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.