Sunday, 5 April 2009
The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s by Nicola Humble
Nicola Humble's fascinating work considers the establishment of the feminine middlebrow novel as a genre, and the growth and social spread of middlebrow readers, before examining the treatment and use of the themes of class, domesticity, the family and gender roles within a wide range of middlebrow fictions from the period. Humble's contention is that middlebrow fiction's response to modernity is not only to resist change and development, but also to promote new roles and social structures. Middlebrow novels are usually set in an upper-middle-class milieu, but are read by lower-middle class readers; these novels undermine class distinction by allowing the reader from a lower social class to infiltrate this closed world, understanding its secret codes and learning its distinctive ways of life. Sometimes this subversion led to the extension of snobberies; Humble identifies the effects of Nancy Mitford's Noblesse Oblige, which extended the knowledge of upper-class language usage to all who happened to read it, exporting its strictures on terms such as notepaper to a wider social group. These novels often act almost as self-help guides for the modern middle-class woman, identifying appropriate ways of living, of arranging a house and dealing with servants, of managing social life; this exemplary tone makes their ambiguities and subversions about the rules of life more significant, as readers might learn a variety of lessons, each amply supported by the instructive mood of the text. Humble manages a wide range of texts here, including some writers such as Rose Macaulay and Elizabeth Bowen now frequently claimed as highbrow, but undoubtedly enjoyed by a contemporary middlebrow audience. Humble came to these texts as reading for pleasure during her English degree; her taste for "girly books" as they called them was shared by her friends, who swapped second-hand bookshop finds and were an ideal market for the output of Virago in the early 1980s. Her pleasure in these books does not limit her ability to engage with the text as a clear-eyed critic, and to identify their demerits along with their achievements, and this results in a satisfying, balanced evaluation of these works, and a stimulus for my own further thought and future research in this area.