The art of popular fiction: gender, authorship and aesthetics in the writing of Ouida.
Molloy, Carla Jane
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)
This thesis examines the popular Victorian novelist Ouida (Maria Louisa Ramé) in the context of women’s authorship in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first of its two intentions is to recuperate some of the historical and literary significance of this critically neglected writer by considering on her own terms her desire to be recognised as a serious artist. More broadly, it begins to fill in the gap that exists in scholarship on women’s authorship as it pertains to those writers who come between George Eliot, the last of the ‘great’ mid-Victorian women novelists, and the New Woman novelists of the fin de siècle. Four of Ouida’s novels have been chosen for critical analysis, each of which was written at an important moment in the history of the nineteenth century novel. Her early novel Strathmore (1865) is shaped by the rebelliousness towards gendered models of authorship characteristic of women writers who began their careers in the 1860s. In this novel, Ouida undermines the binary oppositions of gender that were in large part constructed and maintained by the domestic novel and which controlled the representation and reception of women’s authorship in the mid-nineteenth century. Tricotrin (1869) was written at the end of the sensation fiction craze, a phenomenon that resulted in the incipient splitting of the high art novel from the popular novel. In Tricotrin, Ouida responds to the gendered ideology of occupational professionalism that was being deployed to distinguish between masculinised serious and feminised popular fiction, an ideology that rendered her particularly vulnerable as a popular writer. Ouida’s autobiographical novel Friendship (1878) is also written at an critical period in the novel’s ascent to high art. Registering the way in which the morally weighted realism favoured by novelists and critics at the mid-century was being overtaken by a desire for more formally oriented, serious fiction, Ouida takes the opportunity both to defend her novels against the realist critique of her fiction and to attempt to shape the new literary aesthetic in a way that positively incorporated femininity and the feminine. Finally, Princess Napraxine (1884) is arguably the first British novel seriously to incorporate the imagery and theories of aestheticism. In this novel, Ouida resists male aesthetes’ exploitative attempts to obscure their relationship to the developing consumer culture while confidently finding a place for the woman artist within British aestheticism and signalling a new acceptance of her own involvement in the marketplace. Together, these novels track Ouida’s self-conscious response to a changing literary marketplace that consistently marginalised women writers at the same time that they enable us to begin to uncover the complexity of female authorship in the second half of the nineteenth century.