Under Two Flags is a rollicking and absorbing, if flawed, masterpiece. It combines breathless action, preposterous situations, flashbacks, short stories, prolix and stilted dialogue, and almost interminable and often repetitious psychological analysis. It was first published serially, which may account for the regularly spaced end-of-chapter climaxes and for Ouida’s frequent recapitulations of past events as reminders to her readers.
The thirty-eight chapters of Under Two Flags fall into almost exactly equal thirds. Chapter 12 ends with the escape of Bertie and Rake. In chapter 24, the hero learns that his elder brother’s death should give him the title of Lord Royallieu. By the end of chapter 36, which is devoted to Bertie’s court-martial, readers have had sufficient foreshadowing hints to be assured that Cigarette will save the day—for Bertie’s honor, his love of Princess Corona, and Cigarette’s own glory. Chapters 37-38 make up a denouement and coda. Interestingly, the conclusive action of the entire novel begins in chapter 19 with the revelation that Bertie carves chessmen.
Ouida adopts an omniscient, cinematic point of view and places and moves her characters like actors. She is always telling readers about one person’s actions or thoughts to which other people are not privy, sometimes by being nearby, but out of earshot. This device can become awkward, as when the Seraph is kept almost fatally unaware that Corporal Victor is actually Bertie. Related is Ouida’s use of coincidence. To begin with, the appearance of Berkeley, the Seraph, and Corona in Algeria is unrealistic; even more incredible is Bertie’s wandering bemused outside Corona’s rooms, rescuing a goat from drowning, and, in the process, chancing to find Corona’s broken necklace nearby—naturally, he must return it to her later. Ouida manages splendid visual effects, not only through innumerable scenic descriptions but also through quick, cinematic shifts to action scenes. In chapter 36 alone, images include the divisional encampment bathed in autumnal noon light, Bertie being dramatically court-martialed, Cigarette sulking in her room, a carrier pigeon flying through Cigarette’s oval window with a letter, and Cigarette’s fortuitous encounter with Berkeley in the crowded street.
Ouida handles time well. She intriguingly avoids dating the action of her novel, but when she briefly mentions Alexandre Dumas, fils, Jean Léon Gérôme, John Tenniel, and, especially, Napoleon III and Abd-el-Kader, readers can...
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