A Middlebrow Manifesto

Cover of the first edition (1930)

I’m have a fondness for books that manage to include a literary manifesto of some sort, and the openingpages of Francis Brett Young’s Jim Redlake (1930) contain what amounts to a declaration of what a novel ought to be, and how novelists should confront the world. It does so implicitly, by contrast, in its very enjoyable depiction of someone who is the wrong sort of novelist – George Redlake, the eponymous hero’s father.

I call it a middlebrow manifesto, but that does not mean it is a defence of the middlebrow against the highbrow. Francis Brett Young is too sure of his values to be worried by highbrows; no, it is a declaration of the value of Brett Young’s kind of middlebrow novel, against the claims of another, flashier variety, superficially exciting, but without staying power. Here is George Redlake:

By the time he was twenty-five he had found himself adopted by a small and, as he thought, esoteric group of grim intellectuals whose flatteries turned his head.

George Redlake, it is implied, is both vain and lacking in self-knowledge. Once fashionable, at thirty-five he has become ‘a prophet of causes that were not only lost but forgotten’; he becomes ‘increasingly bitter’. Wanting money, however, he tries to write the ‘treacly’ novels that might appeal to the taste of a wider public. This lost him his old elite audience, while not convincing that more general reading public, who see through his inauthenticity. He is restless, continually moving to different parts of the country; finally he thinks he has found his ‘spiritual home’ when he moves to a lonely and isolated spot in the Black Country that he hopes will inspire a ‘stark masterpiece’. Brett Young editorialises that he should have stuck to writing essays; ‘he was too much interested in abstractions, too little in humanity ever to have made a novelist.’ George will go on to prove his instability, and his unsatisfactoriness as a human being by neglecting his family and having an affair with a woman who is not his wife.

Jim Redlake, Brett Young implies, will be the opposite of George’s novelistic failures. It will be interested in other people; it will be rooted in a place (Worcestershire); and more importantly, it will be rooted in the real, stable and solid values of human decency and affection. These, of course, are the classic virtues of the middlebrow novel, as appreciated by the customers of the better sort of library, and Jim Redlake supplies them in abundance.

But of course, saying loudly that you have no agenda can be a very effective way of promoting a more subtle agenda. David Cannadine has written a good article on the relationship between Brett Young and his Worcestershire neighbour Stanley Baldwin. Baldwin read and publicly praised Portrait of Clare when it was published in 1927, and Brett Young sent him copies of his later novels as they appeared.

What did Baldwin like about Brett Young’s novels? Like his politics, they tended to be backward-looking, remembering a less frenetic age. Brett Young described his friend’s appeal to voters:

He was an odd mixture of personal simplicity and political shrewdness; and his greatest asset in both was his power of identifying himself with that part of the nature of masses and individuals which can only be described as their essential ‘Englishness’.

‘Englishness’ is Brett Young’s subject too; like many middlebrow writers he identifies Englishness with the traditional and old-fashioned, with the countryside where things change slowly, where the county families remain the county families, and where the hunt gathers on a frosty morning. Jim Redlake is intensely conservative, but Brett Young does not need to preach his conservatism. Like Baldwin, he simply embodies a confidence that his readership will share his values.

As Jim grows, his boyish perceptions give him a solid idea of what is good and bad in England. He sees through the snobs and social climbers; he responds deeply to the unpretentious decency of Dr. Weston, his grandfather. The book becomes a study of the development of the right sort of Englisman.

Brett Young later commented on the heroine of his Portrait of Clare (1927) that she was:

an instinctive reaction on my part against the kind of heroine who had become fashionable in the fiction of those strained and excited years which immediately followed the great war. [….] The idea of inventing a woman who did not ‘live on her nerves’ to an accompaniment of negroid music made as strong an appeal to the contrariness of my nature as did the prospect of writing a romance of Victorian dimensions at a time when novels generally were tending to become shorter and shorter.

Victorian dimensions indeed. The Daily Mail heads its review of Portrait of Clare ‘A Novel of 900 Pages: Mr Brett Young’s study’, and indeed most of the reviews of his novels that I have seen comment negatively on their length; one senses that the reviewers resent having to much work to do. I suspect, though, that for most of Brett Young’s readers, length was a virtue. These are novels you can lose yourself in for a week or two. They are comfort reading, and you do not want them to stop,

Jim Redlake is a not quite so huge as Portrait of Clare, but when it arrived in the post and I saw it was 787 pages long, I felt a bit dubious about embarking on it, But now that I’m two hundred pages into the book, though, I’m quite happy at the thought of being in its company for the foreseeable future.

So far we have followed Jim through a disrupted childhood (bad marks to his father), Winchester School, and the first stirrings of romantic love. Soon he will study to become a doctor, and in a couple of hundred more pages he will be with Smuts’s army, fighting the Germans in East Africa.

Good lockdown reading.


  1. Posted February 24, 2021 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    It sounds autobiographical.

    • Posted February 24, 2021 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

      The war part’s definitely autobiographical, and presumably the medical school, too. The first half of the novel, not so much.
      Brett Young’s father was not a novelist but a doctor, and I’ve seen it suggested that he is the model for the cheerful, practical Dr Weston in the novel.
      Also, Brett Young did not go to a major public school like Winchester, but to Epsom College.

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