Short Takes: Ouida's UNDER TWO FLAGS
Once famous adventure novel from a once famous writer was, I remember, dull dull dulldulldulldull. I like adventure/swashbuckling novels from this period and can take a lot of the conventions (the languid pace, the snobbish fixation on the aristocracy, the florid styles, etc.) but even I skimmed large sections of this.
There is an argument -- or really it's more vague than that, call it a point of view -- that popular literature of the past was just better than it is today. I'm sympathetic: I think it's fair to say that the average novel of 1867 (when Flags came out) is better than the average novel of today.
Unfortunately that's about worthless as anything more than a feeling. "Literature" is a generality that's meaningless except as it relates to this book or that book; it only has meaning in the examination of individual works. And it's not hard to pick out great books from today. Or crummy books from the past, like Flags.
It might not have helped that I read this in conjunction with PC Wren's absolutely masterful Beau Geste, a superior novel in every respect. Geste has a lot of the same conventions -- a sort of veddy British acceptance of Empire main among them -- but it's big advantage is that it's much more sharply written and told, with an admirable bluntness and drive. (Wren is actually an author who needs another look: I'm curious if other novels of his hold up. ) Even the introduction to my Oxford UP reprint ends up reluctantly talking about Wren before getting to Ouida herself (although John Sutherland -- I don't know either, some academic -- rather sniffily rates Wren an "inferior novelist").
(Actually it's pretty funny: this is the first time in a long time I've seen the Sutherland intro and I've forgotten the amount of apologies the poor bastard makes for Ouida. After a lengthy discussion of the text's history he eventually admits that Flags is "one volume too long". Ha!)
The Wiki article, most interesting for the Punch caricature. I don't get the joke, though. Oh, obviously 'Ouida' was a pseudonym (real name Marie Louise de la Ramee).
A great sniffy excerpt from some ancient literary encyclopedia. God, they knew how to write 'em in those days. You can almost hear the guy harrumphing.
You can read Flags online through Project Gutenberg and some other sites. Since I don't actually want you to read it, I'm not going to link to any of that. It's out there, though, if you must.
That's about it. On a usenet group I found a thread about this novel which has the following long quote:
"With the strength that lay under the gentle languor [!] of his habits and with the science of the Eton Playing Fields of his boyhood, he wrenched his wrists free ere the steel had closed, and with the single straightening of his left arm felled the detective to earth like a bullock, with a crashing blow that sounded through the stillness like some heavy timber stove in; flinging himself like lightning on the Huissier, he twisted out of his grasp the metal weight of the handcuffs, and wrestling with him was woven for a second in that close-knit struggle which is only seen when the wrestlers wrestle for life and death. The German was a powerful and firmly built man, but Cecil's science was the finer and more masterly. His long, slender, delicate limbs seemed to twine and writhe around the massive form of his antagonist like the coils of a cobra; they rocked and swayed to and fro on the stones, while the shrill, shrieking voice of Baroni filled the night with its clamour. The vice-like pressure of the stalwart arms of his opponent crushed him in till his ribs seemed to bend and break under the breathless oppression, the iron force; but desperation nerved him, the Royallieu blood, that never took defeat, was roused now, for the first time in his careless life; his skill and his nerve were unrivalled, and with a last effort he dashed the Huissier off him, and lifting him up - he never knew how - as he would have lifted a log of wood, hurled him down in the white streak of moonlight that alone slanted through the peaked roofs of the crooked by-street."
I rest my case.