Some of the more peripheral characters in Wilde’s Women are so colourful and pioneering that, although their links to Oscar Wilde were tenuous, I was determined to include them. One was the remarkable Rhoda Broughton, who never took to Wilde, nor he to her.
Although Rhoda Broughton was born in North Wales, her Irish roots stretched deep. Her late mother, Jane Bennett had grown up at 18 Merrion Square. In 1856, the Bennett parents let their home to Gothic novelist Joseph Sheridan le Fanu and his wife, Susanna, Jane’s sister. Le Fanu was well acquainted with William and Jane Wilde, who lived a few doors up. After Suzanna fell into despair and died in mysterious circumstances that were never discussed, Rhoda remained close to her uncle, who encouraged her literary ambitions. On a rainy Sunday afternoon in 1867, as Rhoda struggled through a tedious novel, ‘the spirit moved her to write’. She tossed her dreary book aside and scribbled furiously for six weeks, producing Not Wisely but Too Well, the lurid tale of young Kate Chester, who stops just short of an adulterous affair with the self-regarding Dare Stamer; it was rumoured to be semi-autobiographical.
Le Fanu serialised it in the Dublin University Magazine, which he edited at the time, and persuaded Rhoda to send it to publisher George Bentley & Sons; Bentley turned it down after his editorial reader Geraldine Jewsbury declared it: ‘The most thoroughly sensual tale I have read in English for a long time’. This was exactly what readers wanted. When Not Wisely but Too Well was brought out by the more audacious Tinsley Brothers, it became the first in a string of hugely controversial bestsellers. Three years later, when the circulating libraries lifted their ban on her books, Rhoda’s popularity soared. Yet, she published anonymously until 1872, and most readers assumed she was a man. One unwitting reviewer for the Athenaeum declared:
That the author is not a young woman, but a man, who, in the present story, shows himself destitute of refinement of thought or feeling and ignorant of all that women either are or ought to be, is evident on every page.
Exuberant and ferociously independent, with a well-deserved reputation as a waspish wit, Rhoda divided opinion. Oscar’s friend James Rennell Rodd observed that she had ‘a great heart but acaustic tongue’. Among her supporters were Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy and Henry James, who shared her apparently irrational dislike of Oscar. The Reverend Charles Dodgson, known to us as Lewis Carroll, refused to attend a dinner with her as he ‘greatly disapproved’ of her novels. Anthony Trollope admired her, but despaired at how she ‘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. Miss Broughton is still so young that I hope she may live to overcome her fault in this direction.
Rhoda insisted she was merely responding to market forces: ‘since the public like it hot and strong, I am not the person to disoblige them’, she declared.
It’s difficult to fathom the animosity that crackled between Oscar and Rhoda as they had much in common: both were blessed with witty and persuasive personalities; both eschewed the narrowly proscribed gender roles imposed by a judgmental Victorian society; and both courted controversy by tackling taboos in their writing. Besides, Oscar was not easily intimidated by anyone. Whatever the reason, he stopped inviting Rhoda to tea and she took this exclusion to heart. Her good friend Ethel Arnold, niece of Matthew and a pioneering journalist in her own right, claimed Rhoda was referring to Oscar when she carped:
I can’t forget those early years of my life, when those from whom I had every right and reason to expect kindness and hospitality showed me nothing but cold incivility. I resent it still, and I shall resent it until my dying day.
Oscar was reportedly furious when Rhoda caricatured him in Second Thoughts as, ‘long pale poet’ Francis Chaloner, who carries a, ‘lotus lily in one pale hand’. Leaving no room for doubt, she furnished Chaloner’s room with a great white lily in a large blue vase that stood alongside easels supporting, ‘various pictures in different stages of finish’. It seems she barely knew him, since she made Chaloner egotistical and humourless. Oscar was understandably wary and novelist Margaret Woods, a mutual friend, recalled:
The last time I met Oscar Wilde was at a private view of the Royal Academy; he then said that he had lately come across Rhoda Broughton and found her tongue as bitter as ever.
He took his revenge by reviewing Broughton’s Betty’s Visions for the Pall Mall Gazette in October 1886: ‘No one can ever say of her that she has tried to separate flippancy from fiction’, he wrote, ‘whatever harsh criticisms may be passed on the construction of her sentences, she at least possesses that one touch of vulgarity that makes the whole world kin’. He closed by declaring: ‘In Philistia lies Miss Broughton’s true sphere and to Philistia she should return’.
Of course, he may have simply disliked her novel, but his words give an insight into how, for all his apparent poise, Oscar was rattled by those who showed him disdain; he could certainly harbor a grudge.