On World Animal Day, it seems appropriate to celebrate perhaps the most devoted literary friend that the animal kingdom could ever have had pressed upon it. Ouida (born Maria Louisa Ramé, 1839-1908) was one of the most prominent writers of her generation, with over fifty bestselling titles including novels, short stories and non-fiction, which in turn inspired numerous film and stage adaptations.
Although reportedly enjoyed by that ultimate Victorian literary worthy, Alfred Lord Tennyson (see Andrew Lang’s biography), mockery of Ouida's highly coloured and passionate literary style was one of the constants of her life, along with the pressing urgency of generating more saleable text to fund her financially precarious lifestyle, and, above all else, dogs.
Ouida's animal instinct
From the years she spent as a young woman living scandalously in a suite at the Lanham Hotel, surrounded by dogs which dined nightly off the restaurant menu, the image of Ouida became inseparable from her canine companions. The novelist Rose Macaluay, while championing Ouida’s value, referred to her as ‘dog-intoxicated’, and they certainly pervaded every physical, mental and literary space she occupied. In her novels, the dogs are almost always the sole truly moral characters present and they strikingly lack the vices that others might regard as animalistic, such as greed for food or the physicality of sex. Long before Virginia Woolf would conceive of Flush, Ouida wrote a lengthy, if confused, canine autobiography, Puck, in which the title character rants
‘‘“Animal,” forsooth! A more unfair word don’t exist. When we animals never […] eat except when we have genuine appetites, never indulge in any sort of debauch, and never strain excess till we sink into the slough of satiety’
The speech gives a fair view of Ouida’s prose style, but it is also perhaps not a portrait of dogs which any dog-owner who has ever risked leaving a sack of dog food within biting reach would recognise, although Ouida’s dogs were strangers to such fodder. Ouida spent much of her life in a rambling, dog-filled villa in Tuscany, constantly on the brink of bankruptcy but endlessly tricked by local villagers into paying for stray dogs; as her biographer Eileen Bigland notes ‘not only did the English lady pay well for dogs but she also bought quantities of meat, eggs and cream on which to feed them’.
World Animal Day is committed to ending animal experimentation and this was certainly a cause close to Ouida’s heart. Vivisection was a theme she returned to repeatedly in fiction, newspapers articles and pamphlets, always using the image of a terrified dog subjected to unspeakable procedures. Strikingly, she insistently ascribes sinister motives to vivisectionists, driven by those vices of greed and lust of which Puck is innocent. For example, she commands us to think of the scientist, ‘eating and drinking, jesting and love-making, filling his belly and indulging his desires, then returning to his laboratory to devise and execute fresh tortures, his hands steeped in blood, his eyes greedily watching the throes he stimulates’.
Ultimately, in rather ornate language where it is difficult to determine if she is entirely serious, she thunders:
‘there are tens of thousands of human beings in every country of Europe, who are of no earthly use to any living thing, who do but cumber the earth they pollute, who are at their best mere lumps of sodden flesh, and are at their worst dangerous and poisonous elements of society. Why do not the professors of vivisection claim these?’
Few of those celebrating World Animal Day might follow Ouida down that particular line of argument, but we can reflect that she might be pleased to see a culture where the polluting, dangerous and poisonous effect of humanity on the animals of the world is a matter of daily comment and record.
Browse the Library’s holdings on and by Ouida here (some older titles are currently being recatalogued).