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The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
Sample Entry

CIGARETTE. Cigarette was created by Ouida and appeared in Under Two Flags (1867). Ouida, neé Marie Louise de la Remée (1839-1908), was for three decades one of the most successful and effective popular writers in Britain. She wrote forty‑four novels and collections of stories and drew praise from the likes of Edward Bulwer‑Lytton and even Henry James, but by the 1890s the vogue for her work had passed and she died penniless. (She lives on as the model for Lucia in E.F. Benson's "Mapp and Lucia" novels.) Under Two Flags is her best‑known work.

Under Two Flags is about Bertie Cecil, a young British noble who is a member of the First Life Guards, a cavalry unit. Bertie's life is ever so tiresome. His languid personality is just so strained by the sheer effort of being Bertie, or "Beauty," as his friends and admirers call him. The horse races, the hunting, being the darling of the fast and first sets, it is all such a bother. Bertie is popular and handsome, admired by his male friends and the object of universal female admiration. His life is nearly perfect except for two difficulties: he has next to no money, and to live properly, that is, with the best of everything, and to gamble as a man should merely worsens his debts; and his younger brother Berkeley has a bad gambling problem and worse debts. Bertie eventually loses all he has on a horse race—he staked everything on his beloved horse Forest King, but one of Bertie's enemies, a welsher who Bertie humiliated, drugged Forest King so that he ran badly—and almost simultaneously discovers that Berkeley forged Bertie's name on a bill. Bertie could reveal that he did not sign the bill, but he could only do so by revealing that at the time the bill was forged he was with the Countess Guenevere, a married woman. Bertie won't allow himself to ruin the good name of Guenevere as well as that of his brother, and so Bertie flees, accepting disgrace for himself in the place of Guenevere and Berkeley. Bertie goes to Algeria and joins the Chasseurs d'Afrique. Twelve years pass, in which he establishes himself as one of the Chasseurs' best soldiers. Then he meets the delightful gamine Cigarette, the darling of the Chasseurs. He endures deprivation, hardship, wounds, the combat deaths of friends, the death of his father while he himself is far away from his family, and the brutality of his commander, Châteauroy, until Cigarette sacrifices herself for Bertie—she has fallen in love with Bertie, although he does not reciprocate—and Berkeley, who has encountered Cigarette in the streets, is shamed by her into revealing that it was he, not Bertie, who signed the bill. Bertie is restored to his title, he marries the Princess Venetia Corona, who he fell in love with while in Africa, and Bertie and Venetia live happily ever after.

Under Two Flags is the archetypal "French Foreign Legion novel." P.C. Wren's Beau Geste (1924) is the best known Foreign Legion novel and the one most often filmed and parodied, but Under Two Flags preceded it by over fifty years and was enormously popular and influential, both at the time and for years afterwards. Although Wren never admitted being influenced by Ouida, Under Two Flags was still being read by schoolboys when Wren was a child, and virtually all of the important aspects of Beau Geste are to be found in Under Two Flags. (It must be said that Under Two Flags is not about the French Foreign Legion, but rather about the Chasseurs d'Afrique, a light cavalry troop founded in 1831 to hunt and kill mounted Algerian Arab insurgents. The Legion were the scum of Europe; the Chasseurs were noble gentlemen.)

Under Two Flags is not well written. Strictly speaking, it is not even a good book. It is too long by about a third. Ouida repeats herself; too many of her descriptions are long lists of items, sensations, or names, designed to let the reader know how well acquainted Ouida is with the fashionable things of the fast set. Ouida seems to think that if one example or sentence clause is good, four or five will automatically be better. Everyone talks too much, in great rambling monologues and speeches; Cigarette's dying farewell stretches across five pages. Ouida's characters are in many ways cartoons, so that Bertie is unrealistically noble, the Princess Venetia is the epitome of aristocratic breeding and kindness, Bertie's servant Rake is the perfect example of a slavishly devoted underling, and Cigarette is the very definition of brio.

Ouida's father, who she worshiped, abandoned her, and so Ouida seems to be using Under Two Flags to work out her daddy issues. Everyone in the novel worships Bertie, as Ouida clearly does. Cigarette proves her great love to Bertie just as Ouida wanted to but never could to her own father. In fiction written by amateurs or first-time writers, whether published in fan magazines, vanity presses, or on the Internet as "fan fiction" (stories written by fans featuring characters from their favorite books, television shows, or movies), a common phenomenon is the "Mary Sue" character. A Mary Sue character is an idealized stand‑in for the author, and is tougher, smarter, cooler, nicer, sweeter, more charming, more capable, and more skilled than the established characters, and becomes worshiped by them. Although Mary Sues appeared in 19th century magazine stories written by teenagers, as in stories where a teenaged girl saves a sleeping Indian chief from being mauled by a bear or is raised by Indians and becomes their leader, the traditional modern Mary Sue appears in Star Trek fan fiction, where a new ensign on the starship Enterprise is a better pilot than Captain Kirk, smarter than Spock, and makes both fall in love with her. Cigarette is Ouida's Mary Sue.

Bertie's affected languor is genuine, a reflection of the behavior of upper-class young British men, especially military officers, of the early and mid-19th century, but it comes off as a pose, and an extremely annoying one. In addition, a strain of anti-Semitism runs through Under Two Flags. Ouida's class biases are overt; Bertie, and those of his class, are innately superior, so that not only do the lower classes worship them simply for being themselves, and are happy to do so, but the mere presence of Bertie begins to reform even the most brutish and criminal of the Chasseurs.

The list goes on. And yet in a very real sense these flaws not only do not matter but are beside the point. Under Two Flags is an immensely successful bad novel. It was successful financially, for it was a bestseller many times over and remains in print today. It was successful historically, for the genre of French Foreign Legion stories begins with Under Two Flags. And it is successful as a reading experience. Under Two Flags can and will annoy the modern reader. Ouida's stylistic failings will be irritating. Readers will react negatively to Bertie simply because he is so much the subject of Ouida's hero worship. But readers will be affected by Under Two Flags, and if they let themselves be drawn into it, accept that the book is not well‑written, set aside their critical faculties and simply enjoy the novel as an overwrought melodramatic romance, they will be rewarded with a compelling and sometimes moving experience. The emotion evoked in Under Two Flags is not of the exquisite, refined variety; Ouida could not write in the Henry James mode, and did not try. But Ouida succeeds at the over-the-top moments and the melodramatic emotion, premier among them the moments leading up to Cigarette's death. Bertie faces death by the firing squad for a crime he did not commit, and Cigarette has acquired his pardon, and so she rides all night at breakneck speed across the desert to rescue him. Her horse spent, she surrenders herself to her enemies, the Arabs, telling them that they can torture her to death if only they deliver Bertie's pardon in time. The Arabs, touched by her willing martyrdom, send her on her way, complete with a fresh horse. Cigarette arrives in time to save Bertie by throwing herself in front of his firing squad and taking the musket balls meant for him. The sequence is melodramatic and purple and splendid. The cumulative weight of the characterization of Bertie and Cigarette—and for all her other faults Ouida vividly draws her characters (they may be irritating, but they are memorable)—almost irresistibly leads the reader to sympathize with them. The reader comes to identify with Bertie and Cigarette, and, even with their unrealities and more annoying traits, comes to see their goodness and even nobility of spirit, and to wish them well, and so will be moved by Bertie's sacrifice and the miseries and sorrows he must endure.

Bertie eventually gains the reader's sympathies. Cigarette wins the reader's affections almost immediately. She is a camp follower for the Chasseurs, but she is no whore. Rather, she is the Chasseurs' mascot and mother figure. Her mother was a camp follower and her father a soldier unknown to her. She was an infant during the 1848 revolt in Paris, sitting on the barriers and laughing as "La Marseilles" was sung and the bullets flew. After that she wandered to Africa with her mother, and then, after her mother's death, Cigarette attached herself to the Chasseurs. She is seventeen years old during the events of Under Two Flags. She is a patriot for France, devoted not to the government or the upper classes but to the people, to the soldiers, and to the country itself, and when she wins the Cross of the Legion of Honour, for gallantry on the battlefield, it is the crowning moment of her life and something she has dreamed about from when she was young.

She is attractive:

She was very pretty, audaciously pretty, though her skin was burned to a bright sunny brown, and her hair was cut as short as a boy's and her face had not one regular feature in it. But then—regularity! who wanted it, who would have thought the most pure classic type a change for the better, with those dark, dancing challenging eyes; with that arch, brilliant, kitten-like face, so sunny, so mignon, and those scarlet lips like a bud of camellia that were never so handsome as when a cigarette was between them.

But it is her personality which is most attractive:

She would eat a succulent duck, thinking it all the spicier because it had been a soldier's 'loot'; she would wear the gold plunder off dead Arabs' dress, and never have a pang of conscience with it; she would dance all night long, when she had a chance, like a little Bacchante; she would shoot a man, if need be, with all the nonchalance in the world. She had had a thousand lovers, from handsome Marquises of the Guides to tawny black-browed scoundrels in the Zouaves, and she had never loved anything, except the roll of the pas de charge, and the sight of her own arch defiant face, with its scarlet lips and its short jetty hair, when she saw it by chance in some burnished cuirass, that served her for a mirror.

Cigarette is beloved of the Chasseurs, feared and respected by the Arabs, a "swearing, killing, fighting, laughing, dancing bastard heroine," and a woman who can ride like a cavalryman, drink like a Zouave, and fight like a Chasseur.

Under Two Flags is not Art. It has many faults. But it is wonderful reading nonetheless, and Cigarette is an immortal.

© 2005 Jess Nevins

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