Ouida the Phenomenon

Annette R. Federico, James Madison University

Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodges Holt. Ouida the Phenomenon: Evolving Social, Political, and Gender Concerns in Her Fiction. Newark: Delaware UP, 2008. 283 pp. $47.50 (c).

Rev. by Annette R. Federico
Ouida, the pen name for Marie Louise Ramé, was unquestionably a Victorian literary phenomenon. In her forty-year career, she published twenty-four novels, short stories, two volumes of essays, and many articles on current issues of the day. Although Ouida is usually associated with novels of high society, she was artistically and commercially pliable, successfully mixing genres—romances, the gothic, political fiction, social satires, Italian peasant tales—in a highly competitive, male-dominated literary market. Despite her popularity, her experiments were often ridiculed as outlandish melodramas, immoral poisons, or stylistic aberrations by the literary establishment. As Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodges Holt demonstrate, “in both her fiction and her life, [Ouida] embodied the contradictory ideologies of the Victorian age” (9). She expressed her antifeminism in no uncertain terms, yet she brazenly asserted her independence and professionalism. She flaunted her unconventional lifestyle and lived flamboyantly (she was famous both for her scandalous dinner parties and her pampered dogs), yet her novels consistently criticize Victorian materialism and commodity fetishism. Although she attacked the New Woman, she repeatedly describes marriage as a living hell for her heroines, and she quite seriously worked to revise feminine stereotypes and gender roles, presenting a profusion of sexualities and erotic fantasies. These intersecting contradictions make Ouida a potential touchstone, or, as Schroeder and Holt put it, “fertile ground” (27) for an examination of Victorian ideologies of consumption and literary popularity, and for radical shifts in gender identity and sexuality.
The blending of genders and genres in the Victorian and modernist periods, especially in novels by women, has been previously examined by feminist scholars. The 1990s saw the publication of important books by Ann Ardis, Lyn Pykett, Rita Felski, Suzanne Clark, and Ann Cvetkovich, while Talia Schaffer’s work on non-canonical and popular female writers has done much in this century to reinvigorate critical conversations about “forgotten” women writers, gender politics, consumerism, and aesthetic judgment. Schroeder and Holt work within this frame of reference in their analysis, particularizing it in their tight focus on Ouida’s oeuvre (this is the first full-length book on her fiction). However, despite brief mention of Debord, Baudrillard, and postmodern spectacle, they don’t significantly complicate this vein of criticism or offer an innovative methodology by which to organize their consecutive readings of each novel. The book follows Ouida’s career chronologically in nine chapters which range from a discussion of her first serialized romances (Held in Bondage and Strathmore) to her manipulation, in the 1890s, of fashionable decadence and the “symptoms of a comprehensive, irresolvable cultural malaise” which, for her, released conservative anxieties about moral decay (230). This approach makes sense, in a way—we get an overview of a changing literary culture in the last half of the century, and we see Ouida’s professional development. Victorianists with minimal first-hand experience with Ouida’s fiction, or general readers who gravitate toward the smoldering love stories, will be surprised at her intellectual preoccupations. In novels such as Chandos, Idalia, and Under Two Flags, for example, Ouida’s interest in women’s empowerment is “interwoven with the political cause of freedom on an international scale” (53). Folle-Farine (1871) and Ariadne (1877) offer a tragic vision of the female artist in a society that commodifies and exploits feminine beauty, and disables female self-creation through violence and sexual desecration. Her Italian novels (Pascarel, Signa, A Village Commune) similarly describe the threat to art within capitalist society and condemn the rapacity of the idle rich against the sufferings of the laboring classes. In their chapter on “Marriage and the Ouidean New Woman,” Schroeder and Holt skillfully read Princess Napraxine (1884) and Guilderoy (1889) as sophisticated explorations of Paterian aesthetics within the vocabulary of feminist protest, and women’s discontent and unfulfillment in contemporary marriage.
Ouida’s extraordinary productivity and inventiveness, her popularity, and her situation as an independent woman in a patriarchal literary world distinguish her as a candidate for critical reassessment. Schroeder and Holt cite the renewed publication of more of her fiction by reputable presses such as Oxford and Broadview, and her novels have recently been the subjects of larger studies concerned with Victorian gender roles. Ouida the Phenomenon is the first book to take in her entire fictional output: over twenty novels are closely analyzed. The virtue of such thoroughness is that we now have a record of competent criticism on a set of novels that have been neglected or dismissed (probably because they have been out of print); the drawback, though, is that there are strong resemblances among the separate analyses. It’s hard to say if this impression of sameness is due to a need for more theoretical acumen (whatever that might mean), contextual nuance, or critical subtlety. For example, the authors’ “Introduction” cites Ouida’s intriguing account (from a journal entry) of a visit to the Great Exhibition of 1851. Her breathless delight in the Crystal Palace and commodity fetishism is then placed against her ubiquitous, scathing attacks on Victorian materialism and greed. This contradiction could be deepened by a bit more on the meaning of materialism and display in Victorian fiction and in Victorian life, just as the authors’ valuable interest in “the articulation of alternative male sexualities” in Ouida’s novels (13) could take in more of the historical and cultural discourses of male effeminacy at mid-century. Perhaps that will be the work of future scholars: Ouida the Phenomenon opens the door wide for fresh reappraisals of an intriguing and prolific Victorian novelist.
Annette R. Federico teaches in the English Department at James Madison University. Her edited collection, Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic After Thirty Years, was published in 2009.