Sheila Kaye-Smith and the Middlebrow reader

In her 1916 study of John Galsworthy, Sheila Kaye-Smith writes perceptively about the audience for which he was writing. She first defines what she calls the mob-public:

The spread of education, with other causes, has brought into being a mob-public, and the approved of the mob-public have a popularity which could hardly have been conceived two generations ago.

But there is another literary market, which is neither the mob-public, nor the avant-garde. Essentially she is describing the middlebrow audience, a few years before Virginia Woolf coined the phrase (and defined these readers far less sympathetically):

Conventional criticism of the middlebrow novel has often stressed the fact that it shares the prejudices of its readers. It has also sometimes been snooty about the desire for reality in fiction – realism being a dirty word in some critical quarters (among diehard modernists and post-structuralists, for example). Kaye-Smith points out that writers like Galsworthy, Kipling and Bennett (and implicitly herself, perhaps) offer artistic quality too, and that they are not afraid to shock their audience. (Though that qualifying ‘occasional’ suggests that they are canny enough not to be so shocking that they lose their readership.) She also makes it clear that the middlebrow readers do not expect their prejudices to be passively endorsed, but seek out works that stimulate by challenging prejudices.

I like her idea of the literary factions. It would be a hard job to investigate this in a scholarly way, exploring how the Wells public was different from the Galsworthy public, or the Kipling public different from the Conrad public. Reviews might give us hints – except that busy fiction-reviewers often make it their job to speak for the reading public in general, rather than for factions within it. The gauging of readers’ responses is the hardest job for the critic who wants to think about literature in a historical way. Hints and tips are found in letters, diaries and so on – but these are hard to find, and we can never be sure how representative they are.

Sheila Kaye-Smith definitely had her own public in the first quarter of the last century, among those who responded to rural fiction of a kind that challenged prejudices and explored difficult issues. In the 1929 Manchester Guardian readers’ survey about writers whose reputations were likely to survive for a century, she was the first woman listed. Today, she is not well-remembered. There is a Sheila Kaye-Smith Society, based in Sussex, but its influence is small, and now none of her books is available from a mainstream publisher.

I have read several of her books, and while some are definitely better than others, she is always intelligent and perceptive, as these remarks on literary markets show.

5 Comments

  1. Edmund King
    Posted November 18, 2019 at 12:21 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this, George. Someone else who comments on this middlebrow “factionalism” is E. W. Hornung, who noticed (not entirely approvingly) what he called a “Wellsian” and “Shavian” contingent using his soldiers’ library in Arras in 1918. His guess was that they had all been “clerks etc” before the war.

  2. Posted November 18, 2019 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for article on Kaye-Smith – if you haven’t already seen it you might like to look at my blog https://theruralwriterblog.wordpress.com/
    Where you find a number of quite lengthy pieces on SKSs fiction.

    • Posted November 18, 2019 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

      I’m always glad to hear of another S K-S fan. There are more of us than one might think.

  3. Barry A. Matthews
    Posted November 19, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Dear Sir,

    Thought this may be of interest to you.

    Dr B A Matthews
    ________________________________

  4. Posted November 27, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    That’s brilliant – I’ll have to seek out her book. All The Books of My Life in SKS is one of the best books-about-books I’ve read.


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