Rhoda Broughton was born in Denbigh, North Wales, in 1840, the youngest daughter of the Reverend Delves Broughton. Her father was given the living of Broughton, Staffordshire, and she was brought up in an Elizabethan manor house, where he gave her a classical education. On his death, Rhoda Broughton went to live with her sisters in Surbiton, subsequently following one of them to Denbighshire.
Her first novel, Not Wisely But too Well, appeared in 1867, having been previously serialised in the Dublin University Magazine, edited by her uncle, Sheridan Le Fanu. Cometh Up as a Flower was published in the same year, another novel with a strong, transgressive heroine. Although often referred to as a sensation novelist, her work is notable for being slightly risqué, rather than sensational. Anthony Trollope commented in his Autobiography that “she has made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say.”
The novelist and critic Mrs Oliphant was horrified by Broughton’s “uncleanly suggestions”, and her novels were banned by the circulating libraries until the 1870s. Despite (or perhaps because of) these criticisms, Broughton’s work was perennially popular. The Captain of HMS Alert christened a mountain “Mount Rhoda” in her honour, after he and his crew had enjoyed the novels during their long sea voyage.
In later life Rhoda moved to Oxford, much to the consternation of the local residents, who thought she was that infamous Miss Braddon. Undeterred, she established herself as something of a society wit. Oscar Wilde is said to have felt intimidated by her, and she apparently had a voice that could be heard from the other side of Harrod’s Food Hall.
She died in 1920, still writing until the end. The Times, originally revolted by her earlier novels, dismissed them as “sentimental romances” in her obituary. However, they thought the modern reader would be interested to see the type of book forbidden to their grandmother.
Victorian Secrets publishes Twilight Stories.
Rhoda Broughton is also one of the interviewees in Notable Women Authors of the Day.