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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée) (1839–1908)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
THE NOVELS of Ouida belong to no distinct school of fiction. They are rather a law unto themselves in their mingling of extravagant romance with realism; of plots that might have come out of the ‘Decameron,’ with imaginative fancies as pure and tender as those of an innocent and dreamy child; of democratic ideals worthy of Rousseau and Byron, with a childlike love of rank and its insignia.  1
  Ouida is less dramatic than lyric in the style and form of her novels. Her strong poetic feeling is the source at once of her weakness and of her strength as a writer of fiction. She has the poet’s sympathy with nature, and the poet’s sensitiveness to beauty in every form; but she lacks the dramatist’s insight into the complexities of human nature. She has only a faint perception of the many delicate gradations of character between exalted goodness and its opposite extreme. She is at her best when she is writing of primitive natures, and of lives close to the earth. The peasant boy in ‘A Dog of Flanders,’ yearning to look once upon the Christ of Rubens; Signa, a gifted child of the people, striving to express the passionate soul of music within him; the heroine of ‘In Maremma,’ hiding her girlhood in the dim richness of an Etruscan tomb; Cigarette in ‘Under Two Flags,’ dying for love as only a child of nature can: these simple, sensuous, passionate children are the creation of Ouida’s genius. She has sympathy with the single-hearted emotions of the sons of the soil. Her temperament fits her to understand their hates and loves, so free from artificial restraints; their hopes and fears compressed into intensity by the narrowness of their mental outlook. She can portray child-life with exquisite truthfulness, because children when left to themselves are primitive in thought and feeling; natural in their emotions and direct in their expression of them. They are the true democrats of society. Because Ouida is a poet, she has the spirit of democracy; which belongs to poets and children, and to all childlike souls who have love in their hearts, and know nothing of the importance of amassing money and making proper marriages. This idealizing, dreamy, and from an economical standpoint worthless, democracy of feeling, draws her to the oppressed, the down-trodden, and the poor; to suffering children, and to geniuses whose souls seek the stars while their bodies are racked with hunger.  2
  Ouida’s creed receives a personal embodiment in Tricotrin, the hero of the novel by that name. He is one of the most fascinating of her creations; yet he is only half real, being the product of her poetical rather than her dramatic instinct. He is entitled to wealth and rank, yet he despises both; he has the knowledge of the man of the world combined with the saintliness of Francis of Assisi, yet he is less of a saint than of a philosopher, and less of a philosopher than of a poet. He roams over the world, living out the poetry within him in Christ-like deeds of mercy; he sacrifices his life at last for the good of the Paris mob.  3
  In Ouida’s novels the innocent and the high-minded are continually suffering for others. To her, the world stands ready to stone genius and goodness. The motto of her books might be the one which she places at the head of ‘Signa’: “I cast a palm upon the flood; the deeps devour it. Others throw lead, and lo! it buoyant sails.” Her women who are near to God and nature are crucified by their love; her men of the same type by their nobility. Ouida finds no place for great souls in society as it exists. She divides humanity into two classes,—the good and the bad, the artificial and the natural. In one class she places children, peasants, and poets; and about these three orders she has woven her most beautiful and tender and unreal romances. In the other class she places the Vere de Veres, the worshipers of Mammon, the schemers and the sharks of society. Ouida’s intense temperament induces her always to deal in extremes, whether of wealth or rank or goodness. In her, however, exaggeration becomes refreshment, because she is enough of an artist to clothe her most daring excursions into the improbable with a realistic atmosphere. Her society novels are as far removed from the realism of modern fiction as ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’; yet their epigrammatic comments upon society and human nature lend to them a fictitious lifelikeness. In ‘The Princess Napraxine,’ ‘Othmar,’ ‘A House Party,’ ‘Friendship,’ and the redoubtable ‘Moths.’ Ouida portrays a world with which she is somewhat familiar. She has been upon the edges of it,—a precarious position for a woman of her temperament. She is half in and half out of the society towards which she is, on the whole, antagonistic.  4
  Her real name was Louise de la Ramée; an Englishwoman of French extraction, she was born at Bury St. Edmunds in 1839. She was reared in London, and there began to write for periodicals; taking as a pen-name a younger sister’s contraction of her Christian name, “Louise.” Her first novel, ‘Granville de Vigne,’ was published as a serial in Colburn’s New Monthly Magazine, and appeared in book form in 1863. It is typical of the majority of her later stories of high life. Ouida is a lover of rank only when rank is synonymous with distinction. She appreciates to the full the poetic elements in the character of the true aristocrat, the Vandyke or Velasquez noble; but she has the greatest contempt for the modern fashionable mob of London or Paris, which values wealth above blood, and notoriety above breeding. The insular, Philistine materialism of high-born Englishmen is peculiarly distasteful to her. Another novel, ‘The Massarenes,’ is a powerful satire upon the English aristocracy. William Massarene is a low-born Irishman, who, having made a monstrous fortune in the United States, buys the way for himself and his family into the highest circles in England. His millions secure him everything from a seat in Parliament to the friendship of royalty. Ouida treats this theme with great skill and penetration. Her mockery of the “thoroughbred” puppets, fawning on wealth in the guise of vulgarity, reaches its height of expression in this book. At the same time she does justice to the genuine aristocrat by portraying one English nobleman, at least, who refuses to join the mob in their chase of gold. Ouida matches the vulgarity of America with the vulgarity of England; her fiercest condemnation falls on her own countrymen, however, because she assumes that they know better.  5
  She found her consolation in the last home and refuge of poetry in this century,—Italy. Of late years she lived in Florence. Her susceptibility to beauty made her peculiarly successful in her novels of Italian life. These are worked out against a background of romantic nature, and of places rich in traditions of poetry and art. They are steeped in the magical air of the land which knew Petrarch and Raphael. They portray with sympathy the gay, pensive, passionate, graceful Italian character. Not a few of Ouida’s novels and stories will live because of the leaven of poetry in them. Their barbarous extravagance and their meretricious one-sidedness are outweighed by their genuine perception of the noblest qualities of human nature, and by their recognition of the beautiful. Although they do not conform to the highest standard of romantic fiction, the first demand of which is truth to reality, they provide an escape into that world which differs sufficiently from the actual world to offer all the refreshments of change. In their character they approach the fairy tales which grown-up children cannot altogether do without.  6
  Mademoiselle de la Ramée died in Italy in 1908.  7
 
 
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