It was good to meet up with Nicola Beauman on my recent Port Eliot adventure and we had a wonderful chat about Elizabeth Taylor, the trials and tribulations of biography, forthcoming Persephone Books (I am very excited about the short stories of Irene Nemirovsky next year) why the rain in Cornwall can be so particularly wet and has to have howling gales mixed in and the whole cluttered, loaded and (to me), wildly misrepresented term that is 'middlebrow'.
Not perhaps a good word to describe what emerges as such powerful fiction by women writers and we agreed that I had taken my lead from several people. Virginia Woolf who seems to have started it all, Nicola Humble who picked it up and ran with it in her excellent book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s - Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism and finally a book I bought a while ago America the Middlebrow - Women's Novels, Progressivism and Middlebrow Authorship Between the Wars by Jaime Harker.
This latter was expensive as I recall but does offer an in-depth look at Dorothy Canfield Fisher who I was chasing at the time. I was hoping it might be possible to crack into American equivalents and make some good comparisons with the English novels...that'll be in my next life given the number of reading projects I seem to have stacking up in my mind and on every available surface at the moment.
I keep thinking of a trail and then I slowly start knitting up a pile of books that fit the theme and I add more and more as I come across them.
There's the Mary Shelley trail
There's the Madness Trail
The French Revolution Trail
The Africa Trail
The New Zealand Trail (the Kayaker heads off there for a year working and traveling as soon as he's back from paddling the White Nile...sorry NZ it's your turn)
The Team Ulysses Trail
The Jean Rhys Trail
But back to Middlebrow-a-Month and the thorny issue of definition.
Jaime Harker defines it as
'an invective that dismissed writing that is neither trash nor art, but somewhere uncomfortably inbetween. Depending on the context, middlebrow can arguably mean middle class, effeminate, polluted by commerce, mediocre or sentimental and the term emerged to describe book clubs and their readers, particularly the Book of the Month Club feared by critics to be a 'devolution of the book industry into conveyor belt culture'.
Readers had become sufficiently passive as to allow a group of experts to decide their reading for them, instead of relying on their individual taste, literature would be corrupted and become another commodity. Middlebrow, Harker goes on to argue, became a pejorative term which transformed a demographic - middle class - into a quality - a blend of mediocrity, greed and sentimentality.
The term effectively became an insult.
Shall we all just pack up and go home?
But I wonder if we are slowly turning round the good old stout and sturdy ship that is Middlebrow and gradually refashioning the term into something renewed, reinvigorated and less derogatory?
Is that possible?
It's been interesting to ponder all this as I've read and loved One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes as my August Middlebrow-a-Month, a treat to fall back on in amongst all the Bookerthon reading and as much of a challenge as anything else I've read of late, thoughts on that next Monday as promised.