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Jane Jordan and Andrew King (eds.), Ouida and Victorian Popular Culture. Surrey, United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2013. 234 pp., ISBN 978-1-4094-0589-4, cloth, $99.95.

Reviewed by T J Boisseau.

Ouida, born Maria Louise Ramé (later claiming to be Maria Louise de la Ramé), born in England in 1839, started earning her living as a writer of popular fiction before she was thirty, and relocated to Italy for the last half of her life where she wrote more than twenty novels as well as short stories, essays and children’s fiction.  She has long been considered within the context of Victorian popular fiction writers who are seen as bellwethers for gender, class, and colonial politics of the era.

Nine essays plus an introduction by Andrew King make this collection of scholarly considerations of the significance of Ouida as a writer and cultural interventionist the most erudite gathering of observations and analyses of her work to date.  The book has a tripartite structure, each part containing three essays that loosely hang together.  Part I, “Rereading Ouida,” represents an introduction to scholarship on Ouida as well as a broad consideration of what effect popular fiction that challenges sexual norms and gender conventions has on its readership.  This is set firmly within the period of Ouida’s greatest output.   Part II enlarges upon what we know about Ouida’s career as a writer and relations with other artists and writers who commented upon, borrowed from, or influenced her work.  Part III places her in various national contexts, emphasizing the interface between the politics of place, genre, and gender. 

This collection is not without its precedents, as Andrew King’s introduction and first chapter discusses at length.  Not too long ago the first substantial writings about Ouida were collected together by Natalie Schroeder and Shari Hodges Holt and published as Ouida the Phenomenon (University of Delaware Press, 2008).  A half century prior, the biographer Eileen Bigland summed up Ouida’s life and career in Ouida, the Passionate Victorian, a book that competed later in the same decade with Monica Stirling’s biography, The Fine and the Wicked, the Life and Times of Ouida (published in 1958).   Two other biographies presaged this sudden punctuated dose of interest in her life, one written just following her death:  Elizabeth Lee’s Ouida: A Memoir (1914) and Yvonne Ffrench’s Ouida; A Study in Ostentation (1938).  Apart from these few biographical treatments, and after largely passing over into oblivion following her death in 1908, this female Victorian regained her footing in the study of Victoriana first, in the 1950s, as an iconic figure of interest for having led an unconventional life strenuously lived and second, in the wake of feminist scholars’ reclamation of the realm of Victorian popular fiction in the 1980s, her writings allowing for sustained and serious consideration of the thorniest of issues that concern our current moment in literary criticism. 

Among the prickliest of such issues is of course the question of Ouida’s talent and significance as a writer.  As with all female writers, particularly popular female writers, the question that animates their rediscoverers pivots on whether Ouida should be viewed as a supreme example of a Victorian hack writer whose popularity stemmed from her hyper-emotional stylistics and the sexually frank and salacious topics she often broached in her work, or whether she was a genuinely innovative and interesting writer who influenced a generation of readers, as well as writers, with work that pushed at the boundaries of popular fiction and set a new standard for psychological realism in its time, or, can both of these arguments be sustained simultaneously?  The other major question that has concerned literary scholars caught up in the analytics of reception studies for the past thirty years has been whether the sorts of sensationalist popular fiction that Ouida produced, and that young women of middle and professionalised working classes devoured eagerly in the last third of the nineteenth century, represents either feminist influence on, or interest in, liberatory ideas about women as sexually free beings harboring independence of thought and action, or at least yearnings for such.  Whether Ouida herself was a feminist or endorsed feminist causes of her time (she did not) has not been so interesting to these scholars as is the question of whether Ouida was read as feminist and in ways that gives rise to a feminist sense of self that translates into feminist self-assertion for women readers either as individuals or collectively speaking, at least in the terms in which collective action was expressed in the waning decades of the nineteenth century. More recently scholars have been interested in Ouida’s gender ambiguity as an author (she was assumed for some time to have been a man writing under a feminine pseudonym) and the strains of homo-eroticism, both female and male, that permeate many of her most successful works.  The colonialist character of her plots and settings and what these reveal about the formation of British national identity, inasmuch as they dovetail with concerns about gender, sexuality and class have also received recent attention. 

Though Ouida’s writing has often appeared to twentieth-century critics as more anti-feminist than feminist, since the re-invention of feminist literary criticism and sexuality studies in the 1980s scholars have perceived hidden and thus more subversive feminist elements in the erotic elements of her work.  But, in either case, the question has often come down to these twinned concerns:  if women (and many men) liked to read Ouida, why did they like to read her so much, and what effect did reading her have on them?   The scholars contributing to Ouida and Popular Culture, while cognisant of the supremely compelling character of these questions and often referring to the issues circulating through them, refuse to be bound by the evident difficulty of answering such questions definitively, choosing instead to illuminate all the many corners of the social fabric of Ouida’s literary moment in ways that allow their readers to think more carefully about these questions and the evidence we might want to bring to bear in their consideration.  In their insistence that we readers sort through the issues ourselves with the help of the information the authors bring to the fore, and that we take them up within their specific historical context, the editors of this volume have produced an admirable teaching text that allows us to enter into a conversation about these concerns rather than be told exactly what to think about them. Of all the essays, Pamela Gilbert’s learned and cogent essay performs this teaching function to most effective and redoubled effect. Following closely upon Andrew King’s largely introductory first chapter, Gilbert sets out an argument regarding “the politics of affect” central to sentimental fiction that, as King acknowledges, “puts the onus on the reader to interpret and do justice to the characters” (5).  One might say the same of this collection of criticism, with admiration and gratefulness for the opportunity to engage in the scholarly pursuit of the cerebral questions surrounding Ouida as a scholarly topic worthy of our sustained attention.

Contents: Introduction, Andrew King; Part I Rereading Ouida: Ouida 1839-1908: quantities, aesthetics, politics, Andrew King; Ouida and the canon: recovery, reconsideration, and revisioning the popular, Pamela K. Gilbert; 'Between men': romantic friendship in Ouida’s early novels, Jane Jordan. Part II Rewriting Ouida: ‘A hack as harmful as he is brainless and one, moreover, who stabs where he steals’. Ouida, the Victorian adaptor and moths, Hayley Jayne Bradley; Ouida, Vernon Lee and the aesthetic novel, Sondeep Kandola; Defending female genius: the unlikely cultural alignment of Marie Corelli and Ouida, Nickianne Moody. Part III Ouida and Politics: Ouida and the Russians: aristocratic Francophilia to Tolstoyism, Diana Maltz; Opinionated Ouida, Lyn Pyckett; Politicizing the aesthetic: Ouida’s transnational critique of modernity, Richard Ambrosini.

T J Boisseau is the Director of the Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Program and Associate Professor of History at Purdue University.