Erica Brown

Sheffield Hallam University

‘But what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer.’ (Woolf, 115)

This issue of Working Papers on the Web grew out of the conference 'Investigating the Middlebrow' held at Sheffield Hallam University in the summer of 2007. This was a ground-breaking conference, bringing together for the first time scholars interested in analysing the loaded and disreputable term 'middlebrow', and the area of cultural production it purports to represent.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘middlebrow’, both n. and a. is colloq. Freq. derogatory.

adj. Of a person: only moderately intellectual; of average or limited cultural interests (sometimes with the implication of pretensions to more than this). Of an artistic work, etc.: of limited intellectual or cultural value; demanding or involving only a moderate degree of intellectual application, typically as a result of not deviating from convention.

The first identified use of the term in print was in Punch, 23 December 1925, in their regular column ‘Charivaria’: ‘The B.B.C. claim to have discovered a new type, the “middlebrow”. It consists of people who are hoping that some day they will get used to the stuff they ought to like’. In this early usage the middlebrow is aspirant, hoping to learn to enjoy the highbrow, but while considering the stuff they ought to like, these readers were buying what they did like, creating best-sellers of novelists as diverse as Elizabeth von Arnim, Warwick Deeping, Winifred Holtby, J.B. Priestley, and Stella Gibbons. These widely-read novelists, contentiously labelled ‘middlebrow’, have received very little critical attention, and today ‘middlebrow’ continues to be used to mark particular types of popular literature as unchallenging and of little cultural or intellectual value.

The articles in this issue focus on the inter-war period in Britain, when what might be called the 'battle of the brows' was debated with great energy and passion. In 1932 Q.D. Leavis published her highly influential polemic Fiction and the Reading Public. She sought to scientifically examine public taste in reading, but she brings to bear on her study the full weight of an increasing pessimism and paranoia among the cultural elite she aims to be part of: she believes that literary culture is in a process of disintegration, soon to be dominated by 'lowbrow pulp', and more threateningly, the middlebrow.

The early years of the twentieth century saw the growth of the book club: commercial operations servicing the needs of a newly emerging middle-class with increasing leisure time. The establishment of the Book Society in 1927 caused Leavis great concern, for the Book Society chooses

novels of such competent journalists as GB Stern, AP Herbert, Rebecca West, Denis Mackail…, sapless ‘literary’ novels, or the smartly fashionable (Hemingway, Osbert Sitwell). By December 1929 the society had nearly seven thousand members, and it is still growing, from which the unbiased observer might fairly deduce two important cultural changes: first, that by conferring authority on a taste for the second-rate (to the Book Society the publication of A Modern Comedy [1] is ‘a real event in the story of modern English literature’) a middlebrow standard of taste has been set up; second that middlebrow taste has been organised. (23-24)

Leavis’s opinions and fears for the future are clearly expressed in this passage. The novelists recommended by the Book Society are judged to be merely ‘competent journalists’; or, damning any claim to literary status ‘smartly fashionable’; or, of those novels with a claim to literary status, ‘sapless’. Added to this the Book Society’s praise for the second volume of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, and Leavis can confidently write that the ‘unbiased observer’ will deduce the conferring of ‘authority on a taste for the second-rate’. To Leavis the terms ‘second-rate’ and ‘middlebrow’ are almost interchangeable, and in her claim to unbiased observation she allows no room for debate on the quality of these novelists. They are what she says they are, and with statements such as ‘to the Book Society the publication of A Modern Comedy is “a real event in the story of modern English literature”’ with its unspoken judgement that this is a clear indication of a taste for the second-rate, she assumes concurrence from her readers.

However, the observant observer will immediately notice that these novelists were not uncontestedly designated middlebrow. The very selection of novelists Leavis uses to illustrate middlebrow taste demonstrates the instability and subjectivity of the category. Rebecca West and Ernest Hemingway in particular were of interest and value to the highbrow ‘critical minority’ Leavis aims to represent (5). West was considered by many to be a ‘serious’ writer, yet it seems for Leavis she is tainted by journalism. Hemingway seems an even odder choice for middlebrow, but he did achieve some popular success and can indeed be considered fashionable, factors that are incompatible with Leavis’s definition of literary value. Leavis concludes with a comment loaded with portent: ‘middlebrow taste has been organised’. She fears the middlebrow, imagining a dominance of the cultural marketplace increasing until her own ‘critical minority’ is squeezed out entirely.

At around the same time that Q.D. Leavis published Fiction and the Reading Public, Virginia Woolf was moved to write the other most famous contemporary statement on the subject: her letter 'Middlebrow', written, but never sent to The New Statesman (113-119). Woolf defines the highbrow as ‘the man or woman of thoroughbred intelligence who rides his mind at a gallop across country in pursuit of an idea’ (113). The lowbrow, on the other hand, is ‘a man or woman of thoroughbred vitality who rides his body in pursuit of a living at a gallop across life’ (114).

By this logic one would expect the middlebrow to be those who able to do both – live and pursue ideas, but this is not Woolf's conclusion. Middlebrows are

the go-between; they are the busybodies who run from one to the other with their tittle tattle and make all the mischief – the middlebrows, I repeat. But what, you may ask, is a middlebrow? And that, to tell the truth, is no easy question to answer. They are neither one thing nor the other. They are not highbrows, whose brows are high; nor lowbrows, whose brows are low. (115)

Logically their brows might be a happy mid-way, but this is instead a no-man's land: ‘Their brows are betwixt and between’ (115). This frequently quoted phrase, often used as a kind of definition, is in fact an expression of Woolf's difficulty in pining down the middlebrow. She is only able to define it negatively, in terms of the high and lowbrow it is not.

But then we come to the crux of the matter:

The middlebrow is the man, or woman, of middlebred intelligence who ambles and saunters now on this side of the hedge, now on that, in pursuit of no single object, neither art nor life itself, but both mixed indistinguishably, and rather nastily, with money, fame, power, or prestige. (115)

Woolf's distaste is as strongly felt as that of Q.D. Leavis. If there were any doubts left as to Woolf's opinion, her concluding sentence dispels them: ‘If any human being, man, woman, dog, cat or half-crushed worm dares call me “middlebrow” I will take my pen and stab him, dead' (119). There is a clear class element to Woolf's analysis: there is the intellectual class, obviously acceptable, where she herself belongs; the healthy working-class 'lowbrow', living life honestly and to the full; and then the unfortunate middle-class middlebrow who aspires, through the commercial operations of the book club, to something else.

Janice Radway, examining the practices of the American Book-of-the-Month Club argues that rather than aping the values of high culture, or aspiring to them, the middlebrow Club editors are exercising a kind of counter-practice in which they offer their own definition of literary value (9).  Similarly, the English Book Guild in the 1930s announced itself to be 'an organisation which would cater for the ordinary intelligent reader, not for the highbrows – an organisation which would realise that a book can have a good story and a popular appeal and yet be good literature' (qtd in Leavis, 24). This may seem reasonable, but to commentators like Leavis and Woolf popularity is incompatible with literary value. The mission statement of the Guild is also threatening; perhaps because the aspirant middlebrow of the 1925 Punch article has developed into something both commercially driven, and operating in opposition to the highbrow.

Along with issues of class, money and popularity, there is another factor working against the status of middlebrow texts: gender. In identifying the reasons for the decline in the 'critical intelligence' of readers Leavis notes significantly ‘that women rather than men change the books (that is, determine the family reading)’ (7). George Orwell, describing the novels most frequently borrowed from the bookshop he worked at in his youth, gives free rein to his snobbish misogyny:

Dell's novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages, and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists. It is not true that men don't read novels, but it is true that there are whole branches of fiction that they avoid. Roughly speaking, what one might call the average novel - the ordinary, good-bad, Galsworthy-and-water stuff which is the norm of the English novel - seems to exist only for women. (244)

Men, it is clear, exercise discernment in choosing their reading matter; women do not. Orwell expected romance novels to be read only by the lower classes, but finds that women of different classes are united in their readership of both romances and average – middlebrow – novels. Orwell unites too, with Q.D. Leavis in his opinion of John Galsworthy, who appears for both to have become a byword for 'second-rate'. Galsworthy's Forsyte novels are that most old-fashioned type, the family saga: resolutely realist, domestic and enormously popular.

In her influential study The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s (2001) Nicola Humble argues that readership is crucial to the labelling of a text as middlebrow (13). Woolf and Leavis are not concerned with the 'healthy' working-class lowbrow and their consumption of hugely popular romances and westerns, but with the literature popular with the middle-class woman [2].

Humble also contends that while the term 'middlebrow' may have emerged during the 1920s, it does not represent a new literary form. It is, instead, a critical term emerging as a consequence of contemporary literary developments:

The stylistic and thematic blue-prints of the sort of literature that came to be seen as middlebrow – a particular concentration on feminine aspects of life, a fascination with domestic space, a concern with courtship and marriage, a preoccupation with aspects of class and manners – are little different from the conventions that dominated the mainstream novel throughout the nineteenth century (we need only think of Austen and the Brontës, Trollope and Charlotte M. Yonge). It is not (as many critics would have us assume) that novelists, and particularly female novelists, suddenly started writing meretricious, class-obsessed fripperies in the years after the First World War, but rather that the status of the realist novel was dramatically altered by the coming to public consciousness of the modernist and associated avant-garde movements. (11)

So it can be argued that the middlebrow is in fact nothing new; what is new is the cultural meaning attached to it, as a consequence of its readership and the context of these new cultural movements. However, as the essays in this collection demonstrate, the term middlebrow was applied to a wide range of diverse texts: from Gilbert Frankau's hugely popular romances; Elizabeth von Arnim's 'garden' novels; Rosamond Lehmann's unsettling reworking of the romance, Dusty Answer; to Winifred Holtby's novels, committed to examining international political issues. This diversity exposes a tension in working towards a definition of the middlebrow: are these novels an identifiable type, or is it a label applied through prejudice towards the readership? Pierre Bourdieu argued that ‘middlebrow’ culture, in its eternally reverential relationship to ‘legitimate culture’, was illegitimate simply because it was the taste of the middle-class, not because of any intrinsic qualities (Distinction, 1984).

Several of these essays demonstrate the sophisticated and frequently radical nature of middlebrow texts, variously ignored as safe, domestic, conservative or merely trivial comedy. In her essay 'The Queer Pleasures of Reading: Camp and the Middlebrow' Humble reconsiders the notion of 'camp', which she had introduced and quickly dismissed in her earlier study as she argued that these novels are more than merely ridiculous. Through a close analysis of Susan Sontag's 'Notes on Camp' Humble introduces a new understanding of what 'camp' means, and how this can be illuminatingly applied to the particular 'sophisticated wryness which characterises the tone and attitudes of much middlebrow fiction'. Humble goes on to examine the use of camp in depictions of homosexual identity in middlebrow novels. The emergence of a visible queer culture in the 1920s and 1930s is often seen as a feature of the avant-garde, yet homosexual characters are frequent in middlebrow novels, and lesbianism is regarded with particular tolerance. Both Humble and Sophie Blanch consider Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer (1927), a novel with significant homosexual characters.  

In common with many middlebrow novels, Lehmann has been identified as taking the 'staple ingredients of the nineteenth century "women's novel", the romance plot, the heroine of sensibility' and critically revising them to address the new, destabilized culture of the inter-war years (Simons 'The Torment', 138). The limited criticism of the middlebrow has sought to re-evaluate these texts as 'serious', and thus, Blanch notes, the laughter and comic potential in Lehmann's novel have been strategically overlooked. Blanch gives an insightful alternative reading of the 'social and sexual politics of transition in Dusty Answer, through the novel's quietly obsessive reliance on laughter'. Drawing on George Meredith's and Henri Bergson's theories of comedy, Blanch demonstrates how laughter is repeatedly encoded in the novel to describe subtle and shifting dynamics of exclusion and exclusivity. In these essays both Blanch and Humble have developed intriguing new theoretical approaches to engender a deeper understanding of the sophisticated stylistic techniques employed by middlebrow writers, and reveal sometimes unexpected meanings.

Unsurprisingly, most authors labelled as middlebrow would not have identified themselves as such, yet many demonstrated an acute understanding of positioning within literary culture. Intertextual references are frequently used to align these novels with existing (often 'classic’ or 'highbrow') literature and to build relationships with an implied community of readers. In Elizabeth von Arnim's 'garden' novels Elizabeth and her German Garden (1898) and The Solitary Summer (1899) Elizabeth's [3] reading matter is as central to the novel as her titular garden. Juliane Römhild's article examines the construction of Elizabeth as a joyful, self-confident middlebrow reader, boldly reclaiming the library as a feminine space. Elizabeth, pleasurably (and profitably for the author), does exactly what Woolf deplored, and 'ambles and saunters' between the hedges of her garden offering irreverent judgments on 'dead white male' writers, and constructing her own private canon. Yet Römhild's research reveals that while Elizabeth reads challenging philosophical texts in the original, the real-life Elizabeth von Arnim preferred them digested in introductions for the general reader. Elizabeth the carefree reader is a carefully and strategically constructed fictional figure, perhaps existing as an aspiration for von Arnim as well as for her readers.

Gilbert Frankau, like von Arnim, turned to writing as a way to earn a living. His attitude was whole-heartedly commercial; he saw himself as a 'paid entertainer' and declined to be part of the Book Society simply because the royalty rate was too low. Yet this straight-forwardly populist approach does not mean that his novels did not engage with new modes of thinking. Victoria Stewart’s essay examines Frankau's enormously popular, realist novels to gauge the extent to which newly emerging ideas of psychology and psychoanalysis were circulating in 1930s society. She argues that while modernist narrative modes may appear to be best suited to exploring the newly unstable subjectivity of these new sciences, realist writers were also incorporating these ideas into their characterisation. For commentators such as Q.D. Leavis, Frankau's use of 'bastardised' psychology was part of the vulgar and lazy use of language she saw as so damaging to literary culture, but Stewart argues, Frankau's 'innovations are in their own way as revealing of the temper of his age as those of his modernist contemporaries'.

Winifred Holtby’s novels The Land of Green Ginger (1927) and Mandoa, Mandoa! (1933), in contrast, are a conscious attempt to communicate new ideas to a large audience. Lisa Regan traces Holtby’s growing involvement with the black trade union movement in South Africa and her development as a committed political activist. Holtby’s novels formed a key part of this activism: she recognised that her own class of middlebrow novel commanded a wide readership, and that ‘on their social and ethical values [were] constructed the social and ethical values of the middle-class’ (Holby, 'What We Read' 112). Regan argues that Holtby exploits this potential in middlebrow fiction to ‘correct the “failures of the imagination” in a large middle-class British public oblivious to the reality of poverty and racial division in South Africa’. Regan's (and to some extent Stewart's) work thus refutes the Marxian view that bestselling authors cannot represent counter-hegemonic values.

These essays all demonstrate the importance of interrogating, rather than dismissing, the value-laden category ‘middlebrow’. The concept’s very instability and subjectivity leads us to an examination of the shifting cultural values of the inter-war period, and helps us to understand the relationship between elite, popular and 'intermediate' cultures.  As this collection demonstrates that the middlebrow matters, it points to new directions for research. We look forward to future study on the impact of these hierarchies on our current literary culture; and to interdisciplinary analyses of the range of cultural forms also labelled middlebrow: broadcasting, music, interior decoration, dance and art. The majority of existing work on the middlebrow has come from feminist critics focussing on the recovery of female writers; another important area of future study will be a more sustained examination of male middlebrow writers [4]. Happily, an AHRC-funded middlebrow network is being developed to continue this work. For further information email Erica Brown at


1. The second volume of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga (1929).

2. There are two other key texts addressing the specifically female middlebrow novel of the interwar years: Nicola Beauman's A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-1939 (1983) and Alison Light's Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars (1991). Beauman's pioneering study examines a previously critically ignored body of domestic women's fiction, aiming to 'present a portrait through their fiction of English middle-class women during the period between the two world wars' (3). Light's excellent book argues that women’s fiction between the wars goes to the heart of a particular tension in English social life in the interwar years. While masculinity and the ideas of the nation were being 'feminised', many women were reacting against the ideologies of home and femininity from the pre-war world. Light terms this tension 'conservative modernity': simultaneously looking backwards and forwards, ‘it could accommodate the past in the new forms of the present; it was a deferral of modernity and yet it also demanded a different sort of conservatism from that which had gone before’ (10). Interestingly, both use the term 'middlebrow' only briefly, and it remains largely unexamined. Humble’s study is the first sustained examination of the term in Britain.

3. Elizabeth von Arnim was christened Mary Annette Beauchamp, known as May to her family, and became Gräfin von Arnim on her marriage to a German aristocrat. After the success of her first novel, subsequent publications were labelled 'by the author of Elizabeth and her German Garden' and later simply 'Elizabeth'. That the character of Elizabeth was based upon herself is evidenced by the bizarre fact that May eventually became 'Elizabeth' not just to her readers, but to her friends and family.

4.  See, for example, Mary Grover's The Ordeal of Warwick Deeping: Attitudes to Middlebrow Authorship, forthcoming with Associated University Presses in 2009.


Works Cited

Beauman, Nicola (1983) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel 1914-39.London: Virago.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Holtby, Winifred (1984; 1927) The Land of Green Ginger. London: Virago.

Holtby, Winifred (1982; 1933) Mandoa, Mandoa!: A Comedy of Irrelevance. London: Virago.

Holtby, Winifred (1935) 'What We Read and Why We Read It'. Left Review: 4, 112-114.

Humble, Nicola (2001) The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Leavis, Q. D. (2000; 1932) Fiction and the Reading Public. London: Pimlico. 

Lehmann, Rosamond (1986; 1927) Dusty Answer. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Light, Alison (1991) Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars. London: Routledge.

Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 26 October 2006]

Orwell, George (1969; 1936) 'Bookshop Memories'. In Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, i, An Age Like This, 1920-1940. London: Secker and Warburg.

Radway, Janice (1997) A Feeling for Books: Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste and Middle-Class Desire. Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press.

Simons, Judy (1992) 'The Torment of Loving: The Inter-War Novels of Rosamond Lehmann'. In Rosemary M. Colt and Janice Rossen (eds.) Writers of the Old School: British Novelists of the 1930s. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Sontag, Susan ‘Notes on Camp’ (Fall 1964), first published in Partisan Review 31.4: 515-30; reproduced in Fabio Cleto, ed. (1999) Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 53-65.

Woolf, Virginia (1947; 1942) 'Middlebrow'. In The Death of the Moth. London: Hogarth Press.

Von Arnim, Elizabeth (1985; 1898) Elizabeth and Her German Garden. London: Virago.

Von Arnim, Elizabeth (1993, 1899) The Solitary Summer. London: Virago.