My main literary attention had always been focused on modernist literature, so it’s not surprising that I started delving into writers from the 1920s to 1940s. The first of these, I think, was Sylvia Townsend Warner, who at that time was less known than she is now (though she is still not given her props, if you ask me) and whose brilliant, gorgeous, funny, tantalizing, enigmatic (can you tell I like it?) debut novel Lolly Willowes had just been brought back into print by New York Review Books Classics (who, happily, have in the years since reprinted three more of Warner’s novels). After several more readings, Lolly Willowes is now assuredly my favorite novel of all time, and with that kind of beginner’s luck, I was inspired to dig into other writers who had fallen into obscurity.
Over the years, I've discovered the excellent Interlibrary Loan resources of the really amazing San Francisco Public Library, and I also met my partner Andy, who, apart from his many other wonderful characteristics, has University of California library privileges. As a result, I’ve been able to delve into even more obscure writers, reading books pulled from dust-covered storage shelves in
Fort Worth or . And I learned about great independent publishers like Virago, Persephone, and Greyladies, and British booksellers like Book Depository and Awesome Books. Cincinnati
Soon I was drowning in tidbits of information about dozens of writers, not all of whom I had even read. So I was inspired to start a database of the writers, their works, biographical information, and comments on books I had read. That database now contains more than 15,000 works (though I haven't actually read most of them, of course—there are also a lot of working notes of things I might want to come back to someday, assuming I live to be 112) by 2,349 different writers (many of whom have little or no information or are flagged as “to research” just because I heard or saw them mentioned somewhere). But I use the database almost daily to keep track of what I’m reading, what I want to read, and what I find out. (My “short list” of books to read now comes in at around 400 titles, but it’s better than the “long list” of about 2000!)
It should be unnecessary by now to point out that I have an obsessive nature. Obviously I should have been a librarian or archivist, but alas I missed my calling and now file legal documents, type very fast, and try to keep a calm and reassuring demeanor in spite of trantrums, whirlwinds, and missed deadlines at a law firm in downtown
. But on my own time, I do my research and make long lists. I seem to love pursuing arcane bits of data that barely another living soul anywhere would care about. Perhaps there isn't even another living soul who cares! I guess that remains to be seen. But even if not, I figured all the lists and notes and research and data might as well be put to some use. If nothing else, it will be a satisfactorily obsessive-compulsive activity to entertain me. San Francisco
So here it is.
The obsessiveness will soon become glaringly apparent, since the next post is a rather inclusive (not to say overwhelming) list of writers. Since my main obsession is with (mostly) lesser-known (mostly) British (mostly) women writers actively publishing (mostly) in the years 1910 to 1960, that’s what the list currently focuses on. But more on that soon.
Middlebrow. Why such a name for this blog? Well, I have to admit that, while Furrowed Middlebrow came to me first, the name I had settled on in the end was Off the Beaten Page. Sadly, however, someone commandeered that blog name in 2005 for two experimental posts and then promptly abandoned it. I thought of tracking the owner down and reading obscure British women writers to him or her until they caved in and released the name. But I opted for the high road.
So, back to my original name, with which I have made my peace.
“Middlebrow” seems to be the flavor of the month in literary studies. It’s a source of some controversy—surrounding questions like: Is it derogatory in some way? Does it suggest writers who aren’t as “good” as James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or other certifiable highbrows? And how would one identify middlebrow literature to begin with?
This is an ongoing concern that Nicola Humble, who basically originated the academic study of the middlebrow with her book The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s, has discussed in some depth. I wrestled with this a little in thinking about this blog (and the title “Off the Beaten Page” would have solved the problem nicely by doing away with the term altogether). Should I not, I asked myself, ever discuss Woolf here because she’s highbrow? What about Elizabeth Bowen, who was, according to Humble, seen as middlebrow in her own day but is now more or less part of the highbrow canon? Or how about Barbara Pym, who is certainly middlebrow in her subject matter, if not in her somewhat subversive double-edged prose, but has also been embraced both by the reading public and by scholars?
Finally I realized that such agonizing was just ridiculous. Because ultimately the only thing all the writers I’m likely to talk about have in common is…well…me.
The true middlebrow here is me.
The reason I like both Virginia Woolf and D. E. Stevenson, both Ivy Compton-Burnett and E. M. Delafield, both Elizabeth Taylor and Dodie Smith, is because I am—for whatever bizarre, repressed, deep-seated, psychic reasons—eternally obsessed by domestic life in Britain in the first half or two-thirds of the 20th century. This is, I’ve concluded, what it all boils down to, even if I don’t know exactly why it boils down to that (or why it’s boiling at all?). Ultimately, I want to know how people lived their lives, vicariously experience what they experienced, submerge myself into the culture of the time. Somehow this helps me in living my own life.
I love humorous portrayals of the varying ways in which life was lived, and books like Stevenson’s and Delafield’s and Smith’s can provide wonderful support and inspiration for dealing with my own hurdles, but I also like more serious or darkly-humorous portrayals like Woolf’s and Compton-Burnett’s and Taylor’s, which shed light on—and, likewise, provide strength for—the difficulties of life in their own ways. But all the writers I most love have in common their focus on day-to-day life.
This is also a big part of why my focus is now so much on women writers. There are certainly male writers of domestic life—Evelyn Waugh, Denis Mackail, E. M. Forster, even people like Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, or Aldous Huxley, at least in some of their works—and I often enjoy their writing too. But so often male writers were (and are) self-consciously in pursuit of “greatness,” which is, for me (and to be a little Angela Thirkell-ish), really quite tedious. Men do tend to focus on things like wealth, conquest, seduction, battle, bravery, dogma, politics, competition…zzzzzzzz (oh, sorry, I almost bored myself to sleep for a moment!) Even among the “great” modern male scribblers, there are writers I really love—Hemingway, Beckett, Proust, Borges—but I have to say I almost never pick up their books these days. There’s just too much Rachel Ferguson, Rumer Godden, Noel Streatfeild, Ruth Adam, and Pamela Frankau to be read!
And I think also that my sub-obsession with the World War II home front in
(more on that in future posts, I hope) also grows organically from my interest in day-to-day life in general. Since wartime posed such challenges to normal domestic life, novels and memoirs of the home front effectively shine a spotlight on “normal” life, if only because it’s so difficult to carry the normalcy on that writers describe the normal in far greater detail than usual. Vere Hodgson’s wonderful diary of World War II, Few Eggs and No Oranges, didn’t get its title by coincidence—she spends a lot of time talking about the availability of food. Fantasizing about what would have been considered simple, ordinary meals before the war becomes a significant literary pastime during the war when such meals are anything but simple or ordinary. Britain
By the way, as I mentioned before, I did go to the Ph.D. program at U.C. Santa Cruz, but bailed out with just an M.A. I theoretically studied literature, by which I mean exactly that—I studied literature very theoretically, which really means studying very little literature and a great deal of theory. I mostly read cultural theorists, in theory (pun intended) to learn to think more critically about literature, though since we barely ever got around to reading any actual literature, I mostly learned to think critically about whatever sit-com happened to be on television when I was too exhausted to read more Foucault or Freud.
So I’m writing this blog as a fan. Because I genuinely love and am fascinated by a time period and a culture, and women writers’ way of presenting that time and culture.
And I promise to limit my most pontificatory tendencies (I know, I know, the use of the word “pontificatory” is pretty pontificatory in itself, so you can see what I’m up against), though I imagine some will slip through. I freely admit that I love making novels and stories (maybe even memoirs) mean more than they say and even mean multiple things. I don’t think humans are by nature very clear and precise creatures, nor is language itself clear and precise, and when you put the two together there is plenty of room for interpretation in even the most straightforward, cozy, romantic novel. Some people might say that’s an academic perspective. But I think it’s just being an interested reader who’s actively thinking about what they read (and who’s actively interested in the work a writer put in to make the book what it is).
But I will not entitle any post of this blog anything remotely like “The Postcolonial Effect of Freud’s Theory of Psychoanalysis on the Transgressiveness of Lesbian Sexuality in Burmese Jewish Nuns as Symbolically Represented in Joyce’s Ulysses.” Pinky swear.