A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
If you were to ask me which academic book was most influential in the writing of my doctoral thesis, I shouldn’t hesitate for a moment: it is undoubtedly Nicola Humble’s brilliant The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism (academic books don’t go in for short titles, do they?) It was published in 2001, but I didn’t come across it until 2008, when I was starting looking into middlebrow literature as an academic subject – rather than simply the source of joy that it had been for years.
There are other academic books which I could mention in the same breath (and often have) – Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession, Alison Light’s Forever England, and more – but none has inspired and delighted me as much as Humble’s. Which is just as well, given that she ended up being my external examiner in my viva – thankfully I didn’t have to lie about how much her book had helped me.
So, what does she do? The book is in some way a defence of the middlebrow, both as an academic topic and a collection of books and authors who were enjoyable and far from meritless. She can put it better herself, in the opening lines of the introduction:
‘Middlebrow’ has always been a dirty word. Since its coinage in the late 1920s, it has been applied disparagingly to the sort of cultural products thought to be too easy, too insular, too smug. While the lowbrow has undergone a process of critical reclamation in recent decades, with the development of popular culture studies as a legitimate area of academic interest, the middlebrow has remained firmly out in the cold. My central aim in this book is to rehabilitate both the term and the body of literature to which it was generally applied in the four decades from the 1920s to the 1950s.
She does this by looking broadly at five topics: readers and reading, the re-formation of middle-class identities, the home, the eccentric family, and gender and sexuality. It is an endlessly rich analysis of dozens of authors many bloggers know and love, situating them in the changing dynamics of interwar society and literature. She wears her scholarship lightly, and manages to write a critical overview of many novels and writers that is attractive both to the English literature academic and the everyday reader.
It is too detailed and interesting to explain at length – go and get a copy yourself! – but for a taster, here are some of the authors she turns her attention to: E.F. Benson, Elizabeth Bowen, Agatha Christie, Barbara Comyns, E.M. Delafield, Monica Dickens, Rachel Ferguson, Stella Gibbons, Margaret Kennedy, Rosamund Lehmann, Rose Macaulay, Nancy Mitford, E. Arnot Robertson, Dodie Smith, Jan Struther, Elizabeth Taylor, Josephine Tey, Angela Thirkell. If your mouth is watering, then this is the book for you. But instead of just kicking back and reading them, you can explore Humble’s thoughts on how changing family dynamics affected the organisation of family sagas, or how middlebrow readers were reflected in middlebrow novels.
Most importantly for me – well, perhaps besides introducing me to the delight of Diana Tutton’s Guard Your Daughters – Humble’s book showed me how middlebrow literature could be written about, and was a lynch pin of my thinking about these sorts of books and readers. Only I wandered off in the direction of fantastic middlebrow literature… but the world of academic fantasy theory is one which I shan’t start on now, and which is rather less appealing…