Rhoda Broughton

Last updated

Rhoda Broughton
Rhoda Broughton c. 1870
Born(1840-11-29)November 29, 1840
Denbigh, North Wales
DiedJune 5, 1920(1920-06-05) (aged 79)
Headington Hill, Oxfordshire

Rhoda Broughton (29 November 1840 – 5 June 1920) was a Welsh novelist and short story writer. [1] Her early novels earned her a reputation for sensationalism which caused her later and stronger work to be neglected by serious critics, though she was described as a queen of the circulating libraries.



Rhoda Broughton was born in Denbigh in North Wales on 29 November 1840. She was the daughter of the Rev. Delves Broughton, youngest son of the Rev. Sir Henry Delves-Broughton, 8th baronet. She developed a taste for literature, especially poetry, as a young girl. She was heavily influenced by William Shakespeare, as frequent quotations and allusions throughout her works indicate. Presumably after reading The Story of Elizabeth by Anne Isabella Thackeray Ritchie, she had the idea of trying her own talent and produced her first work within six weeks. Parts of this novel she took with her on a visit to her uncle Sheridan le Fanu, himself a successful author, who was highly pleased with it and assisted her in having it published. Her first two novels appeared in 1867 in his Dublin University Magazine . Le Fanu was also the one who introduced her to publisher Richard Bentley, who refused her first novel on the grounds of it being improper material, but accepted the second. [2] She in turn introduced Mary Cholmondeley to her publishers in about 1887. [1] [3] Broughton's writing style was to influence other writers like Mary Cecil Hay, who is thought to have a similar style of dialogue. [4]

Bentley also published the one novel of hers, which he had initially rejected. She had first made an initial effort to employ the popular three-decker form and adapt it to the assumed taste of Bentley's readers. Their professional relationship would last until the end of the Bentley publishing house, which was taken over by Macmillan in the late 1890s. By then Broughton had published 14 novels over a period of 30 years. Ten of these were in the three-volume form, although she disliked it and found it hard to comply with. After the commercial failure of Alas!, for which she received her highest ever payment at the height of her career, she decided to abandon the three-decker and write one-volume novels. This was the form used in her finest works. However, she never shed her reputation for creating fast heroines with easy morals, which was true of her early novels, and so suffered from the idea that her work was merely slight and sensational.

After the take-over she remained with Macmillan and published another six novels there, but by then her popularity was in decline. In a review published in The New York Times of 12 May 1906, a certain K. Clark complained that her latest novel was hard to procure and wondered why such a fine writer was so little appreciated.

After 1910 she moved to Stanley, Paul & Co, where she had three novels published. Her last, A Fool In Her Folly (1920), was printed posthumously with an introduction by her long-time friend and fellow writer Marie Belloc Lowndes. It is likely that this work, which can be seen as partially autobiographical, was written at an earlier time but suppressed for personal reasons. It deals with the experiences of a young writer and reflects her own, as does her previous novel A Beginner. The manuscript is in her own handwriting, which is unusual, because some previous work had been dictated to an assistant.

Her final years were spent at Headington Hill, near Oxford where she died on the 5 June 1920, aged 79.


Somerset Maugham, in his short story "The Round Dozen" (1924, also known as "The Ardent Bigamist") observes: "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."

Rhoda Broughton never married, and some critics assume that a disappointed attachment was the impulse that made her try her pen instead of some other literary work like that of Mrs Thackeray Ritchie. Much of her life she spent with her sister Mrs. Eleanor Newcome, until the latter's death in Richmond in 1895. She therefore somehow stands in the tradition of great lady novelists like Maria Edgeworth, Jane Austen or Susan Ferrier. But there are other merits that cause her to be placed in such high company. In his article on her Richard C. Tobias calls her "the leading woman novelist in England between the death of George Eliot and the beginning of Virginia Woolf's career." He compares her work with other novelists of the time and concludes that hers reaches a much higher quality. Indeed, her works of the 1890s and the early 20th century are fine novels and good fun to read.

The Game and the Candle (1899) is like Jane Austen's Persuasion (1818) rewritten. Only this time the heroine has married for rational reasons and is freed in the beginning for her true love, which reason forbade her to marry years before. Her dying husband's last will forces her to decide between love and fortune. However, a renewed encounter with her former lover forces her to see it was actually a good thing she had not married him. His love turns to be too shallow for her happiness. The novel is one of a mature and wise woman who has seen the world.

In A Beginner (1894) Broughton devises a young writer who has her work secretly published and then later torn apart by unknowing people right in front of her face. The novel deals with the moral issues of writing and whether it is appropriate for a young woman to write romantic or even erotic fiction. Scylla or Charybdis? (1895) has a mother hiding her infamous past from her son and obsessing about his love even to the extent of being jealous of other women, a plot to some extent anticipating Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913). The novel questions social conventions in revealing how destructive they can be to quiet people who might have once stepped aside from the proper path. In a different way the same criticism is being made in Foes in Law (1900), where the main question is which lifestyle is the one productive of the highest degree of happiness: the conventional one or one that accords with private needs.

Her next novel, Dear Faustina (1897), deals with a heroine drawn to a girl of the New Woman type. This New Woman Faustina cares nothing for social conventions and dedicates her time to fighting social injustice. Or so it seems at first sight, but the reader gets the feeling that Faustina is more interested in getting to know and impressing other young women. That can also be interpreted as criticism of the New Woman. The homoerotic touch reappears in Lavinia (1902), but this time it is a young man who is frequently made to appear unmanly and even utter the wish to have been born a woman. That novel also concerns itself with Britain's craze for war heroes. Very subtly it questions dominant notions of masculinity.

Always an important feature in all her novels is criticism of woman's role and position in society. Very often Broughton's women are strong characters and with them she manages to subvert traditional images of femininity. This culminates in A Waif's Progress (1905), in which Broughton creates a married couple who turn everything traditional upside down, with the wife fulfilling the stereotype of an older, rich husband.

Broughton's collection Tales for Christmas Eve (1873, also known as Twilight Stories) was a collection of five ghost stories. [5] Robert S. Hadji describes her "short ghost fiction as not as terrifying as her uncle's, but it is skilfully wrought". Hadji also describes Broughton's story "Nothing But the Truth" (1868, vt. "The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth") as "one of her cleverest stories". [1]

During her lifetime Broughton was one of the queens of the circulating libraries. Her fame and success was such that some found it worthwhile to satirise her in works like "Groweth Down Like A Toadstool" or "Gone Wrong" by "Miss Rody Dendron". It is a pity we do not know how she took such things. Perhaps she stood up to them as she did to people like Oscar Wilde or Lewis Carroll, who bore her no love. The latter is said to have declined an invitation because Broughton would be present. The former found a match in her when it came to ironical comments in Oxford society, where she was not liked much, either, due to her ridicule of that set in her novel Belinda (1883). Nevertheless, she also had many friends in literary circles, the most prominent of them being Henry James, with whom she stayed friends until his death in 1916. According to Helen C. Black, James visited Broughton every evening, when they were both in London.

"Black Sheep retreated to the nursery and read Cometh up as a Flower with deep and uncomprehending interest. He had been forbidden to open it on account of its 'sinfulness'..." From Rudyard Kipling's short story, Baa Baa Black Sheep, published 1888.

Partial bibliography

Short stories







  1. 1 2 3 Robert Hadji, "Rhoda Broughton" in Jack Sullivan (ed) (1986) The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural Viking Press, 1986, ISBN   0-670-80902-0, p. 285.
  2. McCormack, W. J. (1997). Sheridan Le Fanu. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing. ISBN   0-7509-1489-0.
  3. ODNB entry on Mary Cholmondeley by Kate Flint: Retrieved 4 May 2012.
  4. Gilbert, edited by Pamela K. (2011). A companion to sensation fiction (1. publ. ed.). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. p. contents. ISBN   1444342215.
  5. B. F. Fischer IV, "Twilight Stories". In Frank N. Magill, ed. Survey of Modern Fantasy Literature, Vol 4. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Salem Press, Inc., 1983, pp. 1989–1991. ISBN   0-89356-450-8