(born Jan. 1, 1839, Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, Eng.—died Jan. 25, 1908, Viareggio, Italy) English novelist. Among her novels, most of them extravagant, melodramatic romances of fashionable life, are Held in Bondage (1863), Strathmore (1865), Chandos (1866), Under Two Flags (1867), and Moths (1880). She also wrote animal stories, including the popular A Dog of Flanders (1872). She settled in Florence in 1874, where reckless extravagance reduced her to acute poverty in later life.
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That clean, quiet antiquated town, that always puts me in the mind of an old maid dressed for a party; that lowest and dreariest of Boroughs, where the streets are as full of grass as an acre of pasture land. Why, the inhabitants are driven to ringing their own doorbells lest they rust from lack of use.During her career, she wrote more than 40 novels, children's books and collections of short stories and essays. She was an animal rights activist and animal rescuer, and at times owned as many as thirty dogs. For many years she lived in London, but about 1874 she went to Italy, where she died.
Ouida's work went through several phases during her career. In her early period, her novels were a hybrid of the sensationalism of the 1860s and the proto-adventure novels dubbed "muscular fiction" that were emerging in part as a romanticization of imperial expansion. Later her work was more along the lines of historical romance, though she never stopped comment on contemporary society. She also wrote several stories for children. One of her most famous novels, Under Two Flags, described the British in Algeria in the most extravagant of terms, while nonetheless also expressing sympathy for the French--with whom Ouida deeply identified--and, to some extent, the Arabs. This book went on to be staged in plays, and subsequently to be turned into at least three movies, transitioning Ouida in the 20th century.
Herself physically of short stature and with a "voice like a carving knife," in her early years she adorned herself in diaphanous gowns, surrounded herself with flowers and commanded salons at the Langham Hotel (at times lying in bed) that included soldiers, politicians, literary lights, and artists. Convinced of her own ability to influence foreign policy through a combination of womanly wiles and strategic brilliance, she planted into the ears of her famous visitors suggestions that they at least to her face appeared to take seriously. The heroine of another well-known novel, Idalia (which she claimed to have written at 16), was a rebel/ingenue sympathetic to Italian independence. Later, while living in France and Italy, Ouida continued to hold court and to attract locals and expatriates alike to her gatherings.
Ouida considered herself a serious artist, and felt comparisons to merely popular contemporaries belittled her stature. She was inspired by Byron in particular, and was interested in other artists of all kinds. Sympathetic portraits of tragic painters and singers fill her later novels. Her work often combines romanticism with a critical edge, however. In one novel, Puck, a talking dog, narrates his views on society. Ouida's Views and Opinions includes essays on a variety of social topics written in Ouida's own voice as well.
Although successful, she did not manage her money well and died in poverty on January 25, 1908, in Viareggio, Italy. She is buried in the English Cemetery in Bagni di Lucca, Italy. On her death a public subscription purchased and erected a fountain for horses and dogs in Bury St Edmunds, with an inscription composed by Lord Curzon:
Her friends have erected this fountain in the place of her birth. Here may God's creatures whom she loved assuage her tender soul as they drink.