Rhoda Broughton (29 November 1840 – 5 June 1920) was a Welsh writer.
As the youngest daughter of a clergyman, Broughton was given a classical education at home by her father, with an emphasis on poetry, the English classics, and rudiments of Latin and Greek. Her mother died in 1860, followed by her father shortly thereafter, in 1863. After the death of her parents, Broughton went to live with her married sister Eleanor Newcome, in 1864, in north-east Wales.
She brought with her an early draft of her novel Not Wisely but Too Well, the story of a girl tempted into an adulterous affair, which she had started to write after reading Anne Thackeray’s The Story of Elizabeth (1863). In the book Notable Women Authors of the Day (1893), Helen C. Black reports that, asked on how the idea of writing occurred to her, Rhoda answered that “she remembers a certain wet Sunday afternoon when she was about twenty-two; she was distinctly bored by a stupid book which she was trying to read, when the spirit moved her to write.”
The novel Not Wisely but Too Well was initially refused by publisher Richard Bentley for being “improper material”, and was rumoured to be semi-autobiographical. However, Broughton’s uncle, the author Sheridan Le Fanu, encouraged her literary ambitions, and serialised the novel in 1867 in the Dublin University Magazine, which was edited by him at the time. Geraldine Jewsbury considered the story “the most thoroughly sensual tale I have read in English for a long time”.
Rhoda published anonymously until 1872, and, at first, most readers assumed she was a man. In Notable Women Authors of the Day (1893) ,Helen C. Black reports that, with respect to her second novel, Cometh up as a Flower (1867), “Miss Broughton tells an amusing anecdote:—”It was claimed by other people,” she says; “a lady told an acquaintance of mine that her son had written it, which diverted me much.”
She went on to publish more than twenty-five works of fiction. Her transgressive heroines and her frank portrayal of female love and sexuality gained her a reputation for audacity, and placed her books in the sensation genre.
Anthony Trollope wrote in his Autobiography that Broughton’s novels occupied ‘the borderlands of vice’: “she has made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say.” Margaret Oliphant wrote in a review of Broughton’s second book, Cometh Up as a Flower (1867), for the Blackwood’s Magazine, that it expressed “nasty thoughts, ugly suggestions, an imagination which prefers the unclean”, for its portrayal of female sexuality, adultery, bigamy, and divorce, and “that it is a shame for women so to write”. Lewis Carroll once refused an invitation to a dinner at which she would be present, on the grounds that he thoroughly disapproved of her novels.
To such accusations, Rhoda once responded that, “since the public like it hot and strong, I am not the person to disoblige them.” The critic Gleeson White praised her books and wrote, in 1892, that “historians of English fiction of the reign of Victoria will (…) be compelled to consider [her work] more seriously than contemporary critics have done.” Novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon once remarked that “Rhoda Broughton is a genius and a prose poet.”
After the death of her sister’s husband, in 1877, Rhoda and Eleanor moved to Oxford, where the local residents initially mistook her for Miss Braddon. Because of her literary reputation, Broughton was not much liked by Oxford society, which she had ridiculed in her novel Belinda (1883).
However, Rhoda managed to establish herself as a society wit, and became a close friend of Henry James, Anthony Trollope, Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Thomas Hardy, among others. She mentored and encouraged the career of Mary Cholmondeley, whom she introduced to her publishers in 1887. Cholmondeley once reported that Rhoda “would have rent the skin from her own body if she could have succoured one of those she loved.”
In his short story “The Round Dozen” (1924, also known as “The Ardent Bigamist”), Somerset Maugham wrote: “I remember Miss Broughton telling me once that when she was young people said her books were fast and when she was old they said they were slow, and it was very hard since she had written exactly the same sort of book for forty years.”
Percy Lubbock wrote about Rhoda: “There was the cut of her talk, the cheerful slash of her phrase, the snap and crackle of her wit, with all this Rhoda was a personage indeed, not lightly to be engaged, but on no account to be missed or forgotten.” James Rennell Rodd said that Broughton had “a great heart but a caustic tongue”.
Oscar Wilde, whom she caricatured in her Second Thoughts (1880) as the poet Francis Chalone, is said to have felt deeply intimidated by Broughton. In a review of her short story Betty’s Visions (1883), for the Pall Mall Gazette, Wilde wrote that “whatever harsh criticisms may be passed on the construction of her sentences, she at least possesses that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin.”
In 1890, Broughton and her sister moved to London. After Eleanor’s death, in 1894, Broughton remained in London until 1900, when she moved to Oxford to live with a cousin. Hampered by severe arthritis, in her later years Broughton had to dictate her novels. By then, her popularity was in decline and she felt she was gradually losing her edge.
According to E. F. Benson, in the book As We Were: A Victorian Peep Show (1930), Howard Sturgis once said that “when she was young she was Zola, and now she’s Zola she’s Yonge” (a reference to the novelist Charlotte May Yonge, whose works were considered appropriate for ‘well brought-up girls’).
Broughton died in 1920. The Times, in her obituary, dismissed her books as “sentimental romances”, marvelled at how antiquated this once-controversial author now appeared, and suggested that the reader should take a look at Cometh Up as a Flower to see “the kind of book that was forbidden to her grandmother”. Broughton’s final novel, A Fool in Her Folly (1920), was published posthumously, with an introduction by her friend Marie Belloc Lowndes.
Rhoda remained largely forgotten for many years after her death, and only started to be rediscovered at the end of the 20th-century. Critic Richard C. Tobias, who was completing a study on her at the time of his death, in 2006, calls Rhoda Broughton “the leading woman novelist in England between the death of George Eliot and the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s career.”
• Not Wisely, But Too Well (1867)
• Cometh Up as a Flower (1867)
• Red as a Rose is She (1870)
• Good-bye, Sweetheart! (1872)
• Nancy (1873)
• Joan (1876)
• Second Thoughts (1880)
• Belinda (1883)
• Doctor Cupid (1886)
• Alas! (1890)
• A Widower Indeed (With Elizabeth Bisland) (1891)
• Mrs. Bligh (1892)
• A Beginner (1893)
• Scylla or Charybdis? (1895)
• Dear Faustina (1897)
• The Game And The Candle (1899)
• Foes In Law (1900)
• Lavinia (1902)
• A Waif’s Progress (1905)
• Mamma (1908)
• The Devil and the Deep Sea (1910)
• Between Two Stools (1912)
• Concerning a Vow (1914)
• A Thorn in the Flesh (1917)
• A Fool in her Folly (1920)
- Tales for Christmas Eve (1873, republished as Twilight Stories in 1879)
- The Man with the Nose (1872, short story)
- Strange Dream (1881)
- Betty’s Visions and Mrs. Smith of Longmains (1886)
- Rhoda Broughton’s Ghost Stories (1995)
Uncollected short stories
- “What it Meant”. 1881 September, Temple Bar, Vol. 63, pp. 82–94
- “Was She Mad?” 1888 December 26, The Belfast News-Letter, p. 3
- “A Home of Rest”. 1891 September, Temple Bar, Vol. 93, pp. 68–72
- Across the Threshold. 1892 June 11, The Penny Illustrated Paper Vol. 62, pp. 372–373
- His Serene Highness. 1893 May, in The Pall Mall Magazine Vol.1, pp. 8–19
- “Rent Day”. 1893 June, Temple Bar, Vol. 98, pp. 228–248
- “A Christmas Outing” 1895, The Lady’s Pictorial Christmas Number
- “A Stone’s Throw” 1897 May, The Lady’s Realm Vol. 2, pp. 11–17
- “In Five Acts”. 1897 July 10, The Scranton Republican, p. 10. 1901 February, The Ludgate Series 2, Vol. 11, pp. 340–351
- Terror by Gaslight (1975)
- The Penguin Book of Classic Fantasy by Women (1977)
- Victorian Nightmares (1977)
- The Mammoth Book of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories (1995)
- Weird Women – Volume 2: 1840-1925: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers, ed. Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger (2021)
- The Man with the Nose (1872, short story)
- Notable Women Authors of the Day, by Helen C. Black (1893)
- Rhoda Broughton. Eine populäre viktorianische Romanautorin, by Kurt Bornhauser (1971)
- Victorian Popular Fiction 1860–80, by R. C. Terry (1983)
- The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural, edited by Jack Sullivan (1986)
- Rhoda Broughton: Profile of a Novelist, by Marilyn Wood (1993)
- Disease, Desire, and the Body in Victorian Women’s Popular Novels, by Pamela K. Gilbert (1997)
- Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook, edited by Abigail Burnham Bloom (2000)
- Popular Victorian Women Writers, edited by Kay Boardman and Shirley Jones (2009)
- A Companion to Sensation Fiction, edited by Pamela K. Gilbert (2011)