In the past couple of weeks, I finally got around to re-reading Nicola Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s (2001), which I've been meaning to do for a long time. I first read it several years ago and I realize now that it has always been a sort of ghostly presence on this blog. It's one of the foundational texts—at least academically—for the study of the kinds of books I spend most of my time reading these days, and it has certainly influenced how I think about these books and how I write about them here, even if I've never given it proper credit before. (Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession  is perhaps even more foundational and also very much a ghostly presence here, so I should give it a shout out too while I'm at it.)
Humble's arguments are too subtle and complex to summarize here (even if I could feel confident that I’ve grasped all the subtleties), but among other things she discusses how middlebrow novels portray class anxieties, stresses surrounding domestic labor (with or without servants), changing standards of gender and sexuality, bohemianism as a way of testing the boundaries of social mores, and ongoing anxieties about women's roles in relation to education, employment, marriage, and motherhood. Anyone who reads a lot of midcentury novels by women writers can attest to the almost ubiquitous presence of these themes, so Humble's comparisons and elucidations were useful to me and have added an extra layer of richness to my reading of these novels.
Apart from a desire to acknowledge Humble's influence on this blog, I'm mainly mentioning her now because my recent re-reading of her book was still bouncing around my brain when I read Begin Again, Ursula Orange's 1936 debut novel, and so it sort of haunted my reading of it (I don't know what it is with me and ghosts today—that's the last reference to them, I swear).
In particular, women's education and employment and their changing views of romance and marriage, are central themes in
Orange's novel. Humble analyzes these themes in relation to Dorothy
Sayers' Gaudy Night (1935), published
just one year before Orange's novel, and points out how many of the educated
women in Gaudy Night (a mystery set
during a reunion of former students at Shrewsbury College, if you haven't read
it) have difficulties balancing their intellectual pursuits and/or career goals
with marriage. The ideal of a balanced,
equal partnership in marriage is, for Sayers, an elusive one to achieve, and she
does not seem overly optimistic about it.
But while Sayers' women have been away from school for several years, Orange's novel focuses on four young women, educated together at Oxford and only recently out of school. They are only beginning to find their way and balance their ideals—including some rather romanticized bohemian ideals of sexual and artistic freedom, refusal of traditional roles, and economic independence—with the realities of work and romance they have encountered. Jane and
live in London
and support themselves with office jobs.
Sylvia stays at home and shocks her family with theories of
every-woman-for-herself sexual and social liberation. And Leslie, as the novel opens, is rather
hilariously lost in dreamy-eyed idealization of the other three as she tries to
convince her mother to let her use her small nest egg to live in London and attend art
She knew, not only from Jane and
conversation (it had been some time since she had had a really good talk with
them) but also from the pages of modern novels exactly the way in which young
people living their own lives in London
talk together—an attractive mixture of an extreme intensity and a quite
remarkable casualness. "Henri says Marcovitch's new poems are the finest
things he's ever read—will certainly found a school of their own. By the way—hand
me the marmalade—Elissa is living with Henri now. He says he needs her for his
work at present." Clearly the sort of person who talked like this lived a
much freer, a much wider, a much better life than the sort of person who
merely said, "Good morning, mummy. Did you sleep well? When Alice brought my tea this
morning she said a tree was blown down in the orchard last night."
I remember, growing up in the rural
steeped in modern literature, imagining just such routine profundity and
radical chic permeating every second of city life. I believe I thought that Hemingway’s
representation of boozing expatriates in Paris
and Fitzgerald’s portrayal of flappers and jazz age revels were still the
realities I would encounter in 1990s . Ah, youthful exuberance! And youthful stupidity… Washington
|Life in the big city!|
Begin Again is not exactly plot-driven, but centers around the friction between the girls’ ideals and the reality around them. Jane and Sylvia have boyfriends. Jane's is a traditional, smotheringly needy doormat whom she seems to retain as a kind of whipping-boy, to torment with her indifference. But as for Sylvia and her charming Claud, it's clear no matter how they assert their free love, anti-marriage ideals that they are truly in love, in spite of themselves. Meanwhile, the plain-looking
channels her energies into what sounds an earnest, impassioned, and thoroughly
dreadful novel about a young girl stultified by her school experience:
Of course much of the effect was lost when the book was read in extracts.
had quite given up reading it to Jane, chapter by chapter, because Jane seemed
persistently to miss the point.
"I think it's terribly clever,
Florence. But oughtn't something to—sort of—well—happen soon?"
Florence, deeply wounded. "What do you
"Well, you might make her do something awful and be expelled. Or have a fire, or she could elope with the head mistress's chauffeur or the riding-master or something like that."
"I don't remember anything in the least like that happening at St. Ethelburga's," said
Florence's literary effort, Orange's novel at times reads a bit like a
case study or a tract on the difficulties facing women in a changing world, I
found it no less fascinating and addictive as a result. It's certainly not as cohesive and polished,
nor as purely entertaining, as Orange's
third novel Ask Me No Questions, which
reviewed. But at the same time I can't
think of very many other novels that present so many varied and thoughtful perspectives
on the dilemmas that faced educated young girls in the 1930s (and perhaps still
do?). Plus, it's so immensely packed
with quotable tidbits that I shall have trouble controlling myself and not
typing the entire novel into this one blog post. But this one, in which Florence
muses about the qualifications an Oxford
education has provided her, is clearly essential:
At the brief interview with her future employer,
Florence, on mentioning
apologetically her degree, got the impression that this could probably be lived
down in course of time.
A short while later we see
again pondering the relevance of her school days to her day-to-day reality:
She sat down on the arm of a chair, and picked up a copy of her old school magazine which had arrived that morning. Fancy it's being still so much the same. Fancy it's going on and on like that! Fancy her having pressed her unfortunate parents to pay some enormous sum like five guineas in order that she might become a life-member of the Old Girls' Association. Fancy, thought
ungratefully and unkindly, fancy their being idiots enough to do so. Now the
magazine would go on and on and on arriving. One never read it. One was not
ruthless enough to put it into the waste-paper basket immediately. It hung
about the flat, collecting dust. It found
its way into that funny sort of heap (one could hardly call it a pile) on the
bottom shelf of the bookcase, doubled up under a book of snapshots, mostly
loose (last summer's holiday, never yet pasted in) and some copies of Vogue,
extravagantly bought and economically hoarded.
The fact that these observations are both from the perspective of Florence, the secretary who is also a struggling novelist, makes me wonder if Florence might not contain—more than the other girls—some shades of Orange herself (no pun intended). According to a note on the archival image of Orange from the Baltimore Sun which I posted in my "Possibly Persephone" post recently, Orange was able to write her first novel because she was one of the two winners of the Irish Sweepstakes (and she apparently married the other winner). Reading the following amusing passage (well, amusing to me, as a secretary myself), I wondered if
Orange might have been laboring
over a hot typewriter before her lucky win:
With a harassed glance at the clock
Florence went back to her typewriter for the
third time. Let the beastly thing twitter. Let it ring its head off. She had
plenty to do without getting up every minute to fuss over it. "Dear
Sir," typed Florence
(double space, indent), "I should like to have and opportunity of
discussing—" Damn. "And" was always turning up instead of
"a.n." Was it best to rub out (always a messy business with two
carbons in the machine) or to correct in ink, a procedure frowned upon by Miss
Locke, or to begin again, wasting paper, temper and time? Better perhaps go on
and see if she made many more mistakes.... "Of discussing your suggestion that—"
The telephone was twittering again. Let it. Florence's fingers, damp with sweat, pounded
the keys furiously. The telephone's twitter shrilled into an insistent ring.
With a groan Florence
pushed back her chair and lifted the receiver. There was a faint buzz.
At any rate
to have a pretty good idea of what my days are sometimes like (though no more
carbons these days, thank heavens).
|Ursula Orange (from the Baltimore Sun archive)|
Florence has a sad/funny
meltdown and quits her job (and don't think I haven't had near misses of that
kind of day too!). Sylvia comes up
against her own passionately-espoused philosophy when she discovers that her
younger sister Henrietta, who has listened to and absorbed her half-baked
theories for years, is planning to elope with a middle-aged man. Jane's doormat boyfriend comes—rather
belatedly—to his senses. And
Leslie—well, Leslie is preparing to follow in the other girls' glorious
footsteps—to, as the title suggests, begin the whole process again.
I wouldn't compare Begin Again to D. E. Stevenson as I did Ask Me No Questions, but it's nevertheless true that this novel is perhaps what might have resulted if Stevenson had come of age reading Cosmopolitan and yearning for sexual freedom and liberation from social norms. And that wouldn't be so surprising if Orange had been writing in, say, the 1970s, when Cosmopolitan was in full swing and free love was in the air. But it seems like quite an accomplishment in a first novel from 1936!
* * *
As a brief addendum, this seems like a perfect opportunity to mention a new book that a friend of the blog pointed out to me (thanks, Julia!). Women's University Fiction, 1880–1945, by Anna Bogen, has just been published by Pickering & Chatto. You can read about it here, and you can also download the introduction and index, which mention some very intriguing and hitherto unknown (to me) titles.
Barbara Silver’s Our Young Barbarians (1935)? Mary Wilkes’s The Only Door Out (1945)? Renée Haynes’s Neapolitan Ice (1928)? Rose Marie Hodgson’s Rosy-Fingered Dawn (1934)? Those are just a few of the tantalizing authors and titles mentioned—none of which have made it to my Overwhelming List yet.
Clearly, if a woman's work is never done, neither is that of an obsessive cataloguer of British women writers!