Not Wisely But Too Well, Rhoda Broughton
I had no idea who Rhoda Broughton was when I came across her 1883 novel Belinda at a library book sale some years ago. It was the green Virago cover that caught my eye - all too rare in Houston these days, as I've lamented before. I was intrigued enough by the back cover summary to buy it. It's the story of the title character, Belinda Churchill, who loses her first love and marries instead her sister's jilted fiancé (her seventh, by the way), a cold and ceremonious Oxford don. The novel caused a minor scandal when people began to speculate that the unpleasant Professor Forth was based on Mark Pattison, who according to the notes was also George Eliot's model for Edward Casaubon. I enjoyed Belinda's story, despite wanting to shake her more than once (her light-hearted sister and grandmother may be frivolous but they are also much more fun).
I discovered later that Rhoda Broughton was well-connected to the Victorian literary world. She was the niece of Sheridan Le Fanu, who helped get her first two novels published, and a distant connection of Richard Brinsley Sheridan. She lived in Oxford for many years, well-known for her literary parties - and her strong, freely-expressed opinions. Henry James was a close friend, and Anthony Trollope admired her work. She is one of only four women that he discusses in the chapter of his Autobiography, "On English Novelists of the Present Day," commending her characters and their natural dialogue.
Though I enjoyed Belinda, I didn't feel an immediate need to find more of Rhoda Broughton's books. But when, within the last couple of months, I came across two more of her novels at Half Price Books, I decided that the book universe was trying to tell me something. I chose to start with this one, not realizing it was her first published, under a pseudonym, in 1867. It is the story of Kate Chester, a young woman of twenty, staying with her brother and sister at a dreary Welsh seaside resort. They are orphans after the recent death of their mother, staying with their aunt and her husband. Their uncle, a clergyman, looks and sounds so much like a sheep that none of them can take him seriously. He is also a hypochondriac beyond compare, who would have been perfectly at home with Mr Woodhouse and his weak gruel. Kate, the youngest of the siblings, has auburn hair, green eyes and a retroussé nose, and most of the men she meets seem to find her irresistable (to the dismay of her older sister Margaret). But she only has eyes for one: Colonel Dare Stamer, the second son of the local squire's family, "a big, powerful figure; a figure deep-chested, clean-limbed, thin-flanked, that promised strength -" Bored with the provincial society of the watering-hole, he is happy to flirt with Kate, but they soon find themselves deeply and passionately in love. They cannot marry, however, and Kate tries to forget him in making a home with her sister, and eventually in charitable work in the London slums. Like Trollope's Lily Dale, she vows never to marry another.
One of Trollope's criticisms of Broughton was that "she has made her ladies do and say things which ladies would not do and say. They throw themselves at men's heads, and when they are not accepted only think how they may throw themselves again." He might have been thinking of Kate Chester when he wrote that. Fionn O'Toole, who edited the Pocket Classics edition I read, argues in the introduction that it is the emotional openness of her heroines, their frankness about their feelings, and their physicality, which made her books so shocking to Victorian readers - and also made them best-sellers.
In many ways she was an author ahead of her time. Her open, forthright style and candour, the scathing ridicule of spurious social niceties and middle-class pretensions, as well as the uninhibited emotional honesty of her unorthodox heroines all contributed to her reputation for being 'indecent.' She is an author who caused a sensation in the true sense of the word, rather than just a 'sensation novelist' as such. Melodrama and tragedy frequent her work, but the accent is less on the sensational event as on the effect of passionate emotions upon youthful immaturity and innocence. There are male villains to be sure, to whom her women fall irreparably and willingly victim. What is most shocking about Rhoda Broughton's novels, however, is the way they strip away the façades and veeners of a respectable woman's life and mock the society in which she is trapped.
This book isn't just a polemic, though. It's also a really good story, with a plot that twists and turns. The story is told in the first person, but it's never clear who the narrator is, except that it is someone who knows the Chesters well. Whoever it is, he or she is very fond of hints and foreshadowings, some of which are red herrings, particularly the early death of one character, mentioned in the first chapter, and hinted at several times later. One of the plot twists caught me absolutely and completely off-guard, jolting me into a loud exclamation of surprise. I happened to be sitting on the veranda of a restaurant at the time. Fortunately, there was no one at the near-by tables to hear me. It wasn't just the plot that held me, though, it was also Broughton's characters. I came to care about Kate and her sister Margaret, and I hated to see Kate making the choices that she did. I never thought Dare Stamer was worthy of her! But in her charitable work, which starts with the fashionable "district visiting" expected of young gentlewomen, Kate comes under the direction and guidance of a childhood friend, James Stanley, now the curate of her parish. He is one of those really good saintly Victorian clergymen, who stands out sharply against the lazy Reverend Piggott and the wicked Colonel Stamer. I think he's now my favorite curate, after Frank Wentworth, Margaret Oliphant's Perpetual Curate, though I wish he could have had a happier story. Trollope admitted in a letter to Broughton that this book brought him to tears, and I bet it was Reverend Stanley who did.
The edition I read is by Alan Sutton Publishing, and I'm thankful they rescued this out-of-print classic. It has no explanatory notes, though, which is a shame. Broughton quotes constantly from poetry and song, and there are frequent literary and Scriptural allusions, not to mention a couple of Greek quotations for good measure. I would love to have a Penguin or Oxford Classics edition of this, because I'm sure fully understanding the allusions and quotations would enhance the story even more.
Trollope also wrote of Broughton, "There is nothing wooden about any of [her] novels." That's certainly true of the two I've read, and now I'm really looking forward to reading more. The other book that I found recently is her second, Cometh Up as a Flower. I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I actually have two copies of this. I'd love to pass one along, so if you're already a Broughton fan or you'd like to try her, you can email me or mention it in the comments section. If there is more than one request, I'll do the traditional drawing. Of course many of her books are also available through Google Books and Project Gutenberg.