criminated have not attempted the large task attributed to
them. Granted, then, that Ouida has not put all the women in
the world into her novels : what of those she has ?

Certainly her best-drawn women are hateful : are they also
absurd ? I think they are not. They are over-emphasised
beyond doubt, so much so, sometimes, that they come near to
being merely an abstract quality—greed, belike, or animal
passion—clothed carelessly in flesh. To be that is to be of the
lowest class of characters in fiction, but they are never quite that.
A side of their nature may be presented alone, but its presentation
is not such as to exclude, as in the other case, what of that nature
may be left. And, after all, there have been women—or the
chroniclers lie sadly—in whom greed and passion seem to have
excluded most else. The critics may not have met them, but
Messalina and Barbara Villiers, and certain ladies of the Second
Empire, whose histories Ouida seems to have studied, have lived
all the same, and it is reasonable to suppose that a few such are
living now. One may be happy in not knowing them, in the
sphere of one's life being too quiet and humdrum for their gorgeous
presence, but one hears of such women now and then.

They are not, I think, absurd in Ouida's presentment, but I
confess they are not attractive. One's general emotion with
regard to them is regret that nobody was able to score off or
discomfit them in some way. And that, it seems, was the
intention of their creator. She writes with a keenly pronounced
bias against them, she seeks to inform you how vile and baneful
they are. It is not a large-hearted attitude, and some would say
it is not artistic, but it is one we may easily understand and with
which in a measure we may sympathise. A novel is not a

sermon,

172 Ouida

sermon, but sæva indignatio is generally a respectable quality. I
am not trying to prove that Ouida's novels are very strict works
of art : I am trying to express what from any point of view may
be praised in them. In this instance I take Ouida to be an
effective preacher. She is enraged with these women because of
men, worth better things, who are ruined by them, or because of
better women for them discarded. It would have been more
philosophical to rail against the folly of the men, and were Ouida a
man, the abuse of the women might be contemptible—I have never
been able to admire the attitude of the honest yeoman towards
Lady Clara Vere de Vere ; but she is a woman, and " those whom
the world loved well, putting silver and gold on them, " one need
not pity for her scourging. It is effective. She is concerned to
show you the baseness and meanness possible to a type of woman :
at her best she shows you them naturally, analysing them in
action ; often her method is, in essentials, simple denunciation,
a preacher's rather than a novelist's ; but the impression is nearly
always distinct. You may be incredulous of details in speech or
action, but you have to admit that, given the medium, and the
convention, a fact of life is brought home with vigour to your
sympathies and antipathies. You must allow the convention—the
convention between you and the temperament of your author.
As when in parts of Byron a theatrical bent in his nature, joined
with a mode of his time, gives you expressions that on first appear-
ance are not real, not sincere, you may prove a fine taste by your
dislike, but you prove a narrow range of feeling and a poor imagin-
ation if you get beyond it ; so I venture to think in this matter of
Ouida's guardsman and her wicked women, the magnificence, the
high key, the glaring colours may offend or amuse you, but they
should not render you blind to the humanity that is below the
first appearance.

And

By G. S. Street 173

And if the hateful women are unattractive, is there not in the
atmosphere that surrounds their misdeeds something—now and
again, just for a minute or two—vastly and vaguely agreeable ?
I speak of the atmosphere as I suppose it to be, not as idealised in
Ouida's fashion. It is not the atmosphere, I should imagine, of
what in the dear old snobbish phrase was called " high life "—gay
here and there, but mostly ordered and decorous : there is too much
ignored. It is the atmosphere, really, of a profuse Bohemianism,
of mysterious little houses, of comical lavishness, and unwisdom,
and intrigue. I do not pretend—as one did in boyhood—to know
anything about it save as a reader of fiction, but there are
moments when, in the quiet country or after a day's hard work in
one's garret, the thought of such an atmosphere is pleasant. We
—we others, the plodders and timid livers—could not live in it ;
better ten hours a day in a bank and a dinner of cold mutton ; but
fancy may wander in it agreeably for a brief time, and I am
grateful to Ouida for its suggestion.





III

I do not propose to discourse at length on Ouida's style. As it
is, I do not admire it much. But I cannot see that it is worse
than the average English in the novels and newspapers of the
period. It is crude, slap-dash if you will, incorrect at times.
But it is eloquent, in its way. It does not seem to have taken
Swift for an ideal ; it is not simple, direct, restrained. But it is
expressive, and it is so easy to be crude, and slap-dash, and in-
correct, and with it all to express nothing. There are many
writers who are more correct than Ouida, and very many indeed
who are a hundred times less forcible, and (to my taste) less

tolerable

The Yellow Book—Vol. VI. L

174 Ouida

tolerable to read. It may be true that to know fully the savour
and sense of English, and to use it as one having that knowledge,
a writer must be a scholar. I do not suppose that Ouida is a
scholar, but I am sure that the scholarship that is only just com-
petent to get a familiar quotation aright is not a very valuable
possession. In fine, I respect an unrestrained and incorrect
eloquence more than a merely correct and periphrastic nothingness.
I would not take Ouida's for a model of style, but I prefer it to
some others with which I am acquainted.

Perhaps to be a good judge of sentiment one should not be an
easy subject for its influence. In that case nothing I can say on
the question of Ouida's sentiment can be worth much, for I am
the prey of every sort of sentiment under heaven. If I belonged to a
race whose males wept more readily than those of my own, I should
be in a perpetual state of tears. Any of the recognised forms of
pathos affects me with certainty, so it be presented without (as is
sometimes the case) an overpowering invitation to hilarity. In
these days, however, if one does not insist on sentiment all day
long, if one has moods when some other emotion is agreeable, if one
is not prepared to accept every profession for an achievement of
pathos, one is called a " cynic." At times the pathos of Ouida
has amused me, and I too was a cynic. But, as a rule, I think it
genuine. Despised love, unmerited misfortunes, uncongenial sur-
roundings—she has used all these motives with effect. The
favourite pathos of her earlier books, that of the man who lives in
a whirl of pleasure with a " broken heart, " appeals very easily to a
frivolous mood, and may be made ridiculous to anybody by a
touch, but its contrasts may be used with inevitable effect, and so
Ouida has sometimes used them. Dog-like fidelity, especially to
a worthless man or woman, can be ridiculous to the coarse-grained
only. Love of beauty unattainable, as of the country in one

condemned

By G. S. Street 175

condemned to a sordid life in a town, can hardly be made absurd.
But the mere fact of unrequited affection, being so very common,
requires more than a little talent to be impressive, even to a senti-
mentalist, in a novel, and Ouida, I think, has made this common
fact impressive over and over again, because, however imperfect be
the expression, the feeling, being real, appeals without fail to a
sympathetic imagination.

IV

The two qualities, I think, which underlie the best of Ouida's
work, and which must have always saved it from commonness, are
a genuine and passionate love of beauty, as she conceives it, and a
genuine and passionate hatred of injustice and oppression. The
former quality is constantly to be found in her, in her descriptions
—accurate or not—of the country, in her scorn of elaborate
ugliness as contrasted with homely and simple seemliness, in her
railings against all the hideous works of man. It is not confined
to physical beauty. Love of liberty, loyalty, self-sacrifice—those
moral qualities which, pace the philosophers, must in our present
stage of development seem beautiful to us—she has set herself to
show us their beauty without stint of enthusiasm. Nobody can
read her tales of Italian peasant life without perceiving how full is
her hatred of inhumanity and wrong. In a book of essays recently
published by her this love and hatred have an expression which in
truth is not always judicious, but is not possibly to be mistaken.
They are qualities which, I believe, arc sufficiently rare in con-
temporary writers to deserve our attention and gratitude.

In fine, I take the merits in Ouida's books to balance their
faults many times over. They are not finished works of art, they
do not approach that state so nearly as hundreds of books with a

hundred

176 Ouida

hundred times less talent spent on them. Her faults, which are
obvious, have brought it about that she is placed, in the general
estimation of critics, below writers without a tenth of her ability.
I should be glad if my appreciation may suggest to better critics
than myself better arguments than mine for reconsidering their
judgment.





MLA citation: Street, G. S. "An Appreciation of Ouida." The Yellow Book 6 (July 1895): 168-76. The Yellow Nineties Online. Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2011. Web. [Date of access]. http://1890s.ca/HTML.aspx?s=YBV6_street_appreciation.html