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Introduction: Middlebrow London

Nick Hubble


<1> These essays are developed from papers given by researchers enlisted through the AHRC-funded Middlebrow Network[1] at two panels convened by myself as part of the ninth annual Literary London conference, organised by Brycchan Carey and Lawrence Phillips, and hosted by the Institute of English Studies, University of London on 7th – 9th July 2010. The original intention of bringing these papers together was to complement the work in ‘Intermodern London’, an earlier special issue of Literary London (Vol.7, No.1, March 2009),[2] and thereby to continue to contribute to the process of recent years by which the ‘canon’ of the first half of the twentieth century is being widely expanded beyond the modernist classics. However, whereas ‘Intermodern London’ was the product of the 2008 conference, which was concerned with liminality, the 2010 theme of ‘centrality’ raised a slightly different set of issues. Centrality might seem a simple enough spatial concept, but it is actually a relative term because it necessarily includes a relationship to the extent of the whole, which of course was more or less continually expanding up until the Second World War. As the following essays demonstrate, a recurring question for the protagonists of books of the period is where they need to be if they want to be at the centre of things in London. Furthermore, ‘centrality’ can also be used to imply a value judgement and so might reasonably be considered a loaded term. What type of culture is more central? That which is critically applauded or that which gets the biggest audience? Or, to put it another way, is it the dominant, the emergent or the residual form of culture that is central? It can certainly be argued that, during the interwar years at least, middlebrow fiction was culturally dominant in Britain as a whole, but whether this was the case for London, always the home of the avant-garde, is a different matter. An alternative title for this special issue, therefore, might be ‘Is the Centre in the Middle?’

<2> This very question is raised by a precursor of twentieth-century middlebrow fiction, George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891); the title of which, as Clive Hill notes here, does not refer to a physical place but is a metaphor for a rather precarious life on the literary treadmill. However, as he also points out, the main location of the book –- certainly for the professional lives of its protagonists –- is the British Museum reading room, which is undeniably very central, in both the spatial and cultural sense of the word. This uncertainty surrounding the position of the protagonists is matched by the changes taking place in the publishing industry at the time –- notably the shift in format from the ‘triple-decker’ to single volume novel –- which, Hill argues persuasively, lay the grounds for the subsequent development of a middlebrow fiction market. However, as the essay also shows, the combination of literary values being subjugated to market values, even as literary fashion is being deliberately manipulated, with the attendant cut-throat competition between struggling writers anticipates another middlebrow trope: the ‘belief that London is a uniquely corrupt city’.

<3> It might seem odd to suggest that the Nobel-prize winning John Galsworthy requires rescuing from what E.P. Thompson once called ‘the condescension of posterity’ but, as I have alluded to in my essay, he is often read or, rather, not read in the light of Virginia Woolf’s scathing condemnation of his inability to represent ‘life’. Yet, as I argue here, this is to misunderstand his aim of providing an immanent critique of the late Victorian and Edwardian capitalist class. In the process of doing so, he went on to produce a series of novels, The Forsyte Saga (1906-33), which are indubitably as much about London as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925). The Introduction to the ‘Intermodern London’ issue of Literary Londonraised the question of the existential challenge posed by the city’s constant threat to absorb the individual and suggested that its writers ‘can be defined by their response to this potentially Conradian horror: did they go deep into the heart of darkness or did they retreat?’[3] Galsworthy oscillated between both responses as his plot moves from Soames Forsyte’s failed attempt to escape the city; to Old Jolyon’s successful attainment of the suburban idyll in the last months of his life; and then back to Soames’s eventual, reluctant embrace of city uncertainty ‘as man might ride into a wild night with his face to the tail of his galloping horse’. A series which begins melodramatically with an anti-London impetus –- reflecting the middlebrow notion of London being corrupt –- evolves, therefore, into a social comedy of accommodation with the city’s particular terrors and challenges. In a sense, the near two thousand pages of the first six volumes of the series are an elaborate demonstration of the fact that there is no longer a centre. I argue that Galsworthy’s achievement is to allow his readership a point of identification as, simultaneously, both the direct descendants of the late Victorian upper-middle class and part of a fluid mass society. In this respect, the Saga can be seen as a key element in what the historian Ross McKibbin has identified as the transition within middlebrow culture, and middle-class outlook in general, from a reactionary fear of losing their distinct identity –- in particular, of being swallowed up into the working class –- within the mass society that emerged in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, to a more progressive and expansive acceptance of their place at the centre of a modernised mass society (see McKibbin 2000, 477-486).

<4> Kate Macdonald’s essay on London lodgings in middlebrow fiction breaks new ground in mapping much of the uncertainty and fears of middle-class life in early twentieth-century London across a variety of boarding and lodging houses in different districts. The decision to focus on two authors, Una L Silberrad and Dornford Yates, provides a useful contrast in terms of gender, outlook, politics and background which demonstrates the fundamental heterogeneity of middlebrow fiction. In particular, Macdonald shows how lodgings provided a space that allowed novelists to explore personal and social character simultaneously. However, what seems really striking in her account is the potential complexity of middlebrow politics. While Yates seems to embody, almost to the point of parody, the stereotypical denigration of middlebrow attitudes as being unfailingly reactionary and orientated towards restoring a traditional hierarchical society; Silberrad combines conservative values with Edwardian liberal attitudes and is very strongly in favour of women gaining financial independence through work. In many ways she appears to anticipate what Alison Light has described as the ‘conservative modernity’ of the interwar years.

<5> This aspect of Silberrad’s work is further highlighted in Christoph Singer’s essay on The Good Comrade (1907). Here, if the Edwardian plot mechanisms are not quite subverted in the playful manner Agatha Christie was to perfect in the 1920s (see Light 1991, 68), the formulaic spying and romance elements of the novel are still clearly little more than devices upon which to hang a more nuanced proto-feminist and, as Singer convincingly argues, utopian middlebrow vision. The Good Comrade exhibits a complex concentric spatial dynamics in which the centre, London, represents a crisis zone of uncertainty, which contrasts totally with the unbending moral certainty of the protestant Dutch town at the outer ring of the novel’s compass. The heroine, Julia, is therefore motivated by the need to find a space in between these two poles, which will offer a sufficient mixture of certainty and uncertainty to enable her to exert an agency beyond that which she can exert as the plain daughter of an impoverished middle-class family clinging to outdated values. This space, of course, turns out to be in the middle; but it is an elastic space encompassing both the rural cottage where Julia chooses to live, outside narrow middle-class respectability but maintaining her own integrity, and the very central location of the Temple Garden, where Julia exhibits a blue daffodil at the Chelsea Flower Show. In this elasticity, we can see how a middlebrow version of London anticipates our present-day understanding of it as encompassing anywhere within a day’s commute.

<6> Peter Preston’s ‘Past and Present in Ernest Raymond’s “London Gallery”’, the last essay in this collection, ends on a similar note with the idea, as a character in Raymond’s The City and the Dream (1958) remarks, that a cottage in the country beyond the pavement’s end is every Londoner’s dream. But, of course, this very dream of the cottage is, itself, part of a more elastic concept of London and perhaps its apparent universalisation by the late 1950s –- although the novel is actually set in the 1930s –- suggests that this middlebrow version of London has become so dominant that it no longer needs to continue to symbolically represent itself beyond this point. If this is the case, then The City and the Dream is a particularly appropriate novel to use to mark the end of this particular narrative arc because, as Preston describes, it recapitulates the changes in British publishing that occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, which were the context of Gissing’s New Grub Street. The novel’s lodging-house dwelling protagonist, known as Kerry, an aspiring writer influenced by Raymond’s own experiences, has to reinvent his style after a cumbersome failed first novel and produces a bestseller of ‘laughing realism’ which, as Preston argues, is actually more akin to ‘fairy tale’. The impetus within earlier middlebrow fiction to contest representations of London is now clearly in decline. However, the case for Raymond’s importance is made implicitly here by Preston’s account of reading him during his teenage years. As he argues from experience, Raymond should be of interest to studies of authorship and national reading habits. Moreover, the sentimentality, moral didacticism and conservative form of his work are offset by a similar social liberalism to that we have seen in some of the other writers analysed in this collection. 

<7> It is, therefore, difficult to doubt that middlebrow fiction, a much critically-derided literary form until very recently, played an important, even central, role in the political as well as the cultural development of Britain. A question for future work in the field would be to investigate to what extent a middlebrow literature of London was instrumental in spreading the more liberal and, at times, radical values of the capital city out into the more socially conservative reaches of the country as a whole? And, furthermore, was it effective in this role precisely because it adopted not just a more conservative form when judged against the conscious experimentalism of modernism, but also a more implicit, repetitive and indirect aesthetic of its own that was better able to penetrate a conservative culture? 


[1] Details of the Middlebrow Network can be found at: 


[3] Hubble, ‘Introduction’, Literary London, 7: 1, 2009, 3. 

Works Cited

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

Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, Oxford: OUP, 2000.


To Cite This Article:

Nick Hubble, ‘Introduction: Middlebrow London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 9 Number 1 (March 2011). Online at Accessed on [date of access].