Victorian Literature Rhoda Broughton
by
Catherine Pope
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0131

Introduction

Rhoda Broughton (b. 1840–d. 1920) was born in Denbigh, North Wales, the youngest daughter of the Reverend Delves Broughton. Broughton was brought up in an Elizabethan manor house and given a classical education, an unusual childhood that informed some of her narratives featuring well-read daughters of faded gentry. After the death of both parents, Broughton was obliged to live with her married sisters, following them to different parts of the country. Broughton’s first published novel, Not Wisely but Too Well appeared in 1867, having been previously serialized in the Dublin University Magazine, edited by her uncle, Sheridan Le Fanu. Cometh Up as a Flower was published the same year, another novel with a strong transgressive heroine. Her controversially frank portrayal of female sexuality placed Broughton in the sensation genre and was censured by Margaret Oliphant and Geraldine Jewsbury. Although the circulating libraries initially refused to stock her novels, Broughton became a firm favorite with readers, from arctic explorers through to William Gladstone. In the late 1870s Broughton moved to Oxford, much to the consternation of local residents who thought she was the infamous Miss Braddon. Undeterred by the collective cold shoulder, Broughton established herself as a society wit capable of intimidating even Oscar Wilde, cruelly caricatured in her Second Thoughts (1880). Any thawing of attitudes was quickly counteracted when she included an unflattering portrait of Mark Pattison, rector of Lincoln College, in her 1883 novel Belinda. Broughton’s move to London in 1890 coincided with one of her best periods of writing. The new single-volume novel suited her crisp, pithy style: A Beginner (1894) and Dear Faustina (1897) are among her strongest works. Back in Oxford, Broughton’s final two decades were marred by ill health, but she continued writing until her death in 1920. Her final novel, A Fool in Her Folly, was published posthumously. Although still popular with the older generation, many critics thought she belonged firmly in the previous century, her style out-of-touch with the modern world. Obituaries praised Broughton’s bravery in presenting a new type of heroine and marveled at how antiquated this once-controversial writer now appeared. The Times 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 1920, p. 197, cited under Obituaries). Broughton was considered a purveyor of ephemeral fiction, but the critic Gleeson White suggested 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” (White 1892, p. 49, cited under Early Critical Responses). His prophecy is finally coming true, with Broughton’s life and work receiving scholarly interest and the welcome arrival of critical editions of her novels. Rhoda Broughton is finally getting the attention that she deserves.

General Overviews

Broughton is often consigned to the footnotes but is occasionally granted a chapter of her own. The Orlando Project draws together most available references and is a good starting point for further research. Terry 1983 with its celebratory tone is an early attempt to establish Broughton’s importance as a Victorian author. Gilbert 1997, Jones 2009, and Heller 2011 include detailed discussions of Broughton’s fiction, along with useful suggestions for further reading.

  • Gilbert, Pamela K. “Rhoda Broughton: Anything But Love.” In Disease, Desire, and the Body in Victorian Women’s Popular Novels. By Pamela K. Gilbert, 113–139. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511585418.005E-mail Citation »

    In this chapter devoted to Broughton, Gilbert sees the female body as a central trope in her novels, identifying the “macabre reenactment” of its destruction (p. 115). By focusing on character rather than plot, Gilbert shows how the openness or closure of the heroine’s body generates the novel’s action.

  • Heller, Tamar. “Rhoda Broughton.” In A Companion to Sensation Fiction. Edited by Pamela K. Gilbert, 281–292. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444342239E-mail Citation »

    This chapter examines Broughton’s fiction in the context of the sensation genre, labeling her work as “erotic sensationalism” (p. 293). Although the focus is on Cometh Up as a Flower and Not Wisely but Too Well, the chapter also includes a summary of her later fiction, along with a good selection of contemporary criticism. Available online for purchase.

  • Jones, Shirley. “‘LOVE’: Rhoda Broughton, Writing and Re-Writing Romance.” In Popular Victorian Women Writers. Edited by Kay Boardman and Shirley Jones, 208–236. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This relatively short piece packs in a good summary of biographical sources, along with insightful coverage of Broughton’s major novels. Jones skillfully explores the way Broughton experimented with genre and rewrote the romance plot.

  • Orlando Project: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present.

    E-mail Citation »

    This subscription-based electronic resource includes a detailed account of Broughton’s career based on a wide range of sources, such as contemporary reviews and memoirs. It includes good coverage of her major novels, along with a selection of critical responses.

  • Terry, R. C. Victorian Popular Fiction 1860–80. London: Macmillan, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    In a chapter titled “Delightful Wickedness,” (pp. 102–132) Terry celebrates Broughton’s “conspiratorial dialogue” and “broad comic sense,” arguing that she was a rebel rather than a radical (p. 132). Elsewhere he examines her place within the 19th-century literary marketplace, enlivening his study with reminiscences from her contemporaries. This study remains one of the best overviews of Broughton.

  • Windholz, Anne M. “Rhoda Broughton.” In Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Abigail Burnham Bloom, 76–79. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    This three-page biographical entry provides a good overview of Broughton’s life and work and also considers some of the key themes of her writing.

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