Monday, 1 December 2014

Under Two Flags by Ouida

published 1867







[Cigarette is a young woman attached to a North African regiment in Algeria]

She was very pretty, audaciously pretty, though her skin was burned to a bright sunny brown, and her hair was cut short as a boy’s, and her face had not one regular feature in it… She was pretty, she was insolent, she was intolerably coquettish, she was mischievous as a marmoset, she would swear if need be like a Zouave, she could fire galloping, she could toss off her brandy or her vermouth like a trooper, she would on occasion clinch her little brown hand and deal a blow that the recipient would not covet twice, she was an enfant de Paris, and had all its wickedness at her fingers, she would sing you guinguette songs and she would dance the cancan. And yet with all this she was not wholly unsexed… though she wore a vivandiere’s uniform, and had been born in a barrack, and meant to die in a battle.




observations:
I have a very high threshold for tosh of a certain kind. Not much defeats me, particularly older books with a dashing style. I try to ignore the racist and misogynist overtones, the ridiculous obsessions with honour and shame, the flowery language and the outrageous plotlines. And then I can enjoy, for example, the recently featured Beau Geste – a book that has much in common with this one, though written 50 years later.

But Under Two Flags is just
TERRIBLE. It was a massive bestseller in its day, and apparently when it first appeared there were suggestions it was actually BY GEORGE ELIOT. Words fail me. I found it close to unreadable, and scribbled in my notes are the words ‘Too much. Too much.’ The book is wildly over-written, with French words and phrases on every page, and ridiculous descriptions of everything. It made me cringe, endlessly.

There was another surprise too. I vaguely place Ouida at the turn of the 20th century – when I picked up this book I thought it might give me an entry for my Books of the Century challenge (which, btw, looks like it may well be a 2-year challenge rather than one...) Far from it: this book was published in an astonishing 1867. For comparison purposes, other books published in the 1860s include plenty of Trollope & George Eliot, Das Kapital, and Great Expectations.

The plot (there will be SERIOUS SPOILERS, can’t describe it without them): Bertie Cecil, posh London soldier, nickname Beauty (?!), courageously takes the blame for his brother’s crime, unable to give an alibi without sullying a woman who is herself worthless. [Note: why is this creditable? Why is letting off 2 bad people a good thing?] So he goes to Algeria and joins a French Army regiment very like the Foreign Legion. So far, so Beau Geste. He is brave, he is honourable, he gets on the wrong side of his commanding officer. While galloping round he meets the astonishing camp follower Cigarette, above, who dresses as a boy, a vivandiere ***** (In Little Women, published a year or so later, Jo says ‘Don't I wish I could go [to war] as a drummer, a vivan—what's its name?’). She is brave, Bohemian, one of the lads, she dances superbly, she has lovers all over. She comes to love Bertie. He, meanwhile, encounters a beautiful Princess (his own class, you see) – the sister of his best friend, the person he is wrongly supposed to have cheated.

Bertie defends the honour of the Princess by attacking his commanding officer, who hates him. He is sentenced to die by firing squad. Cigarette rides 50 miles across the Algerian desert with a pardon, but arrives just too late to stop the firing squad from shooting, but still in time to interpose herself between the bullets and her beloved Bertie. (The mechanics and timing of this are very hard to imagine.) So she dies over several long, long talkative pages – ‘such nobility, such sacrifice, such love!’ - leaving the way free for Bertie to go back to his old life. The main thing is, his favourite horse is still alive to welcome him home – it appears to be the only thing he cares for, despite inspiring love from all around him, men and women. Bertie is one of the least appealing heroes I have ever come across in any book.

And I definitely read this one so you don’t have to: Not recommended at all.

The picture shows Blanche Bates playing Cigarette in a stage version of the book in 1918. Claudette Colbert (a great blog favourite) and Theda Bara both played the part on film (there were at least 4 versions), though Louise Brooks would surely have been inspired casting. In the Donizetti opera Fille Du Regiment Natalie Dessay has made the part of Marie the vivandiere her own – she would make a great Cigarette had Verdi, say, been inspired to make an opera of it. In fact the book does have some of the ludicrousness of opera plots - it’s just more forgiveable in opera.

More women with the army on the blog in Terry Pratchett’s Monstrous Regiment.
 

****** To find out more about the fascinating history and clothes of vivandieres, and to see some wonderful pictures,  see these blog entries by blogfriend Daniel Milford-Cottam -  he comments below.

24 comments:

  1. Hmm.....I think you can guess my response :-)

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    1. Total agreement this time - it was NOT a good book.

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  2. Moira - No need to hold back on our account; I'd love to know what you really thought of this ;-). In all seriousness, just the snippet you shared was enough to put me off the book - such '-isms' there! No, this is not at all one that I'll put on my TBR. You should now take a well-deserved rest after that cherry-picking.

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    1. Thanks Margot - on the whole I don't review books if I dislike them this much - I wouldn't if it were a living author (unless it was one so successful as to not need to care about opinions.) But in this case it was SO bad as to be interesting, and I for one have always known there was a popular writer called Ouida. I thought there might be others like me who wanted to know about her books....

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  3. Thank you for the plot summary. I purchased a reprint of this novel out of curiousity about Ouida an author I had heard off. The book remains unfinished on my bookcase and will no doubt remain so. Definitely of it's period.

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    1. You're probably right to leave it there.... I'm glad to have read it for curiosity's sake, but also glad I don't need to bother with any more by her....

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  4. Moira: Great. It is hard for me to think why I would have read the book even before your review but withy your wonderful photo and review I am saved from reading the book!

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    1. My job is done, Bill, I feel I have saved everyone. Even people like you, who wouldn't have read her anyway.

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  5. This is one time I'll say I'm glad you read it so I don't have to. I'll gladly skip this one.

    But, am so glad you reminded us of the great books that came out in the 1860s and afterwards, too. Such a rich period of social and political ferment, science, philosophy, and good writing. Must delve more into this period.

    I think about the 1890s and what was happening in Europe, but rarely go back to the 1860s. And George Eliot, what a forward-thinking woman.

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    1. Yes - I tend to think of the Victorian writers as one big group, but it was such a long period that things changed a lot. And I think the 1860s must have been an important decade.

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  6. I don't understand. It doesn't sound snobbish, imperialistic or misogynistic at all. I think the fact that he loves his horse more than a beautiful woman is very British and we should be very proud of our equine loving heritage. Still, your effort of reading the book so I wouldn't have to has all been in vain - I wouldn't have read it anyway.

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    1. I think you are a person who has those big important feelings about honour and shame, and WHAT a pity you didn't get the chance to face a firing squad, be saved at the last minute, love your horse more than your family etc. You were born out of your time....

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  7. That is hilarious. Maybe you should write some fiction with all of those dramatic touches init.

    This post led me to read more about George Eliot, although I have done so in the past. I think it's great that she became a rationalist and countered her upbringing. Wish I knew more.

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    1. George Eliot is a fascinating person, very interesting life.

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  8. Moira, I have actually heard of the author Oudia, a pseudonym for English novelist Maria Louise Ramé, and even read and reviewed her tragic story A DOG OF FLANDERS, but that's about it. I think this is one of the rare occasions when you didn't like a book you read.

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    1. Really impressed Prashant, you are the only person I've found who has read her! I don't usually review books I don't like, but I made an exception in this case (partly because Ouida is not going to have her feelings hurt by my mean words....)

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    2. Ouida was the pen name of Maria Louise Ramé, also known as Marie Louise de la Ramée, an English novelist who wrote Under Two Flags and A Dog of Flanders. She was a very extrovert, odd person, and is believed to be one of the inspirations for the character of Angel in Elizabeth Taylor's novel of the same name. Ethel M Dell and Marie Corelli have also been cited as influences. When I read Angel I tried to do a bit of research on these women. I also read Under Two Flags, which is truly, truly awful. And I read Dell's The Way of an Eagle, which is even worse. They were so bad I couldn't face trying any of Corelli's work.

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    3. Thanks Christine for all the extra info - I have read Angel, so it's great to make that connection. Ethel M Dell - I read one by her, and it was not great, but I'd read another by her before I ventured into Ouida territory again. Corelli - Daniel (commenting below) has got me lined up to read one by her, but haven't got there yet.

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  9. I actually have written three blog posts on vivandieres for my work blog!

    http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/factory-presents/vivandieres-part-1

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    1. Fantastic! I wanted to go into the whole question of vivandieres (who have fascinated me ever since I first read Little Women many many years ago) but it was just a step too far, and now you have done a much better job anyway - I have added a note above.

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  10. I might easily have had a go at this, Moira, so thank you for saving me from myself! It does sound truly dire.

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    1. So often there are treasures among those forgotten dusty novels - I suppose there has to be duds too, and this was certainly one of them. I can be proud to have saved other people the trouble....

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  11. You're taking one for the team here - well done. I too love toshy books - I can't remember if I mentioned a Big Find this year in this area, namely Mrs Georgie Sheldon. She wrote serial novels, and the basic plot of all is poor but lovely young girl forced into drudgery/employment and young honourable man with whom something has gone wrong - many mistakes and mishaps - masses of travel - lost and found fortunes - eventual happy ending. And loads of high emotion, with titles like True Love's Reward. There are a lot available as free e-books and I was having a great time devouring them until I hit one where the plot was a love story / medical miracle based on the principles of Christian Science. Hmmm. I was cured.

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    1. Ah. Perhaps I'll have to try a different one... I've never heard of her and love the sound of this. The great thing is to be as fussy about your tosh as you are about your classics, and I think, in all modesty, that I am.

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