‘Ouida had one of the most powerful radical conservative voices of the late-nineteenth century. Known primarily as a colourful and eccentric novelist, she embodied in her forthright essays a much more piercing energy and single-minded verve’. So states the blurb of Ouida’s The Sins of Society, an essay collection published by Michael Walmer. Most of the ten essays collected in the volume were published in ‘serious’ journals such as the Pall Mall Magazine and the Fortnightly Review during the early 1890s, and are inspired by such things as history, art, and architecture.
Ouida, whilst relatively neglected in today’s literary world, published over forty novels, as well as stories, essays, and children’s books. From the very outset of the essays within this collection, she holds no bounds; the first, and titular, piece has the following in its opening paragraph: ‘There are no butterflies in this fast, furious and fussy age. They all died with the eighteenth century, or if a few still lingered on into this, they perished forever with the dandies… The dominant classes of the present day have nothing in the least degree akin to the butterflies, would to Heaven that they had! Their pleasure should be more elegant, their example more artistic, their idleness more picturesque than these are now.’
Her writing is a wonderful balance of measured and descriptive throughout, and it is quite beautiful in places. She discusses modern society and all of its pitfalls in all of its variations – the environment in which one lives, luxury, the perils of a rushed life, education, drinking and gambling, procreation, conscription, religion, and gardens, amongst other elements. There is also a great emphasis placed upon travel writing here, much of it penned in Italy. Despite the historical provenance of these essays, much of what Ouida discusses is relevant to today, as many parallels can be drawn between our world and hers. So little has really changed since Ouida’s day; we hold the same core global values on the whole, and the ways in which we seek to represent ourselves does not appear to have greatly moved on in the intervening century.
Perhaps most fitting, particularly where 2016 is concerned. is this: ‘Mob rule is rising everywhere in a muddy ocean which will outspread into a muddy plain wherein all loveliness and eminence will be alike submerged’. The Sins of Society is relatively slim in size, but it is so packed full of ideas that it soon becomes an incredibly rich essay collection. Ouida’s voice is shrewd and intelligent, and she provokes many thoughts within the mind of the reader. She discusses a wealth of topics in a well-informed manner, and this collection is sure to delight the politically and societally aware.