IT is no light thing to be a popular writer; and when one has been a popular writer for twenty-five years, more or less, and, under whatever variety and severity of protest, is quite as much read as ever at the end of that time, the phenomenon is undoubtedly worthy of attention. So much I take to be strictly true of the indefatigable novelist who calls herself by the curious name of Ouida. Everybody reads her twenty or thirty books. The critic reads with a shrug, and the moralist with a sigh ; the grave student with an apology, and the railway traveler with an ostentatious yawn ; the school-girl (I mean, of course, the modern, unfettered schoolgirl) with bated breath and shining eyes, and the bank clerk and the lady help with nameless thrills of envious rapture. The professional translators must watch, one would think, every stroke of this industrious lady’s pen, and quarrel, among themselves, for the privilege of extending to the remote barbarian the boon to which the English-speaking races alone are born. And still there are no symptoms of failure in the abundant fountain (it would be more correct, perhaps, to say soda-fountain) from which these highly colored and sharply effervescent waters are drawn. Crowds always come to quaff the sparkling beverage, asking no questions, for conscience’ sake, about the chemistry by which it is produced. The old sip for a wonder, and the young for a sign. Let us try and discover why and for what end.
I will premise that this inquiry is going to be, primarily and chiefly, a search for merits, rather than a citation of defects. There is very much reason to believe that this is in all cases the true method of criticism : to get inside of a subject, and then work outward ; to fathom the character of the mind, if one can, before endeavoring to judge the production. It may not be altogether easy for a plain mortal, with no finer implement than a steel pen, to put herself in Ouida’s place, but it ought, by all means, to be attempted.
And first it may be remarked that in the general type of her tales she is really the heir, and the legitimate heir, of very high traditions. She is by nature a flagrant romanticist ; but so was Scott a romanticist, and Dumas père and De la Motte Fouquè, and Lord Lytton and Lord Beaconsfield, and George Sand and Victor Hugo, and Jane Porter and the authoress of Thomas Thyrnau, and eke G. P. R. James. To be classifiable with such names, even to be at the foot of such a class, is to be a member of no mean school. Walter Scott is of course the master, as he was, in time, the precursor, and he must ever remain, by virtue of his historic divination, his glorious humor, and his healthful and virile moral sense, far and away the noblest Roman of them all. But there are traces of his method and reflections of his spirit in every one of the writers I have named, and in a good many others, less than the least of these, who have, nevertheless, been able, for a moment each, to catch the popular ear. They are all free, and profess to make their readers free, of a world of ardent love and furious war; of vast riches and dazzling pomp; of heroic virtues and brutal crimes ; of consummate personal beauty, flower-like, fairy-like, god-like, as the case may be ; of tremendous adventures, enormous windfalls, crushing catastrophes, and miraculous escapes. High color, strong contrasts, loud music, and thrilling sensations (“ I can do the big bow-wow style myself with any now going,” says Scott, in his gallant and charming tribute to Jane Austen) are the common properties of them all, and there can be no question that the average human reader has a natural relish for such things, which is bound to gratify itself even when, as happens at the present moment, they are decidedly out of the literary fashion. We smile at the perfumed baths and jeweled hairbrushes of Ouida’s young guardsmen ; at the cataracts of diamonds which descend from the shoulders of her heroines when they go to the ball, and the curtains of rose-colored Genoa velvet, edged with old Venice point, which the valet or the maid will draw noiselessly aside, in order to let the noontide sun steal in upon her jaded revelers on the morning after a festivity. But Chandos himself is not more expensive in his habits than Lothair, and the ecstatic sibilation, like that of a child over a stick of candy, with which Ouida dilates on the luxuries which surround her favorites is paralleled, to say the least, by the solemn rapture of the great statesman before the stock-in-trade of a fashionable jeweler. The worship of wealth is vulgar and demoralizing, yet it is not absolutely and entirely vulgar. It is a possible root of all evil, but it is not the one, sole root, and even the apostle never meant to say that it was. It marches, as we used to say of the boundaries of a country, with very noble things, the supreme splendors of art, the possibilities of a vast beneficence. The transference of wealth from one person to another is apt to be dizzying to him who gains no less than acutely uncomfortable to him who loses, but it is a natural, healthful, inevitable process. The absolute annihilation of wealth in fire, flood, or siege is a universal calamity. Riches — mere giddy, golden riches, such as Ouida and the romanticists generally so constitutionally dote upon — have always played a great part in the moral development of mankind, and were probably intended, from the beginning, so to do. They are for the possession of the few and the edification of the many ; and whoever succeeds, whether by argument or parable, in reconciling the minds of men to the fact that wealth must be where civilization is, but cannot be for all ; whoever helps the many, in their need, to acquiesce in the abundance of the few, will have done more for his kind than all the socialists. The conception of Ouida as a moralist of this magnanimous type is doubtless a humorous one, and any good she may do in this direction will probably be indirect and involuntary. The great, uninteresting middle class comes in for very little of her consideration; but of the lot of the extremely poor — the positively or possibly suffering poor — she is not ignorant nor forgetful, as I shall have occasion to show, by and by.
Meanwhile, it may be observed in her favor that at least she shows herself a better political economist than the far greater writer with whom we have just compared her. She does set some limit to the wealth even of her most opulent hero. After having handsomely endowed him with “home estates as noble as any in England, a house in Park Lane, a hotel on the Champs-Élysées, a toy villa at Richmond, and a summer palace on the Bosphorus,” beside a yacht, “ kept always in sailing order, and servants accustomed to travel into Mexico or Asia Minor at a moment’s notice,” she does, nevertheless, own him subject to the law which entails pecuniary ruin upon the man whose expenditure is exactly four times as great as his income ; and he starves, when the time comes, with as much distinction as he had previously squandered. For Lothair, as for Monte Christo, no ruin is possible. Their investments are in the infinite. But then Disraeli and Dumas were not romanticists, merely, but idealists, while Ouida’s imagination, vigorous though it be, and prolific, seldom rises to really poetic heights. It is genuine imagination, however, and takes one well away from the “stuffiness” of the mere society column, which is all the small-fry of the later school seem to aspire to. Let us take as a fair illustration of her earlier manner— of the period when she was wholly untrammeled by probability, and unvexed, apparently, by more than the very slightest experience of life, or a superficial knowledge of books — Idalia. In the first place, we have for a hero the penniless Scotch lord, in his mouldering tower: a man of kingly stature and falcon eye, of indomitable pride and immeasurable descent, and of unparalleled prowess in the pursuit and slaughter whether of beasts or men. A coarse variation upon Ravenswood, indeed, but infinitely better than that daft creature Macleod of Dare, in that he lives and breathes, has wits and uses them. It was a rather happy thought, also, to name him Ercildoune, after the Rhymer; and though we are half tempted to abandon him in disgust, when we meet him in a Paris café, “ wringing the amber Moselle from his long mustaches,” yet we are willing to believe, what is in itself a tribute to her creative power, that the vulgarity is the author’s rather than her hero’s, and we decide, upon the whole, that we would like to know more about him. And we are sincerely glad that we have done so, when it comes to following the gallant Scot in his wild night ride, as bearer of dispatches down the lonely Roumanian pass, and in that Homeric fight of his with the men who lay in ambush for him behind the fallen pine. The whole thing is magnificently described, and carries the reader along with something like the breathless credulity of his most tender years, up to the point where the queen’s messenger flings his precious papers into the foaming stream, and bares his bosom to the bullets of six thoroughly armed foes. How could he have escaped death, since they all fired, à bout portant ? But escape he did, of course, though left for finished by his cowardly assailants; for are we not still in the first half of the first of the three mystic volumes ? The dazzling creature, robed in Eastern silks and blazing with Golconda gems, who found him, and had him conveyed for treatment to the skillful sisters of the white convent upon the mountain side, was no Valkyria, come to unlock the warrior’s paradise, but a living woman, very handsome, naturally, and altogether most interesting and extraordinary. I must confess to a weakness for Idalia. As the ubiquitous genius of the Revolution in Europe a generation ago, the airy and beautiful head-centre of countless republican plots, with millions at the beck of her fairy fingers, luring peoples to revolt, and nerving individuals to the most enthusiastic self-sacrifice, she seems to me far more boldly and successfully conceived than the renowned Mary Ann of the author of Lothair. Just what manner of woman Idalia was, personally, the author has been at such elaborate pains to tell us that it is somewhat difficult to determine. Here are a few of her “ precious indications : ” —
“ The reverse of Eugénie de Gu#233;rin, who was always hoping to live and never lived, she had lived only too much and too vividly. She had had pleasure in it, power in it, triumph in it; but now the perfume and the effervescence of the wine had evaporated. There was bitterness in the cup, and a canker in the roses that crowned its brim, for she was not free. Like the Palmyrean queen, she felt her fetters underneath the roses. . . . At last she rose; she knew how many would visit her during the day, and she was, besides, no lover of idle dreams and futile regret. Brilliant as Aspasia and classically cultured as Héloïse, she was not one to let her days drift on in inaction. ... No days were long for her, even now that she rebelled against the tenor and purport of her life.” The riddle of the Sphinx can have been nothing to that of a lady who is comparable, in the same breath, to Eugénie de Guérin, Zenobia, Aspasia, and Héloïse. Yet, somehow, as in the case of Ercildoune, with whom she is fairly and, in the end, happily matched, the creature is so instinct with life and emotion that we believe in her, in spite of this pompous and foolish description. The suggestion, for instance, that she was “ not free ” is proved, by the event of the story, to do her gross injustice. It is a particularly vile suggestion, in this case, and may serve as text for a few disagreeable remarks which must Inevitably be made, sooner or later, by any one attempting a fair appreciation of Ouida. Her ideal of vice is as fantastic and exaggerated as all her other ideals. She appears to have the same sort of diseased fancy for it which some people have for strong and foul odors. She would seem early to have adopted into her theory of life the following principle, which she enunciates clearly enough somewhere in Chandos, and which contains just the grain of truth calculated to make it thoroughly pernicious : —
“ The age rants too much against the passions. From them spring things that are vile, but without them life were stagnant and heroic action dead. Storms destroy, but storms purify.”
Starting from this premise, and accompanied erelong, it must be confessed, by a goodly number of those who claim to constitute “ the age,” she proceeds to a sort of glorification of sensuality. She has the honor of having, to some extent, anticipated Zola. She is eager to inform us that all her very noblest heroes, even one who, like Chandos, is made capable of sparing and forgiving a most malignant foe, have been at one time or another “ steeped” in degrading indulgence. Nor is ordinary sensuality sufficient for her. Adultery is often too pale, and she must needs hint at something worse. She makes Idalia consent to pass for the mistress of her own father, and alarms Chandos with the ghastly idea that he may have been making love to a daughter of his. Doubtless her vaulting ambition to portray these ecstasies of crime o’erleaps itself, and suggests the idea that she may really be as ignorant of the world of men as she must be of that of letters, when she talks of poems “ half Lucretian and half Catullan,” and is reminded how Dante walked the streets of Florence “ five hundred centuries ago.” The apologists of Lord Byron have sometimes made a similar claim for him, namely, that his worst passages, his most utterly infamous intimations, were rather the freaks of a diseased fancy than the record of disgusting facts; but far distant be the time when it shall not seem specially monstrous for a woman to call for this kind of defense.
Let Idalia stand as the type of the half dozen voluminous tales which belong to the period when Ouida was a romanticist pure et simple. It is the ablest, upon the whole, although there may be those who prefer the buoyant and beaming naughtiness of Under Two Flags to the rather reckless display of lofty sentiments and grand heroics which marks the earlier volume. Taken altogether, these books reveal a truly remarkable wealth of invention and no mean constructive power; an ability, which may well challenge our admiration, to conceive an almost endless variety of striking figures and picturesque situations, combined with an independence of conventionalities, whether moral or literary, which moves one to something like awe. These books have, moreover, beside their intrinsic qualities, a certain interest in the history of fiction, as constituting, along with Lothair and perhaps My Novel and What Will He Do With It ? as well as the earlier efforts of Ouida’s direct imitators, Miss Braddon, Mrs. Wood, etc., the very last of the strictly romantic novels which can have been written in entire good faith upon the author’s part. The times were changing rapidly in the years when these tales appeared, and it was inevitable that a mind as active and impressionable as Ouida’s should change its tune and method in them. She was born, like all the restless and imaginative souls of our day who remember the “ forties,” to the ardent and confident belief in a cause: and that was the cause of civil freedom, the propagation of the American idea, the emancipation of “ Europe’s oppressed peoples ” from the supposed tyranny of their effete kings, — the cause of which Kossuth and Mazzini were the prophets, Lamartine the poet - laureate, and Garibaldi the doughty champion. That cause was by no means lost, still less was it admitted by its adherents to be lost, at the time when Ouida began to write. The “clouds of glory ” which the century had “ trailed ” from its tumultuous infancy were still faintly rosy, but they were destined to be pretty thoroughly dissolved in the “ light of common day ” during its sixth and seventh decades. France kissed the rod of the unprincipled oppressor, and settled down, under her handsome new chains, to a season of material prosperity and physical comfort which she has seeretly regretted ever since it came to its inevitable end. Hungary, the haughty and intractable, also seized her opportunity to sign, on advantageous terms, a compact with her mortal foe. Italy alone had apparently remained true to her vivid colors, had broken her yoke and ousted her foreign invader, and set up for a free and united nation, vowed to modern ideas. Incidents of the war of Italian independence are very effectively worked in with the dénoûment of several of Ouida’s earlier and more exuberant romances, Idalia among them. The authoress had, by this time, elected to make Italy her home, and in some sort of very sincere fashion, albeit with much music and parade, had formally given her heart and plighted her troth to that endearing country. I believe the love which this queer genius bears to Italy to be an entirely genuine and disinterested sentiment, — as much so, perhaps, as any of which she is capable. Those books of hers which, like Pascarel, Signa, and In Maremma, may be classed under the head of Italian idyls do really teem with something resembling the large, lawless, unkempt, and yet impassioned beauty of the laud itself, while the chronic and patiently borne misery of a large proportion of the Italian population fires her with a sort of wrathful pity, which in its turn moves her reader to honest sympathy with herself. Moreover, she feels the picturesque of Italy in every fibre ; and if she is open to the charge of always writing more or less bad Ruskinese when she essays to depict it, which of us who were brought up on the Modern Painters can cast the first stone ? There are real artistic verity and poetic feeling in such pictures as this of the Blue Grotto at Capri: —
“ Perfect stillness, perfect peace, filled only with the low and murmuring sound of many waters; a beauty not of land nor of sea, sublime and spiritual as that marvelous azure light that seemed to still and change all pulse and hue of life itself ; a sepulchre and yet a Paradise, where the world was dead, but the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.”
And this, of the olive : —
“ For the olive is always mournful. It is, amid trees, like the opal amid jewels. Its foliage, its flowers, its fruits, are all colorless. It shivers softly, as though it were cold, even on those sunbathed hills. It seems forever to say, ‘ Peace, peace,’ where there is no peace, and to be weary because that whereof it is the emblem has been banished from the earth,— because men delight in war.”
And this, on the never-to-be-hackneyed subject of Rome: —
“ Rome is terrible in her old age. It is the old age of a mighty murderess of men. About her there is ever the scent of death, the abomination of desolation. She was, in the days of her power and sorcery, a living lie. She called herself the mother of free men, and she conceived only slaves. The shame of her and the sin cling to her still, and the blood which she has shed makes heavy the air which she respires. Her head is crowned with ashes, and her lips, as they mutter of dead days, breathe pestilence.”
And this, of the region round Signa, and the stern aspect of winter upon the Tuscan hills: —
“ There is wild weather in winter at Signa. The mountain streams brim over, and the great historic river sweeps out in full flood, and the bitter Alpine wind tears, like a living thing, over the hills and across the plain. Not seldom the low-lying fields become sheets of dull, tawny water, and the little hamlets among them are all flooded ; and from the clock-towers the tolling bells cry aloud for succor, while the low, white houses seem to float like boats. In these winters, if the harvest before have been bad, the people suffer much. They have little or no bread, and they eat the raw grass, even, sometimes. The country looks like a lake when the floods are on ; only for ships there are churches, and the light-houses are the trees, and, like rocky islands, in all directions, the village roofs and the villa walls gleam red and shine gray, in the rain. It is only a short winter, and the people know that when the floods rise and spread they will find compensation, later on, for them in the doubled richness of grass and measure of corn. Still, it is hard to see the finest steer of the herd dashed a lifeless, dun-colored mass against the foaming piles of the bridge ; it is hard to see the young trees and the stacks of hay whirled together against each other; it is hard to watch the broken crucifix and the cottage bed hurled like dead leaves on the waste of waters ; it is hardest of all to see the little curly head of a dead child drift with the boughs, and the sheep, and the empty hen-coop, and the torn house-door, down the furious course of the river. . . . There are beautiful hills in this country, steep and bold, and formed chiefly of limestone and sandstone, covered all over with gum-cystus and thyme and wild roses and myrtle, with low-growing laurels, and tall cypresses, and boulders of stone, and old thorn-trees, and flocks of nightingales always, and the little sad-voiced owl that was beloved of Shelley. Bruno’s farmstead was on one of these hills ; half the hill was cultivated and the other half was wild, and on its height was an old, gray, mighty place, once the palace of a cardinal, and where there now dwelt the steward of the soil on which Bruno had been born. His cottage was a large, low, white building, with a red roof and a great arched door, and a sun-dial on the wall, and a group of cypresses behind and a big walnut-tree before it. There was an old well, with some broken sculpture; some fowls scratching under the fig-boughs ; a pig hunting for roots in the bare, black earth. Behind it stretched the wild hillside, and in front a great slope of fields and vineyards ; and far below them, in the distance, the valley, and the river, and the bridge, with the high crest of upper Signa and the low-lying wall-towers of the Lastra on either side of the angry waters. . . . When, now and then, a traveler or painter strayed thither, and said that it was beautiful, Bruno smiled, glad because it was his own country, — that was all.”
But Italy was destined to do more for Ouida, as an artist, in the larger sense of the word, than to satisfy her ideal of the beautiful in landscape. An experience was reserved for her there, or, more probably, a series of experiences, which vastly enlarged her knowledge of living men and women, and corrected, rudely perhaps, but effectually, her notions of civilized human society in the nineteenth century. Whatever one may think of the spirit in which it is conceived, there can be no doubt that the book which goes by the sarcastic name of Friendship marks a distinct intellectual advance on the part of the author. In it she clears at one leap the bounds which divide the romantic from the realistic school, and comes down on her old Pegasus, indeed, and with plumes all flying, among the grim observers of our disillusioned latter day. Friendship is indubitably coarse and crude in parts, but there is no part of it which is not preeminently readable, and this is more than can be said of some of the innocuous “ idyls.” As for the identifications with real people, over which all tongues were busy, for a time, in the city where the scene of Friendship is supposed to be laid, the critic has absolutely nothing to do with them. He who will may see a bit of enraptured self-portraiture in the superfine figure of the peerless Étoile. Strictly speaking, the reader is concerned only with the fact that, though the painting is somewhat overcharged, the figure is really one of extraordinary grace ; while there is a certain penetration and subtlety in the analysis of Étoile’s nature to which, for whatever reason, the author had not previously come near attaining. How profoundly and unsparingly studied, how consummately, if maliciously, painted, are the figures of Lady Joan Challoner and Prince Ioris! Each is almost a new type for the jaded devotee of fiction, and each leaves behind a singularly vivid memory. The intimate mixture of love and scorn with which Ouida seems to regard the entire Italian people is raised to the power of a consuming passion in her portraiture of Ioris : the gentlest and most helpless of aristocrats; the tenderest, falsest, and most worthless of lovers; the refined, sorrowful, indolent clairvoyant, — appealing and exasperating, fascinating and contemptible, representative of a thoroughly exhausted patrician stock. The picture drawn in Friendship of the foreign colony in a Continental city, its frivolity and irresponsibility, its meanness, moral and pecuniary, its prostrate subserviency to rank, and its pest of parasitic toadies and busybodies, is without doubt an ugly one : but it does resemble the real thing, alas ! and is not very grossly caricatured ; and if it have power to dissuade one individual, with strong home ties and affections and an appreciable stake in life, one who is not driven away by the positive compulsion of circumstances, from deciding to expatriate himself, it will not have been dashed off in vain.
The note of sound reality, which Ouida touches almost for the first time in Friendship, continues to vibrate more or less perceptibly through all her subsequent productions ; checking their extravagance, reducing their feverish temperature, regulating by the laws, at least, of remote probability their often insane and occasionally indecent action, imparting form and unity to her facile and rapid compositions. Enamored of gold and purple she still is, and always will be, but she has evidently learned something of the beauty of nuances and the value of alloy. She has by no means ceased to dote upon princes and dukes, but she acknowledges them to be human. She fixes her eyes unwinkingly upon their glories, and dares even to analyze and to judge them. Her Othmars, her Wandas, her Princess Napraxines, endure the limitations and pay the debts of our common humanity. Often entangled in the snares of fine writing, still she succeeds in freeing herself wholly from them at times, and shows herself mistress, for pages in succession, of a clear, nervous, telling style. Omniscience is not quite as much her “ foible ” as formerly. Her mania for allusive and universal quotation has plainly, subsided ; and her teeming ideas, whether caught from the reviews of books or the hearsay of learned conversation, have become so far clarified and classified that it would no longer be possible for her to write, —
“ His eyes dwelt on Trevenna with a strange wistfulness, a look which mutely said, ‘ Is it thee, Brutus?' ”
“ He glanced at his butterflies as he chattered, and saw that the pin was entering their souls like iron.”
“ In physics lie did not believe; he never touched them. Air and sea-water were his sole physicians.”
“ When a name is on the public mouth, the public nostril likes to smell a foulness in it.” (!)
Yet more notably, however, does this really shrewd and many - sided writer show the corrective touch of an enlarged experience, the worth of serious observation and reflection upon palpable facts, in the development of what may be called her civic instinct; her power of appreciating the economic and political conditions which actually come under her eyes, and of estimating the probable results of their natural evolution. Already, in the flowery épopée of Idalia, amid the hymns and the fanfares, the alarums and excursions, and the generally light, scenic, and, so to speak, decorative treatment of a vast and blind popular upheaval, there had occurred the following bit of acute criticism on one of the time-honored traditions of international policy in Europe. It is when there is a question of pecuniary recompense to the sublime Ercildoune, for having all but lost his own life through saving the Queen’s secret, in that fine scene in the Roumanian pass, to which allusion has already been made: — “ ‘ If you ’ll pardon my saying so, I don’t admire that system of indemnification,’ pursued Ercildoune. ‘ A single scoundrel, or a gang of scoundrels, commits an insult, as in this case, on England, or some other great power, through the person of her representative, or perhaps merely through the person of one of her people. The state to which the rascals belong is heavily mulcted, by way of penalty. Who suffers ? Not the guilty, but the unhappy multitude, peasants, traders, farmers, citizens, gentlemen, — all innocent, — who pay the taxes and the imposts. Of an outrage on a great power, if accidentally committed on a traveler by a horde of thieves, you take no notice whatever. If one were obviously done as a political insult, you would declare war. But when the thing happens in a small state, she is punished by an enormous fine, which half ruins her, for a crime which she could no more prevent than you could help, in Downing Street, the last wrecker’s murder which took place in Cornwall. Pardon me again, but I fail to see the justice or the dignity of the system ; and, for myself, when my own conviction is that the assassins who stopped me were not Moldavians at all, what compensation could it be to me to have the money wrung from a million or two of guiltless people, whose country the cowards chose to select as their field ? If you want to avenge me, track these dastards, and give them into my power.’ ”
This is only a bit of reflex action, to be sure, the gleam of an uncommonly lucid interval, an involuntary cry of common sense; but it foreshadows the powers of sharp insight and independent judgment which Ouida was destined to develop, after her revolutionary revels were ended, and she had settled down to the face-to-face observance of the first results of political emancipation in her beloved Italy. She had expected to assist at an apotheosis ; had dreamed of the brilliant exit from its dusty chrysalis of a regenerated and rejuvenated nation ; of the triumph, self-decreed, of an entire people ; of a procession as long as Italy ; and of a laurel crown for her own flowing locks, very likely, upon the Capitol. She found herself partaker in a sordid and dismal disappointment. Loving the Italian lower class, especially in Tuscany, —as who can help loving who has ever lived among or been served by them ? — loving them with all their faults, and the better, almost, for the childlike character of a good many of their faults, she could not fail soon to perceive that they, at least, were no great gainers by the change which had transferred them from the mild, hap-hazard surveillance of the amiable last Grand Dukes to the hands of the fussy and rapacious bureaucracy which meddles with all their humble affairs in the name of United Italy. There were indications, both in Pascarel and in Signa, that her sympathy with these helpless and obscure victims of modern progress might, some day, get the better of her self-consciousness, and sharpen her busy pen to a more stinging point than that, even, which had recorded the treachery of Ioris and the despair of Étoile. Finally, in the Village Commune, she brings her formal indictment against the present Italian government, and a tremendous indictment it is. The sad and simple intrigue of the book, the story of the poor, insignificant folk, whose minute means of subsistence were destroyed, their hopes crushed, and their lives quite ruined, because their lot happened to lie in the pathway of the big, new governmental machine, is told with great terseness and simplicity, for Ouida. It merely illustrates and is quite subordinate to the political purpose of the Village Commune, which is, to say the truth, rather a pamphlet than a novel. Let the reader listen for a little to the erewhile flowery and languishing romanticist, in this new vein of hers. It will at least give him a respectful notion of her versatility.
“ Tyranny is a safe amusement, in this liberated country. Italian law is based on the Code Napoleon, and the Code Napoleon is, perhaps, the most ingenious mechanism for human torture that the human mind ever constructed. In the cities, its use for torment is not quite so easy, because where there are crowds there is always fear of riot; and besides, there are horrid things called newspapers, and citizens wicked and daring enough to write in them. But away in the country, the embellished and filtered Code Napoleon can work like a steam-plough; there is nobody to appeal, and nobody to appeal to ; the people are timid and perplexed; they are as defenseless as sheep in the hands of the shearer ; they are frightened at the sight of the printed papers and the carabinier’s sword ; there is nobody to tell them that they have any rights, and, besides, rights are very expensive luxuries anywhere, and cost as much to take care of as a carriage-horse.”
“ The public creates the bureaucracy, and is eaten up by it: it is the old story of Saturn and his sons. Messer Gaspardo was a very insignificant item of the European bureaucracy, it is true, but he was big enough to swallow the commune of Vezzaja and Ghiralda. . . . Government, according to Messer Nellemane, — and many greater public men have thought the same before him, — was a delicate and elaborate machinery for getting everything out of the public that could be got. The public was a kid to be skinned, a grape to be squeezed, a sheep to be shorn ; the public was to be managed, cajoled, bullied, put in the press, made wine of, in a word, — wine for the drinking of Messer Nellemane. He was only a clerk, indeed, with a slender salary, but he had the soul of a statesman. When a donkey kicks, beat it; when it dies, skin it: so only will it profit you. That was his opinion, and the public was the donkey of Messer Nellemane.” “ Messer Gaspardo Nellemane stopped, espying, as I have said, that thing whose sight was beatitude and yet exasperation to him,— a contravention. He had made a code of little by-laws, all brand new and of his own invention. He thought administration should be persecution. If it did not perpetually assert itself, who would respect it? He had made everything punishable that could possibly be distorted into requiring punishment. Every commune has the right to make its own by-laws, and Messer Gaspardo had framed about three hundred and ninety ; and the Giunta, sleepily and indifferently, had assented to them, and the worshipful Syndic Cavaliere Durellazzo had looked them over and said, ‘ Va bene; va benissimo ! ’ And so, in Santa Rosalia, all the secretary’s regulations had been adopted and had become law. Quite recently, he had incorporated into these regulations the law that nobody should cut reeds in the Rosa without permission of and payment to the commune. L’état, c’est moi, and its pocket is mine, too, was always in the thoughts of Messer Nellemane.”
“ So the fountain became a thing of the past, and the labor for its destruction was entered, for a considerable sum, in the communal expenses, under the head of ‘ Works for the salubrity and decoration of Santa Rosalia.’ An ugly waste ground, filled with nettles and rubbish, was all the people got in its place ; and as for the old stones, some people did say they were reërected in a rich Russian’s villa, fifty miles away, Messer Gaspardo knowing the reason why. A gardener of the neighborhood swore to his neighbors that he had seen them there, and that he had heard they were the carved work of a great ancient sculptor. But Messer Nellemane said they had all been broken up to mend the roads, and had been of no value for aught else whatever. And so the subject had dropped, as most inquiries into public wrongs or the expenditure of public money do drop ; and though Santa Rosalia mourned for its lost fountain, it mourned altogether in vain, and the Giunta unanimously considered that the piazza looked very much better bare. Both trees and fountain begat humidity, they thought, and why should they not do in Rosalia just what was doing in Rome ?”
“ The law should be a majesty, solemn, awful, unerring, just, as man hopes that God is just; and, from its throne, it should stretch out a mighty hand to seize and grasp the guilty, and the guilty only. But when the law is only a petty, meddlesome, cruel, greedy spy, mingling in every household act and peering in at every window-pane, then the poor, who are guiltless, would be justified if they spat in its face, and called it by its right name, a foul extortion. . . . The Inquisitors are dead, but their souls live again in the Impiegati.”
This is a one-sided statement of the case, doubtless, but there is no denying that it is a remarkably able one. It is said to have had the result of adding a decided element of romantic insecurity to the audacious lady’s own residence in Signa, and to have so exasperated the powers that be as to make them look back, with unavailing regret, to the summary way, with its assailants, of the régime which theirs has displaced. Other liberal-minded foreigners, long resident in Italy, not so sensational and impassioned as Ouida, and better instructed, perhaps, in the countless difficulties of practical administration, will admit that there is too much truth in the Village Commune, even while they smile at its extravagance, and point to the fact that if the Tuscan peasant was happy and contented in his poverty under the Grand Dukes, it was because his pet peccadilloes were all blandly overlooked, and none but political offenses were punished at all; while he lent his foolish voice as loudly as any to the plébiscite which decreed their expulsion. My own impression is that in the more guarded and temperate re-affirmations of Ouida’s appendix to the book in question, we come as near as may be to the real gist of the matter : —
“It is irritating to see the foreign press, which knows nothing, actually, of the condition of things, laying down the law on Italian affairs. The English press attributes all the official evils of New Italy to the transmitted vices of the old régimes. Now I did not live during the old régimes, and cannot judge of them, but this I do know, that the bulk of the people regret passionately the personal peace and simple plenty that were had under them. The vices of the present time are those of a grasping, swarming bureaucracy everywhere, and of the selfishness which is the worst note of the Italian character. . . . It is strange that, with the present state of Ireland before their eyes, the whole of the public men of Italy should be as indifferent as they are to the perpetual irritation of the industrious classes at the hands of the municipalities and their organization of spies and penalties. But indifferent they are. Whether Bismarck approve their Greek policy, or Gambetta do not oppose their doings at Tunis, is all they think about. The suffering of a few million of their own people is too small a thing to catch their attention. They think, like Molière’s doctor, ‘ Un homme mort n’est qu’un homme mort, et il ne fait point de conséquence, mais une formalité negligée porte un notable préjudice à tout le corps de médicins.’ ”
“ No one can accuse me of any political prejudices. My writings have alternately been accused of a reactionary conservatism and a dangerous socialism, so that I may, without presumption, claim to be impartial. I love conservatism when it means the preservation of beautiful things, I love revolution when it means the destruction of vile ones. What I despise in the pseudoliberalism of the age is that it has become only the tyranny of narrow minds, vested under high-sounding phrases, and the deification of a policeman.”
Impressed, at all events, by the deep feeling and evident candor of the writer, and the almost total absence, in passages like these, of her wonted vanity and parade, we may cordially admit that there is matter here fit to atone for many literary and social sins, and to give this erratic and often reckless story-teller a plausible claim on the immunities promised to him “ who considered the poor.”
I have, I think, fulfilled my engagement to say all that can fairly be said in favor of one whose books are in many hands and whose name is on many lips, while it is wholly impossible to dissociate either books or name from a certain persistent odium. Power and variety are two very distinguished qualities in a writer, and these are possessed by Ouida in so large a degree that very few indeed of the female writers now living can rival her. Let it not he supposed, however, that fiction such as hers, even at its best, is claimed to represent the highest type. When I said that the romantic style, though illustrated by great and memorable names, was no longer the literary mode, I was far indeed from intending any disrespect to the school which has succeeded it. If we weary, sometimes, of the incessant occupation of the realist with every-day types of character, of the monotonous march of the action of his piece over the vast and melancholy levels of average human experience, we must needs revere his universal sympathies, his indifference to outside show and vulgar celebrity, his patient study of the springs of action and unflagging researches into the dim secrets of the human soul. Not every realist can be as George Eliot, or Daudet at his best, or the colossal Russians; or even as those refined representatives of the new school, who have done so much to enhance, with the reading world, the reputation of American letters. But each, in his degree, may claim to have accepted the ideal, may appropriate something of the spirit of the greatest and weightiest of them all in his latest — may we not yet for a long time have to say the last — of his published utterances :—
“ J’ai dit tout ce que je voulais dire, pour cette fois du moins : mais an doute pénible m’accable. Il aurait peut-être mieux valu se taire, car peut-être ce que j’ai dit est du nombre de ces vérités pernicieuses, obscurément eufouies dans l’âme de chacun, et qui, pour Tester in offensives ne doivent pas étre exprimées ; de même qu’il ne faut pas remuer un vieux vin, de crainte que le dépôt ne remonte, et ne trouble la liqueur. Où donc, dans ce récit, voyons nous le mal qu’il faut éviter, et le bien vers lequel il faut tendre ? Où est le traître ? Où, le héros ? Tous sont bons et tous sont mauvais. Ce n’est pas Kalouguine, avec son brilliant courage, sa bravoure de gentilhomme, et sa vanité, principal moteur de toutes ses actions. Ce n’est pas Praskoukine, nul et inoffensif, bien qu’il soit tombé sur le champ de bataille, pour la foi, le trône, et la patrie ; ni Mikhaïlof, si timide, ni Pesth cet enfant sans conviction et sans règle morale, qui pouvaient passer pour des traîtres ou des héros.
“ Non, le héeros de mou récit, celui que j’aime de toutes les forces de mon âme, celui que j’ai tâché de reproduire dans toute sa beauté, celui qui a été, est et sera toujours beau. — e’est le Vrai.” 1
Harriet Waters Preston.