When I began Rhoda Broughton’s novel Cometh Up As a Flower, I thought I’d end up loving it. I didn’t, as it turns out, I only liked it. Parts of it were wonderful, but parts of it were too romantic, too wilty for my tastes. But those complaints aside, while Cometh Up As a Flower left me more appreciative than ever of M.E. Braddon’s masterful plotting skills, Broughton’s book does have a lot going for it. The book opens very strongly indeed with our tragic heroine, Nell Le Strange, the youngest daughter of an impoverished, once wealthy, noble family sitting alone in the local churchyard:
Ours was a churchyard that it would have been a real luxury to be buried in. It inspired one with no horrible, hardly even melancholy ideas. One never thought of skulls or cross-bones, or greedy worms, while looking at those turfy mounds sloping so softly; those mounds that the westering sun always gave his last good-night kiss to before he went to bed behind the craggy purple hill. Were one really dead, stowed away in one’s appointed oak box, it would concern one, no doubt, not a whit whether one were huddled with other oak boxes into some ghastly pit, among the dark benettled grass of some city charnel, or laid down reverently in the fragrant earth, shadowed by some peaceable little gray church tower, such as ours was. But while one is yet alive and one’s oak box is as yet not a box at all, but the trunk of some branchy tree, one cannot realize this. Unconsciously we fancy that we shall smell the odorous mignonette and carnations that are reveling in the summer sunshine above our heads, that we shall hear the birds preaching our funeral sermons, and singing their own epithalamiums when spring comes back, that we shall shiver in the snow, and be chilled by the wintry rains.
A flawed, yet still beautiful passage (too many ‘ones’–read this quote using first person and it’s much better) that gives a sense of the novel’s main character, Nell. I immediately liked her, but at the same time knew that she was destined, with all that romanticism, for some painful lessons. Nell is the youngest of two daughters who live with their widowed father. Dolly, the eldest sister, the much more conventional of the two, was engaged to be married to a wealthy young man who inconveniently died right before the wedding. The marriage would have solved some of the family’s problems, but now Dolly’s value on the marriage market isn’t so great:
“life in an old barrack, with no present income, and with no future prospects, hardly seems to me a theme for Hallelujah; for weeping and gnashing of teeth rather.”
“I would not gnash my teeth if I were you, Dolly!” say I, with sarcasm, which is a weapon I but seldom use, as it mostly cuts my own fingers when I lay hold of it, “or you may break them, and that would seriously diminish your prospects in the market.”
“Market, indeed!” echoes Dolly, interrupting herself in the perusal of a toilette de promenade. “This little pig does not go to market, and very sorry she is for it too, she might have all her teeth drawn and knocked out, or gnashed out, and nobody would be the wiser. Alas! alas! there are no pig dealers in this Sahara.”
A very bold passage for its times, and one which reveals that Dolly is all too aware of a woman’s fate should she remain unmarried.
Nell falls in love with a man who can’t salvage the family fortunes, and so she finds herself marrying a man she doesn’t love. She’s so young, so full of life, we can almost hear the joy being squeezed out of her as she’s married off feeling only “huge loathing” and “infinite despair.” The skullduggery in the plot seems relatively tame after other Sensation novels I’ve read, and the crime involved is a moral crime more than anything else. While in Lady Audley’s Secret, M. E. Braddon creates a pathological female who will do whatever is necessary to get ahead, the wicked woman here is Nell’s sister, Dolly, who in many ways, at least externally, embodies the Victorian ideal woman.
The intro to my Pocket Classics edition, written by Fionn O’Toole acknowledges that the novel, written in 1862-3 and finally published anonymously in 1867 is “sentimental and melodramatic in parts.” Cometh Up As a Flower, a best seller in its day, tackles sexual attraction, a loveless marriage, and strongly critical of a woman’s choices, “strip[s] away the facades and veneers of a respectable woman’s life and mock the society in which she is trapped.”
Rhoda Broughton, the niece of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu enjoyed a long writing career, but when Broughton died in 1920, her popularity was in decline. Born in Wales in 1840, Rhoda Broughton’s first novel Not Wisely But Too Well was serialized in Le Fanu’s Dublin University magazine, and while Broughton is categorized as a Sensation author, publisher Victorian Secrets argues that her work is “risqué rather than sensational.” Cometh Up As a Flower is an entirely different animal from other Sensation novels I’ve read so far. While the Sensation novel owed a debt to both the Gothic and the Romantic, Cometh Up As a Flower seems to have grown from the latter.