The feminine middlebrow novel 1920s to 1950s by Nicola Humble

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The Independent Culture

Few readers, one imagines, will be greatly enticed by Nicola Humble's title, or her subtitle "Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism". Furthermore, it comes with an unappealing, inappropriate dust-jacket (dating from 1960) and a grotesque price-tag. That is a great pity, because the book itself, unlike many volumes from academic publishers, is accessible, informative and entertainingly written.

"Feminine" is no longer a wholly laudatory term, while "middlebrow" is perhaps even more disparaging than "lowbrow". Humble admits that "middlebrow" has been used to categorise books "thought to be too easy, too insular, too smug", and announces her aim to "rehabilitate both the term and the body of literature to which it was generally applied" in the first half of the 20th century.

Nicola Beauman did something similar in 1983 with A Very Great Profession, her study of what she more sensibly called "The Woman's Novel". Humble does not so much rehabilitate as redefine her form as a body of work that "straddles the divide between the trashy romance or thriller... and the philosophically or formally challenging novel".

She pushes at these self-imposed boundaries, discussing writers such as Elizabeth Bowen, Rosamond Lehmann and I Compton-Burnett, alongside more obvious candidates such as Angela Thirkell, Margaret Kennedy and Dodie Smith, largely on the grounds that they wrote about families and class. This is to oversimplify matters. Bowen's stylised and frequently opaque novels are surely "highbrow" enough for the most discriminating of readers. And if these writers are gathered into the fold, then why not also Virginia Woolf, whose Mrs Dalloway may be one of Modernism's principal texts but is also the story of a married woman making preparations for an evening party?

Humble's concern, however, is as much sociological as literary. She identifies a solid, educated middle-class, and an overwhelmingly female readership for these books. Analysing sex, class, marriage, motherhood, the home and leisure (notably reading), she concludes that these novels prove "uniquely responsive to the shifting tastes and identity of the expanding middle class".

She sees them "adeptly incorporating the latest literary and cultural fashions while treating highbrow excesses with a jovial disdain". These books are not only read by women but are also about women who read, containing allusions that rely on "a shared literary and cultural background". A knowledge of the Brontës is assumed by several authors; and readers are expected to know their Austen.

While Humble broadens the discussion to look at home magazines, cookery books and childcare guides, she analyses far fewer novels than Beauman. If her sample is comparatively small, it is well chosen, although one occasionally feels she has missed a trick. Her excellent account of "the eccentric family", for example, would have benefited from a glance at Barbara Comyns's weird Sisters by a River. She also sometimes underestimates her writers: rather than peddling the comforting "fantasy" of the devoted family retainer, Thirkell is surely being savagely ironic when, writing about an old nanny's passion for the posh children in her charge, she adds: "Of her own children, who were all out in the world, she never had thought much... though she had treated them with the impartial kindness due from the upper classes to the lower". Irony is the predominant tone in such books, which often makes them more sophisticated – less easy, insular and smug – than their detractors would have us believe.

Humble has not been well served by OUP, which has not troubled to employ a competent proof-reader. Plots are repeated, Rosamond Lehmann's name is misspelt throughout, as is Bryan Guinness's, while the aristocratic family in Brideshead Revisited is described as "Anglo-Catholic" – a statement that makes nonsense of the entire novel.