Showing posts with label middlebrow. Show all posts
Showing posts with label middlebrow. Show all posts

Monday, 2 December 2013

E.M. Delafield

It is 70 years ago today that E.M. Delafield died, much too young, at her home in Devon.  She had been ill for some time, enduring the rather primitive treatments for cancer that were available in the 1940s, but had kept up her cheerful spirits almost until the end - Kate O'Brien remembers her climbing a fig tree in the garden in September 1943, and according to Maurice McCullen she was giving a lecture in Oxford just days before her death.  I had the great privilege of visiting the Delafield archive at the University of British Columbia earlier this year, and of reading the opening chapter of the novel she never finished, an appetising combination of marital disharmony and intergenerational conflict spiced with wartime tensions.  It was impossible not to imagine the witty and moving book this could have made, and the picture of wartime Britain that it would have left us, and then all the other novels that EMD might have written.  By the late 1930s she was really in her stride as a writer; where would her work have gone next?

EMD has been the topic of my PhD thesis and I've spent the last four years reading her novels, short stories, journalism and plays.  When I started the thesis I was slightly nervous of focusing it on her work, wondering if I would get sick of it after several years' intimate acquaintance.  Thankfully, I haven't at all; sometimes I find her work frustrating, sometimes challenging, but always and endlessly interesting.  Middlebrow fiction is supposed to be slight and amusing, but Delafield's work repays re-reading with a careful eye; there can be an awful lot going on in her most frivolous works.  One of the things that is usually going on, of course, is humour, and her jokes also stand up to repeated scrutiny.  The more I read, the more I find to admire, and the more of her journalism I read the more I am amazed by her work ethic.  How on earth did she find the time to write all that?

One of the reasons that I love EMD and the women writers of her generation is that really, they weren't supposed to be there.  A whole generation of women - Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, Vera Brittain, May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, the list goes on and on  - who were brought up in the vague expectation that they would probably marry, who scraped up what education they could get, often against the wishes of their parents, and who somehow transformed themselves into writers, critics and campaigners.  Instead of disappearing from view into respectable matrimony, they left us their books. Anyone who has suffered from impostor syndrome (probably nearly everyone) can take heart from their lives.

There is a particular significance to the seventieth anniversary of a writer's death; in the UK at least, their works come out of copyright in the following year.  I expect we'll see a lot more new editions of Delafield next year, which is good news for her fans.  But I really wish she'd made it to her eighties, and written the novels she probably had planned.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

This is a very difficult book to write about, and it's particularly difficult to explain why it is such a good and enjoyable book without giving away its secrets, secrets which are part of why it is so enjoyable.  Rose Macaulay's novel has to do with identity, its construction and presentation, and its sudden dissolution.  Half-sisters Daisy and Daphne Simpson are modern young women in 1920s London; Daisy is the illegitimate daughter of an upper-class man, now dead, and the expansive, lower-middle-class Lily Arthur, now married to a painter and decorator in East Sheen.  She feels every bit of the awkwardness of her position, aware that the upper-class family who employ her are being deceived, equally aware that her much-loved mother knows Daisy is slightly ashamed of her.  Daisy supplements her income by writing novels and journalism under the name of Marjorie Wynne.  Marjorie dutifully turns out articles on various "Woman Questions": can women have genius?  can they have children and a career?  Daisy rather despises this debate, and the way her editor constantly forces her to consider the 'human question'; she dreams of writing about "inhuman things, about books, about religion, about places, about the world at large, about things of which intelligent people had heard".   Macaulay is very funny at the expense of her own profession and gets well stuck in to the debates about highbrow and lowbrow writing that were prevalent when she published this book in 1928.

So the novel plays with ideas and conflicts about class, gender, and literary status, which makes it sound very serious, but the tone is Rose Macaulay's usual one of arch humour, and consequently it is very funny.  The Folyot family - upper-class progressive intellectuals - are very cleverly drawn, just stopping short of caricature, and Daisy's mother Lily is a complete joy, and a terribly attractive character, with her fondness for a little nip of brandy and her sympathetic understanding of her daughter's position.  The frightful (to Daisy, at least) scene where the Folyots and Daisy's East Sheen family are brought into uncomfortable proximity is painfully hilarious.  The narrative asides are also very witty: I particularly enjoyed Macaulay's observation that Lily achieves "comfort in her ugly house  [...] in the only way which it is ever achieved, by extravagance".  So true, and so elegantly expressed.

This novel is out of print, but there are secondhand copies around, as there was a Methuen paperback reprint in the 1980s.  Simon has reviewed this at Stuck in a Book and there is also a review here at Reading 1900-1950 -  do note the spoiler warning at the top!  However, if you do inadvertently read a spoiler (as I did, because the Methuen paperback includes one on the very first page) it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of this book.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Bestseller by Claud Cockburn

This book, published in 1972, takes a look back at "the books that everyone read" between 1900 and 1939, and what we can understand about why these books were read and who read them.  Some of the titles here are still well-known and a few are still in print (Precious Bane, The Constant Nymph and The Riddle of the Sands are all included); others are remembered but probably very little read now (The Blue Lagoon); while some are simply obscure (have you heard of The Beloved Vagabond?  neither had I).  Cockburn's book is, among other things, a very useful guide to these books, including details of plot and extensive quotations, which give you a good sense of the writer's style.

Cockburn's argument is that books are popular because they fulfil a need for the expression of ideas that is not available elsewhere to the reader; because writers understand this, and because they have an affinity with the reader that allows them to write such books; and because of the craft of the writer concerned.  While he acknowledges that the 'rattling good yarn' is often an avowed reason for a book's popularity, Cockburn has no truck with the idea that the realist or genre writers of the early twentieth century eschewed style, pointing out how carefully you need to construct books of this sort in order to make them readable.  He also argues strongly for bestsellers being read by a middle-class audience.  If you've read much early twentieth century fiction, you'll probably have come across descriptions of novels as being fit only for housemaids.  There were a lot of housemaids before 1939, but not enough to push a novel like E.M. Hull's The Sheik quite so far up the bestseller lists.  Cockburn suggests that  - whatever they said in public about their reading habits - middle-class readers read books like  The Sheik, and they did so because they enjoyed them.

Some of these books established a genre.  Erskine Childers' The Riddle of the Sands is a prototype spy novel (for an enthusiastic and enthusing review of this book, try Kate Macdonald's podcast at, in fact try all her podcasts as they are an excellent way to spend ten minutes).  The Sheik, a potent blend of exoticism and violent sex, not only inspired middle-class women to tour Morocco looking for a Sheik of their own, but has a current great-grandchild in the shape of Fifty Shades of Grey.  Cockburn's political position (he was a well-known proponent of communism) is overt in this text, and he castigates readers for claiming that they have no affinity with books that promote racism or misogyny which they choose to read for pleasure: "There were other books on the library shelf".  Cockburn was a journalist and the style of this book bears that out; his writing is incisive and amusing.  This sometimes sits oddly with the indigestible prose he quotes from the bestsellers under consideration.

This book is out of print, although there are a few very cheap secondhand copies around and it seems to be fairly easy to find in libraries. 

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.