[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.