Wednesday, March 29, 2017


100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
With everything that's been going on, and all the work I've been doing behind the scenes on my revamped Overwhelming List, March 10 came and went and it completely slipped my mind that that date marks four years since the very first post on this blog. What a lot has happened since then, and who would have thought that so many extraordinarily smart, well-read, kind, and generous kindred spirits would take the time to read and follow it! So, happy birthday to me, but mainly a big thank you to all of you—you're the reason I'm still at it.

Now, on to part 4 of our syllabus, where we definitely see more big names that in the previous sections. Here, we have (#69) one of the most consistently popular authors on the list, as well as (#64) one of only a handful of women writers who have an indisputedly serious literary reputation (I nearly excluded her as too highbrow, but the novel is a favorite of mine and is highly entertaining as well—if a bit dark—so I had to leave it in). #66 is probably the oddest selection on the list, but honestly, how could it be left out considering the phenomenon it became? And watch out, because if you pick up #62, you might well find yourself irresistibly committed to the five novels that round out the series.

Here we go!

70) RACHEL FERGUSON, Evenfield (1942)

You can say I'm biased (and of course I am), since it's been reprinted as a Furrowed Middlebrow book by Dean Street Press, but this novel—both a warning against nostalgia and an epic nostalgic ode to mundane Edwardian suburban life—seems to me the most definitively and subversively middlebrow of Ferguson's novels, and one of her most entertaining. I reviewed it here. In print in paperback and e-book.

69) GEORGETTE HEYER, The Grand Sophy (1950)

Heyer's Regency romances (as well as her mysteries) are much-beloved by readers, and they're as interesting for what they say about gender roles in the mid-20th century as they are for their historical content. Though it's open to debate, by many counts this is the best of her novels. Jane Austen's World reviewed it here. In print, paperback and e-book.

Ada Leverson

68) ADA LEVERSON, Love's Shadow (1908)

The first of three novels later published together as The Little Ottleys. Leverson was a close friend of Oscar Wilde and wrote cheerful comedies of Edwardian high society, but according to Contemporary Authors, "her stories touch on the issues of jealousy, sexuality, and the complexities of women caught in unhappy marriages." Bree at Another Look Book reviewed it here. Public domain in US and UK.

67) ANN BRIDGE, Peking Picnic (1932)

Bridge's debut, one of many novels drawing on the author's experiences as a diplomat's wife, garnered comparisons to Forster's A Passage to India. The author's attitudes about class have deservedly come under fire in recent years, but there's no doubt her books were very popular pageturners. Lyn at I Prefer Reading reviewed it here. Out of print in US, available in paperback and e-book from Daunt Books in the UK.

Daisy Ashford, age 9

66) DAISY ASHFORD, The Young Visiters (1919)

One of the oddest blockbusters ever published, this very short novel, written when its author was 9 years old, was reprinted 18 times the year it was published, and was later dramatized and made into a musical and a film. It's funny, but also surprisingly aware of class and social issues, and its phenomenal success surely offers insight into the culture that embraced it so warmly. Paris Review has an excellent article putting the novel into context, here. In print in paperback and e-book in the UK, public domain in US.

65) RICHMAL CROMPTON, Family Roundabout (1948)

Best known for her William stories, Crompton also wrote 40+ adult novels, which vary in quality from very good to, well, not. But this is one of the best, a tale of two intertangled families each led by strong women. Thomas at Hogglestock reviewed it here. In print from Persephone.

64) JEAN RHYS, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)

Rhys's comeback after years of silence was this powerful novel delineating the backstory of Bertha Rochester, the "madwoman in the attic" of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre. BBC recently published a piece here on the book's importance, to mark its 50th anniversary. In print.

63) SUSAN TWEEDSMUIR, Cousin Harriet (1957)

The first of Tweedsmuir's three "Victorian stories," Cousin Harriet—written in traditional epistolary Victorian style—deals sensitively and effectively with a pregnant unmarried girl. It was successful enough to warrant a Penguin edition in 1961, but has sadly faded from memory since. Tweedsmuir was the wife of novelist John Buchan. Out of print, second hand copies available.

62) OLIVIA MANNING, The Great Fortune (1960)

The first of the six novels which later became known as Fortunes of War (the title of their BBC adaptation), which follow a young married couple working for the British government, as the progression of World War II repeatedly displaces them from their work and homes in such vividly-portrayed locales as Bucharest, Athens, Cairo, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. In print as part of The Balkan Trilogy, in paperback and e-book—the later three novels are published as The Levant Trilogy.

61) F. TENNYSON JESSE, The Lacquer Lady (1929)

A Book Society choice and Jesse's own favorite among her work, set in Burma, "a remarkable vision of life at the royal palace with its splendours and its horrors seen through the eyes of a young woman who becomes the favourite of the Burmese queen" (ODNB). Out of print but second hand copies are available.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1

Thank you again to all of you who have commented on this list so far. I haven't managed to reply individually to comments as I usually do, but I've greatly enjoyed and been encouraged by them.

If you've missed the first two sections of this list, please look back at part 1—which includes a loooooonnngg explanation of the list's purpose.

Those first two sections included a couple of my more quirky personal selections, as well as a few true obscurities that are worth tracking down if you can. There are still a handful of rather obscure selections to come, and a couple more of my quirky selections, but we'll gradually be progressing to more widely-known (and, mostly, readily available) titles and authors. For that matter, we've already had a few authors who were bestsellers in their day, such as Mary Stewart and Storm Jameson, as well as fan favorites like Monica Dickens and Elizabeth Cadell.

Despite the fact that my main list of British women writers includes nearly 2,000 authors, I have still been amazed, in compiling this list, by how many genuinely good authors there were in this period. Even including 100 authors, I had to make some difficult decisions about who to exclude.

But without further ado, here now are titles by ten more of them.

G. B. Stern

80) G. B. STERN, The Matriarch (1924, aka Tents of Israel)

I regret to say I haven't yet read this tale of a wealthy Jewish family and the woman who rules it with an iron fist, but judging from other reviewers it certainly belongs here. Book Snob reviewed it here. In print in the UK from Daunt Books, paperback & e-book, out of print in the US, but old Virago copies are available second hand.

Joanna Cannan

79) JOANNA CANNAN, Princes in the Land (1938)

Subtle and powerful novel about a woman facing the disappointments of motherhood and questioning the meaning of her life. Dovegreyreader reviewed it here. In print from Persephone.

Susan Ertz

78) SUSAN ERTZ, Madame Claire (1923)

Ertz was a bestselling author in her day, though largely forgotten today. Her debut novel is a highly entertaining blend of humor and melodrama, centered around a dysfunctional family and the woman who attempts to steer its members to smoother waters. I reviewed it here (with some additional rambling about Cyrano de Bergerac, of all things). In print in the US in a sort of low-end (but high priced) facsimile edition. Out of print in the UK.

77) GLADYS MITCHELL, When Last I Died (1941)

How to choose the best and most middlebrow of Mitchell's quirky mysteries? Ultimately, I just chose to go with one that is consistently rated one of her best. In print in e-book and paperback in the UK, apparently only in paperback in the US.

Naomi Mitchison

76) NAOMI MITCHISON, The Bull Calves (1947)

Though often historical in theme, Mitchison's novels never fail to comment on contemporary situations. This postwar novel is no exception—though it's set in the mid-1700s in Scotland, ODND said that "much of what Mitchison felt for and against the war, about issues of femininity, and most of all about Scottish issues comes to life in this humane, wise novel." In print from Kennedy & Boyd in both the US and UK.

75) MARY BELL, Summer's Day (1951)

Charming and sometimes darkly funny grown-up school story, equally adept in portraying students, teachers, staff, and family members. The tragedy is that Bell never published another novel. I raved about it at length here. Out of print, but copies of a Greyladies edition from a few years ago can be found second hand.

74) JANE DUNCAN, My Friend Muriel (1959)

Reportedly the volume Duncan herself intended as the first volume of her underrated "friends" series, but the publisher chose to go with My Friends the Miss Boyds, about the heroine's childhood, instead. Funny but surprisingly serious as well. In print, e-book version only in the US, e-book and paperback in the UK.

Amber Reeves

73) AMBER REEVES, A Lady and Her Husband (1914)

One of the earliest titles on this list, about a well-to-do woman who, bored with upper-crust married life, takes an interest in her husband's chain of tea shops. Margaret Drabble, writing about Reeves and her relationship with H. G. Wells here, described the novel as Reeves' best, concerned with "domestic finance, patriarchal authority, and with the nature of capitalism itself." In print from Persephone.

Rose Allatini

72) ROSE ALLATINI (as A. T. Fitzroy), Despised and Rejected (1918)

As important in its way as The Well of Loneliness, though less well-known, Allatini's daring novel—featuring a gay male pacifist and an array of other unconventional characters—was also banned on first publication. In print in UK and US.

Stella Benson

71) STELLA BENSON, Living Alone (1919)

Set during World War I, this quirky fantasy about magic and witches is, according to the Orlando Project, "an examination of human isolation." I admit I find Benson fairly bewildering, but there's no question that's she's one of the serious, challenging authors of her day. Public domain in US and UK.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
First, a very big thank you to everyone who commented on part 1 of this list. Your warm reception has helped me feel a bit less mad for even attempting such a list!

So, now for part 2. (If you missed the first post, please see the quite lengthy explanation of what this list is, here.)

I mentioned in the intro to the list that there were a number of books included that I hadn't yet read myself, and one unforeseen consequence of agonizing for so long over what to include is that I've been inspired to read some of those books. Alas, I seem to be having some trouble with Molly Keane's Full House (#94), which I pulled off my TBR shelves when preparing the last post, but I've had a couple of other successes which I'll report on when they come up.

Meanwhile, I present to you the next ten titles!

90) RADCLYFFE HALL, The Well of Loneliness (1928)

A turning-point in British literature, triggering scandal and an obscenity trial, and influencing virtually all portrayals of lesbians and even of sexuality more generally for decades after. Arguably more a portrait of a transgender man than of a lesbian (Hall considered herself to be a man in a woman's body), it's a fascinating portrayal (even if the novel as a whole is, for me, I have to confess, a bit slow and clunky). In print (multiple editions) and available in e-book.

Elizabeth Goudge

89) ELIZABETH GOUDGE, The Bird in the Tree (1940)

Book 1 of her Eliots of Damerosehay trilogy, about an English family before, during and after WWII. This is one that I haven't yet read, but Goudge was a hugely popular author in her day and I very much enjoyed the moral and emotional complexity of her WWII novel The Castle on the Hill (1943). Shelf Love wrote about the entire trilogy here. In print, paperback & e-book.

88) HELEN ASHTON, Bricks and Mortar (1932)

Marvelous with character and always offering a vivid sense of place, Ashton is a quintessential author for this list, and this novel tracing 40 years in the life of an architect attempting to make the best of an unhappy marriage is one of her best (and most accessible). In print from Persephone.

87) E. ARNOT ROBERTSON, Ordinary Families (1933)

Robertson was one of the most popular novelists of the 1930s and 1940s. This one is an "eccentric family" story with a touch of romance, though by all counts it's anything but cozy. In print from Virago in the UK only, but secondhand copies of earlier editions are also available.

86) ELIZABETH CADELL, The Lark Shall Sing (1955)

I've read several of Cadell's other novels, but not this one. However, fan consensus seems to be that this, the first of a trilogy focused on the Wayne family, is her very best. Cadell's novels are true ice cream for the brain—fluffy, funny, romantic, and effortlessly entertaining. In print, paperback & e-book.

85) STORM JAMESON, Company Parade (1934)

The first volume of Jameson's ambitious Mirror in Darkness series, which attempted a large canvas, lavishly peopled look at 1930s Britain. Contemporary Authors said, "The series depicts personal and public life with a blend of modernism and traditionalism." In print from Bloomsbury in paperback and e-book.

84) LEONORA CARRINGTON, The Hearing Trumpet (1974)

The latest novel on this list chronologically, but written a bit earlier and harking back to Carrington's days at the center of the Surrealist movement in Paris. An indescribably strange, hilariously surreal novel narrated by a 92-year-old woman in an ominous home for the elderly. In print from Penguin (UK & US) and in a lovely Exact Change edition (possibly US only?).

Monica Dickens

83) MONICA DICKENS, Mariana (1940)

A young wife awaits word on the fate of her sailor husband whose destroyer has struck a mine. While she waits, she recalls her youth, her school days, and the events that made her who she is. Girl with her Head in a Book reviewed it here. In print from Persephone in paperback & e-book.

Betty Miller

82) BETTY MILLER, On the Side of the Angels (1945)

A powerful and entertaining story of domestic and military life, centered around the RAMC hospital where the heroine's doctor husband is stationed. Miller has important things to say about the shifting gender roles and "male pirouetting" of life during wartime. Heavenali reviewed it here. Available in e-book. Second hand copies of Virago and (less common) Capuchin Classics editions available.

81) DOROTHY EVELYN SMITH, Miss Plum and Miss Penny (1959)

Another personal selection, but one backed up by someone somewhere who suggested it as "possibly Persephone" even before I did. Delightful village comedy with some wonderfully dark humor, about a (possibly) suicidal woman who wreaks havoc in the lives of several complacent middle-aged villagers. I reviewed it here. Sadly out of print.

#s 80-71 will be coming along next week!

Thursday, March 9, 2017


100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1

Back to full list

Any list that requires a complicated explanation is probably asking for trouble (and I've certainly analyzed and rationalized this one a bit too much for comfort). But I'm an incorrigible listmaker, so here I am, foolhardily rushing in where no angel would be caught dead. Following are the basics of what I've tried to accomplish here.


The seed for this list was planted by two comments left in the past few months on my much earlier (and rather neglected—it needs revising) "Not-Quite-So-Overwhelming List," which had attempted to narrow down my full list of nearly 2,000 British women writers to 70 or so of the most important, popular, and enjoyable—a starter kit, as it were. The commenters pointed out, however, that since those authors wrote lots of books, it could be helpful to someone thinking of reading, say, Barbara Pym for the first time if they knew a good place to start.


As I am nothing if not excessive, I immediately thought of a list of 100 novels—there being a plethora of previous lists of 100 books (there's a Modern Library list, a Time list, and a Guardian list, to name a few). Except that, unlike such lists, which I think are a little ridiculous but unavoidably addictive, my list is not intended to be a "best" list. Instead, my goal has been to create a good representation of the genres, themes, and styles of the British "feminine middlebrow" from the early to mid-20th century. Obviously, each individual novel's strength and enjoyability was a priority, but I also wanted, to the extent possible, for each title to open up other possible paths for readers to find other books to enjoy. Hence, the idea of calling it a "syllabus," since a class syllabus is intended as a starting point, as the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Along those lines, then, I decided to include only one title per author, allowing me to include 100 different authors. And that one title per author is not necessarily the "best" of her books; rather it is—based on my own reading or reviews by other bloggers, scholars, or critics—a good place to start.


I agonized a bit but ultimately excluded a few authors because their highly literary styles and ambitions make them less approachable and entertaining to general readers. Although Virginia Woolf's subject matter is often domestic, her style and execution are experimental and challenging, and for readers seeking an entertaining book to read or a glimpse of what domestic life was like in the mid 20th century, Woolf's novels are not, I feel, the best suggestions. Ditto with Dorothy Richardson, Iris Murdoch, Stevie Smith, Anna Kavan, and Mary Butts. Marvelous authors all, but not such good fits for this list.

On the other hand, I have included a few authors from traditionally "lowbrow" genres, such as mystery and romance, because there is undoubtedly a spillover of themes between the middlebrow and genre fiction. If Norah Lofts, for example, is usually dismissed as a mere writer of historical, romantic, and genre fiction, one will nevertheless find many of the pressing themes of middlebrow fiction in her work—women seeking independence and equality, houses and domesticity as very nearly characters in their own right, and so on. Ditto Georgette Heyer's romances, which though set in earlier periods undoubtedly explore the shifting gender roles of the 1940s and 1950s. And if part of the attraction of middlebrow fiction is the opportunity to delve into the domesticity of an earlier time and to get a feel for what day-to-day life was like, then mysteries—which of necessity focus on a detailed examination of their characters' routines, habits, and lifestyles—belong here as well. Particularly since a few mystery writers managed to create deservedly classic middlebrow novels in the guise of whodunits.

I relinquished, however, my plan of including a few children's titles as well (and a similarly good case could have been made for them). Ultimately, I felt that my own reading in that realm wasn't extensive enough to allow me to select the best representative titles. I'll let someone else take on that challenge.

Finally, although the earliest title dates from 1899 and the latest from 1974, all (with one worthy exception) of the authors included are from my Overwhelming List. Thus, they're British, and they all published at least some of their fiction in the years 1910 to 1960, the peak years of the feminine middlebrow (in fact only six of the novels fall outside those years).


Yes, of course it is. But I really have tried to base it on all of my research of the period, all the critical reading I've done, contemporary reviews, and all the work that fellow bloggers have done reporting on these books. I've included a fair number books I haven't read, and a few that I don't particularly like—in each case because I felt that the preponderance of opinion about the books outweighed my own ignorance or indifference.


Originally I planned to have the list in alphabetical order. But that's a bit bland and boring, don't you think? Plus, I wanted to split the list into parts, so I have room to include comments and book covers without each post being too unwieldy (followed by full listings, in both alpha and chron order, once it's all done). Once I made that decision, it seemed that there would be a sort of built-in build-up with each successive post anyway, so I might as well run with it.

However, the ranking from 100 down to 1 is really rather random—except for two things. In the lower portions of the list, I placed both a few strays that were too significant not to include, even though they may not be the most purely enjoyable, and also a few of my quirkier selections, which may be little known and in some cases hard-to-find. At the other end of the spectrum, for the top 20 titles, I tried to make sure all 20 were real "heavy-hitters"—sort of undisputed classics of the genre. Apart from that, the ranking is based as much on having an interesting mix in each post as on any qualitative differences.


My own perverse first impulse on confronting any list is to start poking around its edges to discover what the compiler has left out. I encourage those with similar mindsets to do the same thing here. No doubt you'll find some ghastly oversights.

Ultimately, my goal was to represent all the things the middlebrow can be—serious and silly, "important" and frivolous, romantic and realistic. Most readers won't love all the novels listed (I certainly don't), but if you can't find quite a few books to love on this list, as well as some new ones to explore, then I wash my hands of you!

And now, without further ado (finally!), here are the first ten titles:

Elinor Mordaunt

100) ELINOR MORDAUNT, The Family (1915)

When a novel's first line reads, "Eleven young Hebbertons lived to reach maturity," you know it's not going to be an entirely cheerful read, but this portrayal of Victorian family life, mentioned by Elaine Showalter in A Literature of Their Own, is richly detailed and completely convincing. Out of print and difficult to find second hand, but public domain. PDF available for free from Hathi Trust.

99) CELIA BUCKMASTER, Village Story (1951)

One of a handful of highly personal choices, and sadly difficult to find, but a funny tale of village life with a Pym-ian bite. In his review in the Telegraph, John Betjeman said, "Miss Buckmaster is an unbitter humorist. She is not afraid of death, birth and love. And yet the book remains funny. This is because it is true humour, which is seeing things in proportion." I reviewed the book here. Out of print.

Ruth Adam

98) RUTH ADAM, I'm Not Complaining (1938)

The most famous novel by the author of the social history A Woman's Place 1910-1975 is a powerful portrait of Depression-era England through the eyes of a young schoolteacher. Cosy Books discussed the book here. Out of print but readily available second hand in the 1980s Virago edition.

Violet Trefusis

97) VIOLET TREFUSIS, Hunt the Slipper (1937)

Remembered now largely for her fling with Vita Sackville-West, and for being the daughter of Edward VII's mistress, Trefusis' novels might be ripe for rediscovery. Lorna Sage called this, her most famous work, ‘splendidly malicious commentary on England, and on the aristocratic culture that she'd escaped.’ Desperate Reader reviewed the book here. Out of print but fairly readily available in the 1980s Virago edition.

Clemence Dane

96) CLEMENCE DANE, Regiment of Women (1917)

Reactions to this lesbian-themed adult school story, both at the time and more recently, are wildly varied, positive and negative, but it was certainly important and influential, and Radclyffe Hall herself was a fan. Public domain in the U.S., free e-book from Amazon or Gutenberg. In print in the U.K. Second hand copies of the 1980s Virago edition may also be found.

95) MARY WEBB, Precious Bane (1924)

One of the authors Stella Gibbons had in mind when she wrote Cold Comfort Farm, Webb's fiction is distinctly Hardy-esque. Here, the heroine is born with a harelip which is both a blessing and a curse, isolating her from other villagers but also freeing her from the social expectations that other women face. The Book Binder's Daughter reviewed it here. In print from Virago in the UK, available in POD paperbacks and e-books of uncertain quality in the US, or second hand in various editions.

94) MOLLY KEANE (as M. J. Farrell), Full House (1935)

I could have selected any of several other Keane titles, but this one seems to have received consistently positive reviews (see Harriet Devine's here). Plus, it features a prime example of a terrible mother, a popular theme of the period. E-book edition available from Virago in the US. Second-hand Virago paperbacks readily available.

93) MARY STEWART, Nine Coaches Waiting (1958)

Considered one of the best of Stewart's romantic suspense novels, complete with exotic setting (a French chateau), a lovely young governess, a dastardly villain, and a budding romance. Leaves & Pages reviewed it here. In print from Chicago Review Press in the U.S. (paperback only) and Hodder in the U.K. (paperback and e-book).

Norah Hoult

92) NORAH HOULT, There Were No Windows (1944)

A powerful portrayal of an elderly woman facing dementia in the dark days of the Blitz, as well as several other women servants and caregivers. Apparently based on the final days of novelist Violet Hunt. A bit dark but riveting, and perhaps one of the earliest and most empathetic attempts to portray the realities of age-related dementia. Available from Persephone.

Elizabeth Jenkins

91) ELIZABETH JENKINS, The Tortoise and the Hare (1954)

Carmen Callil of Virago said of it that "its continuing charm lies in its quirky and enigmatic love story which becomes more beguiling with each re-reading." And Jilly Cooper called it "wonderfully sinister, so enchantingly written and so sad." This is one of the books on this list I feel bad for not being able to like, but I certainly bow to the consensus of smarter people. Dovegreyreader wrote sensitively about it here. In print from Virago.

The next section of the list will appear in a few days...
NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!