Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/De la Ramée, Marie Louise
DE LA RAMÉE, MARIE LOUISE, 'Ouida' (1839–1908), novelist, born on 1 Jan. 1839 at 1 Union Terrace, Bury St. Edmunds, was daughter of Louis Ramé and his wife Susan Sutton. She owed all her education to her father, a teacher of French, whose mental power was exceptional. She expanded her surname of 'Ramé' into 'De la Ramée' at an early age. A diary of girlhood from April 1850 to May 1853 (Huntington, Memories, 1911, pp. 228-96) proves her precocity, love of reading, and eagerness to learn. She visited Boulogne with her parents in 1850, and accompanied them to London in 1851 to see the Great Exhibition. In 1859 she was living in London at Bessborough House, Ravenscourt Park, Hammersmith, and her neighbour and medical adviser, Dr. Francis W. Ainsworth, introduced her to his cousin, William Harrison Ainsworth [q. v.]. She began her literary career under Harrison Ainsworth's auspices, publishing in the 'New Monthly Magazine' a short story entitled 'Dashwood's Drag or, the Derby and what came of it' (1859). Ainsworth, convinced of her ability, accepted and published by the end of 1860 seventeen tales by her, none of which she reprinted, although they brought her into notice. Like her later novels they dealt with dubious phases of military and fashionable life. Her first long novel, 'Granville de Vigne,' appeared in the same magazine in 1863. Tinsley published it in three volumes, changing the title with her consent to 'Held in Bondage' and paying her 80l. On the title-page Miss Ramé first adopted the pseudonym of 'Ouida,' a childish mispronunciation of her name Louise, by which she was henceforth exclusively known as a writer. 'Strathmore' followed in 1865, and 'Idalia,' written when she was sixteen, in 1867. 'Strathmore' was parodied as 'Strapmore! a romance by "Weeder" ' in 'Punch' by (Sir) Francis Burnand in 1878. Ouida's vogue, thenceforth established, was assisted by an attack which Lord Strangford made on her novels in the 'Pall Mall Gazette.'
From 1860 onwards 'Ouida' spent much time in Italy. When in London she stayed at the Langham Hotel, and attracted attention which was not always flattering in literary society. William Allingham met her at a dinner in London in December 1868; he describes her as dressed in green silk, with a sinister clever face, her hair down, small hands and feet, and a voice like a carving-knife (H. Allingham and D. Radford, William Allingham, a Diary, 1907, pp. 193-4). She made a more favourable impression on Shirley Brooks in 1870 (Layard, Shirley Brooks, 1907). Bulwer Lytton greatly admired her work, and in 1871 on the publication of 'Folle-Farine' he wrote her an eight- page letter in which he hailed the book as a triumph of modern English romance. In 1874 she settled permanently with her mother in Florence, and there long pursued her work as a novelist. At first she rented an 'apartment' at the Palazzo Vagnonville. Later she removed to the Villa Farinola at Scandicci, three miles from Florence, where she lived in great style, entertained largely, collected objets d'art, dressed expensively but not tastefully, drove good horses, and kept many dogs, to which she was deeply attached. She declared that she never received from her publishers more than 1600l. for any one novel, but that she found America 'a mine of wealth.' In 'The Massarenes' (1897) she gave a lurid picture of the parvenu millionaire in smart London society. This book was greatly prized by Ouida, but it failed to sustain her popularity, which waned after 1890. Thenceforth she chiefly wrote for the leading magazines essays on social questions or literary criticisms, which were not remunerative.
Unpractical, and not very scrupulous in money matters, Ouida fell into debt when her literary profits declined, and gradually became a prey to acute poverty. Her mother, who died in 1893, was buried in the Allori cemetery at Florence as a pauper. From 1894 to 1904 Ouida lived, often in a state bordering on destitution, at the Villa Massoni, at Sant' Alessio near Lucca. From 1904 to 1908 she made her home at Via-reggio, where a rough peasant woman looked after her, and her tenement was shared with dogs which she brought in from the street. A civil list pension of 150l. a year offered her by the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannennan, on the application of Alfred Austin, George Wyndham, and Lady Paget, was at first declined on the score of the humiliation (Austin, Autobiography, 1835-1910, 1911, ii. 105-6), but her scruples were overcome by her old friend, Lady Howard of Glossop, and Ouida accepted the recognition on 16 July 1906. The pension was granted her in August to date from the previous 1 April. An appeal made to her admirers to subscribe for her relief was met by Ouida's indignant denial that she was in want. She died on 25 Jan. 1908, at 70 Via Zanardelli, Viareggio, of the effects of pneumonia, and was buried in the English cemetery at the Bagni di Lucca. An anonymous lady admirer erected over the grave a monument representing the recumbent figure of Ouida with a dog at her feet.
Ouida had an artificial and affected manner, and although amiable to her friends was rude to strangers. Cynical, petulant, and prejudiced, she was quick at repartee. She was fond of painting, for which she believed she had more talent than for writing, and she was through life in the habit of making gifts of her sketches to her friends. She knew little at first hand of the Bohemians or of the wealthy men and women who are her chief dramatis personæ. She described love like a precocious school-girl, and with an exuberance which, if it arrested the attention of young readers, moved the amusement of their elders (cf. G. S. Street in Yellow Book, 1895, vi. 167-176). Yet she wrote of the Italian peasants with knowledge and sympathy and of dogs with an admirable fidelity. Her affection for dumb animals grew into a craze, but it came of her horror of injustice. Her faith in all humanitarian causes was earnest and sincere. She strongly sympathised with the Boers through the South African war.
Slightly built, fair, with an oval face, she had large dark blue eyes, and golden brown hair. A portrait in red chalk, drawn in September 1904 by Visconde Giorgio de Moraes Sarmento, was presented by the artist to the National Portrait Gallery, London, in 1908. He presented another drawing, made also in her declining years, to the Moyses Hall Museum, Bury St. Edmunds. A memorial drinking fountain (with trough), designed by Ernest G. Gillick, with a medallion portrait, was erected by public subscription at Bury St. Edmunds (unveiled on 2 Nov. 1909); the inscription is by Earl Curzon of Kedleston.
Ouida published forty-four works of fiction either separate novels or volumes of collected short stories. The most popular were 'Held in Bondage' (1863, 1870, 1900); 'Strathmore' (1865); 'Idalia' (1867); 'Under Two Flags' (1867); 'Tricotrin' (1869); 'Puck' (1870); 'A Dog of Flanders and other Stories' (1872); 'Two Little Wooden Shoes' (1874); 'Moths' (1880); and 'Bimbi, Stories for Children' (1882), which was translated into French for the 'Bibliothèque Rose.' Her books were constantly reprinted in cheap editions, and some of them translated into French, or Italian, or Hungarian. Many of her later essays in the 'Fortnightly Review,' the 'Nineteenth Century,' and the 'North American Review' were republished in 'Views and Opinions' (1895) and 'Critical Studies' (1900). There she proclaimed her hostility to woman's suffrage and to vivisection, or proved her critical insight into English, French, and Italian literature. Her uncompleted last novel, 'Helianthus' (1908), was published after her death.
Ouida tried to write a play for the Bancrofts, but did not get far beyond the title, 'A House Party' (cf. The Bancrofts, 1909, p. 293); a novel of that name appeared in 1887. An opera by G. A. à Beckett and H. A. Rudall was founded in 1893 on her novel 'Signa' (1875), and the light opera 'Muguette' by Carré and Hartmann on 'Two Little Wooden Shoes.' Plays based on 'Moths' (by Henry Hamilton, produced at the Globe Theatre 25 March 1883) and on 'Under Two Flags' had much success.
[The Times, 27 Jan. 1908; S. M. Ellis, William Harrison Ainsworth and his Friends, 1911, ii. 234-236; W. G. Huntington, Memories, 1911, pp. 190-296, with diary of Ouida, April 1850 to May 1853; Tinsley, Random Recollections, i. 82-85; Edmund Yates, Celebrities at Home, first ser. 1877; private information.]