Saturday 25 November 2023



MOTHS BY OUIDA IS ABSOLUTELY MY FAVOURITE DISCOVERY OF THE YEAR. On a sentence level, the writing is a string of diamonds. On a plot level, the story doesn't hold up, but who cares? More is more is more is more! It did not even faze me that Vere, the heroine, was the most Mary Jane of Mary Janes. This book is one hundred and forty some years old.  Vere is the OG not-like-the-other-girls girl, and every Eve must be forgiven, no?

The author's life had a tragic rock and roll ending that reminded me of Françoise Sagan. Just like with Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse, when I finished Moths, I expected that the writer had retired to a quiet, pastoral existence, the complete opposite of the life of extravanganzies she makes fun of in her novelCome to read her Wikipedia page and find out it was an inside job all along...

Sadly, the novel gets racist by the halfway mark: suddenly, the handsome Corrèze we are supposed to root for becomes the jerk Prince Charming from Shrek. By the end, I almost wished Vere's husband and his mix-raced mistress had their own spin-off sequel. Anyways, it's an odd book to recommend because of this. Like, I wouldn't want it to be made into a film unless:

  1.  The brief is to make Corrèze morally flawless, as the writer intended, in that case, they set it in modern times and only faintly lift from the text so that the adaptation stands on its own in the same way Clueless takes from Emma and Bridget's Jones Diary from Pride and Prejudice. 

  2. The brief is to set the story in its intended time period, in that case, they find a way to be faithful to the text while also adding POVs for the racialised characters.  I absolutely hate it when "good guys" that are problematic by today's standard have their flaws written out in adapatations. I think it would be so much more interesting to grapple with the question: what do you do when someone you respect and admire for so many reasons is wrong about something completly fundamental? 

Anyways, because this is a 2k+ page novel, I decided to copy down by favourite passages here so I could easily return to them. Enjoy. 

Satan's Rhapsody. 1917. Directed by Nino Oxilia.

It ruined her morning. It clouded the sunshine. It spoiled her cigarette. It made the waltzes sound like dirges. It made her chief rival look almost good-looking to her. It made a gown combined of parrots' breasts and passion-flowers that she going to wear in the afternoon feel green, and yellow, and bilious in her anticipation of it, though it was quite new and a wonder. It made her remember her debts. It made her feel that she had not digested those écrevisses at supper. It her made her fancy that her husband might not really go to Java or Jupiter. It was so sudden, so appalling, so bewildering, so endless a question and Lady Dolly only asked questions, she never answered them or waited for their answers.”

What are they all looking at? said Lady Dolly to her escort suddenly. 

Bodies of the picturesque parti-coloured crowd were all streaming the same way, inland, towards the sunny white hourses, whose closed green shutters were all so attractively suggestive of the shade and rest to be found within. But the heads of the crowd were turning back seaward, and their eyes and eyes-glasses all gazed in the same direction. 

Was it at the Prince? Was it at the President? Was it the Channel fleet had hove in sight? or some swimmer drowning, or some porpoises, or what? No, it was a new arrival. A new arrival was no excitment at Trouville if it were somebody that everybody knew. Emperors were common-place; ministers nonentities; marshals were monotonous; princes were more numerous than the porpoises; and great dramatists, great singers, great actors, great orators, were all there as the very sands of the sea. But an arrival of somebody that nobody knew had a certain interest. It seemed so queer that there should be such people, or that existing, they should venture there.

Who is it? said Trouville, in one breath, and the women laughed, and the men stared, and both sexes turned round by common consent. Something lovelier than anything there was coming through them as a sunbeam comes through dust. Yet it wore nothing but brown holland! Brown holland at Trouville may be worn indeed, but it is brown holland transfigured, sublimated, canonised, borne, like Lady Dolly's baptiste, into an apotheosis of écru lace and floss silk embroideries, and old point cravats, and buttons of repousse work, or ancient smalto; brown holland raised to the emyrean, and no more discovereable to the ordinary naked eye than the original flesh, fish, or fowl lying at the root of a good cook's mayonnaise is discernible to the uneducated palate. 

But this was brown holland naked and not ashamed, unadored and barbaric, without any attempt at disguise of itself, and looking wet and wrinkled from seawater, and very brown indeed beside the fresh and ethereal costumes of the ladies gathered there, that looked like bubbles just brown in a thousand hues to float upon the breeze. 

Brown holland! good gracious!” said Lady Dolly, putting up her eyeglass. She could not very well see the wearer of it; there were so many men between them; but she could see the wet, clinging, tumbled skirt which came in amongst the wonderful garments of the sacred place, and to make this worse there was an old Scotch plaid above the skirt, not worn, thrown on anyhow, as she said pathetically, long afterwards.

But the brown holland came towards her, catching in the wind, and showing feet as perfect as her own.

The brown holland stretched two hands out to her, and a voice cried aloud, "Mother! don't you know me, mother?

Lady Dolly gave a sharp little scream, then stood still. Her pretty face was rosy, her small mouth was parted in amaze and disgust. 

IN THAT DRESS!" She gasped, when the position became clear to her and her senses returned. 

And what a height she is! and what her gowns will cost!”


What comfort could there be with a girl nearly six feet high, that looked twenty years old when she was sixteen, and who called her "Mother!"


In the South of France Lady Dolly forgot that she had ever cried at all. 

 What do you like best? said her mother suddenly. Something in the girl worried her: she could not have said what it was.

Vere lifted her great eyes dreamily.

Greek, she answered.

Greek! a horse? a pony? a dog? 

A language, said Vere. 

Of course Greek is a language; I know that, said her mother irritably. But of course I thought you meant something natural, sensible; some pet of some kind. And what do you like best after that, pray?

Music  Greek is like music.

Oh dear me! sighed Lady Dolly.

Gerda Wegener. La brise indiscrète.

“May I swim here?” asked Vere.

“Of course; it's the thing to do. Can you dive?

“Oh yes! I am used to the water.

“Very well, then. But wait; you can't have any bathing-dress?

“Yes. I brought it. Would you wish to see it? Keziah 

Keziah was bidden to seek for and bring out the bathing-dress, and after a little delay did so.

Lady Dolly looked. Gradually an expression of horror, such as is depicted on the faces of those who are supposed to see ghosts, spread itself on her countenance and seemed to change it to stone.

“That thing!” she gasped.

What she saw was the long indigo-coloured linen gown — high to the throat and down to the feet — of the uneducated British bather, whose mind has not been opened by the sweetness and light of the continental shores.

“That thing!” gasped Lady Dolly.

“What is the matter with it?” said Vere, timidly and perplexed. 

“Matter? It is indecent!

“Indecent? Vere coloured all over the white rose-leaf beauty of her face.

“Indecent,” reiterated Lady Dolly. “If it isn't worse! Good gracious! It must have been worn at the deluge. The very children would stone you! Of course I knew you couldn't have any decent dress. You shall have one like mine made to-morrow, and then you can kick about as you like. Blue and white or blue and pink. You shall see mine.

She rang, and sent one of her maids for one of her bathing costumes, which were many and of all hues.

Vere looked at the brilliant object when it arrived, puzzled and troubled by it. She could not understand it. It appeared to be cut off at the shoulders and the knees. 

“It is like what the circus-riders wear,” she said with a deep breath.

Her mother seemed a great farther away than she had done when Vere had sat dreaming about her on the side of the rough heathered hills, with the herons calling across from one marshy pool to another. 


And have they all nothing to do but to enjoy themselves? ... They were all twitter, laughter, colour, mirth. 


Lady Dolly brushed her daugter's cheek with the diamond end of her earring. 


“How sweet she is now; sweet as the sweetbriar, and as healthy, ” he thought to himself.  “How clear the soul, how clear the eyes! If only that would last! But one little year in the world, and it will be all altered. She will have gained some chic, no doubt, and some talent and tact; she will wear high-heeled shoes, and she will have drawn in her waist, and learned how to porter le sein en offrande, and learned how to make those grand grey eyes look languid, and lustrous, and terrible. Oh, yes, she will have learned all that. But then, alas! alas! she will have learned what the sickly sarcasms mean, and the wrapt-up pruriencies intend, and what women and men are worth, and how politics are knavish tricks, and the value of a thing is just as much as it will bring, and all the rest of the dreary gospel of self. What a pity! what a pity! But it is always so. I dare say she will never stoop to folly as her pretty mother does; but the bloom will go. She will be surprised, shocked, pained; then, little by little, she will get used to it all — they all do — and then the world will have her, body and soul, and perhaps will put a bit of ice where that tender heart now beats. She wll be a great lady, I dare say — a very great lady — nothing worse, very likely; but all the same, my sweetbriar will be withered, and my white wild rose will be dead — and what will it matter to me? I dare say I shall be a musical box with a broken spring, lying in a dust of dried myrtle and musty laurels!” 

He knew very well that if a rain-storm on a windy night were to quench his voice in his throat for ever, all his troops of lovers and friends would fall away from him, and his name drop down into darkness like any shooting star on an August night.

“The moths will corrupt her, ” he thought, sadly and wistfully. “The moths will eat all that fine delicate feeling away, little by little; the moths of the world will eat the unselfishness first, and then the innocence, and then the honesty, and then the decency; no one will see them eating, no one will see the havoc being wrought; but little by little the fine fabric will go, and in its place will be dust.” 

Gerda Wegener. Les femmes fatales. 1933. Private collection.

Miss Leach has the world at her foot, and it amuses her to kick it about like a tennis ball, and show her ankles.


Nothing seemed so wonderful as the perpetual gaiety and levity around her. Was there any sorrow in the world? Was life only one long laugh? Was it right to forget the woes of others as utterly as they were forgotten here? She was always wondering, and there was no one to ask.


“"I think your country is very liberal' and that your 'coloured person' has revenged all the crimes of the Borgias."

The pretty American looked at her suspiciously. 

"I guess I don't understand you," she said a little sulkily. "I guess you're very deep, aren't you?"


“She knew very well that with some combination of scarlet and orange, or sage and maize upon her, in some miracle of velvet and silk, with a cigarette in her mouth, a thousand little curls on her forehead, the last slang on her lips, and the last news on her ear, her own generation would find her adorable while it would leave Vere Herbert in the shade. And yet she would sonner have been Vere Herbert; yet she would sooner have had that subtle, nameless, unattainable "something" which no combination of scarlet and orange, of sage and of maize, was able to give, no imitation or effort for half a lifetime would teach.


“It is all very easy to talk, but it is not such a little thing to force a girl's will in these days; she can make a fuss, and then society abuses you, and I think the police can even interfere, and Lord Chancellor if she have no father.

Gaston Latouche. The Ball. 

“You think of love,” she said.  “Oh, it is of no use your saying you don't; you do. All girls do. I did. I married your father. we were as much in love as any creatures in a poem. When I had lived a month in that wretched parsonage by the sea, I knew what a little fool I had been. I had had such wedding presents!  — such presents. The queen had sent me a cachemire for poor papa's sake; yet, down in that horrid place, we had to eat pork, and there was only a metal teapot! Oh, you smile! it is nothing to smile at. Vere used to smile just as you do. He would have taken the cachemire to wrap an old woman up in, very probably; and he wouldn't have known whether he ate a peach or a pig. I knew; and whenever they put that tea in the metal teapot, I knew the cost of young love. Respect your father's memory? Stuff I am not saying anyhting against him, poor dear fellow; he was very good — in his way, excellent; but he had made a mistake, and I too. I told him so twenty times a day, and he only sighed and went out to his old women. I tell you this only to show you I know what I am talking about. Love and marriage are two toally different things; they ought never to be named together; they are cat and dog; one kills the other. Pray do no stare so; you make me nervous. 

“It is not wicked to love?” said Vere slowly.

“Wicked? No; what nonsense! It amuses one; it doesn't last.

“A great love must last, till death, and after it,” said the child, with solemn eyes.

“After it?” echoed Lady Dolly with a little laugh. “I'm afraid that would make a very naughty sort of place of heaven.

“The ball was gorgeous; the surprises were brilliant and novel; the gardens were illumined to the edge of the sea till the fishers out in the starry night thought the shore was all on fire.


“The message winged its way fleeter than a bird, over the grey sea to where the northern ocean beat the black Northumbrian rocks; and an old womans heart was broken with the last pang of a sad old age.


“"And perhaps God will let me die soon," she thought, with her childish fancy that God was near and Death an angel.

“You profess to follow Christ. How have you the poor with you? The back of their garret, the rooft of their hovel, touches the wall of your palace, and the wall is thick. You have dissipations, spectacles, diversions that you call charities; you have a tombola for a famine; you have a dramatic performance for a flood, you have a concert for a fire, you have a fancy fair for a leprosy. Do you never think how horrible it is, that mockery of woe? Do you ever wonder at revolutions? Why do you not say honestly that you care nothing? You do care nothing.

“And then Madame Nelaguine would pull the little curls of her perruque angrily and light her cigar, and sit down to the piano and compose her nerves with Chopin.


“As the first notes touched the air, Vere looked for the first time at the lute-player  she saw in him Corrèze. As for himself, he had seen her all night; had seen nothing else even while he had laughed, and jested, and paid his court to others.


“This objection of yours can only lead to scenes, to disputes, to differences, very trying, very useless, and — worst of all  very diverting to others.


“Morny was not dead, Paris was not republican, hair was not worn flat, realism was not invented, and I was not twenty.

Leo Fontan. 

Is there nothing you like? Who sent you that strange necklace of the moth?

I do not know.

But you imagine?

She was silent.

What is the meaning of it?

I think the meaning is that one may rise to great ends, or sink to base ones.

Has it no love-token, then; no message?


The red colour rose over her pale face, but she looked at him with unflinching gaze. He was but half satisfied. 

And do you mean to rise or sink? he said, in a tone of banter. Pray tell me.

I have sunk.

“She has a foot for Cinderella's slipper.”

Scarcely had the first notes of that incomparable voice rung out clear as a golden bell upon the silent night, than the people sauntering on the bridge and before the hotel, paused to listen, and turned to one another, wondering and entranced.

“Who is that?” they cried to one another, and some one answered, “They say Corrèze came to-night.” Then they were quiet, listening, as in the north, where nightingales are few, people listen to them. Then several others from farther down and farther up the street joined them, and people came from under the trees, and from over the bridge; and soon a little crowd was gathered ther, silent, delighted, and intent.


“Corrèze swore an oath, that only a foxglove heard, as he stooped to gather it.


“When one thinks of the millions that die at one ball! — and no one hardly looks at them. The most you hear anyone say is, 'the rooms look very well to-night.' And the flowers die for that.


“"Think of my life beside a bankers in his parlour, beside a lawyers in the courts, they are like spiders, shut up in their own dust. I am like a swallow, who always sees the sun because he goes where it is summer."

"It is always summer with you."”

Odilon Redon. Stained Glass Window Allegory. 1908. Private collection.

“"I think the sun is setting; it grows late." 
Corrèze rose, with a sigh, to his feet, and raised her hat from the ground.
"Yes. It will soon be dark; very dark to me."”


“I have shot a nobler creature than myself — men generally do when they shoot at all.


“You go to Russia?"

"In three days — yes.

Corrèze was silent.

A slight shudder passed over him, as if the cold of Russia touched him."


“The truth?" said Lady Dolly growing very pale and with a nervous contraction at the end corners of her mouth, "Who ever does tell the truth? I don't know anybody "


“A man paints a spluttering candle, a greasy cloth, a mouldy cheese, a pewter can; 'how real!' they cry. If he paints the spirituality of dawn, the light of the summer sea, the flame of arctic nights, of tropic woods, they are called unreal, though they exist no less than the candle and the cloth, the cheese and the can. Ruy Bias is now condemned as unreal because the lovers kill themselves; the realists forget that there are lovers still to whom that death would be possible, would be preferable, to low intrigue and yet more lowering falsehood. They can only see the mouldy cheese, they cannot see the sunrise glory. All that is heroic, all that is sublime, impersonal or glorious, is derided as unreal. It is a dreary creed.


“"Do not cry: you are too pretty to cry," said little Claire, who was a soft and tender child; and Berthe, who was older and cleverer and harder, said, "You should not cry; it spoils the eyes." Then she added reflectively, "Maman ne pleure jamais." 

John Maclair Boraston. British birds & their eggs : with a new method of identification. 1909. p. 259.  

“His eyes, longing and passionate, burned like stars.


“Then all the frozen earth seemed full of spring and sunshine.

“You are cruel!


“Cruel — to me.

He spoke so low that the words scarcely stirred the air, then he knelt down on the ground before her and kissed the hem of her gown. 

“I dare not say to you what I would say; you are so far above all other women, but you know so well, you have known so long, that all my life is yours, to use or throw away as you choose. Long ago I sang to you, and you know so well, I think, all that the song said. I would serve you, I would worship you with the love that is religion, I would leave the stage and the world and art and fame, I would die to men, if I might live for you —

“It was a madness to refuse to receive Jeanne de Sonnaz; after all, what did it matter? women meet their rivals, their foes, every hour, and kiss them.


“Then of her life there would be no more trace than some blood upon the snow, that fresher snow would in another hour obliterate.


“For the first news they had heard was that he would die; then they were told that the hemorrhage had ceased, that it was possible he might live, but that he would never sing again.


“In the heart of the Alps of the Valais there lies a little lake, nameless to the world but beautiful; green meadows and woods of pine and beech encircle it, and above it rise the snow mountains, the glory nearest heaven that earth knows. 

A road winds down between the hills to Sion but it is seldom travered; the air is pure and clear as crystal, strong as wine; brooks and torrents tumble through a wilderness of ferns, the cattle-maiden sings on the high grass slopes, the fresh-water fisherman answers the song from his boat on the lake, deep down below and darkly green as emeralds are.

The singer, who is mute to the world for ever, listens to the song without pain, for he is happy. ”

Dosso Dossi. Jupiter, Mercury and the Virtue (detail). c. 1489-1542. Wawel Castle, Kraków. 

“Though I shall salute Jeanne on both cheeks to-morrow because life is a long hypocrisy.


“And then to have to wear ones hair flat, and the bonnets are not becoming, say what they like, and the season is so stupid; and now poor dear Jack has killed himself, really killed himself, because nobody believes about that rifle being an accident, he has been so morose and so strange for years, and his mother comes and reproaches me when it is all centuries ago, centuries! and I am sure I never did him anything but good!


“So the moths eat the ermine; and the world kisses the leper on both cheeks. 

Cover: Kazimierz Stabrowski. The story of the waves. 1910.

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