Ouida’s animalist stance in her life and in her works
“About the dog there is to me something of the faun, of the forest-god, of the mingling of divinity and brutality such as met in the shape of Pan, of an earlier, fresher, wilder world than ours; and from the eyes of the dog, in their candid worship, in their wistful appeal, in their inscrutable profundity, there is an eternal and unanswerable reproach.” (Ouida 1891, 321)
With this sentence Ouida, nom-de-plume derived from babbling her name Maria Louise Ramé, concluded her essay Dogs, published in 1891 in The North American Review. Ouida was born in 1839 in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, but as her father was French, she felt more like a Frenchwoman than an Englishwoman. In her thirties she moved to Italy with her mother, with whom she had a close tie, where she lived until her death in 1901. She is buried in Bagni di Lucca at the Cimitero degli inglesi in a chiseled marble tomb, depicting Ouida lying on her deathbed with one of her dogs. Ouida’s persona was so relevant for her time that she features several biographies, the most famous of which is the one written by Elizabeth Lee in 1914, Ouida: A Memoir, who assess critically both her life as well as her work as a novelist, critic and humanitarian, providing first-hand material such as the correspondence exchanged with her editors and her thoughts on politics and society.
Ouida never had a child nor she married, thus incorporating an alternative vision of the emancipated woman, although she was very critical of the suffrage movement, and of women, in general. She spent her whole life writing many novels, short stories and essays while living with her pack of dogs and committing herself to antivivisectionism and love for animals, especially dogs. During her life she was used to carrying a portrait of her dog in a locket worn around her neck (Lee 1914, 41). Ouida’s passion for dogs was so remarkable that her first biographer, Elizabeth Lee, wrote that she was commonly known among the Tuscan farmers as “la mamma dei cani”1The mom of dogs (Lee 1914, 95), and Ouida’s mother reported her daughter falling ill after the death of her dog. I will briefly analyze Ouida’s essays and works of fiction, in the context of the Victorian debate against vivisection and the contemporary outpouring of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals.
While nowadays Ouida’s work is relatively neglected, except for 1872’s novel A Dog of Flanders, which is still very popular, particularly in the Eastern Asia, and has been adapted for many screen and TV shows, between 1841 and 1900 Ouida was the second most widely published English authoress after Mrs. Braddon (Marucci 2009a). One possible reason for her falling into oblivion could be her extravagant personality, affecting her reputability. Another possible reason for her exclusion from the canon is the fact that she challenged the boundaries of conventional literature, avoided by the majority of Victorian women writers. Patriarchal moral culture of the period expected public women figures to be morally irreprehensible, and female fictional characters had to conform to that norm too, by being described as a saint or despised as a sinner. Ouida’s character as well as her own lifestyle - she was not married, wrote for a living, and led an individualistic independent life – suggests that the core of Ouida’s critique was not the woman but the commodification of female bodies used as tools in the marriage contract.
Studying the life of Ouida is particularly intriguing as her two natures, the writer on the one hand and the animalist on the other, mingle in a perfect way, testifying how deeply she was involved in advocating for a better treatment of animals as well as describing in her works the feelings of grief and bereavement for the loss of a beloved pet. Ouida decided to become a messmate with her dogs, often renouncing to return to England because legislation about quarantine did not allow her to bring her furry friends. For Ouida, sympathy for living beings, both animals and humans, was a political prerequisite in order to achieve as much freedom as possible. She was an enemy to science because she considered it the modern substitute for religion, a “New Priesthood” with a “brutalizing disregard of the mystery of life and its pitiless cruelty to helpless creatures” as she wrote in one of her letters to Henry Drummond (Ouida 1893) . In her article “A Plea on Behalf of Dogs”, which appeared in The Whitehall Review 1878, she states:
“I believe that the much-talked-of rabies would never be known if dogs were rationally treated and free to be happy in their own natural way.” She was also actively involved against The Dogs Act in 1871, a legislation stating that the court of summary jurisdiction could make an order to destroy dogs if there was any complaint about dogs being dangerous or not under proper control. (The Dogs Acts 1871)
Ouida’s opinions were pioneering not only in matter of vivisection and cruelty to animals. She had fresh and genuine thoughts on how a dog should live and be treated. For example, she was critical of dog shows in a moment where exhibitions such as the ones held at Crystal Palace were enjoying success and growing rapidly. In Dogs and their Affections (1891) she avows:
“All the shows and prizes and competitions and heartburnings, all the advertisements of stud dogs and pedigrees and cups won by this dog and by that, are injurious to the dog himself, tend to make external points in him of a value wholly fictitious, and to induce his owners to view him with feelings varying in ratio with his success or failure at exhibitions. The physical sufferings endured by dogs at these shows, the long journeys, the privations, the separation from places and persons dear to them, the anxiety and sorrow entailed on them, all these things are injurious to them and are ill compensated by the questionable good done to the race by the dubious value of conflicting verdicts on the excellence of breed and form” (Ouida 1891, 313).
Ouida attributed to dogs moral qualities such as unselfishness, devotion, and dignity, as well as moral and intellectual superiority. Elizabeth Lee describes Ouida in her memoir as:
“Surrounded by her great white Maremma dogs, occupied with her books and her painting, she seemed to pass her life in a sort of novel of her own. She wove a web of romance round herself and her belongings, and only showed interest in those things and people that could in some way be woven into it.” (Lee 1914, 83).
Ouida thought that other- than -humans’ intelligence as well as their ability to affect and to be affected was severely undervalued, suggesting that their minds exceed human ones not in quantity but in quality. As she states:
“The study of my four-footed companions has so persuaded me of their singular intelligence, their acute sensibility, and their most generous temper […], that I do but pay back a debt I owe when I endeavour, by any words that it is in my power to use, to plead for a little justice in this world to my dear comrades—the Dogs ( Lee 1914, 310)
However, Ouida’s thinking was not linear nor disembodied from the era in which she lived. “Canicide”, which appeared in The Fortnightly Review in September 1898, was harshly critical of British legislation regarding strays, but Pireddu has outlined how here Ouida herself is a victim of the overarching dualism of thought: “While animals are humanized and idealized, the human race becomes the epitome of bêtise itself, precisely in the French double allusion to both animality and stupidity. Either construction constitutes a differential operation in which the animal functions as the other of mankind, although for antithetical reasons” (Pireddu 2014, 117). She was a pioneer in linking animal and human oppression as a multi-faceted issue of disrespect towards the Other, as her lines taken from Puck testify:
“When will you give a Ten Hours’ Bill for horses? A Prohibitive Act against the racing of one and two year olds ? — a Protection Order for cattle? — and an Emancipation Movement for chained dogs? Nay — when will you do so much as remember that the coward who tortures an animal would murder a human being if he were not afraid of the gallows? When will you see that to teach the hand of a child to stretch out and smother the butterfly, is to teach that hand, when a man’s, to steal out and strangle an enemy?” (Ouida 1870, 167).
The “autobiography “Puck (1870) and the short stories A dog of Flanders (1872) and Moufflou (1882) center dogs as absolute protagonists and heroes of the plot, though they are not isolated from society but instead deeply entangled with it. While it is far too easy to dismiss these writings as sentimental, Mary Sanders Pollock states that she succeeds in creating an “ontological equivalence of human and canine” (Pollock 2005, 144), with her particular use of the free indirect narrative speech both for human and for dogs. In this case the talking animal is not used to anthropomorphize the dog, but to equate him to the human. While in the short stories, written for children, the representation of dogs is in third person and the protagonists Patrasche and Moufflou, though exceptional, are “just” faithful dogs, first-voice narrator Puck, a Maltese recounting his own story, has a strong personality (it could be argued that Puck serves as ventriloquist for Ouida’s judgmental thoughts on society), very different from the other canine protagonists of the novel, such as Fanfreluche, a toy terrier, “who ranks in our species much as your petites crevés and your pretty cocodettes rank in yours (Ouida 1870, 188). Puck is “very white, very wholly, very pretty indeed” (Ouida 1870, 2) but he assures us that he has studied life from a vantage point, as “from viewing life – all its cogs, and wheels, and springs – there is nothing so well as to be a lady’s pet dog” (Ouida 1870, 5). Puck, dog du monde but at the same time philosopher, considers himself a cynic, opening up to a train of thought about Ouida’s wit and love for cultivated play of words.
Although Puck is generally not included in the literary canon, neither in Ouida’s one, as scholars have not focused on Puck while studying the authoress, we have an exception in Marucci’s paper “Ouida’s Puck: ‘Animals are the Only True Humans’”, where he criticizes the literal quality of the novel but praise the use of some devices, stating that:
“The unprecedented novelty of the frame is that Puck is formally presented as a first-person autobiography of a dog, an ambitious stratagem taken from the fable, apt to reduce or more exactly to camouflage narrative omniscience, and a far from subtle mode to hit a number of targets with such an intermediation. The author’s omniscience is smuggled off by way of this canine perspective” (Marucci 2009, 272).
He then goes on in his enquiry, declaring that: “With Puck we face a reversal of the traditional hierarchy of narrative roles, as the novel posits a dog at centre stage and makes him look human cases from the canine-human point of view.” Talking animals are not an invention of Ouida, with the first talking dog being Cerberus talking with Menippus in Lucian XXI dialogue of the Νεκρικοί Διάλογοι2The dialogues of the dead., written in the second century, and with many other talking animals in literature. Puck’s novelty is that the dog does not just talk, he recounts his own biography, looking at human affairs from a canine point of view. Puck’s opinions flow both as a stream of consciousness and in exchanges with other dogs whom he meets during his vicissitudes around Europe. The reception of Puck was generally successful; poet Whyte-Melville wrote a praise bestowed on her work:
“I have just finished Puck and congratulate you indeed. To my fancy it is far the best of yours, good as the others are. It has all their imagination and dramatic power, with a vein of the most beautiful sympathy and feeling running through it, and a true poetry in the descriptions that is entirely independent of language, although clothed in the most beautiful and appropriate words. It is quite a work even a man might cry over, and that one would read many times and like better each time.” (Lee 1914, 58).
Puck’s Umwelt differs very much from those of Patrasche and Moufflou, not only because Puck’s country is England, while Patrasche is from Belgium and Moufflou is Italian, but because he belongs to a different social status. Patrasche is rescued by the child Nello and his grandfather, a poor milkman, while “Moufflou’s master was one of a family of poor but merry boys and girls. Their father had been dead five years, and their mother’s care was all they knew” (Ouida 1882, 97). Neither of the tales eludes a certain salvific narrative that presents dog as the only faithful buddies for wretched children, however the deployment of the plot is in neither case ordinary. Patrasche is found cuddling up next to Nello in Antwerp cathedral, both frozen to death. Moufflou runs from Rome to Florence to reunite with his beloved prostrated Lolo, who is about to die of hopelessness, but this results in another richer child, Victor, giving up his company. Victor generously renounces Moufflou because: “Moufflou was not happy with me” (Ouida 1882, 127).
A Dog of Flanders and Moufflou use a free indirect narrative style to convey a fairy-tale mood, but at the same time to narrate death or abandonment that occur at the end, and as animal memories are dependent on human writing, to memorialize animal mourning, loss and bereavement, mirrored in both cases by children. In Puck, the protagonist is rescued and comforted for some time by a stray dog, Bronze, who embodies kindness, gentleness and sorrow, adding to the canine characters a mirroring effect of vice and virtues that are found in human animal societies. These endings contrast sharply with the happy resolution typical of fairy tales, outlining the agency of canine protagonists, who consciously decide with whom they want to share their life and deathbed. As King observes, A Dog of Flanders has been targeted for children as “a result of marketing decisions that arose in 1890s and intensified in the early twentieth century” (King 2015, 361), as both the tragic ending and the sexual connotations of the relationship between Nello and Alois cannot be said to be suitable for children, let alone Victorian ones. Also in Puck the reader is left to wonder whether Gladys, a flower-girl, in becoming an actress has come to embody the stereotype of the demoniac femme fatale, a sexually charged woman that Ouida despises so much.
Puck satirizes society and criticizes the habit of the time of considering dogs only as ornament of a house. Patrasche and Moufflou actively take part in writing their own story of cohabitation with the human. This is probably the most important feature of Ouida, the fact that through her writings dogs, every dog, stands as a subjectivity, subverting the typical roles of narrative as well as cultural categories. Differently from other animalists of her age, Ouida is far from the perspective of a dog which is just a god spelled backwards, as well as the one perceiving compassionate behavior towards animal just a proof of a humane human being. She portrays non-human/human assemblages as a product of a co-creative evolution, even though she clearly posits dogs as superior to humans . While she may have idealized too much the trope of dog as loyal and faithful companion, I would generally agree with her in finding myself more comfortable in company of a four footed rather than of a human.
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Roberta Langhi is a PhD candidate in Public, Social and Cultural Institutions: Languages, Law, History at the University of Eastern Piedmont, Vercelli. Their current research sits at the intersection between Critical Animal Studies, English and American Literature and Queer Studies. Some of the issues they would like to investigate are: how dogs figure in literature in relation to urban and rural landscapes; how the human–dog bond can be of relevance to critical animal theory, comparing and contrasting pets and companion animals ; how dogs figure heavily in our imagination about sociality, nomadism and racial/species purity. The issues that will be raised will also engage with the long-standing involvement of feminist practice of care with animal activism and with animal welfare and total liberation.