A painting of a teacup with accompanying text "middlebrow highs" and "Seán Gibbons"

Middlebrow Highs: a column introduction

‘Middlebrow’ has always been a dirty word. Along with all the other nouns, collocations or otherwise, that include ‘middle’ in their formation – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, Middle English, the middlebrow individual has been much maligned or, at best, overlooked. Virginia Woolf, writing in 1942, thought of them as someone ‘of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that…’ They were, she said, ‘in pursuit of no single object, neither art or life itself…’ Furthermore, and to her immense chagrin, they are concerned only and rather nastily ‘with money, fame, power, or prestige.’

Coined in the 1920s, the term has been used to disparage cultural products thought to be too easy,  smug and too insular; and not just the products, but also their producers and, by default, their consumers. University courses in popular culture studies have reclaimed the ‘lowbrow’ as a focus for legitimate academic interest in recent years, but the middlebrow remains firmly out in the cold. While I do not intend to engage too deeply with the academic discourse, I do hope to contribute in some small way towards rehabilitating the term and the body of literature produced between the 1920s and 1950s to which it was applied. ‘Middlebrow’ fiction dominated publishing in those four decades, but since then it has largely been ignored by historians and literary critics. Indeed, nowadays the authors and their works are more likely to pop up on the lists of the forgotten or neglected. I am indebted to Nicola Humble, upon whose monumental The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism (OUP, 2001) I shall draw heavily. That said, and with no disrespect to Prof. Humble, the novels can well speak for themselves.

My interest in this topic is both recent and inexpert. It began when I stumbled upon a second-hand copy of One Pair of Hands by Monica Dickens (1939), the great-granddaughter of Charles Dickens, and it has been slowly developing into an obsession. Never one to be led by the latest fads in anything, I have been relishing my status as an outlier, albeit, as we shall see in later instalments, one in distinguished company. As most of the writers and their readers were female, I am also enjoying a foray into a feminine world that has been largely marginalised. I have certainly not wandered into a garden of shrinking violets, and my outlook on the world is regularly challenged, in surprising ways, by these books. 

For too long, one could only find these books among the lost and abandoned on second-hand dealers’ stalls, usually hiding behind some big tome of more recent vintage and fame. Such discoveries were always delightful experiences, and it was how my own modest collection began; I just kept hoping nobody would realise their true worth and adjust their prices accordingly. Sssh – don’t tell anyone, but I’m still getting away with it! Newer reprints are also available from the more astute publishers. Bath-based Persephone Books produce a gorgeous range – up to 141 books in their iconic grey covers and endpapers featuring samples of work from talented fabric designers of the period. Their beautifully designed Classics are also well worth keeping an eye out for. Other notable current publishers include Handheld Press and Virago Modern Classics.

As Nicola Humble points out, there are some worthy exceptions to the general lack of academic interest in the ‘middlebrow’ novel and, dare I say it, their readership. From time to time we will dive into works such as Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel: 1914 – 39 (1983) and Joseph McAleer’s Popular Reading and Publishing 1914 – 50 (1992) to name but a few. However, it does still manage to feel like one is about to enter a rather murky world dominated by the smell of boiling cabbage and the rigours of rationing, albeit a world rendered by the finger-tip prose of authors such as Stella Gibbons (no relation to me, though I’m working on verifying that!), Nancy Mitford, Elizabeth Taylor, Angela Thirkell, Barbara Pym, Monica Dickens and Elizabeth Bowen to name but a few. It is my intention to, as much as possible, let these marvellous writers speak for themselves. I should say at this point that I am open to any suggestion for exploration that you, dear reader, might have.

From a historical perspective, most of these books were written in and by authors who lived through momentous events and great social change, such as the world wars, the dawning of cinema as a form of mass entertainment. Their commentary on these, if not always overt, probably reflects that of their readership, who, let’s face it, were largely part of the mass of the ignored, who, without too much drama, simply got on with it. I am thinking of my own mother here. Their voices haven’t always been heard, yet they mostly just carried on with life, finding solace in these works of ‘middlebrow’ fiction and occasional non-fiction. I think it is important to give them all a voice because, as I’m gradually discovering, they do have something valuable to impart. But, most of all, these books are always well written works of literature and sometimes, though not always, humorous enough to raise a proper belly-laugh.

I might add that I am only a novice when it comes to appreciating the full extent of the value of these writers and their work, so in that sense you, dear reader, and I shall be on a journey of discovery together. I shall enjoy rooting out new and old friends, and introducing you and them to one another. Perhaps, some of you will discover a few familiar faces along the way so a cheery “hello, long time no see!” may be called for – in which case I shall be glad to know that I have had some small part in bringing you back together again.

For my next column, let us look at the work of Barbara Pym, thankfully one of the more ‘rediscovered’ of the ‘middlebrow’ novelists. One of her biggest fans, Philip Larkin, played no small part in that. Pym, in her first novel, Some Tame Gazelle (1950) manages to convey a whole world of shabby genteel and utter discomfort with the lines: ‘The new curate seemed like a nice young man, but what a pity it was that his combinations showed, tucked carelessly into his socks.’ Her writing, like that of P.G. Wodehouse, is always evocative of a certain yet unidentified period in history and arguably makes real, for this reader anyway, the essence of a world which had yet to expand its horizons to the extent with which we are familiar today.