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Rhoda Broughton (1840–1920)

Rhoda Broughton

Rhoda Broughton was a popular novelist who lived at River View at the top of Headington Hill from 1900 to 1920.

Rhoda was born at Segrwyd Hall, near Denbigh, north Wales, on 29 November 1840. She was the daughter of the Revd Delves Broughton and Jane Bennett, and was baptised at Wybunbury in Cheshire on 7 March 1841.

At the time of the 1841 census, six-month-old Rhoda was living at Wybunbury with her clergyman father Delves, her mother Jane, and her older sisters Ellinor (4) and Mary (2), plus four servants.

In 1851 Rhoda (10) was living at Curzon Park, Cheshire with her father Delves Broughton (39), who was now the Curate of John's Deddington, her mother Jane (40), and her two older sisters Ellinor (14) and Mary Jane (13), and her younger brother Delves junior (4). The family now employed five servants (a housekeeper, nurse, cook, housemaid, and footman).

Her mother Jane Broughton died in 1860, and at the time of the 1861 census Rhoda (20) was living at Broughton Hall, near Croxton in Staffordshire with her widower father Delves Broughton (49), who was now the incumbent and squire of Broughton, and her siblings Ellinor (24), Mary Jane (23), and Delves junior (14). They had five servants: a housekeeper, ladies' maid, two housemaids, and a cook.

Rhoda wrote her first novel Not Wisely but too Well in 1862 when she was aged 22, but it was initially turned down.

Rhoda's father Delves Broughton died in 1863, so at the age of 23 Rhoda had lost both her parents. At first she lived with her sisters in Surbiton, but following the marriage in 1864 of her sister Ellinor to William Charles Newcome, she went back to Denbighshire to live with them, and her novel Cometh up as a Flower was published in 1867. Her earlier attempt, Not Wisely but too Well was serialized in the Dublin University Magazine, then edited by Sheridan Le Fanu (who had married her mother's sister, Susanna Bennett, in 1843) and was published as a book later in 1867.

The 1871 census shows Rhoda (30) living with the Newcomes at Upper Eyarth, Llanfair, Denbighshire, where her brother-in-law was a farmer of 105 acres: no occupation was listed for her. Five more of her books were published while she was living there: Red as a Rose is She (1870), Good-bye, Sweetheart (1872),  Nancy (1873), Tales for Christmas Eve (1873), and Joan (1876).

Her early novels were the most sensational, and Mrs Oliphant said in a review that “that it is a shame for women so to write”. On 22 April 1876 Punch satirized her in a piece Headed “GONE WRONG! A new novel. By Miss Rhody Dendron, Authoress of Cometh Down like a Shower,” “Red in the Nose is She,” “Good! Buy Sweet Tart!” “Not Slily, But don't Tell.” (Transcript of article)

In 1876 Captain Clements Markham, who was mapping the northern section of Ellesmere Island at the North Pole on the explorer ship Alert, christened one icebound peak “Mount Rhoda” in her honour.

On 1 June 1877 the Dundee Courier & Argus and Northern Wanderer reported:

Miss Rhoda Broughton (says a London correspondent) the novelist, is about to be married. Miss Broughton is the daughter of a Northamptonshire clergyman, and astonished her friends by the precocious knowledge of life and society she exhibited in her first novel, which was projected at the age of seventeen.

The Aberdeen Weekly Chronicle similarly reported on 23 June 1877 that she was “soon to enter the hymeneal state”, and the York Herald on 27 June 1877 that she was “reported to be engaged to a noble and literary lord, who was first fascinated by her novels, and then by Miss Rhoda Broughton herself”. No such marriage took place.

27 Holywell Street, Oxford: 1878–1890

On 26 December 1877 William Charles Newcome, the husband of Rhoda's sister Ellinor, died at Upper Eyarth in Denbighshire at the age of 58. In the middle of the following year the two sisters moved to 27 Holywell Street in Oxford. The Newcastle Courant reported as follows in its London Gossip column on 21 June 1878:

All the feminine adorers of Miss Rhoda Broughton will be interested to learn that she intends to make Oxford her home, and that she has already made a distinguished conquest; but whether amongst the academical or the military elements which divide Oxford society seems doubtful.

Oxford people had mixed feelings about her, according to this extract from her obituary in the Oxford Magazine:

The Oxford of the late 'seventies gave her a mixed welcome. A small and strait minority considered her novels “fast” reading, and stupidly confused her with another novelist of a somewhat similar name. Miss Broughton was very capable of defending herself against those who slighted her, and the enemy was routed early and decisively. The best element in Oxford of course welcomed her at once. She was the friend of the Mark Pattisons, Jowett, Pater, Daniel, Willert, Mrs. M. L. Woods, and the present Master of Balliol; and there were many others of a later day.

Two of those named friends had connections with the top of Headington Hill: Mark Pattison, Rector of Lincoln College, was living at the there at the time of the 1871 census, and Paul Ferdinand Willert, a Fellow of Exeter College, had moved into The Croft in Pullen's Lane in 1872.

In 1880 it was reported that she was an occasional worshipper in Balliol College Chapel.

Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was one of the people who disapproved of her: he refused an invitation to dinner at which she was to be a guest on the grounds that he thoroughly disapproved of her novels.

Three of Rhoda's novels were published while she was living at 27 Holywell Street: Second Thoughts (1880), Belinda (1883), and Dr Cupid (1886). At the time of the 1881 census Rhoda (40), described as an authoress, was away from Oxford, paying a visit to Louisa de Rothschild, a baronet's widow living at the Park Mansion, Aston Clinton, Buckinghamshire. Her hostess's married daughter, the authoress Constance Flower (37), was also at the house, and paying a visit were the poet Matthew Arnold (described simply as an Inspector of Schools) and a German artist called Anna Molique.

On 16 February 1886 she was invited to a ball at Headington Hill Hall by George Herbert Morrell and his wife.

Oscar Wilde said of her (Pall Mall Gazette, 28 October 1886): “She at least possesses that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin.”

In February 1889 it was reported in Jackson's Oxford Journal that Mrs Woods, the wife of the President of Trinity College, often filled the lodgings with her literary friends, including Rhoda Broughton.

She was described as one of the distinguished residents of Oxford in the Pall Mall Gazette of 21 June 1890, but shortly afterwards moved to London.

1 Mansfield Place Richmond Hill, 1890–1900

In 1890 Rhoda moved with her sister Ellinor to 1 Mansfield Place, Richmond Hill, Surrey. Five more of her novels were published while she lived there: Alas! (1890), A Widower Indeed (1891, co-written with Elizabeth Bisland), Mrs Bligh (1892), A Beginner (1893), and Scylla or Charybdis (1895). At the time of the 1891 census Rhoda (50), described as a novelist, was away from Richmond Hill, paying a visit to the home of a retired lead manufacturer and his wife at Nanty Glyn, Colwyn Bay.

Rhoda's sister Mrs Ellinor Newcome died in 1894 at the age of 57. Rhoda remained in London until 1900, and two more of her books were published while she was there: Dear Faustina (1897) and The Game and the Candle (1899).

River View, Headington, 1900–1920

River View

Broughton blue plaque

In 1900 Rhoda Broughton moved to Headington to live with her younger cousin, Florence Mercedes Broughton (whose forenames were reversed in her birth registration in 1843). Their house was River View at the top of Headington Hill (above), which is on the lane that runs between Headington reservoir and Hill Top House.

Rhoda's cousin “Miss Broughton” was listed as the householder here in Kelly's Directory from 1901.

Right: An Oxfordshire blue plaque was unveiled
at River View, Headington on 22 October 2020

Rhoda was no longer ostracized by the people of Oxford, and undergraduates hoped for invitations to visit her at her Headington home. She also maintained a London flat at Cadogan Gardens in Kensington, where she spent a period of each year.

In the 1901 census Rhoda (60), described as a novelist, can be found at 4 The Embankment, Bedford staying with her brother Delves Broughton (54), who was now a retired Lieutenant-Colonel, and his wife and daughter, plus their three servants (a cook, parlourmaid, and kitchenmaid).

Nine of her books were written while she was based in Headington:

  • Foes In Law (1900)
  • Lavinia (1902)
  • A Waif's Progress (1905)
  • Mamma (1908)
  • The Devil and the Deep Sea (1910)
  • Between Two Stools (1912)
  • Concerning a Vow (1914)
  • A Thorn in the Flesh (1917)
  • A Fool in her Folly (1920, published posthumously).

Somerset Maugham, in his short story “The Round Dozen” (1924, also known as “The Ardent Bigamist”) observed:

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.

At the time of the 1911 census Rhoda (70), described as a novelist, was away from Headington, staying at The White House, Torquay with her lady's maid. Her cousin, now aged 68, was living at River View with one servant.

In her novel Concerning a Vow (1914), p. 119, Rhoda describes a lane at the top of Headington Hill. She could have been thinking of the lane where she lived, or perhaps Pullen's Lane:

On a hill above Oxford, in a lane diverging from the high road to London, a sprinkling of little houses testifies to the anxiety of the University to escape from its slackness and its fogs into the rather better air of the higher ground. To the smallest of these cottages Sally Champneys had taken her restless body and stricken soul, and in the largest, which indeed partook more of the nature of a villa, the Hippisleys had established themselves.

Headington is treated in the novel as being in the depth of the country, and when Anne Hippisley returns to visit Sally there, she takes a hansom cab from Oxford railway station to the top of Headington Hill.

Rhoda spent the winter of 1919 to 1920 in London, returning to Headington in the spring. She died at River View on 5 June 1920 at the age of 79. The Times of 7 June 1920 (p. 12) reported thus on her death:

Miss Rhoda Broughton.

To middle-aged and more elderly novel-readers the death, which we announce this morning, of Miss Rhoda Broughton will bring natural regrets and an access of memories. It is long since “Cometh up as a Flower” made its appearance. The bare mention of it recalls a very different state of society and of fiction from the present. “Not Wisely, but Too Well,” was, when it came out fifty-three years ago, neither wisely nor well compared with “Jane Eyre”; but the judgment deserves to be recorded, even if it had soon to be revised, for Miss Broughton, who continued to write down to recent years, had an undeniable genius and held a distinctive place of her own. It is true that her later manner was not quite like her first; but she was consistently a product of England, both in her virtues and her faults, and whether she was consciously imitated or not, her influence upon others was great during the first twenty-five years of her writing and life. She outlived the school of “Broughton and water,” which she founded; or, perhaps, a later generation had made an advance upon her. But her best qualities were not those that lent themselves easily to the art of the imitator. At least, her stories were always alive. She had sharp and unexpected angles of observation. The comedy of her well-to-do drawing rooms never flagged and was never played out. Perhaps she was not highly ambitious; there are certainly imperfections in her writings on which criticism can fasten; but it is to such that prudent criticism will turn a blind eye, for the sake of the sound contribution which Miss Broughton makes to the history of English manners. Whether her works are or have been popular, on the colossal scale in which popularity is now understood, signifies little; nor is it necessary to conjecture how her reputation will stand a few decades hence. But there are old novels and old novels. There are many which nobody reads at all, and others which continue to be read between the lines, if not for the plot or the style. Such reading is a tribute to a writer's permanent value, and to Miss Broughton, we believe, that tribute will long continue to be paid.

A fuller obituary appeared on p. 17 of the same edition.

Rhoda Broughton's body was cremated at Golders Green on 9 June, and only Mr Newcome, her nephew, was present. A memorial service was held the following day at St Martin's-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square.

Her effects came to £6,377 9s. 7d., and her executor was her brother Delves Broughton.

There is a plaque on the wall of St Cross Church (now Balliol College Archives) dedicated to Rhoda Broughton by her brother. It reads:

BORN NOV. 29TH 1840 / DIED JUNE 5TH 1920 /

A companion memorial is dedicated to her sister Ellinor Newcombe. Both can be seen here under the heading “3. Inscriptions on the Walls”, Items 1 and 2.

The Oxford Magazine concluded her obituary with these lines:

Miss Broughton was a brilliantly clever, humorous, and witty woman. She had learnt Greek and Latin in days when it was very rare for girls to do so; she read German and Italian; and her appreciation of all kinds of French literature was extraordinarily rich and wide. In English, she seemed to have read everything. She was an enchantingly good talker, and her friends of all ages will gratefully remember her as by far the most remarkable woman whom they have known.

Rhoda's cousin Miss Florence Mercedes Broughton remained at River View into the early 1930s. She died on Christmas Day 1935 at The Cottage, Stow Road, Kingham at the age of 93 near the end of 1935 and was buried in Headington Cemetery on 28 December.

Why was Rhoda Broughton's House called “River View”?

Before a reservoir to serve St Clement's was built in front of the house in 1877, it had a fine view of the River Cherwell, as shown in this extract from a painting of Headington Hill by J. M. W. Turner:

Turner view from Headington Hill

There is a much fuller entry on Rhoda Broughton in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The ODNB online is available free to many public library users, including those in Oxfordshire:
enter L followed immediately by your library ticket number in the “Library Card Login” box

Wikipedia: Rhoda Broughton

The Blank Garden: Rhoda Broughton

For Rhoda Broughton v. Oscar Wilde, see The Remarkable Rhoda Broughton

Helen O. Black, Notable Women Authors of the Day: Biographical Sketches
(Glasgow: David Bryce & Son, 1893): online: search here for Rhoda Broughton

Marilyn Wood, Rhoda Broughton: Profile of a Novelist (Stamford: Paul Watkins Publishing, 1993)

Oxford Times
, 11 June 1920 (p. 13);
Oxford Journal Illustrated, 9 June 1920 (p. 8d)
Oxford Magazine, 11 June 1920 (bound volume 1919–1920, p. 389)
The Times, 7 June 1920 (p. 17)

© Stephanie Jenkins

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