The M-word

I spent three days last week at a most enjoyable conference in London: The Popular Imagination and the Dawn of Modernism: Middlebrow Writing 1890-1930.
The papers I liked best were (predictably, I suppose) those that discussed books that I had pondered during the course of my researches: If Winter Comes; A Prince of the Captivity; Lolly Willowes; The White Monkey. I especially liked it when speakers showed me how to see these books differently.
There were other papers that introduced me to books I didn’t know. Elizabeth von Armin’s Christopher and Columbus (an odd-sounding light romance that deals with prejudice against Germans during the War years) is clearly one that I should look at.
Mind you, I get increasingly impatient with that term ‘Middlebrow’. I could see the point of it a few years back, when some women scholars (Nicola Beauman, Alison Light, Nicola Humble) defiantly took the word back from snobs who’d used it to denigrate most of the novels written by women during the twentieth century. Hasn’t that battle been won now, in all but the most desperately conventional English departments? Hasn’t the wonderful list of books published by Persephone given enough evidence that both delight and insight can be found in books outside the modernist canon?
The trouble with ‘middlebrow’ is that it’s a word loaded with baggage. Scholars find it difficult to use the term without mentioning Virginia Woolf’s disdainful essay on the subject; they then tend to get into a combative position, either for or against.
The term is misleading, because it suggests some sort of a clear separation in the culture – the highbrow elite reading Eliot, Woolf, Joyce and Lawrence, middlebrows absorbing the junky rest. Look closely at cultural artefacts, and the distinction becomes hazier. One of my favourite examples is the Sovereign Magazine for August, 1922: D. H. Lawrence’s story ‘Monkey Nuts’ is there beside an episode of Sapper’s lurid ‘The Black Gang’. Or look at Eliot’s Criterion; it’s often described as the most elitist of highbrow magazines, yet in it you find fiction by middlebrow stalwarts like May Sinclair and Hugh Walpole.
Eliot himself is a particularly interesting case. He began writing difficult and challenging verse with little regard for the audience, but his later career, from 1934 (The Rock) onwards, shows a determined effort to write works that will connect with a wider (and therefore middlebrow) audience, until the last plays (The Elder Statesman and The Confidential Clerk) are almost indistinguishable from standard West End dramas.
‘Middlebrow’ is such a wobbly and inaccurate term. At this conference it was used for everyone from John Buchan (a conservative intellectual who discovered a knack for communicating with the broad public) to Una Silberrad, a forgotten Essex feminist who tried her hand at novel-writing. One speaker at the conference suggested that Rebecca West must be middlebrow because Ezra Pound didn’t count her as one of the select.
Basically, people take conferences like this as a chance to talk about what interests them. Which is great, because it makes the conference lively, varied and full of the unexpected. But why still use the term Middlebrow as though there is something that actually unites all those who are not Friends of Ezra? Let’s re-christen it Mainstream Literature, and leave the Battle of the Brows behind.


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