Ada Calhoun on Ouida, The Most Famous Lady Novelist You’ve Never Heard Of
The Joy of Pulling Authors Out of the Pit of Anonymity
According to a New York Review of Books review of the re-issued 1969 Susan Taubes book Divorcing, the author committed suicide after receiving a particularly brutal review of her book in the New York Times. Having both delivered and received harsh New York Times book reviews, I went to the Times archive to see just how nasty this one was.
Here’s one bit of the pan by critic Hugh Kenner: “Within the pop mobile Mrs. Taubes has so expertly contrived there’s a thin ghost of a novel crying for release, a very old-fashioned novel indeed, of a kind that transcended the with-it cat’s cradling of lady novelists.”
He uses the phrase “lady novelists” twice in the review. And he says something I don’t understand: “When the real Mrs. Taubes stands up she’s Ouida rediviva.”
Rediviva means resurrected. But who was Ouida, whose very name could be used without explanation in 1969 to put down another woman writer?
A surprising Oxford Bibliographies entry describes “lady novelist” Ouida (she went by just the one name—an early mispronunciation of her given name, Louise) as one of the most popular novelists of her day, the author of twenty-nine novels—military adventures, high-society romances, tear-jerkers about dogs (she was obsessed with dogs).
And so influential!
Oscar Wilde called her “the high priestess of freedom.” Jack London said reading her book Signa at age eight helped make him a writer. In The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton writes that the Archers “collected American revolutionary glazed ware, subscribed to ‘Good Words,’ and read Ouida’s novels for the sake of the Italian atmosphere.” One novelist who picked up her efflorescence was witty novelist Ronald Firbank, who in turn inspired some of my favorite writers, including Frank O’Hara.
In Carl Van Vechten’s 1923 novel The Blind Bow-boy, a character only wants to read Ouida and nothing else because “Ouida was entertaining. Her approach was satisfactorily unpretentious. She wrote about high life, the very rich—and who wanted to read about any other kind of life?” Elsewhere, he said, “Ouida was not an artist, but just as surely she was a genius.”
How could this woman writer, one of England’s most beloved circa 1872, still a familiar reference in the Jazz Age, became a slur in a book review by 1969, and then be all but forgotten by 2021? (Polling some well-read friends of mine, in the US and the UK, not one had heard of her.)
In a way, Ouida’s life echoes the history of the novel—a form originally by women and for women that was raided by men and made “serious,” its female inspiration discarded, its “lady novelists” mocked. In another sense, she’s a good case study for a question that haunts nearly every writer or artist: what, or who, is all this for?
I ordered several of Ouida’s available books, all out of print, from the library and internet.
Opening one of her most popular, Under Two Flags, at random, this is the first sentence I saw:
Cigarette said not a word, but she took out of some vine-leaves a cold, hard lump of ice, and held it to him; the delicious coolness and freshness in that parching noontide heat stilled the convulsion; his eyes thanked her, though his lips could not; he lay panting, exhausted, but relieved; and she—thoughtfully for her—slid herself down on the floor and began singing low and sweetly as a fairy might sing on the raft of a water-lily leaf.
I didn’t love it. At the same time, she was original! I’d never seen a sentence before with four semicolons and two em-dashes. I wished I were still in Advanced Grammar in college. We brought in sentences to diagram on the board and tried to outdo one another with structural complexity.
And yet, the more of her I read, the more I saw her as unique—someone for whom one adjective wouldn’t do where there might be twelve, yes, but also someone with a singular romantic vision.
I looked at her major biographies, the last of which were published in the 1950s.
The opening line of Eileen Bigland’s Ouida: The Passionate Victorian (1950): “This is the story of a woman who could not make up her mind whether to live in the world of reality or in the world of dreams.”
Elizabeth Lee writes in her Ouida: A Memoir (1914), for which she interviewed Ouida’s contemporaries, “She saw everything through the magnifying glass of her own vanity. She exaggerated everything, both within and without herself; her talents, her own feelings and actions, and the actions and feelings of others towards herself.”
She died in 1908, was written about for another generation or two, and then was mostly forgotten until the late 1970s, when some feminists tried to claim her. Unfortunately, even though she was credited with coining the term “new woman,” her ideas on feminism were not entirely positive. She opposed suffrage because she believed women more successful when they operated on their own terrain. She thought it was ridiculous for women to wear men’s clothes or ride bikes.
Looking around online for more about Ouida, one name kept coming up again and again: Jesse Ryan Erickson. A librarian at the University of Delaware, Erickson has written blog posts including “10 Reasons Ouida was a genius (and why we love her).” His Instagram handle is “Ouidaite.”
Eager for an excuse to take a road trip after being cooped up for the better part of two years, I drove to Newark, Delaware, to meet him.
When Erickson greeted me at his home, he had on a homemade black Ouida Toxin tank top, a pocket watch necklace, and a bowler hat. A handsome forty-year-old Black man from Southern California with a handlebar mustache, a goatee, and a tattoo of Ouida’s signature along his arm, he identifies as a Neo-Victorian.
His wife, Jennifer, was smiling in a polka-dot dress. Their four-year-old son—Neloh, named after a Ouida character—was napping. Their two-year-old daughter, who looks like an actual doll, was romping around in a Minnie Mouse outfit. Their spotless suburban home was cozy, with candles on the mantle and flowers in a vase. Jennifer said her husband loves nothing more than to talk about Ouida (one got the sense that she liked other things more), and she left us to it.
Erickson made us Ceylon tea in his mother’s tea set and set out pastries on a tiered tray. And he brought out three elaborate homemade scrapbooks full of Ouidiana.
“Critics hated Ouida, but the people loved her,” he said. “People were always calling her work too fantastical, but her defense was pretty great. She said, ‘Fantastic things do happen to people.’”
In “Romance and Realism,” Ouida wrote, “I have known circumstances so romantic that were they described in fiction they would be ridiculed as exaggerated and impossible.” She believed that there was no sense in “insisting that the potato is real and that the passion-flower is not.”
In the process of sainting people in the Catholic Church, a “postulator,” a kind of spiritual lawyer, is assigned to the potential saint’s case. Without a doubt, Erickson is Ouida’s chief postulator. He has made it his mission to plead her case to the world. When he discovered her he even had a conversion experience.
In this early twenties, Erickson was studying dance in Northern California. He injured his arm and took that as an opportunity to drop out of ballet, which he says involved pressures and racial politics that were getting to be too much for him.
At twenty-four, he returned to Southern California, washed dishes, and spent some time living off the land. A year later, his mother died. Homeless, he started hanging out at the Los Angeles Public Library, where his mother had once taken him to hear Howard Zinn speak. She was a big fan of Toni Morrison, Terry McMillan, and The Age of Innocence. “The library was where I’d go to escape my problems,” Erickson told me.
One day, he asked one of the librarians how someone landed a job working with books. They told him that he should apply to the Rare Book School. He enrolled, and got an entry-level job at a downtown library. The librarians there showed him the ropes and wrote him letters of recommendation. He went on to get, all from UCLA, his bachelor’s, master’s in library science, and PhD in information studies.
After he gave a talk in Leicester, England, on radical Black American printing in the mid- to late twentieth century, a journal called Publishing History asked to publish it. In checking out the journal’s back issues, he found one from decades earlier about Ouida’s Under Two Flags.
“At first, I thought, I’ve never read anything like this before,” he said. “I didn’t know what to make of it. But by the middle of the novel, I was blown away. It’s like watching a movie but you’re reading it. It’s very poetic at the same time. There’s an element of fantasy that I appreciate. This was the style I’d been waiting for my whole life. I was addicted. I binge-read all twenty-six of her three-deckers. [His favorite is Folle-Farine.] That’s six to nine hundred pages apiece, depending on the type setting… I dug up all her essays and her short stories, novellas, novelettes, her plays, everything.”
He also devoured all the stories he could find about her. For years, she lived lavishly at the Langham Hotel, surrounding herself with huge bouquets of purple flowers. Then she took a forty-room villa just outside of Florence and filled it with 16th- and 17th-century furniture. She wore gowns from the House of Worth. She chased men—an Italian count, an opera singer, an international playboy—who didn’t love her back. She was eccentric, and decadent, and shameless. Through Erickson’s eyes, I saw her appeal.
Ouida wrote fantastical, melodramatic fairytales. That kind of escapist fiction can recast life as stranger and more intense, suddenly making all things seem possible. Erickson found her at a time in his life where he needed that. Her “high priestess of freedom” persona and novels even changed him in a way that he credits with helping him meet Jennifer.
“I’d been on the dating scene for a while in Los Angeles and I was pretty jaded,” he said. “But reading Ouida’s books, the way she wrote about love, changed my perception of how I thought about romance. It put me in a different mind frame. I was more open to being in a relationship. The day I met Jennifer, I was wearing my first Ouida T-shirt and I was looking for a park to read in. She thought I was lost. She asked if I needed directions.”
He asked her out. They were married not long after.
“I know I never would have been in that mind frame if my heart hadn’t been opened up by the literature I was reading.”
Erickson argues that Ouida’s appeal transcends nation, time, and race. As evidence, he cites the foreign adaptations of her work. The most popular is probably Parasite director Bong Joon-ho’s Barking Dogs Never Bite, an adaptation of Ouida’s A Dog of Flanders, her most enduring work. There’s a statue of that book’s characters in Antwerp, Belgium.
“Everybody from the richest nobles to elevator operators and train porters would read her,” Erickson said. “Queen Victoria was a huge fan, Theodore Roosevelt. Langston Hughes enjoyed her play of Under Two Flags.” Ouida enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1920s thanks to support from Carl Van Vechten, best known for his support of the Harlem Renaissance.
Van Vechten was a white man championing Black artists. Erickson is a Black man celebrating a white woman’s work—a white woman who was not always a beacon of racial enlightenment.
“At first she has pretty racist caricatures of Blackness,” Erickson says of Ouida. “Then she became increasingly sympathetic until the novel Princess Napraxine, where she includes her first Black character that has agency. And in Folle-Farine, her protagonist is half Romani, half French. Because of the Romani heritage she’s otherized. So she becomes a stand-in for Blackness on some level. Ouida even ties it to some of the ways that Black people would have been treated in nineteenth-century France. For me, it was a very cathartic reading.”
As an author, I have a vested interest in the plight of female writers lost to time. Perhaps seeing my own Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, I rally to their cause: Who will speak for Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado? Dawn Powell’s The Locusts Have No King?
A friend recently thrust into my hands Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. I wasn’t all that into it at first, but a week later, I was reading it on the subway when I thought, This might be the best novel I’ve ever read.
I texted my friend a photo of the book and said, “This snuck up on me.”
She wrote right back: “It blew my mind realizing the less-good parts were her exercising some kind of nearly invisible mastery, like the girl is less interesting at the beginning so she’s written to be duller and her observations aren’t as sharp or exciting. The book starts out like ok, what’s the big deal and then…”
In his essay “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare,” James Baldwin writes, “[The poet’s] responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnamable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people—all people!—who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.”
We can’t pull every author who ever lived out of the pit of anonymity. We can’t appeal every one of Hugh Kenner’s seemingly sexist decisions. And yet, how often we find the book we need at the right moment. How often as writers our work is found, eventually, by the right person. Jesse Erickson looked into the rubble and found Ouida’s heart and soul, and he loved her across time and space. To be read with that much care by one person, one day—it’s all any of us as writers can ever hope for.