Anniversary of novelist's death

A century ago, on January 25, 1908, a best-selling Victorian novelist died. She was an eccentric woman with a strange name, now almost as forgotten as most of her books.

Ivan Howlett

A century ago, on January 25, 1908, a best-selling Victorian novelist died. She was an eccentric woman with a strange name, now almost as forgotten as most of her books. Ouida was born in Bury St Edmunds and the town where she grew up - but didn't much like - is marking the centenary of her death. Ivan Howlett's been looking into the details of her strange life

Ouida, as a character was way over the top. Many of her forty odd books, most of which now come into the 'woefully neglected or completely forgotten' category, were written by the light of dozens of scented candles as she sat in a huge bed. She'd weave her emotional, scandal filled and heroic tales using a quill pen and writing in purple ink on large sheets of violet tinted paper.

Ouida's real name was Maria Louise Ramé, the only child of Louis

Ramée, a French national, described on his marriage certificate as a gentleman, and his middle-class English wife, Susan Sutton. Later, Ouida added to her baptismal name for exotic effect, making it Marie Louise de la Ramée.

The family lived in Union Terrace, off Hospital Road, close to where the Thingoe Union Workhouse had been built just three years before Marie Louise was born in 1839.

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Apparently, the little girl had great difficulty pronouncing Louise and her best attempt made it sound like “OO-e-da”. When she came to write she decided that Ouida would be her nom-de-plume, a name, which sounded foreign, mysterious, romantic, and “my very own”. It was a name of which she was very proud and would threaten legal action if anyone else tried to use it.

Whatever his marriage certificate said about his occupation, her father became known in Bury for teaching French, both privately and at local schools.

Louis is said to have been, though not handsome, something of a charmer. Possibly, it has been suggested, he was a bigamist. This may go towards explaining some of his absences from home, which increased as Ouida got older.

It seems that though his daughter was taught at some local schools, Louis looked after aspects of Ouida's education himself. Clearly, he was successful in cultivating her imagination for, her head filled with knights, soldiers, ladies and brave deeds; she was soon making up stories. Her mind always open to the images around her she may have even been attracted to the officer's uniforms she might have seen in Bury. By the age of 12 she even thought herself sufficiently knowledgeable to write a history of the world.

Ouida's fantasies about her father increased the more he was away. She herself seems to have encouraged the idea that he was a friend of Louis Napoleon, that perhaps he was a French spy and that when he died in the early 1870s it was during street fighting in Paris.

Her father's French side was more appealing to her than the quiet life of Bury St Edmunds. In one of her books she writes of Bury, that is a “clean, quiet antiquated town, that always puts me in the mind of an old maid dressed for a party; that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land. Why, the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.”

Ouida was busy writing by the age of 16. Her first story, 'Dashwood's Drag' was published in the Bentley's Miscellany, the reputable literary magazine in which its first editor, Charles Dickens had published Oliver Twist as a part work.

Her romantic, not say “shockingly naughty” stories were soon all the rage. Her stories were salacious. Adultery was a feature of most of her stories and novels. Readers were said to disguise her books in brown paper covers, and to hide them away. They were read by both men and women, the latter perhaps as an escape from the prim propriety society expected of them.

Her output was soon little short of prodigious. It needed to be - she had her

her mother, grandmother, aunt and an entourage to support. In her career she wrote 26 best-selling novels, as well as novellas, short stories, essays and many articles.

The novels flooded out. They are florid and flamboyant in style, careless of facts, fast-paced, and filled with no holds barred characters to whom conventional morality meant not a jot. Held on Bondage, Idalia, Strathmore, Othmar, Tricotrin, Two Little Wooden shoes. In a Winter City, Ariadne - at once time she was turning out a novel year. One of her best selling novels, Under Two Flags was twice filmed, the second of which, made in 1936, was a specially popular French Foreign legion desert movie starring Ronald Colman and Claudette Colbert .

'One of the highest earning women'

“Ouida was one of the highest earning women writers of her day,” says Dr Jane Jordan, Ouida's latest biographer. Jane lives at Great Bentley, near Colchester, and lectures at Kingston University. Her book is due out this year.

“Ouida could earn upwards of £2,000 per novel, a huge amount in those days. Yet she always remained something of a mystery,” says Jane.

“She consistently refused to be interviewed and turned down the offer to write her autobiography - perhaps to hide her obscure provincial origins.”

Not that Ouida shrank from the limelight. Quite the reverse - she sought it out.

While she had money aplenty she lived, for some years, in London's top hotel, the Langham in Portland Place, opposite what is now Broadcasting House. Built like a Florentine palace it was splendour in white, gold and scarlet, with ten miles of carpets, mosaic floors and plaster-relief ceilings. Statesmen, royalty, artists, writers and musicians visited the Langham, among them.

Louis Napoleon III, Mark Twain and Conan Doyle set some of his Sherlock Holmes novels there.

Ouida held lavish soirees in the hotel Oscar Wilde, Wilkie Collins, and even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went along. Other guests included the Confederate General John C Breckenridge and the controversial explorer Richard Burton, of whom Ouida later wrote that the Foreign 'used to hint dark horrors'. He was her sort of interesting man.

Many of the guests mingling with aristocratic friends and admirers, and politicians were guards officers and, no doubt, the gossip enriched the scandalous behaviour of her fictional characters. For these receptions Ouida would draw her black velvet curtains to shut out the daylight and a notice was said to be hung up outside saying: Morals and Umbrellas to be Left at the Door.

'Face of a soured washerwoman'

Ouida's gatherings were well attended though it's not always easy to understand why. She was said to be snobbish, rude, insulting, opinionated and vain. She regarded herself as the country's finest writer. When George Eliot died she said there was no one else left. She would speak across people in her harsh grating voice. One writer said of her that it was a tragedy that Ouida had the 'passions of a grand amoureuse and the face of a soured washerwoman'. More of the passions later.

The move to Italy

The extravagance couldn't last. She never saved money and there came a point when she was forced to leave the Langham. Her financial problems, no doubt, exacerbated by one of her more unscrupulous publishers, Frederic Chapman, to decide to move to Italy with her mother. She lived first in Florence and in a villa at Scandicci, three miles away.

While money lasted she lived extravagantly with a small entourage and holding parties. Her visitors have remarked not only on her plainness and lack of charm but her growing vanity, rudeness and arrogance. Yet they kept attending. Lady Walburga Paget, the wife of the British Ambassador to Italy said Ouida had 'an extraordinary talent for forcing people to come'.

Not short of the dramatic touch, she sometimes wore the costume of the leading character in her latest novel, but revealing her small wrists and hands.

Always politically aware and undoubtedly possessed of great powers of observation, Ouida began to use Italian settings and bring in perspectives on the poverty of the Italian peasantry around her, and the corruption in high places, which she either saw or imagined and which, not surprisingly, displeased elements in her host country.

Separate story: 'the grand amoureuse'

Dr Jane Jordan says that two passions associated with her, one involving the ageing Italian opera singer Mario and, later, Robert Lytton can be discounted. But Jane's biography will uncover the details of her scandalous love affair with the handsome Marchese della Stufa, with whom, she fell in love when living at the villa.

Soon, however, found out that another English woman, Janet Ross was also his mistress. Though Ouida hoped to marry him he eventually betrayed her letting her down badly.

Her 1878 novel Friendship features a ménage-a-trois in which the characters are clearly meant to be the Marchese, Janet Ross and her husband, Henry.

Ouida's letters, setting out what actually happened have mainly missed the biographer's eye partly because Janet Ross lived until the late twenties. Dr Jordan, however, is to give a full account these letters, which have been in an American university, for the first time.

“It's a murky story,” says Jane. “It involves rumour, counter rumour and lies, and claims of spying, mail-stealing, and even an assassination attempt”.

Florence was split over the scandal for long afterwards.

Over the years the money began to tail off. In her later years she took up various political causes, including animal vivisection, and became outspokenly anti-Christian.

Ouida still kept spending on the many animals she continued to take in, becoming known as 'The Crazy lady with the Dogs'.

As poverty closed in, she was forced out into a lesser home in Viareggio.

Her last years were spent in debt and squalor, though it was 1906 before she accepted what she regarded as a humiliating civil list pension.

Eight months before she died, aged 69, from pneumonia, the Daily Mirror published a full-page photograph purporting to be of the poverty-stricken barely recognisable once-great writer. Later it was admitted that it wasn't her but an old Italian peasant lady. However, when the news came through that she had died, the Daily Mirror made up for it by giving up its whole front page to a photograph of Ouida. A century on she is largely forgotten though, as Dr Jane Jordan says, undergoing a well-deserved reappraisal.

The Mirror also gave money towards the building of a memorial to her in Bury St Edmunds. It's now at the bottom of Vinery Road. Whatever Ouida would have thought of it one can only guess. Certainly, she described efforts to put a plaque on the house where she was born as 'Suffolk tomfoolery' that she wanted stopping.

The memorial, a fountain for horses and dogs, was to cost £375 . The Lyceum Theatre in London gave a special matinee performance for the Fund, and a special express train was run from Bury Station for the occasion.

Lord Curzon, another of Ouida's friends wrote the memorial's inscription. It reads: “Her friends have erected this fountain in the place of her birth. Here may God's creatures whom she loved assuage her tender soul as they drink.''

Factfile

Bury St Edmunds: Small exhibitions marking her centenary are being put on at Moyse's Hall Museum in the on Cornhill and at the Suffolk Record Office in Raingate street.

Visit the Ouida Memorial, Vinery Road .

Kingston-upon-Thames: Ouida Centenary Conference. September 21, 2008. Penrhyn Road Campus, Kingston University (organised by Dr Jane Jordan).