Tuesday, April 25, 2017


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

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
Clearly, I know all the remaining titles on this list, but even so I'm getting caught up a bit in the drama of the unveiling! Thank you again to all of you who have commented or offered suggestions or alternatives. When the list is complete, I'll revamp the links in each section to make navigation easier and to allow readers to peruse the comments as an integral supplement to the list itself.

This section includes (#22) the most middlebrow novel (in my opinion) by the bestselling novelist of all time, one of the absolutely iconic books of the early days of World War II (#24), and the earliest title on the list (#28), which despite being technically 19th century is remarkably prescient in the themes and issues it explores and therefore seems to belong here.

I had to grit my teeth a bit over #29. Oh, how I tried to justify including one of the later novels by this author instead, because I think her debut is a bit overrated. But all the logic of the list that I've set out argued for the most famous and influential of her books. Alas and alack.

30) WINIFRED HOLTBY, South Riding (1936)

Holtby's final novel, published posthumously after her death at a terribly young age, traces the local politics and important figures of a fictional Yorkshire county, featuring vivid characters, details of the life and politics of the time, and a clear social conscience. The Guardian had a great article, here, about the novel at the time that the TV adaptation was released. In print from Virago in the U.S. and BBC Books in the U.K.

29) STELLA GIBBONS, Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

I practically tied myself into knots trying to justify including one of Gibbons' more complex later novels, such as Westwood or The Matchmaker, instead of this one, which overshadowed everything else she wrote. But of course I failed. This is unquestionably Gibbons' most famous and influential work, a novel that to some extent shifted the course of middlebrow writing, so it couldn't be left out. In print in multiple editions.

28) MARY CHOLMONDELEY, Red Pottage (1899)

Traces the friendship between Rachel, newly wealthy but unhappily married, and Hester, a successful novelist stuck living with her clergyman brother. As Virago put it, "Demonstrating the need for women's economic and emotional independence, Red Pottage created a scandal on publication with its attack on the pretensions and complacency of the English middle classes." The earliest novel on this list, but perhaps rather much ahead of its time in anticipating the major themes of mid-century novelists. Jane at Beyond Eden Rock reviewed it here. Public domain, so free e-books, as well as paperbacks of uncertain quality abound. Try here for a quality e-book. Second hand copies of the Virago edition are also readily available.

27) ANGELA THIRKELL, Cheerfulness Breaks In (1940)

Tough to choose only one of Thirkell's inimitable Barsetshire novels for this list, but Cheerfulness has a lot of adherents as her best work, with the added appeal of seeing the disruptions and hilarity of the county residents adapting to the outbreak of war. Lyn at I Prefer Reading reviewed it here. In print, e-book only, from Virago (but beware of a glitch that seems to have happened on Amazon with folks getting the wrong book).

Enid Bagnold

26) ENID BAGNOLD, The Squire (1938)

Perhaps one of the most powerful novels ever written about motherhood, The Squire tells of a 44-year-old mother of four awaiting the arrival of her fifth child while her husband is absent in India. The older children and the other women in the house are beautifully delineated, as are the main character's thoughts and feelings about them. I wrote about it here. In print from Persephone, and older Virago editions still turn up here and there.

25) ELIZABETH ELIOT, Alice (1950)

The last of the really obscure books on this list, I promise, but this one is just a gem, so hilarious, so delightfully morbid, and at the same time so potent in its observations about class, suffering, and death, that I couldn't resist. I've written about all five of Eliot's novels here. Criminally out of print, but it was a Book Society choice, so second hand copies are easy to come by.

24) JAN STRUTHER, Mrs Miniver (1939)

Of course this has to be on the list. Source of the classic film and a major bestseller during the war, Mrs Miniver and her family are the quintessential upper middle class English family bravely facing the threats of the approaching war. Later editions include additional wartime content. Churchill reportedly said the book had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships. Book Snob reviewed the book here. In print from Harvest in the U.S. and Virago in the U.K.

Evadne Price (aka Helen Zenna Smith)

23) EVADNE PRICE (as Helen Zenna Smith), Not So Quiet… (1930, aka Stepdaughters of War)

One of the classics of women's writing about the Great War, Not So Quiet… follows six young women (all around 20 years old) working as volunteer ambulance drivers just behind the Front in France. Kirsty at Vulpes Libris wrote about it here. In print from Feminist Press.

22) AGATHA CHRISTIE, The Hollow (1946)

Probably better considered as a middlebrow novel than as a mystery (for the latter genre, it has a distinctly slow build, though the solution is certainly clever). It's rather as if Christie began to write another of her Mary Westmacott novels, then decided halfway through to plunk a murder into it. But read it as one of her most character-rich novels and it's quite entertaining. In print.

21) ANNA BUCHAN (as O. Douglas), The Proper Place (1926)

Set not long after World War I, and featuring Lady Jane Rutherford, who must sell her family estate and move, along with her daughter and niece, to a more modest home in a seaside town, while the nouveau-riche Jacksons, who buy the estate, attempt to fit in to life among the gentry. Lyn at I Prefer Reading reviewed it here. Reprinted in 2010 by Greyladies, but out of print again.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017


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

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
Ah, the "top forty" at last! We've covered all but one of my quirkier inclusions, and that one's so great I put it just outside the top 20. Otherwise, the remaining titles are almost all by well-known, recognizable authors, and most (though sadly not all) are in print and readily available.

I have to note, too, the extent to which the list has already been—and will from here on be—dominated by books and authors rediscovered by Virago and Persephone in particular, with a healthy number of Greyladies rediscoveries thrown in. Even some of the titles now available from other publishers were Virago reprints back in the 1980s, when some had been more or less lost for decades. In fact, with the apparent and somewhat surprising exception of #40, all the titles in this section either are now or have been in the past reprinted by one of those three publishers—five by Virago, three by Persephone, and one by Greyladies.

A testament indeed to the influence that these publishers have had in rediscovering and spreading the word about a genre that had been nearly lost from literary history!

40) MARGERY SHARP, The Nutmeg Tree (1937)

Sharp was a master at creating lovable, flawed heroines. In this novel, considered one of Sharp's best, Julia is approaching middle-age with a string of men behind her and her slightly loose morals intact. Invited to her estranged daughter's wedding, she charms men, creates a bit of chaos, and ensures happy, if not entirely expected, endings for all. I reviewed it here. In print in e-book only from Open Road.

39) RUBY FERGUSON, Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary (1937)

An elderly housekeeper at a palatial Highlands estate shows visitors around and tells of the glory days of the house and its owner, Lady Rose. That sounds mundane, but it isn't at all—it's touching, elegant, and surprisingly powerful. Jane at Fleur in Her World (now Beyond Eden Rock) reviewed it here. In print from Persephone.

38) VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, All Passion Spent (1931)

Some would argue for The Edwardians as the place to start reading Sackville-West, but I plump for this delightful, poignant story of an elderly widow who declares her independence from her family and goes to live in a little house in Hampstead. Book Snob reviewed it here. In print from Virago in the U.S. and Vintage in the U.K.

37) CICELY HAMILTON, William—An Englishman (1919)

The first title Persephone chose to reprint, a powerful, harrowing tale about a young couple honeymooning in Belgium, who find themselves trapped behind enemy lines when World War I breaks out. Not for the squeamish, but beautifully done. Ali at Heavenali reviewed it here. In print from Persephone.

36) BARBARA COMYNS, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1955)

The Vet's Daughter and Our Spoons Came from Woolworth's are Comyns in more realistic mode, but I prefer her odd, hilarious, morbid novels of childhood and youth. For me, this tale of a flood in an English village, followed by a bizarre outbreak of madness, is her most unhinged yet strangely joyful novel. Simon at Stuck in a Book reviewed it at Vulpes Libris here. In print from Dorothy Books (I've never heard of them either, but it's a lovely edition) in the U.S. and from Virago in the U.K.

35) ANTONIA WHITE, Frost in May (1933)

The first Virago Modern Classic, and indeed apparently the inspiration for that entire series, this tale of an intelligent girl attempting to resist the stifling impact of a Catholic convent school is funny and lovely and profound. It was followed by three more, similarly semi-autobiographical sequels. Leaves & Pages discussed it here. In print from Virago and Open Road.

34) NOEL STREATFEILD, The Winter Is Past (1940)

Lovely, funny, but surprisingly gritty tale of a country house, its family and servants, and the evacuees (literal) and other refugees (figurative) who find shelter there during the drab, anticlimactic days of the "phony war." One of my favorite novels of the early days of World War II. I raved about it at length here. In print from Greyladies.

Ivy Compton-Burnett

33) IVY COMPTON-BURNETT, A House and Its Head (1935)

Told in Compton-Burnett's inimitable style—almost entirely a rather formal, unrealistic (but often hilarious) dialogue, with all sorts of hints, suggestions, and pontifications about the often dark, even deadly events in the background. A striking portrayal of a Victorian family from the perspective of the 1930s. In print from New York Review Books Classics.

32) ROSE MACAULAY, The Towers of Trebizond (1956)

I love The World My Wilderness too, but this one is widely considered Macaulay's best work, a hilarious tale of tourism, culture shock, and religious doubt. Joanna Trollope chose it as her "Book of a Lifetime" here, and called it "not just a witty and lyrically written account of the journey of a heart and soul, but also, a beguiling history lesson, a masterclass in acute social observation, and a remarkable polemic on female emancipation and religious sectarianism." Whew! In print from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the U.S. and from Flamingo in the U.K.

Dorothy Whipple

31) DOROTHY WHIPPLE, Someone at a Distance (1953)

Whipple is Persephone's bestselling author, and this, her final novel, is probably her best. The achingly sad but utterly lovely story of a happy marriage destroyed and a woman's efforts to rebuild her life in the aftermath. What Whipple lacks in elegant prose she more than makes up for with a profound understanding of the day-to-day details of her character's lives. I wrote about this one here. In print from Persephone.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017


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

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
In this section, I'm tooting my own horn for the second and third (and last) times. I included one Furrowed Middlebrow title at #70, and there are two more here. What can I say? I think they genuinely belong here. But I didn't presume so far as to include them in the top 20, so I did show some restraint.

There are two more (#50 & #43) of the handful of mystery authors included on the list, the second of which is, not too surprisingly, the one exception to my inclusion rules. I doubt if many people will argue with that exception. And we also have here (#41) one of the major blogger rediscoveries of recent years.

And my inclusion of #44 made me realize what a crime it was that I had never read anything by its author, so I promptly rectified that. I loved the book, though I may not get round to writing about it in detail, and am moving on soon to its sequel. Which makes me feel that its inclusion here even before I'd read it was completely justified.

And here we go:

50) MARGERY ALLINGHAM, The Tiger in the Smoke (1952)

Not especially a middlebrow mystery per se, but often considered Allingham's best work and a riveting picture of the postwar London underworld. If most middlebrow novels are solidly middle-class, consider this one to be a walk on the wild side. A. S. Byatt called it a masterpiece here (though I beg to differ with her assessment of Christie!). In print from Vintage in the U.K. and Ipso Books in the U.S., paperback and e-book.

49) WINIFRED PECK, Bewildering Cares (1940)

I hate to be tooting my own horn with another Furrowed Middlebrow/Dean Street Press title, but I really did enjoy this Provincial Lady-esque comedy of life in a vicarage in the early days of World War II better than the other obvious choice by Peck for this list, the Persephone-published House-Bound. I reviewed it here. In print in paperback and e-book.

Norah Lofts

48) NORAH LOFTS, The Town House (1959)

The first of three novels comprising Lofts' Suffolk Trilogy, The Town House traces 500 years in the life of a 14th century house, including both romantic and supernatural elements. One of several major works published at mid-century that featured houses as central plot features (see Rumer Godden's China Court Rachel Ferguson's Evenfield, and Helen Ashton's The Half-Crown House, among various others). In print from Tree of Life in the U.S., paperback and e-book, apparently only available in e-book in the U.K.

47) SYBILLE BEDFORD, A Favourite of the Gods (1963)

This novel and its sequel, A Compass Error, follow the lives of three generations of women. In this one, a wealthy American travelling to Italy with her daughter makes a spontaneous decision with long-lasting repercussions. Simon at Stuck in a Book reviewed it here. In print from Daunt Books in the U.K., paperback and e-book, out of print in U.S. but second hand copies available.

46) KATE O'BRIEN, The Land of Spices (1941)

Praised for its psychological complexity and its subtle portrayal of the girls and women in an Irish convent, this novel was described by the Dictionary of Literary Biography as "a slow-paced, graceful, and thoughtful examination of an intellect which makes a frightened escape into the austere but safe arms of the convent." In print from Virago, paperback and e-book.

45) EDITH NESBIT, The Lark (1922)

The third and final Furrowed Middlebrow title included on this list, but I have plenty of support for this one. Nesbit's tale of two girls left penniless by a crooked trustee and trying to make a living has been praised by Simon at Stuck in a Book here and by Harriet at Harriet Devine's Blog here. I also reviewed it here. In print from Dean Street Press, paperback and e-book.

A surprisingly appropriate paperback cover

44) ROSAMOND LEHMANN, Invitation to the Waltz (1932)

Several of Lehmann's novels would have been possible choices for this list, so I went with the first of her four most acclaimed works. It's the elegant, bittersweet tale of a young girl's first dance, but with quite a lot more going on beneath the surface. The Guardian reviewed it here. The story continues in Lehmann's next novel, The Weather in the Streets (1936). In print from Virago.

1989 New Zealand postage stamp honoring Ngaio Marsh

43) NGAIO MARSH, Surfeit of Lampreys (1940, aka Death of a Peer)

This is the one slight exception to my rules of inclusion. Yes, Marsh is a New Zealander, but this half mystery, half eccentric family story is so quintessentially a delightful middlebrow novel that I couldn't resist. Ali at Heavenali reviewed it here. In print from Felony & Mayhem in the U.S. and Harper in the U.K.

42) A. M. CHAMPNEYS, Miss Tiverton Goes Out (1925)

A distinctly odd and little-known novel that deserves to be a classic, this tale of an isolated young girl's fantasies and misunderstandings of manners and class, and of the adult world around her in general, has psychological depth, humor, and disturbing insights in equal measure. I reviewed it here. Sadly out of print, but it can be downloaded here.

41) DIANA TUTTON, Guard Your Daughters (1953)

On the surface a delightful, humorous romance about a family of charming young girls looking for love against the fears of their mother, below the surface it's quite a bit darker, but no less shimmering and fun for that. Mentioned in Nicola Humble's The Feminine Middlebrow Novel. Simon at Stuck in a Book first stirred up blogger excitement over the novel here. Planned 2017 reprint (finally) from Persephone.

Thursday, April 6, 2017


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

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
This section includes two titles (#s 54 & 52) that were turned into classic films (and #55 should have been). My confession of my true feelings about #52 also inspired some shock and dismay, but you see how objective I'm being, including it here anyway?

#53 was one of several titles indubitably retrieved from obscurity by bloggers, and the author of #60 may have been part of the inspiration for Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm. Finally, #56 sounds enticing and was an early Virago reprint, but I didn't find any reviews by my favorite bloggers. Have any of you read it?

Here we go to the halfway mark!

Sheila Kaye-Smith

60) SHEILA KAYE-SMITH, Joanna Godden (1921)

Kaye-Smith may have been one of the authors Stella Gibbons had in mind in writing Cold Comfort Farm, but she was steadily popular for decades. This one deals with a woman who inherits a farm and decides to manage and farm it herself. Reading 1900-1950 reviewed it here. Public domain in US, in print in UK in various POD editions of uncertain quality. Second hand copies available, including a Virago edition.

59) JOSEPHINE ELDER, The Encircled Heart (1951)

Not the most polished or literary author on this list by any means, but Elder, better known for her sensitive school stories, gives fascinating insight into the lives of women in the medical profession (like Elder herself). Her endings are sadly conservative for her female main characters, but the realistic details are worth the price of admission. In print from Greyladies.

58) DORA SAINT (as Miss Read), Thrush Green (1959)

I had to choose between Village School, which initiated Saint's Fairacre series, and this one, initiating the Thrush Green series, set among the charming and varied residents of a Cotswold village. Each series has its adherents, but the Thrush Green books seem to me to have a broader canvas, not limited by the first-person narration of the Fairacre books. In print in paperback and e-book.

57) REBECCA WEST, The Return of the Soldier (1918)

West went on to write other important books, both fiction and non-fiction, but her short, seemingly simply first novel might still be her most powerful. A shell-shocked soldier is sent home, and three women with connections to him are dramatically affected. In print from Virago in the UK and Penguin Classics in the US. Public domain in US, so free e-books are available.

56) JANE & MARY FINDLATER, Crossriggs (1908)

According to the Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction, this novel "is partly a lightly told vignette of Scottish village life at the turn of the century, sharp in its observation of local values and prejudices, and partly a despairing exploration of the lonely situation of an articulate and emotional woman who lacks the conventional romantic appeal of either femininity or wealth." Public domain in US, available in POD and e-book editions of uncertain quality. Surprisingly hard to find in its Virago edition.

55) BRYHER, Beowulf (1956)

Slightly better known for her historical novels (though overshadowed in that arena by Mary Renault), Bryher based this tale of two women running a tea shop in London during the Blitz on an actual tea shop she and her partner (the poet H.D.) frequented. Leaves & Pages reviewed it here. Criminally out of print but not impossible to find second hand.

54) MURIEL SPARK, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

If I were merely urging you to read Spark for the first time, I'd probably suggest Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, or Loitering with Intent. But for the purposes of this list, none of Spark's works were more successful, acclaimed, and influential than this dark little grown-up school story. Read it, then watch the film version with Maggie Smith, who won an Oscar for it. Book Snob reviewed the novel here. In print in paperback & e-book.

53) EDITH OLIVIER, The Love-Child (1927)

A delightful fantasy about a lonely thirty-something spinster whose childhood imaginary friend, lost for years, seems to return, gradually becoming flesh and blood. Funny, charming, and melancholy at the same time, it belongs with Lolly Willowes and Lady Into Fox among the fantasy-themed classics of the 1920s. I reviewed it here. In print from Bello Books, in paperback & e-book in the UK, apparently only e-book in the US.

52) DAPHNE DU MAURIER, Rebecca (1938)

I've written about not being a fan of it myself, but I couldn't leave out this much-beloved tale, one of the most famous Gothic romances of all time and the inspiration for Hitchcock's equally classic film. John Crace of The Guardian wrote about it here. In print, paperback and e-book.

51) MARY RENAULT, The Friendly Young Ladies (1943)

Renault is better known for her historical novels, but this earlier work is a striking, realistic, and ahead-of-its-time portrayal of a somewhat bohemian lesbian couple living on a houseboat during World War II. Leaves & Pages reviewed it here. In print from Virago in the UK and Open Road in the US.
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