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Jane Jordan and Andrew King, dir. Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture

Farnham/Burlington, Ashgate, 2013, xiii + 234 p. ISBN: 9781409405894
Nathalie Saudo-Welby
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Jane Jordan and Andrew King, dir. Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture. Farnham/Burlington, Ashgate, 2013, xiii + 234 p. ISBN: 9781409405894.

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Ouida, culture populaire
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  • 1 Les Auteurs anglais du Brevet Supérieur (1914–1917), publiés avec des notices et des notes en angla (...)

1Although largely forgotten by the general public today, Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée, 1839–1908) was immensely popular in her time and was read by a broad spectrum of readers. Her fame extended to France and, in the early twentieth century, she was the only English female author on the French National Curriculum for the English exam set for children aged 14, ranking first before Wordsworth, Scott and Keats.1 The essays in Jane Jordan and Andrew King’s collection explain such immense popularity in the context of the increasing commodification of the novel and of the author-figure.

2The volume contains an introduction by Andrew King, nine essays by specialists in the field, three appendices which provide a near-comprehensive bibliography of Ouida’s writings (novels, journalism, theatrical adaptations), a bibliography and an index. Each essay is preceded by an illustration, be it a caricature or one of Ouida’s cover or title pages.

  • 2 Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodges Holt. Ouida the Phenomenon, Evolving Social, Political, and Gend (...)

3In his introduction, Andrew King justifies the volume’s division into three parts: ‘Part I of this volume seeks to help us today read and understand Ouida anew both as figure and as metonym for her works; Part II examines some of the ways she and her work were appropriated and responded to by her contemporaries at various points on the commercial/anticommercial cultural spectrum.’ (6) The third section is devoted to placing Ouida’s works in narrower political contexts. Andrew King provides his readers with substantial summaries of each paper, concluding that what distinguishes the collection from previous scholarship on Ouida is an emphasis on the author not so much as a ‘phenomenon’,2 but as a ‘crucial node … in the vast mobile and mutable textual and personal network which was Victorian Popular Culture’ (9).

4Andrew King’s essay is a very useful synthetic bio-bibliography of Ouida’s career, setting her in the context of a growing commodification of books and of the figure of the author. Ouida’s constant lack of money forced her to, or legitimized her need to, become increasingly concerned with commercial considerations and thus betray her artistic ideal of literary writing as an independent and intrinsically valuable activity. Her lack of flair and errors as a businesswoman and her victimization at the hands of unscrupulous editors are of particular cultural interest, and prove how fiercely female writers had to compete in the literary field in the 1860s. Andrew King provides great detail about her changing attitude to serialization, her aversion to the new copyright laws, the rapid succession of ever cheaper editions of her works and her unrelenting efforts to publish into the early twentieth century. From King’s description, Ouida appears a loser but it is probable that her complex negotiations with publishers and the market gave her the extraordinary status of being read by people across the whole social spectrum, from the aristocrats she adored to working-class people.

5Pamela K. Gilbert’s essay sets Ouida’s works in the evolution of literary criticism’s changing attitudes towards popular literature, trying to show in which ways they ‘should be ideal for critics’ since much of the interpretation is openly left to the readers (51). Using the example of A Village Commune (1881), she suggests instruments of analysis to those who are at a loss as to how to react intellectually to sentimentalism in a positive manner, and stresses the lyricism of some of Ouida’s descriptions.

6Jane Jordan’s essay on the homosocial and homoerotic universe of Ouida’s early novels provides insights towards a gender reading of three novels: Strathmore (1865), Chandos (1866) and Under Two Flags (1867). It starts with a very interesting account of Ouida’s passing herself off as a male author and her use of a pseudonym, tracing with great precision how, when and why she became unmasked. Unfortunately, Jordan’s consideration of the three male romances is separated from these initial reflections, and the rest of the essay is devoted to showing how the novels ‘re-write the male romance in order to examine the function of the romantic heroine within the homosocial power structure and to analyze erotic borderlines of homosocial desires’ (54).

7Hayley Jayne Bradley’s essay opens the second part dedicated to the rewriting of Ouida’s works. The 1833 Dramatic Copyright Act left novelists unprotected against the commercial exploitation of literary works through stage adaptations. At the first conference held by the Society of Authors (1887), where dramatization was pronounced a scourge on novelists, Ouida was indeed mentioned, along with Mrs Henry Wood, as a ‘great sufferer’ from the inadequacy of the copyright laws. Bradley’s essay considers the adaptations of Ouida’s sensational novel Moths (1880), with a special focus on the public exchange of letters which preceded the release of the play and helped to advertise both the play and the novel.

8Sondeep Kandola addresses Ouida’s gender politics by contrasting her with her young contemporary Vernon Lee, the highbrow champion of the aesthetic novel. She compares and contrasts Lee’s novel Miss Brown (1888) and Ouida’s novel Ariadnê: The Story of a Dream (1877), for both heroines are orphans of Italian origin, each of whom is taken under the protective wing of a sculptor. Her analysis leads her into a discussion of gender indeterminacy and the third sex position in the work of the two authors, as well as their common emphasis on ‘female sexual difference as potentially the source of dynamic social change’ (107).

9As fierce defenders of their interests in the face of the Press and editors, as ardent cultivators of their own images and generous caterers to wide audiences, Ouida and Marie Corelli bear much in common and deserved the very interesting essay which Nickianne Moody devotes to their defense of female genius, although, as she observes, ‘if we are to attribute “genius” to them today, it is surely through their ability to speak to vast and diverse audiences’ (124). Her analysis accounts for Corelli’s support of Ouida, discusses their attitude to the New Woman and weighs up the two women’s writings on genius and literary criticism (including The Silver Domino, a lesser-known satirical collection of essays by Corelli). While it is difficult to share her assumption that ‘[b]estselling fiction does not conform to existing generic imperatives and conventions’ (126), she does argue convincingly that ‘Ouida and Corelli negotiated transitions in values regarding women’s actualization of self which speculated on the possibilities of economic independence rather than compensatory idealizations of marriage and motherhood.’ (127)

10Opening the third part on ‘Ouida and Politics’, Diana Maltz’s essay studies the Russian influences on Ouida, as apparent in Moths (1880), Wanda (1883), Princess Napraxine (1884) and Othmar (1885). Ouida is shown to engage with the stereotypes of the Russian aristocrat in varying and complex ways, and her attitude to Francophilia and Tolstoyan philosophy are also examined.

11The essay by Lyn Pykett on ‘Opinionated Ouida’ offers an insightful account of some of her journalism. In her articles on Italy, Ouida clothed herself in the authority bestowed by her familiarity with the country and the cultural expertise she believed to be hers, and railed against war and conscription. In the essays on national issues, she used degenerationist discourse to warn her contemporaries against science and the threat it posed to the environment, as well as against ugliness, vulgarity and degeneration, and consequently the New Woman. Lyn Pykett notes how her ‘practice of repetition and recycling’ and her ‘overblown and colourful language’ (149) allowed her to increase her word count, while the way she inflected her discourse and message according to the magazines’ readerships suggests Ouida’s relative opportunism.

12Richard Ambrosini’s essay on Ouida’s aesthetic practice closes the collection on a firm, interpretative stance. Ouida is described as a ‘Janus-like figure whose fiction and polemic point in opposite directions’ (167). A Village Commune (the novel which is brought under the most scrutiny in the volume) is revisited as an ‘infuriating’ and ‘hybrid text which purports to be a sociological and political essay rendered in fictional terms’ (170). Ambrosini’s reading of Ouida’s Italian essays on England and English essays on Italy brings out her sympathies with the anarchist cause and her clear anti-imperialist stance.

13This book, which displays scholarship and erudition, will be of use to specialists of Ouida and Victorian popular culture, as well as to those who want to broaden their knowledge of the Late-Nineteenth-Century editorial and cultural context. The bibliographical sections in the end are recommended as a guide for research. If one may formulate a criticism against this careful, scholarly volume, it is that some of the contributors tend to overly venerate their subject and analyze it in forensic detail without counter-balancing this with a more distanced critical overview, which it is difficult for less informed readers to gain. Detailed summaries of Ouida’s plots hardly serve her works well, and, as a reader who is relatively new to Ouida, I must acknowledge that the authors failed to inspire me with a desire to read her novels further. It should be said however that the quality of the scholarship in the book might indeed be meant to spare scholarly readers the necessity of reading some of her works at all.

14I also wish I had been told more about the possibility mentioned by Hayley Jayne Bradley that ‘her work could be rejected on moral grounds by individual editors, publishers and librarians’ (83, emphasis mine). Was it ever the case that their erotic content and disregard for tight gender borderlines provoked the censure of Ouida’s novels? How could this potentially unacceptable material be read and reread in yellowback editions, without anybody pointing to its subversive nature? While the contributors often refer to Ouida’s unconformist views, I find that these are rarely illustrated in their account of her works, and I remain in uncomfortable doubt about this question.

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1 Les Auteurs anglais du Brevet Supérieur (1914–1917), publiés avec des notices et des notes en anglais, Ouida, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Keats, Tennyson. Paris, Hachette, 1912. Kuhn Maurice, Les Auteurs anglais du programme Ouida, Longfellow, Wordsworth, Walter Scott, Keats, Tennyson. Paris, Delagrave, 1912. Textes anglais du brevet supérieur. Sessions de 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917. Ouida, Longfellow, W. Scott, Th. Moore, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Paris, Delalain, 1913.

2 Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodges Holt. Ouida the Phenomenon, Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in her Fiction. Newark, U of Delaware P, 2008.

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Nathalie Saudo-Welby, « Jane Jordan and Andrew King, dir. Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 82 Automne | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2016, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Nathalie Saudo-Welby

Université de Picardie

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