This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. We also have more of his gargantuan donation left, so continue pitching me your 18th and 19th century trash fiction stories.
I feel like pop culture has a real love/hate relationship with Victorians—or at least with the image of Victorians most folks have. On the one hand, modern movies and bosom-heaving paperbacks dream up oversexed, ultra-violent Victorians. You don’t have to look very far for examples of that. Think of pretty much every version of Dracula at least since Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a considerable portion of Johnny Depp’s career (including both Sweeney Todd and From Hell), and, if still unconvinced, check out the trailer for Showtime’s upcoming “psycho-sexual horror” show Penny Dreadful.
What lots of fans and creators don’t talk about is that actual Victorian melodrama gets absolutely as sexual, dark, and violent as the new versions. Psychological torture porn is practically a Victorian genre. There’s more than enough evidence—check out Vendetta!, The Sorrows of Satan, or my favorite, The History of Sir Richard Calmady, whose protagonist is a diabolical libertine with no legs. But what I’m going to share here is a thrill ride through a Victorian novel so insane that it could hardly be made into one of these bodice-ripping horror flicks, much less a Masterpiece Theatre bit of high culture.
The writer’s pen name is Ouida, and she was an astoundingly popular Victorian author and complete character in her own right. A dandy of the highest order, she only wrote on purple stationary and surrounded herself at all times with such extravagant flowers that she nearly went bankrupt. She got kicked out of hotels regularly because of her obsession with dogs; seriously, she’d invite passers-by up to her room if they had a handsome pooch. She held dog tea parties. And her books were turned up to eleven, too. They boil over with adventure, intrigue, disheveled heroines, and curiously manic descriptions of clothes.
But fabulous weird Ouida wasn’t isolated from the supposedly-respectable writers, both of her era and more recent. She proudly claimed to draw much of her inspiration from the “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Lord Byron. Oscar Wilde called her “the last of the romantics.” Her style is an undeniable throwback to earlier writers, including her friend Edward Bulwar-Lytton who is more famous now for one fragment of a sentence (“It was a dark and stormy night”) than most 19th century writers are for anything. Later writers looked to her too, including Jack London, Henry James, and foundational writers of romances: Georgette Heyer and E. M. Hull. Though their names might not be as familiar, we can thank them (or not) respectively for the regency and orientalist romance subgenres.
Ouida’s wildly successful 1880 novel Moths was inspired by her own unrequited love for an opera superstar named Mario. She saw all his London performances and hurled not merely flowers at him, but also elaborate gifts—clobbering him once with an inscribed metal and ivory cigarette case.
Moths is an intense and totally bizarre novel that takes on high society with all the vitriol of both an artist and a woman scorned. Hers is Grade-A moralizing, taking the lowest of the low roads by crafting a perfect heroine and then just making her suffer and suffer and suffer.
Because, at heart, that’s what audiences want: then and now.
Vere, the heroine of Moths, is the perfect nineteenth-century cipher: effortlessly beautiful, generous, kind, quiet, and most of all, innocent. Basically everything Ouida wished she’d been. But Vere plays the ultimate damsel in distress. Get ready to watch this virtuous and appealing girl endure appalling circumstances, struggling to escape with her derrière intact—to say nothing of her dignity.
First, because she’s pretty and guileless, Vere inadvertently manages to piss off the jealous Lady Dorothy, who (did I mention?) happens to be her mother. Oops. Like something out of Flowers in the Attic, Victorian Cougar Mom decides to exact revenge on her archemeny daughter by marrying her off to the cruellest dastardly scoundrel in high society, Prince Sergius Zouroff.
Zouroff is the classic moustache-twirling villain who intimidates, ignores, and beats Vere. Here’s one of Ouida’s choice morsels about him:
It amused him to lower her, morally and physically, and he cast all the naked truths of human vices before her shrinking mind, as he made her body tremble at his touch. It was a diversion, whilst the effect was novel.
Vere learns only after she’s been married to the Prince that he was once (of course!), her mother’s own illicit lover. And what’s more, the wedding didn’t do much to slow down his extracurricular activities. Princess Vere stars in her own twisted version of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” with the discovery of Zouroff’s current three mistresses: a socially powerful duchess, a prominent actress, and a grossly exoticized woman of mixed race, Casse-une-Croûte. (Her name, I kid you not, refers to an outdoor snack.) Zouroff’s sleazy racism here is palpable and super icky. He goes way beyond typical bad-husband behavior and into Snidely Whiplash sadism. Could Hollywood even find somebody to play him?
Appalled that Vere doesn’t want his mistresses coming around the house—what’s wrong with her?— Prince Zouroff ships off his poor sweet bride to a castle. In Poland. Alone.
To be fair, though, Zouroff had also been driven to a jealous rage over Vere’s affection for (get ready for it) an opera singer. But Vere’s affair of the heart with the honorable, noble, talented, and necessarily impoverished Raphael de Corrèze is entirely chaste. Neither could stomach actual infidelity, duh; they have to be tortured by their longings, after all. But that’s no matter to Zouroff, who, remember, is regularly having his way with four women. He stomps into a million pieces the pretty necklace that Raphael had given her—a jewel moth suspended beneath a star and above a flame, symbolizing not so much Raphael’s love as Vere’s eye-rollingly flawless performance of Victorian chastity, by the way. So with that, off goes Zouroff’s super-saintly-but-starting-to-annoy-everyone wife to medieval comfort.
This misery extends for a few hundred pages. Ouida milks all this anguish and restraint stuff pretty hard. It climaxes in a duel, with Zouroff shooting Raphael. (You didn’t really think this would end well, did you?) As if that’s not enough, Ouida writes, “He had been shot in the throat… the blood filling his mouth.” With the opera singer alive but condemned forever to silence, “Paris heard, and wept for its darling—wept yet more for its own lost music.” Geez, Ouida, could you lay it on a little thicker?
When Vere, still in Poland, reads about this, she finally musters the courage to abandon her marriage, and joins at last with her dear Raphael. Except he can’t sing anymore. And they find themselves judged and ostracized by a corrupt world that sides with Zouroff. Because what we’re in it for is suffering, remember? Moths ends with the hideous maxim, “So the moths eat the ermine; and the world kisses the leper on both cheeks.” Oh Ouida! Don’t you like either your own heroine or the world that you make punish her? I’ll take these hundreds of pages as a no. This little bit of art therapy ran to three weighty volumes.
Her combination of situational hyperbole and emotional sincerity drew both extreme popularity and significant criticism; it actually makes me think of some of current pop stars with such a wide gulf between their cold critical receptions and their hordes of obsessive fans: imagine anyone here from Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift.
Anyhow, I take it that the moral is that you just can’t win in this kind of story. Either you stay a miserable princess locked in Poland, or you get shunned by the world and lose your ability to make art if you try to choose your own happiness. The only fun thing to do with perfection is mess with it, so Ouida creates Vere just to make her squirm. Sounds a lot like “psycho-sexual horror” to me.
Meredith studied Victorian Literature for way too many years until it drove her to drink. Now she writes about cider.