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Ouida in 1874, age thirty-five. Photo by Adolphe Beau.
Marie Louise de la Ramée, who wrote under the pen name Ouida (1839-1908), was an English novelist and essayist. She was extremely prolific and wrote many bestsellers, featuring thinly veiled portraits of high-class society, Tear Jerker tragedies, and thrilling adventure. She always said her main inspiration was Lord Byron. Her style was "aesthetic", considered a type of romance, like her friend Oscar Wilde. Many women, and some men, wrote in this style in Victorian times, but she was "Queen of the Circulating Libraries". Her books sold in the millions, funding her extravagant lifestyle and lush parties. Authors like Wilde, Jack London, Marie Corelli, Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Marjorie Bowen owe some of their early inspiration to Ouida. London said he credited her book Signa for his own early enthusiasm for reading and literary success.
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Ouida's name sounds like "Ouija", but actually came from the way she pronounced her own name when she was a toddler. Born in Bury St. Edmonds in England, the home of many other Child Prodigies, Ouida may well have written her first novel at sixteen (it was published when she was 24). Homeschooled, mostly by her dad (when he was there), she was an imaginative child, writing plays and enacting them with painted cardboard figures. At 18 she moved with her mother and grandma to London and took up writing for magazines to support them. She was deeply devoted to her family and to animal welfare. Her first confirmed book was Held in Bondage, serialized in newspapers in 1863. You are probably most familiar with her novels Under Two Flags and A Dog of Flanders.

After her mom died she moved to the luxurious Langdon Hotel in London, where she held salons and lavish soirées with big-name guests. She treated her dogs like royalty and expected to be treated the same. She was then earning £3500 a year — about $117,000 in today's money. She worked in bed, writing with a goose-quill pen and violet ink on blue paper, surrounded by flowers and candles, in a bedroom hung with black curtains. She spent upwards of £200 per week on flowers. She collected art and did some of her own painting. She designed her own outfits, and often dressed up as characters from whatever she was currently working on.

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Unfortunately, she was not good at managing her finances, and when her books fell out of copyright she lost her main source of income. She continued to write, but ended her days in dire poverty in Viareggio, Italy. Most of the money she did have went to her one-woman dog rescue. She helped start the Italian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Marie Corelli visited her and wrote a heartrending essay about her dire state. Published in the Daily Mail, it pissed Ouida off considerably, but also helped to start a charitable fund to help her out. She is buried in Bagni di Lucca and her stone tomb has an effigy of her with a little dog at her feet. The Langdon Hotel has a rewards program named for her. A fountain for animals in her home town bears her name.

Some of Ouida's books can be read for free at the Online Books Page.

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Works by Ouida contain examples of:

  • Practically every trope in the book. Natalie Schroeder's Ouida The Phenomenon says she had "secrets, bigamy, Adultery, the dead-alive, murder, shipwrecks, gypsy fortune tellers, secret marriages, and strong female villainesses", and that's just in the first two books. Her characters were "remarkably handsome heroes, innocent adolescent heroines, and exquisitely beautiful, powerful, sensual adventuresses." Critic Max Beerbohm said she had stock characters rather than ones based in reality, but made unique in that they were "transfigured by imagination, embellished by fancy".

  • Action Girl: In Held In Bondage, Alma has had a "masculine" education and taught she could earn her own living. When the snotty nobleman Vane Castleton (the names alone are worth the price of admission) kidnaps her away to his huge Old, Dark House and does an And Now You Must Marry Me, she's less frightened than pissed, and responds to him with "fiery scorn" before jumping out a window and escaping.
  • And Now You Must Marry Me: Every other book had at least one.
  • Broken Bird and Too Good for This Sinful Earth: She had a lot of these. Two Little Wooden Shoes had a sixteen-year-old girl literally named Baby (well, Bebée) living in innocent peace in a Belgian country town. An artist comes to paint it, and her, and she falls in love. He promises to return, but it's a lie. All he really wants is her portrait, which he exhibits in Paris and gets filthy rich. Hearing he's ill, she walks to Paris, only to find him recovered and having a great time in a Den of Iniquity. She returns home sick and delirious, and drowns herself in the brook where she'd been found as an infant. It was made into a film and several operas notably Mascagni's Lodoletta, which sticks fairly to the book, and Edmund Missa's Muguette, which has the artist's new model turn out to be an Ethical Slut (or at least a Good Bad Girl) who conspires with his friend to give the couple a Happy Ending. Ouida's friend Marie Corelli wrote another version of this tale, Innocent.
  • Costume Porn: For both men and women. Paragraphs are spent describing their lush outfits.
  • Gold Digger: Lower- and middle-class girls seek to marry wealthy, titled men and become "ladies". Fair enough. But several books (notoriously, Moths) have mothers who arrange marriages for their daughters with wealthy, titled, older men, less to ensure the daughter's future security than the mother's, and often to help pay off her debts.
  • Ho Yay: We're not talking about a few slashy little hints here and there. Ouida's heroes were often strong, brave soldiers and adventurers, but with feminine qualities to the point of being bi-gendered or bisexual, and they often fell in love with one another. In her day, many people acknowledged, explored and experimented with alternative sexualities and gender roles. Feminine traits in male beauty, masculine androgyny, were considered okay even for straight guys.
  • I Have You Now, My Pretty: She wrote some of the classics. Here's Vane Castleton in Held In Bondage.
    Do you think, now I have you, I shall let you go again? I have hardly caged my bird only to let her fly. We shall clip your wings, loveliest, till you like your captivity too well to try and free yourself. You are mine now, Alma — you shall never be DeVigne's!
  • Kick the Dog: Ouida alerts you to animal suffering every chance she gets. She begins The Waters of Edera with a scene that looks like Arcadia, then averts it by describing some terribly cruel sheepherders. Good guys & gals in her books will be a Kindhearted Cat Lover or a Friend to All Living Things, or at the very least Pet the Dog.
  • The Dandy and Real Men Wear Pink: Her male characters dress in beautiful clothes, frills, lace and perfume, and surround themselves with exquisite furnishings and art. The more heroic her guys are, the more likely they are to be this. This was much more than just dressing nicely (considered a sign of character and courtesy). This was Kicking Ass In All His Finery.
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