Women who offend Victorian propriety often turn out to be daughters of the church. So it was with Rhoda Broughton, born in Wales to a country parson. At the time her novels were thought lively and witty, audacious and feminist, and through several decades she was regarded as a champion of the ‘new woman’. But in the later part of her life changing fashions and, in particular, society’s greater freedoms, made her seem quite harmless and, dare we say, dull? She would have found this amusing, having once remarked to Herbert Henry Asquith: ‘I began by being the Zola and I have now become the Charlotte Yonge of English fiction.’
Mary Howitt met her in 1874: ‘She is a young, very attractive lady, extremely witty, with a wit and repartee that sparkle and flash and, when bitter, snap off your head. Why she should take it into her head to desire to make our acquaintance I cannot conceive unless, as dear Mother used to say, she wanted to put us into a book. However, she has been introduced to us and certainly she is one of the most sparkling, brilliant young ladies we have ever met… The fact is I’m rather afraid of her. But she is a wonderful creature. She and her married sister are at the same hotel as Dr. Mackarness, and he has told her a great deal about her. Of course she laid herself out to be very attractive to him and sent forth such coruscation of wit as almost blinded them. The hotel guests are divided into two parties – the admirers and reprobators of Miss Rhoda Broughton, and she takes care to turn the laugh upon her enemies. I have, as yet, read none of her books; many people consider them improper but, be they what they may, she is a splendidly gifted creature and we will hope may grow wiser and more reasonable as she grows older.’
Fortunately, it seems that she did not.
She began with novels in the conventional three- and two-decker format: Not Wisely, But Too Well and Cometh Up As A Flower (both 1867) and Nancy (1873), but as her novels shortened so they sharpened. Mrs Bligh (1892) and Dear Faustina (1897) both stand out. Characteristically, perhaps, in a tale told against herself, she said she’d once seen a railway bookstall with a bundle of second-hand novels tied with string and labelled: ‘Rhoda Broughton – soiled and cheap.’