‘Moths’ – Ouida

‘Ouida’ was the nom-de-plume of the English-born novelist Marie Louise de la Ramée, who wrote in the latter half of the 19th century. Her most famous novel is probably ‘Under Two Flags’ in which a Englishman leaves England for service in North Africa in a fictitious regiment obviously modelled on the well-known French Foreign Legion. The novel’s been filmed several times, including a version with Ronald Colman, Claudette Colbert and Rosalind Russell. Several of her works are available on Project Gutenberg (including ‘Under Two Flags’), but not the only novel of hers which I’ve read, Moths.

Moths was published in 1860 in three volumes: I have a reprinted copy based on the 1878 Tauchnitz edition (on permanent loan from my mother). It tells the story of a young girl, Vere Herbert, daughter of a younger son of the Duke of Cantire and Mull, who has spent the first sixteen years of her life living a rather harsh and puritanical, if loving, life with her grandmother, the Dowager Duchess, on an estate in Northumberland. At the start of the story, her mother, now Lady Dorothy Vanderdecken, who lives an idle and pleasure-seeking life mostly in France, is awaiting – with some trepidation – her daughter’s arrival from England. Her worst fears are realised when Vere arrives: her daughter is undeniably beautiful, but unfashionably dressed, far too tall, and intelligent (or at least well-educated and well-read). Lady Dolly’s best friend advises her to marry off Vere as soon as possible, and to this end, Lady Dolly encourages the advances of Sergius Zouroff, a rich Russian aristocrat with a huge estate in northern France, Felicité, who is twenty years Vere’s senior.

While Vere and her mother are in Deauville, Vere makes the acquaintance of Raphael de Corrèze, a celebrated operatic tenor (with an impeccably aristocratic background, even if his family were “beggared in the Terror” and he grew up poor). He is kind to Vere, and warns her about the world in which she has been put, seeing that her innocence and straightforwardness will be grave disadvantages in the shallow butterfly world of her mother’s set.

Lady Dolly manages Vere’s marriage to Zouroff, despite Vere’s dislike of the man – the reader only finds out later how – which leads to brittle enmity disguised under seeming friendliness from Zouroff’s long-term mistress, Duchesse Jeanne (married to Zouroff’s friend, Paul), as well as less well-disguised enmity from two other mistresses – an actress, Noisette, and “the quadroon, Casse-une-Croûte”. Vere lives an unhappy life with an uncongenial husband whom she comes to hate, estranged from her grandmother, and with almost no friends, since the people of her own world find her cold and distant – in fact her husband wishes that she could drink, flirt, talk wittily and use cosmetics like other women.

Throughout this unhappiness, almost the only consolations are her friendship with Corrèze, and her love of music – though this relationship is put under severe strain from others, and due to Zouroff’s jealousy. Eventually, the two realise they have fallen in love, but being honourable types, part. Zouroff eventually exiles his wife to Szarizla, his estate in Poland which he rarely visits – ostensibly because she will not agree not to see Corrèze, but in reality because she refuses to have Duchesse Jeanne under her roof (i.e. that she refuses to condone her husband’s mistress staying in the same house as his wife).

I find this a fascinating take on the Second Empire period, and Ouida’s examination of its mores through the innocent and untainted Vere. For the aristocracy of the time, it seemed inevitable to live idle and pleasure-seeking lives, and most of the characters are unpleasant, or else unthinkingly malicious. Vere does keep herself uncorrupted from this world, but it comes at a very high price. Ouida also mentions the impact of industrialization through Vere’s cousin, the impoverished Duke of Cantire and Mull, who, under his wife’s influence (Fuschia, an American girl whose origins are obscure but whose family have made a great deal of money), decides to dig for coal on the ancestral estates. This Vere deplores, being fond of nature and having such memories of her childhood there, though the coal mining goes ahead – and of course makes the Duke wealthy. In the end, Vere and Fuschia come to be friends, but it is a friendship of opposites.

There are interesting details about the sheer luxury of this life, and Zouroff’s in particular – the many estates he visits, his hundreds of servants, the money which he never counts – and yet he does nothing through conviction: he doesn’t even seem to like his mistresses, though he gives them extravagant gifts, merely to look well in the eyes of others and to seem generous. Very few people do things because they want to, but more because everyone else is also doing them.

I’ve always had something of a literary crush on Corrèze, though – he’s a fantastic musician, he’s kind and honourable, handsome, athletic and well-read – and he falls in love with Vere with a whole heart. Vere can seem a bit prissy at times, until one remembers that by the end of the novel she’s barely twenty, so it’s perhaps understandable. And the other characters, although one might not want to be friends with them, are entertaining to read about: Nadine, Zouroff’s elder sister, for example, who regards Vere with sympathy but enjoys the world which Vere hates.

Ouida’s prose is evocative (if a little high-flown at times, and her characters often speak in orotund paragraphs) and the story is unusual and unforgettable. If you can track down a copy, I’d recommend it both as an historical artefact and as a dense and touching story of love, and resistance to a moral evil, “Like unto moths fretting a garment.”

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