With 25 published novels indulging in one of the favorite genres loved by readers in Victorian England—romantic fiction—Rhoda Broughton stands as one of the most popular and commercially successful writers most people today have never heard of. A perfect example of the pervasive prudishness which defines (perhaps unfairly) the Victorian era is Broughton’s debut novel, Not Wisely but Too Well. Numerous references to a certain feminine body part shocked the more conservative elements of society who characterized the novel’s heroine as being something less than a lady. The body part in question: her legs.
It was Broughton’s second novel, however, which thrust her into the center of England’s literary world. Cometh Up as a Flower was published in 1867 and though it was essentially just a thematic and narrative reworking of her first novel, it became one of those books that finds the perfect audience at the perfect moment in history. While the more staid members of Victorian England that are more responsible for its somewhat misleading reputation as almost having no public awareness of sexuality, it found receptive readers among the subversive resistance that is always a force in such repressive milieus.
Broughton’s heroines were later described by no less a fan of her books than George Bernard Shaw as “girls who drift from womanhood with some obsolete schooling and no training whatever . . . eventually suffering the doom of the unfit.” Cometh Up as a Flower challenged convention Victorian novels traditions and set the template for novels to come by providing young female readers with the kind of energetically sensual young women who articulate physically the passion often only hinted as beneath the repression of Jane Austen’s heroines. In other words, the protagonist of Cometh Up as a Flower was just as fiercely and proudly unladylike as the character that sparked so much controversy in her first novel.
Much later, in one of his short stories, author Somerset Maugham would reflect upon a conversation he’d had with Broughton in which he indicates that the response to her books had changed over time despite the fact she had pretty much written the same story over the course of forty years. Her literary reputation remains quite high in contrast to her general readership which has continually seen a reduction over the decades.