The Masculine Middlebrow, 1880-1950

The Masculine Middlebrow Conference at the Senate House in London was a most enjoyable two days. It’s always good to get together with people equally obsessed by literature that is off the beaten track.
Jonathan Wild started proceedings with a lucid account of how the Boer War helped to create the middlebrow reading public, turning citizens into avid buyers of newspapers, eager for war news. One text that he mentioned really intrigues me, and I must definitely look at it soon. In the Wake of War is a book of stories by St John Adcock (that’s a name I’ve often come across before, but not as a writer of fiction.) It’ll be interesting to see how these prefigure stories of the Great War, and even provide models for them.
Nicola Humble was the next keynote speaker. I’ve heard her before, and she is reliably entertaining and interesting. Her topic this time was the bachelor in literature, from Sherlock Holmes to the inmates of the Drones Club. She made me aware of something I’d never considered before – how  the archetypal Wodehouse plot – Bertie Wooster being saved by Jeeves from marriage (probably to the dreaded Madeline Bassett) – is just one example of a turn of the century genre, in which happy bachelors are threatened with removal from their blissful self-centred existence, into the drudgery  of marriage. Another thing – detectives of the Golden Age are always either Bachelors or spinsters  (and when they marry, like Wimsey or Campion the stories go off the boil rather). Is there a deep reason for this? Worth pondering.

Another session I enjoyed was the one in which Clare Clarke and Margaret Thomas talked about Doyle and Bennett respectively, with an emphasis on their attitudes to money, and to writing for money. This is one of the things I like about the Middlebrow network – they are willing to let commercial considerations enter literary analysis. Unlike more typical critics, who are either rhapsodising about how wonderfully wispy Virginia Woolf’s prose is, or enthusing over her feminism, or else condemning her as a crypto-fascist collaborator with imperialism, scholars of the middlebrow have a sense of the writer as someone communicating with, and with luck delighting, an audience, and doing it to make a living. How Arnold Bennett would have approved! (Has any writer anywhere ever written about money better than Bennett did?)
I enjoyed Shane Malhotra on ‘Ganpat’ and Kate Macdonald on Dornford Yates, and a couple of contrasting papers on Buchan. Maybe the one that surprised me most though was a talk by Sue McPherson on educational anthologies. To be honest, I hadn’t expected to be very enlivened by this subject, but what she had to say was, to this ex-teacher, rather alarming. She detailed the controversy from the 1870s onwards about the use of snippety anthologies in schools, as against the use of whole proper books. Which is, of course, the argument that is still going on, a hundred and forty years later,  about the government’s literacy strategy – which by and large uses little snippets, and bores children rigid with them. Sue’s paper quoted an exam question which required students to turn a snippet from Hamlet into clear English prose. (Why? Shakespeare made it exactly as clear as it needed to be!) Shakespeare is still mistreated in similar ways. I remember a few years ago arguing with a rather robotic school inspector, who was advocating asking children to analyse the use of punctuation in a speech from Macbeth. The assignment she referred us to was printed in an official government publication, which must have been approved by no end of committees, none of whom realised that the punctuation referred to was imposed by an editor, and nothing like that of  the First Folio (the only contemporary text of Macbeth). But I’m getting away from the main point…
My own paper was on gentleman crooks – Raffles, Captain Dorry, Blackshirt and the Saint. It seemed to go down quite well, and we had a good question session afterwards. It struck me, though, that if one thinks of the brows heirarchally, mine was the most lowbrow of the texts examined.
But then – what is “middlebrow”? John Baxendale tried to stir up trouble by asking what we meant by it, and whether we were happy with a term that is so obviously part of a hierarchy that obviously has connotations of quality (the highbrow being above the low). He pointed out how “highbrow” was originally a term of insult, but by adding “middle” to the high/low pairing you inevitably create an ordering. And how is “middlebrow” defined, except by saying what it is not? It is a term very blurred at the edges. Of the examples in my paper, I think Raffles is comfortably middlebrow, but the Saint is maybe a lowbrow taste. Yet Charteris assumes the reader’s familiarity with the Raffles tradition.
My own guess is that many readers were omnivores. Light magazine stories, tough thrillers, heavy novels – they’d tackle anything that looked interesting, and could probably switch from one to another as easily as we TV viewers today can flick from a documentary about subatomic particles to Britain’s got Talent.
So the word “middlebrow” is problematical, but could it be replaced?  Many of us are drawn to this kind of literature precisely because we are inquisitive about works that have been in some ways marginalized – the non-canonical, the non-modernist, the non-coterie. But all these terms, too, define the literature in terms of another, the type that gets dealt with in literature courses. The best alternative I can offer is  “Mainstream” literature, which asserts a continuity that goes from Dickens and Thackeray, including Wells and Bennett and Kipling (three writers that the academy has found it difficult to do full justice to) and through to the entertainers of the twenties and thirties, excluding only those who published in tiny magazines for their friends. I doubt that the term would catch on, though.

My own problem with the “middlebrow” word is that it sounds so respectable. It has overtones of the “Galsworthy-and-water” style, or the pained seriousness of Philip Gibbs. I actually admire both Galsworthy and Gibbs, but the moods of  mainstream writing were much wider and wilder than that. Think of the verbal exuberance of Dornford Yates and P.G.Wodehouse, or the destabilising of things we take for granted in the best of Agatha Christie. In my talk at the conference, I made a case for Leslie Charteris as outsider and anarchist; I think that mainstream culture was very open to outsider voices, so long as they could deliver the goods. One thriller writer whose works  I want to explore is Philip Macdonald, whose war story Patrol is a brilliantly bleak fable about an English army unit destroyed by its internal tensions.

So like all good conferences, this one has raised as many questions as it has settled. I’m looking forward to the next.

5 Comments

  1. Posted March 15, 2009 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    Hi George,

    Firstly, your blog is a recent discovery for me but I very much enjoy it.

    If you’re interested in retrospective fiction about the inter-war period, I’d like to recommend Laura Wilson to you, who writes domestically-set thriller about the period. (most cleave more towards the forties than the thirties, but aspects of ’A Little Death’ are set around the great war.)

    She’s my favorite contemporary writer. Can’t recommend her highly enough.

    Gordon.

  2. Posted March 15, 2009 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I wish I could have attended this as I’d have loved to hear your talk.

    YOu’ve got me thinking about whether the Saint is lowbrow on not. I certainly had Charteris’ writing style mentally pegged as middlebrow simply on the basis that it’s something other than lowbrow and certainly isn’t highbrow.

    The wide ranging appeal of the Saint and Leslie Charteris at their peak in the 30s and 40s suggests though that I could be wrong. With the books appealing to all classes of society is there something of the lowest common denominator at play here…and does that make it lowbrow?

    I’d love to have heard your case for Charteris as an outsider and anarchist. On the former I agree with you completely and can provide bucketloads of evidence to support that, on the latter, well I’d love to hear how you make that case…

  3. Posted March 15, 2009 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

    Gordon –
    Thanks for the suggestion.
    By the way, I enjoy your blog. (For those who don’t know it, that’s http://www.needlescratchstatic.blogspot.com/ )

    Ian –
    I was looking at the first Saint stories from the late twenties. The Thriller magazine has quite a lowbrow feel to it – though I think these categories can be misleading. I certainly think that Charteris’s writing is complex. In my paper, I analysed the way that he showed an awareness of the expectations aroused by the thriller genre, and then subverted them.
    My suggestion that his attitude is essentially anarchist is based not only on his far from respectful attitude towards the police, but on the way in which, in The Last Hero, he wants to keep the super-weapon out of the hands not only of the obvious foreign baddies, but also those of the British government. A standard formulaic thriller would follow the pattern of Buchan’s 39 Steps, in which Hannay is at first chased by the authorities but later joins them. The early Saint remains always the totally independent outsider, as contemptuous of governments as of crooks.
    By WWII, I think his attitude may have changed.

  4. Posted March 16, 2009 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    Well, thank you George. I don’t update the old girl as often as I’d like (I’m juggling a nascent academic career and various kinds of ’real world stuff’ too) but when I do I try to make those posts at least interesting and, on occasion, substantial.

    Thanks for this post, by the way. I’m considering various topics for my dissertation at the moment and one is evolving notions of masculinity in inter-war fiction. (probably using both Greene and Ambler as case studies.) the first world war exerts a peculiar fascination with me, much more so than the second.

    Anyway, I didn’t know events such as this existed!

  5. Kate
    Posted March 18, 2009 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

    As organiser of the said conference I am deeply pleased that it went so well, that so many excellent papers were read and discussed, and that so many people are interested in this part of literary and cultural history. For more on the same subject (but in different directions) visit the website of the Middlebrow Network (google it), and/or go the conference at Strathclyde University in July 2009. At least two books of essays on this area are in preparation, and several ‘proper’ books on middlebrow authors and subjects have been recently published: this is a growing area.


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