It’s the little things that count

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals.

When I was a student at university in the 1980s there were no courses on middlebrow literature, the term given to popular novels published in English between 1900 and 1950. I studied history so I can’t say for certain how the English literature courses were structured but I shared digs with a student who was studying Beowulf and Old English. I imagine the degree would then have taken him through Chaucer, Milton, Austen, Hardy and ending at Woolf. Times have changed. The Middlebrow Network website lists 36 academics as either core members or as sitting on the advisory board. Kate Macdonald, writing in a post called Why studying middlebrow matters commented on the reasons for this change in literary studies:

The study of English literature has been enlarging its boundaries radically in the past thirty years. My private theory is that the increase in the numbers of people studying at university level in Britain since the 1990s means that we need more and new research subjects for the ever-rolling stream of PhD students. The academy’s capacity for writing dissertations on Shakespeare, Woolf and Hughes was becoming exhausted under traditional terms of scrutiny. Something happened to allow literary criticism to widen its borders. Now, we study not just what people read, but how people read, why they read, what they thought about what they read, and the marginalia printed all around the important things that people read, which they also read, and were changed by, without noticing. The traditional authors and works are still studied, but the overflow is accommodated most creatively through middlebrow studies.

Middlebrow studies is now a Thing. A Good Thing, in my opinion. From reading Dostoevsky, Camus, Sartre, Borges and Calvino in my twenties, I have returned to the reading tastes of my childhood when I read Biggles novels, the novels of Roman Britain written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, children’s classics such as Stig of the Dump and more modern children’s novels such as A Dog So Small: that is to say, popular fiction. One Thing has replaced another Thing, because this Thing is quite clearly not that Thing.

But not quite. I began reading Arnold Bennett’s Evening Standard reviews with the belief that I would quickly find myself reading the popular novels of the 1920s: those “shockers” that Buchan claimed he wrote. What have I read so far? A tragedy set in an upper class rural family emotionally-at-sea; a tragedy set in eighteenth century Germany that exposed the brutal consequences of anti-semitism and a Russian folktale. And now, I am reading Sacheverell Sitwell’s The Cyder Feast, a collection of self-published poems that link us with the rural world described lovingly in the Georgics of Virgil.

Osbert and Edith Sitwell

From left to right  Sir Osbert Sitwell (1892-1969), Dame Edith (1887-1964), Sacheverell Sitwell (1897-1988). — Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

Of the poet, Bennett wrote in his review of the 16th of June, 1927:

I have for years maintained that Sacheverell Sitwell is one of the most original poets of his generation…His mind is not only original but lovely. He never writes anything of which you could positively assert that it was not distinguished. He experiences sensations, and he gets effects, which, so far as my knowledge goes, nobody ever experienced or got before. I derive a most exciting pleasure from his work.


Frontspiece of The Cyder Feast

Compare Bennett’s review with the comments made by Emanuel Eisenberg in The Bookman in the November of that year. Speaking of the three Sitwells – Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell – he wrote:

They are all insufferable poets — insufferable minor poets, I mean, and minor poetry rarely becomes unbearable to me, since I can usually find a transient pleasure in efficiency of manufacture.

Or this from Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review in the June of 1928.

Apart from a dissonance or two, an inverted image, a strained and dislocated adjective, these horticultural verses might have been written in the eighteenth century as well as (and possibly better than) the twentieth.

And that from someone who quite liked the book.

Bennett’s talent, as far as I can make it out from these reviews, is that he looked at Everything, rather than that Thing or this Thing. Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Sitwell (Osbert, Edith and Sacheverell), Kafka were given the same once-over he would give to Forster, Chesterton, Warner or Bates. If he did not understand what he had had read he did not hold it against the author. Eisenberg and Untermeyer’s beef was that The Cyder Feast was not modern enough. Bennett would not have dwelt on the issue. His concern was promoting the best in literature to as wide an audience as possible, be it traditional or modernist.

What did I make of The Cyder Feast. In answer I will quote this from Bennett’s review:

…when somebody comes along and says that he cannot understand Sacheverell Sitwell, I sympathise with that somebody. There is a certain amount of Sacheverell Sitwell that I do not understand, or only half understand.

I did well with the first twenty five poems, being the most Virgilian in nature, linking nature with architecture and history. After these poems, the words drifted delightfully into my mind and then delightfully out again.


Caricature of Arnold Bennett by Oliver Herford, found on The Project Gutenberg, clearly alluding to his prodigious output.

On the 15th of June, we get a glimpse in his journal of the working day of a bestselling British novelist of the 1920s: gets up early; breakfasts on fruit; observes his street from the balcony; writes 800 words by 12.15; lunches at the Reform Club; returns by bus; continues writing; theatre in the evening.




Middlebrow goes West

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. Graphs abound in this post, plus a chart and a 1949 advert for a television. 

The Lowbrow/Middlebrow/Highbrow debate is not a uniquely British one. Arguments in favour of one or the other have also been voiced by American commentators. In 1950, as part of its centennial celebrations Harper’s Magazine included a survey of the changes in taste that had taken place over the lifetime of the magazine. Written by Russell Lynes, The Age of Taste went on to form the basis for his famous book The Tastemakers, published in 1955. One chapter Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow had not appeared in the original article. It had already been published in the previous year, 1949, and had caused, as they say in Glasgow, a bit of a stooshie. His thesis that in the post-war world traditional social norms were redundant and that position in American society would now be determined by taste caught the attention of  Life Magazine. In April of 1949 it published High-Brow, Low-Brow, Middle-Brow. The strapline left the reader in no doubt as to the form this new America would take:

These are the three basic categories of a new U.S. social structure, and the highbrows have the whip hand.

To help you find out where you fitted into this new world, a chart was provided:

Martini or bourbon? When it came to reading, the different tastes went from “Little Magazines” and solid non-fiction at the top to book club selections in the middle, and pulp books and comics at the bottom.

America was to change but in a way that Russell Lynes hadn’t anticipated. Under Entertainment he had listed ballet (highbrow), theatre, musical extravaganza films and western movies (lowbrow). He didn’t include what was lurking on one of the pages in the same issue of the magazine:

At last!

The US, like Britain, had suspended television broadcasts for the duration of the war. With the war won General Electric switched from making engines for American war planes to making televisions. The $399 price tag, which would buy close on to $4,000 today, barely delayed its millionth sale. The impact on American society was as rapid as it was dramatic

My oh my. Would the whip hand end up in the hands of the middle and lowbrows after all? 70,000,000 television sets and 83% of all households owning more than one set are impressive statistics. Add to them the top ten US television shows from 1955-56 and the highbrows’ days seemed numbered:

The Phil Silvers' Show didn't even get in the top twenty!But, and as much as this pains me, that would be too quick and easy a conclusion to draw. If we look at book sales in that same period, and particularly what the American Census Department called “General Literature and Criticism,” a different picture emerges:

Here comes the cavalry!In a period of rising book sales (religious books helping drive the surge) and despite the recently achieved dominant position of television in American society, books from the category General Literature and Criticism managed to maintain a yearly average of 5% of the total of new titles published in the US. Not, perhaps, evidence of a flourishing democratic intellect but neither a society feeling the lash of the middle and lowbrow whips. If there was a loser in all this, it was probably radio. By 1950, 95% of American families owned a radio. However, when you look at revenues (in millions of dollars) it’s clear that having a radio set in nearly every American home was not a guarantee of year-on-year rising profits:

So it was video after all.

As profound a change as it was (and those figures quoted above, taken from data in the American Censuses for the 1950s, are in millions) it would seem that its nature can still escape us. Television undoubtedly did affect the balance of power between the ‘brows. But just as it is capable of plumbing the depths, American television can equally be innovative, intelligent and funny. Radio, on the other hand, could be argued to be inherently conservative, given its limitations and that this too can be a strength. Our man Bennett was witness to a period of cultural change when, as he said, the large villas of English novelists made rich from American royalties, would be replaced by semi-detached cottages in the London suburbs; while in America “literary palazzos” would spring up beside the Hudson, homes for the new generation of American novelists, who unlike Henry James, would live and work in America and be read around the world. Writing in The North American Review in January, 1912 he commented: 

…the great argument in favor of the future of the American novel…lies in the strenuousness, the variety, and the essential romance of American life.

A return to the norm is due. So, I am reading H.G.Wells’ novel Tono-Bungay as recommended by Arnold Bennett. In the next post, has it added to my literary taste?

Middlebrow goes to war

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. However, in this post  there are some interesting maps, Jane Austen, Bath and Elizabeth Bowen’s 1942 literary guide  English Novelists.

Let's not make a fuss.

By the time war broke out in September 1939, Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973) had published six novels. Of The Death of the Heart, the February 1939 issue of the Forum wrote:

. ..Elizabeth Bowen, s] really articulating in artistic form the problems of our time. They are not the superficial problems; they are chiefly the spiritual ones, and in our times these are the most challenging that have faced humanity in generations.

I doubt if such praise was given to one of her lesser known works, English Novelists published in the England in Pictures series, first issued in 1942. However, it would also be foolish to pass over it in silence. Forty eight pages long, it explained the evolution of the English novel from John Lyly to Virginia Woolf. Published  by Collins, it was intended to not just to educate but also to raise morale. Of the classic English novel she wrote:

We lose much if we ignore, or honour in name only, so living a part of the English heritage. And now, when the English spirit stands at its full height, to do so would be a double loss.

They are all there: Defoe, Sterne, Smollett, Fielding, Burney, Austen, Scott, Dickens, Thackerary, the Brontës, Gaskell, Eliot, Hardy, James and Kipling. Our man Bennett is there too, the importance of his time spent in France underlined:

The French aesthetic ideal– detachment –was always uppermost in his mind: to this we owe his objective view of England–as valuable in an Englishman as it is rare.

The Nazi threat would not be defeated by the values found in the works of a Rex Warner or a Wyndham Lewis. Rather it was those writers who could be identified as coming from and adding to a shared sense of Englishness that would lead the counterattack, including that reprobate Samuel Butler of Erewhon fame.

Of Jane Austen she wrote that she:

…seems to belong to no century.

Her scenes were small–drawing rooms and lawns– but the truths she applied to them were large.

she dispels…the fallacy that life with the lid off–in thieves’ kitchens, prisons, taverns and brothels–is necessarily more interesting than life with the lid on.

She is, in fact:

…the most nearly flawless of English novelists. She could not have been other than English–yet she stands a little apart from the other writers we have in an artistry that no sentiment blurred, no theory narrowed and no rancour or prejudice side-tracked.

Elizabeth Bowen’s admiration of Austen was long standing. In the August 15th issue of the Saturday Review of Literature in an article entitled Jane Austen: Artist on Ivory, she had written:

Jane Austen…brought the English novel to a point nearer perfection than it has reached since.

Elizabeth BowenSource: Wikipedia

Elizabeth Bowen
Source: Wikipedia

On the 8th of March, 1942, the Battle of Britain a distant memory and the fall of Singapore a very recent one, the BBC broadcast Elizabeth Bowen’s play New Judgement: Elizabeth Bowen on Jane Austen. In it a narrator attempts to tell the story of Jane Austen’s life only to be interrupted by her sister Cassandra, her niece Fanny, Darcy, Elizabeth, Mr. Knightly and Emma. These interruptions quickly enter the narrative, revealing that despite her protestations, Cassandra never fully knew her sister, while Fanny lacked the maturity of character to do so, and, as Elizabeth Bowen was to repeat in her description of Jane in English Novelists, she is to be found in the now. The play is light in touch, almost whimsical, and strikes just the right tone for a nation fighting for its life. Well, if that nation is England.

By the spring of 1942, the London Blitz was over, and another two years would pass before the V1s and V2s would force people back into the shelters. But travelling to Broadcasting House on the night of the broadcast, the actors, the director, the sounds effect people would have walked along bomb damaged streets, as this screen shot from the Bomb Sight website shows (each red circle is a German bomb; BBC Broadcasting House, centre and left):

Aggregate Bomb Damage December 1940 - June 1941

Aggregate Bomb Damage December 1940 – June 1941

But to see the middlebrow in the front line we have to leave London and head for the provinces. In The Western Morning News of April 27th, 1942, Berlin Radio was quoted as saying “As a further reprisal raid for British air attacks on the residential quarters of German cities, strong bomber formations last night attacked the town of Bath, with destructive results….” The choice of Bath as a target was not one of happenstance. On April 29th, The Western Morning News carried a report, quoted from Reuters in Berne, that the German Press had stated that the raid had been directed at “…works of art, monuments and dwelling quarters.” The raid was one of series known as the Baedeker Raids. In the spring of 1942 German bombers attacked Exeter, Bath, Norwich, York and Canterbury in a series of retaliatory raids following the RAF bombing raids on Lübeck. All were unimportant but picturesque cities, supposedly picked from the Baedeker Guide to Britain. The 1905 English Baedeker edition wrote of Bath that:

Among the innumerable visitors of eminence in the 18th and early 19th cent. may be mentioned Chatham, Pitt, Canning and Burke, Nelson, Wolfe, and Sir Sidney Smith, Gainsborough and Lawrence, Smollett, Fielding, Sheridan, Miss Burney, Goldsmith, Southey, Landor, Miss Austen, Wordsworth, Cowper, Scott and Moore. Memorial tablets mark the houses occupied by many of these. Perhaps no other English town of the size has oftener been the theme of literary allusion…

Works of art, monuments, dwelling quarters – Bath ticked all the boxes, you might say.

Damage was widespread and casualties high, more than 400 killed over the two nights.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Each star on the map marks the impact of German bombs. Given the extent of the damage and the numbers of dead, wounded and homeless, it’s not surprising that The Western Morning News used the bylines BATH AGAIN SINGLED OUT BY HUNS and HUN “NO MERCY” RAIDS. The men in the bombers were not even Germans. They were Huns and Huns, as history shows, destroy civilisations. Of interest to us is Green Park, just to the south of the railway station. It was here in 1804 and 1805 that 3 Green Park Buildings was home to Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. After the raids it looked like this:

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

Copied from the Bath Blitz Memorial Project.

What is worse, to target cities in an attempt to erase a culture, a love of books, a common history of Englishness; or target cities, using a thousand bombers because statistically the chance of inflicting mass civilian casualties is that much higher? Naturally, I have no answer to that moral conundrum, except to say the Germans started it.

What is clear, however, is the scale of the German error in their attacks on Bath. Alongside the stories of lucky escapes (Mrs. O. Cockram, an elderly lady, tunneled out from a buried room, letting others escape), the resolve of the survivors was praised. The Women’s Volunteer Service provided bedding, accommodation, comfort and, of course, tea. One family, almost killed by rubble falling on their Morrison shelter, arrived at a W.V.S. centre, blackened from head to foot. They refused offers of a wash and fresh clothes. “”All we want is a cup of tea,” said the mother briskly.” Briskly, mind you. The Nazis may have had ideology on their side. England had the middlebrow desire for a good cup of tea.

It’s graphtastic, Mr. Bennett!

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, what can we learn from Google Trends? 

You may have noticed that I have an interest in graphs. You may even remember a couple of posts that drew on the wonderful Google Ngram. But you were probably asking yourself: “Okay. Ngram is all very well for looking into changes in the zeitgeist. But what about short term changes? What about trends? Isn’t there something that would show that?” Well, damn my eyes, there is! Google Trends. Do a search for Middlebrow and we end up with this:






The letters refer to newspaper or magazine articles that led to a spike in that trend. For example D on the Middlebrow graph is an article in The New Yorker; F on the Highbrow graph is a Times Of India article on the highbrow prejudice against Enid Blyton and G on the Lowbrow graph is a San Diego Union Tribune article, Lauding the Lowbrow.

To get the full detail, including predictions, regional interest and related items here are the web pages:




When we combine all three we end up with this:

HIghbrow, Middlebrow, Lowbrow.

Middlebrow is that far below the other two, the peaks have flattened out and the media references have vanished. You can get the full results here (given that I wrote this post over the period of five days, the graphs may differ in detail but not in substance):


When we compare authors from each, Henry Green (high), Arnold Bennett (middle) and Zane Grey (low), we end up with this:

Three Musketeers

Check it out here:


Or in the case of Elizabeth Von Arnim (middle), Barbara Cartland (low) and Viriginia Woolf (high) we get this:

More Musketeers

Full results here:


Whichever way we cut the cake, the result is the same. It may be a highbrow cake with a lowbrow filling, but someone forgot to sprinkle it with middlebrow icing sugar. Middlebrow is not trending.

All is not lost. If we look at the results for Henry Green there is, I believe, a clue as to how to lift the middlebrow into a trending topic. New editions of Henry Green’s novels were published by Vintage in 2005, the year that saw his maximum trending peak of 100. In September The Guardian published an article by Sebastian Faulks on Henry Green. Sebastian Faulks had also written the introduction to the Vintage single-volume edition of Living, Loving and Party Going. Coincidence? Well, graphs based on a solid statistical base don’t lie. Also, have a look Virginia Woolf’s trending graph. It’s not as strong as it appears. It’s hit a bit of a plateau in the last couple of years. With that kind of vulnerability, it would almost be impolite not to launch an Elizabeth Von Arnim cultural counter attack.

So, here, in broad brushstrokes, is the middlebrow trending plan.

1. Reissue the works of a middlebrow author and include an introduction by a celebrity author. What happened with Elizabeth Taylor’s centenary this year? Were her works reissued by the Folio Society? Did Emily Griffin write the introduction? Exactly. A golden opportunity lost. What about Elizabeth Smart? She was born in 1913. Is she middlebrow? Would Marina Warner write an introduction?

2. Get the BBC on board. Given the academic interest in the middlebrow, is a programme on In Our Time too much to hope for? Has someone got Melvyn Bragg’s phone number? How about Book at Bedtime? If there’s anything suited to its format, surely its a work from the golden age of the middlebrow.

3. Design an app for the iPhone. The one that springs to mind is one based on Arnold Bennett’s fictional Five Towns. It could guide you though Stoke-on-Trent and highlight the principal settings for his novels. But there must be other middlebrow authors that lend themselves to an app.

Naturally, I have no idea how to go about any of this.

Next time, we return to the secure world of Britain in World War Two.

The revolution will be minuted

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, The Left Book Club, whose books looked like this:


It would be easy to look on the 1920s and 30s as a golden era of middlebrow literature. The novels of Arnold Bennett, Frank Swinnerton, Horace Walpole and L.A.G. Strong all forming part of a big metaphorical lens through which to view these two decades. Being the easy thing I would normally recommend strongly that we all look through that lens and not think too deeply about Stephen Spender’s study of modern literature The Destructive Element published in 1935 (he was twenty six when he wrote it – I read it when I was fifty and felt I was in the company of a giant).

Auden, sitting in a bar on Fifty-second Street in New York, called the 1930s a low dishonest decade. But in the redraft of the poem that he never did, I feel sure he would have included the 1920s too. Characterised by a failure of political leadership and a feeling shared by many people in Europe and  America that maybe the Jews had it coming, the inter-war years were just that, a brief pause in the slaughter. Apart from driving ambulances in Civil War Spain or taking on Oswald Mosley’s fascists in the East End of London, what else could a person do to show that modern democracy was not moribund?

If you were Victor Gollancz, owner of the publishing firm that he founded and gave his name to, you set up the Left Book Club. Like many of the writers mentioned above (and the majority of those not mentioned), it has largely been forgotten. But from its foundation in 1936 until the opening years of the war, it was incredibly popular. The idea was simple. For two shillings and sixpence, you received each month a book on a political theme. Gollancz’s idea was to help create a politically literate class that would put pressure on the British government to participate in a Popular Front against fascism. The 9,000 members who had joined by the end of the second month agreed and added the extra component of setting up discussion groups in which to debate the issues raised in the books they read.

Announcing Left Book Club meetings could be a problem. The Hull Daily Mail of October the 17th, 1937 reported that it took a motion by Councillor Wray to allow the local Left Book Club to display its meeting cards in the public libraries. The Popular Front had to be explained. At the Nottingham branch of the Left Book Club, and as reported by the Nottinghan Evening Post in October 1936, Mr. R. Bishop, who had travelled from London, used the example of the divisions in the German working class and how they were exploited by the Nazis in their rise to power to argue for the creation of a Popular Front which, having defeated Hitler, could focus its energies on creating Socialism. There were, of course, those that opposed it. J. Baker White of the right wing Economic  League wrote to The Hull Daily Mail in April 1937 accusing it of being a “..vehicle for Communist propaganda.”  There was even a Right Book Club. But books continued to be ordered in their thousands and discussed. At Uglow’s Cafe in Plymouth Mr. John Foot led the discussion on Stephen Spender’s latest book Forward from Liberalism. As reported in The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette of March the 20th, 1937, Mr. Foot argued that the objective of mankind was happiness allied to liberty. My mother remembers her father and his friends, like him miners or ex-miners, discussing that month’s book.

The Left Book Club was, however, overwhelmingly middle class. Seventy five percent of its members, who at the club’s peak in 1939 numbered 57,000, worked in white collar jobs. Members of the working class, on the whole, did not come along to the club’s discussion groups or attend its sell-out rally in the Albert Hall in the summer of 1937. If Stephen Spender had wanted to share his ideas with the working classes, he would have been as well as to go along to the nearest Gaumont cinema and buy a ticket for the next showing of the Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup because that’s where he would have found them (the British working classes were notorious for their hatred of  the quota quickies, films the American studios were legally obliged to make in Britain so as to be able to show movies made in Hollywood; the quota quickies had titles such as To Brighton with Gladys and Oh No, Doctor! and had actors who pronounced bath as baaath.) I’d have been as keen as the next person to see fascism defeated, but if it came down to it, and I had to decide between that Friday night lecture on Stalin’s socialist paradise and the late showing of After the Thin Man starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, I’d have gone with American wisecracks, the drinking of cocktails on an industrial scale and pretty nifty gun play from Mr. Powell.

In my beginning is my end. I began this post with a dismissal of the middlebrow, domain of the middle classes, and here they are again at the end. Perhaps by being on the left they would not have read Bennett’s Literary Taste: How to Form It, although they did want to be appear intellectual and well-read. But they shared that defining middle class tenet that tomorrow would be better than today.

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