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On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress


THIS was at Turin. I had strolled slowly back to the hotel
about half-past eleven, and was glancing at some time-table
or other hung up on the staircase, when a lady passed me
very quietly going to her room. She was quite alone, without
even a maid; and the servants of the hotel remained unmoved at
her passage. Hardly had she gone by than the manager of the
hotel, coming in an opposite direction, stopped to speak to me.
Had I observed the lady? That was Mme X, who was giving
a series of representations at the theatre. Had I not noticed her
name on the board in the hall where the names of the travellers
were written? Not even. That was curious; however, she was
staying in the hotel, in fact, she had the very next room to mine.
And the manager proceeded to talk enthusiastically about the
great national actress. He knew Europe, he said; he knew the
Paris theatres; well, there was no one to touch her in Paris or
elsewhere. She had the strength and fire of Mme Bernhardt; the
diction and subtility of Mme Moreno. And with all that she was
so quiet, so unpretentious, so charitable; she had no money, she
gave it all away. Her own needs were very slight. He went on
to lament that she chose so often such bad plays, and that the
company of players who travelled with her was always inferior.

    “Those players, have you them,” said I, “staying here too?

    Ah, no, not them. Actors, as a rule, didn’t come to his
hotel. But Mme X was so simple and so quiet—yes, so quiet.


    AFTER that, when I got up to my room, the room next to Mme
X, I confess it, my mind was in what you may call a tourbillon.
Notions which I had affected for years, which I had grown to
accept without question, had just been crumbled to ashes. An
obscure citizen, pursuing my daily round far from the contact of
artists of any kind, whose names I was used to read with a certain
awe in the newspapers, I had, like other plain citizens, formed

notions of a violent, brilliant, erratic life which artists and such
enjoyed, and of which the plain citizen was deprived. The plain
citizen sometimes amuses his stray hours by picturing the feverish
delights of this life of the artist, with more or less success as his
imagination is strong or weak. When his imagination is fatigued
and can no more, he calls upon novels and romances to continue
the vision. For myself, at any rate, I freely acknowledge that such
notions as I had formed of all this kind of thing had been gleaned
in the field of romance, from novels in which actresses and painters
and musicians and poets figured in an endless and bewildering dis-
play of lights and flowers and supper-parties, in the homage of
princes and the tributes of genius, laughter, rapture, love, a sym-
phony of prodigality and adulation. Yes; but here was an actress,
and of the most celebrated, returning even like myself, the plain
citizen, by herself to her hotel a few minutes after the last act.
And heaven knows it was not to a revel she was returning; I had
the room next to hers, and I constated in great perplexity that
there was no popping of champagne corks, no smell of flowers and
cigarettes, no wit, no laughter, no little supper going on, no any-
thing. Here was an accident to strike chill upon the most incurably
romantic. Why was there no talk, no bustle, all the insolent
noise in the wake of a prima donna who has taken the possession
of an hotel? Why were not the princes and journalists crowding
the stairs? Instead of all that, on the other side of the wall a tired
woman was in the common-place situation of making up her mind
to go to bed in the common-place room of an hotel, with the same
disgust, the same common-place boredom as I was on mine. That
was all. But, since this was the sad reality, unsealing painfully
my long abused sight, how about the novelists with whom I had
mewed my youth? How about Balzac and a hundred others?
How, above all, about Ouida?


    You will realize without difficulty that after this sudden crash
among the opinions of a lifetime I had little disposition to sleep,
and lying awake in the darkness I fell to thinking of the works of
this romancer, so very good, so excellent even in some respects,

            On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress

so shockingly bad in others—and I say shockingly, because I
mean strictly that their badness is of the kind which does give you
actually a shock. An hotel, to be sure, was no such inappropriate
place to meditate upon the novels of Ouida, for her books have
all the fever and restlessness of an hotel; that is, of one of those
big hotels in big cities where princes and “prominent actresses”
and tenors descend; ironically enough one of those developments
of modern life which the authoress herself whenever she gets a
chance spares no pains to belabour. One has heard that in the
years between 1880 and 1890 Ouida was considered immoral, or
rather what was then called in the jargon of the period “fast”: it
is hardly conceivable: one finds on the contrary that her propen-
sity is to preach, one finds even that she preaches too much.
But since such an appreciation of Ouida undoubtedly at one
time prevailed, the seed of it must be looked for in the constant
suggestion her characters, male and female, manage to give of
living imperturbably in the sight of the public. It is certain that
the author wishes nothing less than to have her characters bring
about this suggestion, but the suggestion is nevertheless conveyed
in spite of her; even as a man or woman may go into a company
with their minds made up to produce one kind of effect, and
actually produce quite another. Of course, Ouida constantly gives
us the interior, the domestic hearth, the private house; but the
private house somehow or other takes the air, as it has the pro-
portions, of some gigantic palace hotel in London, Paris, or New
York. And this leads me to point out that Ouida was the first
English novelist really to brit in terms of nations. Before her
the English novelists had dodged between town and country,
with an occasional lapse into France (for a crime), or into Italy
(for a consumption); but Ouida does not mind shifting the scenes
in the same book from Buda-Pesth to Rome, from Rome to
St Petersburg, from Petersburg to Paris, from Paris to Vienna,
from Vienna to Hyde Park with an amazing dexterity, and what
is more, manages to give a fair impression of each of these cities.
And that is why I will permit myself to call her the novelist of the
“Grands Express Européens.”

    And to the foregoing let it be added, by way of making
clear why the young ladies of the ‘eighties used to shove her
under the sofa when mamma came into the room, that she de-

liberately, and even defiantly, makes her characters exotic; and
they must have seemed indecently exotic to a generation which
read Anthony Trollope. Certainly I remember her characters
presented as English, her guardsmen and the rest—who could
forget them?—but they are the work of a fervent imagination
working from exteriors; English people of that kind never grew
in Devon or Yorkshire. On the other hand, she willingly makes
her heroes and heroines Roumanian, Polish, Magyar—in a word,
of those remoter nationalities the inhabitants of which the Parisians
and English, when they find them out of their native land, are
always ready to condemn, till they have blinding proof of the
contrary, as rastaquouéres and adventurers. From such nationali-
ties Ouida often chooses her characters, and gives them, very
properly, pedigrees as long and longer than the longest in the
English House of Lords. But Ouida writes novels in English
for the English, and this kind of thing, when she began it, was
a slap in the face for English provinciality, which like all pro-
vincialities in all lands worships its own aristocracy, but can
hardly be got to believe that there is any aristocracy at all any-
where else.

    But here I must not omit to remark that, while we find
the characters labelled Roumanian, or Hungarian, or Russian,
or French, or English, yet if anybody should turn to the novels
of Ouida to gain some knowledge of the peculiarities of any of
these peoples he would find himself at a loss. The truth is, these
characters are said to be this or that pretty much in the same way
as a child playing with his lead soldiers calls the general with the
blue coat French, and the general with the red coat English; but
they have all a family likeness which denotes a common origin.
And in fact their native country is nowhere else than Ouida’s
writing desk. Now and then, it is true, in her charming peasant
stories, we get a sensation of reality, we feel that certain characters
and scenes could have arisen just in Italy, as she says, and not in
some other land quite as well; but in her peasant stories she is
often the tale teller; in her novels of the aristocracy and the high
life she is the romancer. Now, the abiding trait left by the charac-
ters which figure in these last is their unreality. I put aside the
scented cigars and gigantic feats of strength which have been the
Jest of the facile times out of mind and which have prevented

            On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress

this great writer from being considered as seriously as she de-
serves. This sense of unreality which I experience when her charac-
ters face me is not engendered by superficial absurdities; it arises
from the perception that not one of her characters is sympathetic,
that most of them are, on the contrary, positively antipathetic,
people against whom we should be rather glad to see the worst
wiles of the villain succeed. To say that we should be rather
glad, and not indifferent, is of course a proof that these charac-
ters, if they fail to give conviction of genuineness, of being what
they set up to be, have at least a very vigorous life. That they fail
to rouse our sympathies, springs, I think, from the fact that we
never find them in repose, never, so to speak, with the paint off.
This seems a hard saying when one has almost a physical sense
sometimes of the pains the author takes to throw about her charac-
ters an air of aristocratic repose, above all. But just as people in
one of those immense Palace hotels I have spoken of can never
feel quite easy, are always more or less in public, are always con-
scious of the corridor, are always guarding against undesirable
approaches, so it is with these characters. These patricians who
are always so afraid of not being patrician enough, these ladies
always haughty and on their dignity, or condescending with so
profound a sense of condescension, these men and women always
thinking of their “caste,” and talking about it, and supercilious and
insolent to those who are not of the same—no, they are not con-
vincing. All this, when you think of it, is not rationally in the
habits of people of great and assured position; that generally
induces longanimity and a certain indifference to the details of
family breeding. Nervous aggressiveness and susceptibility come
rather from the consciousness of inferiority and powerlessness,
which induces a man, through a sort of instinct of self-preserva-
tion, to impose himself, and to intimidate, let us say, in advance
men whom he suspects are inclined to be villainous, knavish,
disobliging, violent, and against whom he knows he would
have no advantage whatever if it really came to a tussle.
I do not presume to rest on my own experience in so
delicate a matter, but (to speak in a Thackerayan manner on a
Thackerayan subject) little Jones, who married Lord Bailiffrest’s
younger daughter, and who is sometimes willing to impart to me
is stores of authentic information when he has a spare hour and

no one better to talk to—well, little Jones tells me that the
“haughty beauties” old Smith and I gaze on with such awe as
they loll in their carriages on a June afternoon in Piccadilly, are
not really thinking of their grandeur (as Smith and I from our
actress readings suppose), and engaged in despising the likes of us; but
simply of their row with their aunt, or of the dentist to-morrow,
or even whether their lunch disagreed with them, or of something
equally prosaic. And little Jones adds that when Smith and
I stand in our muddy clothes on a rainy night waiting for a ’bus,
and we are suddenly gratified by the sight of a young dandy
driving to the court ball, the young dandy is not really wondering
(as Smith and I in our humility imagine) if we miserable rascals
of plebeians are admiring him sufficiently, and thinking that he
would like to throw us a handful of pence to scramble for—no,
says Jones, he is not thinking of anything at all like that; he is
not even thinking of his own importance, and that it is a bore to
go to the court ball; if he is thinking of anything, says ones,
besides the weather, it is about whom he will meet, and whether
the rooms will be hot—which, when you come to think of it, is
pretty much what goes through the head of old Smith and myself
when the Parkinsons give a little dance in Victoria Terrace, and
we are lucky enough to be invited. Now, it is not that Ouida has
ae wrong about these great matters with the wrongness of the
London Journal novelettist; Ouida’s wrongness is the defect of
a phantasmagoric brain. Here we have a case of the romantic
temperament in extremes: a woman of genius with an extraordinary
gift of expression, who nevertheless finds it impossible to express
precisely what she sees; who confounds reality with her own
visions, and who perhaps deliberately prefers her visions.

    From the same defect of mind proceed many of the in-
congruities her works offer to the critical reader. For instance,
that she loves and pities animals and all gentle and helpless things
there is no doubt: she has exposed her convictions on this subject
in a thousand places with amazing force and vivacity. And yet
in her romances the horses seem to be always galloping. In one
of her books, the heroine, who lives in Austria, has to go to Paris
for ten or fifteen days in mid-winter; and she does not hesitate to
drag her horses, with the rest of her packages, because, as she
puts it, she loves her horses, and always likes to have some of

            On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress

them with her. Ouida is so occupied with the loftiness of this
notion, that she does not pause to consider the equivocal kindness
of treating horses like lap-dogs, and that when one realizes the
feelings of the wretched horses dragged over a railway in winter-
time, hundreds of miles in this direction, and then hundreds of
miles in that, with an interval of fifteen days on the asphalt, the
heroine’s generous impulse shades off into cruelty and brutal
ostentation. In the same way, when it comes to those sublime
actions of her heroes and heroines, in which so often the ridiculous
has at least an equal part, she is either constitutionally unable to
distinguish the ridiculous, or has trained herself to ignore it. So
much is this the case, that I have often wondered, while reading
some of her scenes, if, when she was writing them, she was really
serious, and not after all trying to wake up the rector’s daughters
and other young women in provincial towns. But having deeply
pondered, I have come to the conclusion that Ouida is never
laughing at herself, or indeed at any one else. Like some
other great romancers, like Victor Hugo for example, that part
of the brain which enables some to perceive the incongruous
is lacking in her organization. She does indeed provide
characters intended to be humorous, but their humour does
not arise out of any humorous situation; they are like the futile
and dreary jesters introduced to lend relief to a sombre tragedy.
But we may remind ourselves that in the equipment of the ro-
mancer (as distinct from the novelist) humour is but an awkward
weapon, and even useless and dangerous. For humour sterilizes
the beau geste, and the romance as a rule proceeds by the beau
without reference to logic; it would defy the ingenuity of
Edgar Allan Poe himself to foretell the conclusion from the
premises. Let the situation be however ravelled, and the beau
, absurd, improbable to impossibility, arrives in due season to
straighten it out. Ouida is the helpless slave of the beau geste, as
much so, let us say, as Barbey d’Aurevilly, of whom she reminds
the reader in a thousand ways at every turn.

    And have I not had myself (thought I, turning in bed) proof
and to spare this very night of the bewildering fashion in which
this romancer ignores or differs from reality? Was it not among
her volumes that I found elaborate imaginations of triumph at the
Opera, of countesses who conquered Paris by their beauty, of

tenors who had all Paris at their feet? ’Tis true that in the sober
reality I had seen once or twice before now what were considered
triumphs at the opera, and they proved to be rather mixed: some
enthusiasts contending to remain and applaud after the last act,
against the majority struggling to go out and get their wraps.
Tis true I had never seen Paris at anybody’s feet, and didn’t much
expect to, least of all at an artist’s feet; since the number of people
in a position to enjoy the work of a singer, or a painter, or a
dramatist is necessarily limited, and the thousands of men and
women outside that zone know little about the artist and care less.
’Tis true I had perceived that if one is inside a group or coterie
one is prone to fancy that a whole city is stirred by a gesture which
really affects only one’s immediate surroundings; whereas if one
is outside of all the groups one is forced to take account of the
relatively slight carrying power of all artistic fame, of all fame of
any kind except that of the sworder and the demagogue. Yes,
these things I had perceived, but I had perceived them through a
haze: though they were real, they had neither the vividness nor
concreteness of Ouida’s visions, and by consequence it was in
Ouida’s conditions that I anticipated the next encounter of real
life. It needed something as strong and coloured in an opposite
sense as Ouida’s visions to shake my faith in them; and so my faith
remained unshaken till the night I had the room next to a cele-
brated actress.

    But, after all, this very exaggeration of Ouida is what won
for her at the beginning her popularity—nay, her notoriety with
acertain class of readers. It is plain that most novel readers
strongly object to read constantly of great wealth and fame and
state, unless these are, now and then at all events, more or less
brought down to the terms of our ordinary life; that is to say, un-
less the reader is offered a situation and conditions in which he
can without too much outrage to his common sense imagine him-
self; unless the governess has at least a chance of marrying the
lord, and the young doctor the countess. Certainly the average
English reader likes to see on the stage and in the novel the
aristocracy strut, but on condition that they strut within a boun-
dary where he can keep in touch with them. If he hears of nothing
but the Duke with his three houses, and his Park, and his haughty
Duchess who despises the middle classes, he can indeed be illuded,

            On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress

he can still imagine the situation, and just because he can imagine
it he gets irritated in the long run.

    But now, call the Duke a Hungarian Prince; make his Park
run five hundred miles in every direction; make him have so many
palaces that when he passes one on a journey he has to be re-
minded that he owns it; make him throw crown pieces in situa-
tions where the ordinary novelist’s hero would throw pence, and
where a man in real life would throw nothing; don’t stick to say
that a Marquess, an amateur painter, can paint like a Venetian
master, and play the piano like a virtuoso, all of which he has
picked up in the odds and ends of hours left on his hands by his
social duties, his flirting, his equestrianism, his hunting and shoot-
ing; in a word, violate probability till you verge the impossible,
and then the reader is swept beyond his wildest calculations and
imaginations, and he has no more notion of equalling, far less of
envying, such a hero than he has of equalling or envying an angel
in heaven.

    Well, but this is the Ouida man-character, hero or villain, at
his deadliest; this is he who brought about the big sales and
startled the reader of the ‘eighties, and shed upon the name of
Ouida a terrific glare of wickedness, for his morals were always
lax. This is he, this face fastened to a moustache, who with his
companions, the second-empire actress and the impavid countess,
was fought for over the counters at Mudie’s, and studied and loved
and wept over in the country houses and country towns by thou-
sands of readers who never caught a glimpse of the reflection, and
dignity, and power, and a thousand other qualities which are to be
found in each of Ouida’s works—and certainly if such qualities
were not to be found there I would not be giving myself the
trouble to think of her now. This indiscriminate part of the public
has at present, I think, fallen away from Ouida: it has taken to some-
thing cruder. For Ouida, sprung from Victor Hugo and Disraeli,
cannot escape being the ancestor of Mr Hall Caine and Miss Marie
Corelli. After all, it is hard to be held responsible for the fantasies
of our descendants. Flaubert and Edgar Allan Poe and Dickens
are responsible for more people than it is pleasant to think of.
And it is well to remember that Ouida herself, however popular
she may have been, never bent to any concessions or vulgarities to
gain or maintain her popularity: it is against her principles that

the governess should marry the lord, and the governess in fact
does not. From this it would appear that the main difference, the
all-important difference between Ouida and many of her imitators
is that Ouida has decidedly character, the others only caprice.

    But whatever else her imitators have taken from her, they
have never been able to catch her grand manner. Her teaching is
always noble. In her essays, perverse and wrong-headed as some
of her opinions may be, she is, as in her novels, always on the side
of all the superiorities. With a vehemence and exaltation almost
equal to Ruskin’s, who is her master in ethics and much else,
she throws into relief mercy, honour, loyalty, a noble pride
and an equally noble obedience, a pity for the dumb things and for
the outcast—all that on the one side; and on the other, her hatred
of modern rush, advertisement, noise, scurrility. Again, like Rus-
kin, she is not ashamed to be indignant, eloquent, passionate; but
she never descends to those miserable sneers whereof the object
is to make honest, plain people uncomfortable about things which
they have been doing for years, and which they have never sus-
pected to be absurd or vulgar till they are told so by some he or
she author who has not an inch less of folly and vanity, not an
ounce more of competence and sense than the least of his readers,
who has nothing at all in fact but pretention and effrontery enough
to deal out little flicks of a sterilized irony with a superior snigger.
Her heroes and heroines, as we have seen, are often unreal, some-
times even absurd, but they are never tricky, or mean, or ignoble.
There is nothing paltry, nothing of the parish about them, as I am
afraid there is about many of the heroes and heroines of authors
who think themselves infinitely superior to Ouida, and indulge in
a little discreet laugh at her expense.

    Her style, though it is full of carelessnesses, though at times
it even gives us the impression of a foreigner struggling with the
language, of sentences beaten out with the dictionary, though it is
often turgid and overloaded, often written for effect, often stained
by what is called the “purple patch,” nevertheless, like Ruskin’s,
it often rises into quite beautiful severity and strength when she is
profoundly moved. For acuteness of sensation, and for a power to
render that in words, she seems to me unequalled in our day. There
is a description, to choose among a hundred, in one of her less good
novels, in “Idalia,” of a man bound and tortured under a burning

            On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress

sun, which is so vivid, so poignant—in a word, so felt, that it be-
comes almost too painful to read. It is by such qualities that she
takes her place among the great novelists, that she is, in fact, be-
sides Mr Meredith and Mr Hardy, the only great novelist who
has survived from the nineteenth century into this. Of course, if
a man be disposed to fly into a rage at every wild or petulant
assertion he finds in a book, he had better leave Ouida alone: she
will too often give him cause. This is exactly one of the points in
which she resembles Victor Hugo; like Victor Hugo, with a thou-
sand faults that exasperate, that cry to heaven, she remains a great
artist. Her books with all their faults live with us; we grow fond
of them: a novel of Ouida’s is not finished when the last page has
been read. As Carlyle observed, with any work of real abiding
excellence the first glance is the least favourable. Our wits and
laughers have laughed their fill at Ouida; all of us have been at
times impatient with her; but when all that has done its worst her
work still remains great and imposing. Methinks I see in my mind
a circus which gives a performance in the valley; the ring master
cracks his whip, the acrobat wheels, the clown cuts his jokes; then
evening falls, the tents are struck, the circus moves off, the laughers
disperse, and the long shadows steal over the mountains majestic
and unsullied as before.

    And once again, she gives us, as no other, the sense of
European movement. Whoever has stood at a railway station on
a main line, and watching the great trains come for a few minutes
to a halt with the sleeping-cars labelled Posen, Warsaw, Belgrade,
has experienced the immense longing that comes on some of us at
like moments for the far-off, the anywhere-but-here, the other end
of Europe, must always be a devotee of the novelist of the Grands
Express Européens. Like Balzac, she imposes her characters
against our better judgement. Speaking for myself, I cannot see
a lady of foreign appearance, wrapped in furs, driving through
Paris on a sunny winter afternoon, but for me she becomes one of
Ouida’s exotic countesses or princesses, with a brute of a husband
who squanders millions on a dancer, and loses thousands every
night at cards, and by whom she is in danger of being immured in
some remote castle amid the fastnesses of the Caucasus. Or has
she just escaped, and moves terrified, pursued by her husband’s
myrmidons? Ah, if one could only be mingled in a stirring at-

tempt to set her free! Or again, a few hours later at the opera,
that tenor who has just sung so beautifully, surely he will find a
note from a duchess hid in a bouquet, and after reading it with
languor will disdainfully go to supper with a lady of facile humour
who has an impossible second-empire name, Casse-croùte, or
Cochonette. And the celebrated actress—


    But at this point my meditations were interrupted by the opening
of the door next to mine. At the same moment the clock of a
neighbouring church struck one: I had thought that all the hotel
was asleep and the lights out long ago. What (I said) if the revels
have been proceeding all this time, silently but no less scarletly?
What if Ouida and the romancers are in the right, after all? I was
in no mood to be trifled with: this was a matter to be investigated
at once: I got out of bed and opened the door. The lights were
low in the passage, and half way down a figure in a white trailing
kind of robe, a figure that looked somehow pathetic and lonely in
the darkness, was moving with a book under her arm and a candle
in herhand. At the sound of my door she turned, and I recognized
the face. It was the celebrated actress going from her sitting-room
to bed

                                                              VINCENT O’SULLIVAN

MLA citation:

O’Sullivan, Vincent. “On staying at an Hotel with a Celebrated Actress.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 95-110. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,