Oh delicious Ouida! I kept hearing about this writer in dribs and drabs, a confession from someone about having read her works, scandalous behavior 100 years ago. This lovely two volume set winged its way to me via the Link+ system, depositing at my doorstep two red leather books with gold-tipped paper published in 1897 with the note to “Handle with care.”
The 700 pages of the story sweep you along with the normal highs and lows expected of a Victorian novel. An man returns to England filthy rich having made “his pile” in the Dakotas of America, a very coarse ill-bred man but everyone is in love with his money. His one wish is to blend into the best society, so he and his bumpkin wife enlist the help of/are ensnared by Lady Kenilworth (aka Mouse), who proceeds to sell him her relatives’ estates and pockets a nice commission along the way. She’s of the finest oldest English stock, and her brother (Ronald) is constantly coming to her rescue to bail her out with money, since her husband, the to-be-duke is a drunkard. Her four children are not sired by this husband, but rather by the hanger-on, Henry, whom she also bleeds dry. The up-and-comers (the Massarenes) have a daughter (Katherine) who has been raised in English boarding schools, has impeccable manners and a keen sense that her father is trying too hard to buy his way into society.
Hijinx ensue! Mouse thinks nothing of borrowing thousands of pounds from her American “friend” who she bullies to death and disrespects. Eventually the tables are turned when her husband dies and she has to hand over the jewels she’s already pawned. Boorish Massarene to the rescue, but he holds it over her head and virtually imprisons her.
Turns out that he didn’t quite make money the honest and honorable way, and when a sick man writes for help whom he had swindled long ago, he dismisses it. The man jumps on a boat from America and sails over to shoot him through the heart, which leaves Katherine the immense fortune (and snidely offers a tiny portion to his wife, insulting her from the grave). She begins to go through her father’s papers, sending back all the IOUs to people, forgiving the debts, giving back the estates he had purchased, and sailing to America to donate all of his fortune to the people he’d done wrong to. At this point, Ronald declares himself for her, but Katherine denies him. Six months later and her mother dies, he comes back to restate his case, and does a much better job.
Meanwhile, the subplot of Mouse continues, she stages a boating accident to gain entry into a rich man’s secluded house but fails to attract his attention. He’s never gotten over his wife, from whom he is separated. Another man whom Mouse wronged vows to never let him marry her, and sets about to undo the evil he wrought when he spread lies about his daughter, causing the rich man to divorce her. On his deathbed, Mouse steals these letters and presents them to the rich man as something she pulled from him. In exchange, he gives half his fortune to her and her new hubby, a German prince. The news of Ronald’s marrying the penniless and low-born Katherine enrages her, but her husband cautions sense. The book ends with her touring the London home of her former American friend, this time in the company of its new owner, a rich Australian whom she flatters. The beat goes on.
Lord Framingham (her friend in India) waxes eloquently on money:
Aristocracy in its true sense exists no longer. War in its modern form is wholly a question of supply. The victory will go to who can pay most and longest. The religious orders, once so absolute, are now timid anachronisms quaking before secular governments. Science, which cannot move a step without funds, goes cap in hand to the rich. Art has perished nearly. What is left of it does the same thing as science… What remains? Nothing except trade, and trade cannot oppose wealth, because it lives solely through it. For this reason, money, mere money, with no other qualities or attractions behind it, is omnipotent now as it never was before in the history of the world. It is not one person or set of persons who is responsible for this. It is the tendency of the age, an age which is essentially mercenary and is very little else! In politics, as in war and in science, there is no moving a step without money and much money. The least corrupt election costs a large outlay… You see there is no power left which can, or dare, attempt to oppose the undisputed sway of money. A great evil, you say? No doubt.
Mrs. Massarane has some rare words of wisdom about men after her daughter asks her if her father doesn’t realize how ridiculous Lady Kenilworth makes him:
My dear, a man never thinks he is ridiculous. He says to himself, ‘I’m a man,’ and he gets a queer sort of comfort out of that as a baby does out of sucking its thumb.