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.


  1. Sometimes, Scott, I just have to run and order a book, even before I get to the end of the post. So Not So Quiet is now on its way to my mailbox.

  2. Really getting into the heavy hitters now, eh? Several I've read, some I own (including those very editions of South Riding & The Proper Place) and still some completely unfamiliar to me.

    I'm getting exciting to think about who the top ten (or 3, or 1) will be.

    Love that picture of Evadne Price, by the way. Very writerly. Staring at the typewriter (or screen) looking for inspiration.

  3. Another enjoyable update Scott. I've enjoyed all the books here that I have read (South Riding, Cold Comfort Farm, Mrs Miniver, and The Proper Place), so will look out for the others. The Hallow particularly intrigues me, as it is an Agatha Christie I have never heard of.

  4. Well, you KNOW I have to comment on the Thirkell inclusion! Perhpas not my own personal favorite, which I think is Northbridge Rectory, but I admit, I do think her WWII novels are her richest and most enjoyable. Especially when one considers these are being written at the time - we have decades and decades of hindsight with the war over - but it was going on then! I love the way this novel starts with Rose's wedding, and ends with Dunkirk.......I do not think there is another of her novels with such a dramatic ending. And, of course, she had no idea if she would ever write another......................Good choice, Scott! And many thanks.

  5. Loving these lists! Thank you for all the time and effort that goes into putting them together.

  6. Another great list. Lots of favourites. I've read most of them (thanks for the links to my reviews). Good to see that most of them are in print or readily available second hand. Plenty of hope for middlebrow readers everywhere! Must read The Hollow again, it's been years since I last read it. Must also read more Thirkell. I've been collecting the Virago editions but not reading them.

  7. I read The Hollow after seeing it on this list; I like Josephine Tey and Margery Allingham but have always found Christie too plot-driven and lacking in atmosphere. The Hollow is definitely an exception. After I finished it I immediately started Five Little Pigs (not bad but not really my thing) and am now on The Sittaford Mystery, which is going very slowly. Any other more novel-like Christies you'd recommend?

    1. So glad you enjoyed The Hollow, Sarah. Five Little Pigs is not a favorite of mine either. Have you read Sleeping Murder? For atmosphere, Christie doesn't get much better, I don't think--I re-read it regularly for the wonderful eeriness of a woman moving into a new house and finding it all too familiar... Cat Among the Pigeons is a bit sillier, but much more focused on character than her norm and I find it great fun, and if you haven't read Murder at the Vicarage, which introduced Miss Marple, I've always though that was more a very good proper novel than a typical mystery too. The Mirror Crack'd has, I think, one of her most profound motives for murder, and fun characterization. And of course there are the six Mary Westmacott novels, which you might enjoy--they tend to be more character-focused, if also a bit more melodrama-oriented. I like Absent in the Spring and also the autobiographical Unfinished Portrait. Well, you did ask! :-)


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