Wednesday, 25 January 2012
On this day in 1908, the novelist known as Ouida died, in poverty, at Viareggio. That's her surprisingly restrained tomb, in the English cemetery at Bagni di Lucca, above.
In her day, Ouida was a fabulous figure and a hugely successful writer. She shot to fame as the author of sensational racy novels set in high society ('For the comparatively small sum of £1, 11s, 6d one is introduced to the best society,' wrote Oscar Wilde of one of her three-deckers) - and of the much-filmed Under Two Flags, a military adventure set in Algeria. Revelling in her well merited (as she saw it) success, Ouida set herself up in the Langham Hotel in London, where she wrote by candlelight (a la Byron), surrounded by mountains of flowers. In the evenings she held court at soirees to which eminent men - artists, writers (including Wilde, Swinburne and Browning), politicians and soldiers - flocked. Their attentions flattered her sense that she was controlling the nation's - nay, the world's - destiny.
Eventually she moved to Italy, taking up residence in the Villa Farinola in Florence, where she continued to live in high style, extending her lavish hospitality to the local dogs, whom she regarded as innately superior to humans (the hero of one of her novels is a Maltese Terrier called Puck). This attitude to the canine population - combined with her native hauteur - did not endear the novelist to her Italian neighbours.
At some point, her banker made off with most of her money (and a ballet dancer), leaving her obliged to keep turning out big sellers simply to stay afloat. Her life was further complicated by an unfortunate habit of falling in unreciprocated love with married men, but her unshakable self-belief kept her bouncing back from every reversal - at least until increasing blindness and deafness and other health problems made her life all but unlivable. Ouida still had her admirers, who tried to help her with gifts of money, but she turned them down on the grounds that such help was only suitable for lower-class persons. In the end, pneumonia took her.
They don't make lady novelists like that any more - though there was perhaps a dash of Ouida about Barbara Cartland. But, even if her books are forgotten, she lives on in Elizabeth Taylor's wonderful novel Angel. Taylor's monstrous tragicomic creation is surely, to a large extent, a version of the fabulous Ouida.
'Though she is rarely true, she is never dull' - Oscar Wilde.