In January I said “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” would become a regular feature.
You may wonder, Where did it go?
I was waiting for recommendations.
When the women in my family get together, we often chat about light books: cat mysteries, Cyril Hare’s Golden Age Detective Fiction, Ruth Suckow’s Iowa novels, and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time.
My intellectual aunt, the only one with a Ph.D., used to pretend she didn’t read classics, and I took my cue from her. In my teens she gave me Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, and George MacDonald’s Lilith, but she pointed out they were “minor” classics, so I could mention them without sounding snobbish.
This great tactician explained that middlebrow books are of universal interest. If you haven’t read E. L. James (don’t!) or Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (do!), look interested and say you intend to. I can truthfully say that I’ve read and love Maeve Binchy.
I took a lot of crap from my skewed mixed-class family when I went to grad school to study classics, and even more when, during periods of poverty, I taught Latin to eke out my wages.
Gran: “I thought it was dead. Where does she get this from?”
Parent bellowing: “Did Miss ___ (from the one-room schoolhouse) teach us Latin?”
Aunt: “She may have.”
As you can see from this picture of me in action during an Ovid class, I didn’t care if my students put their feet up so long as they read their Latin. Are classics teachers snobs? I hardly do think so.
So here it is March, and it’s time for me to get away from Dickens, Balzac, and Virgil and “do” middlebrow.
Here’s what I’ve been reading.
1. Linda Grant’s Blind Trust. Published in 1990, this wonderful page-turner of a mystery, set in San Francisco, is the second of a series about witty, down-to-earth private investigator, Catherine Saylor. When Catherine accepts a risky assignment to track down a bank employee on the lam, she knows the odds are against her finding him quickly. Daniel Martin, a vice president of First Central Bank, believes Jim Mendoza intends to exploit a computer flaw and steal five million dollars in the next 14 days. Since Catherine’s company’s cash flow is down, she negotiates a deal that will be win-win if she can maintain secrecy; she sets her employees doing background checks, interviewing people, and working undercover at the bank. She finds a web of racial prejudice, Viet Nam war secrets, and loyalty among Mendoza’s family and friends. And the more she learns, the more dangerous it gets.
The narrator’s voice is charming and funny, the other characters are vivid, and this should appeal to fans of Sue Grafton, Sara Paretsky, Linda Barnes, or Julie Smith.
The opening lines:
“Makeup can do a lot for a woman, but it cannot cover a black eye. Thirty minutes of concentrated effort and a small fortune in cosmetics and I still looked like I’d gotten my eye shadow on upside down.”
2. Violet Trefusis’s Hunt the Slipper. Violet Trefusis is best known for having been Vita Sackville-West’s lover: she was also a character in Sackville-West’s novel, Challenge, and in Virginia Woolf’s Oralndo. Trefusis was a novelist, and Hunt the Slipper, a romantic comedy with a twist, is charming, if not particularly well-written. It is the story of the ups and downs of a middle-aged man’s affair with a twentyish woman, and his knowledge that it can’t last.
Forty-nine-year-old Nigel Benson lives with his sister, Molly, at Ambush, the perfect, beautifully-furnished house. Although he is more interested in art, houses, and decoration than relationships, no, Nigel isn’t gay. He occasionally has affairs with women.
When Molly persuades him to go with her to visit Sir Anthony Crome to see his new painting, she makes him promise to be nice to Sir Anthony’s new wife, Caroline.
He says of Caroline’s family:
You can’t imagine what they’ve done to their Elizabethan home. I once lunched there years ago; it looked as if Christabel Pankhurst and d’Annunzio had set up house together. Tea-cups and tracts battled for supremacy with peacocks’ feathers and leopard-skins. It was so alarming that I fled.”
Did that sound a bit Oscar Wildeian?Nigel doesn’t sound quite like a heterosexual male, and indeed John Phillips says in the foreword of the Virago edition that the character of Nigel is based on Violet and the house Ambush on her house. The information about Trefusis’s life certainly helped make the character seem more believable. I assume it was almost impossible in 1937 for her to write and publish a lesbian novel.
Caroline is rude to Nigel when they first meet, but later they meet in Paris and she is like a different person. She has fallen in love with a South American dandy, and her husband is oblivious. After Anthony returns to England alone, her new boyfriend drops her, and she suffers from depression and a cold. Nigel comforts her, and he falls desperately in love with her, but tries to hide it.
Their affair is funny and sweet, but when Caroline wants to run away with Nigel, he is shocked. He doesn’t want to hurt her husband in any way, but unconventional Caroline is adamant. Nigel points out that Anthony has allowed their friendship.
“But don’t you see that’s why we must run away?… Don’t you see that his being consciously or unconsciously so complaisant is making things too easy for us? It’s taking the wind out of our sails. Don’t you see that we are all muffled up in Anthony’s kindness…?”
I very much enjoyed this book, and it is blessedly short.
I’m not sure Trefusis would be considered middle-brow. She’s too original maybe …
I didn’t realise that Trefusis was still available and will certainly now look her out. And as for Grant, if she is similar to Paretsky then I shall definitely want her work. It always intrigues me why there are so few PI novels set in the UK because we certainly read those that come over to us from the States. Perhaps it is a more well known occupation there.
Is Margaret Drabble middlebrow? How about John Marquand? They are two of my guilty pleasures along with Sue Grafton, Sarah Paretsky and Laura Lippman, all of whom give us smart and energetic female detectives.
What? No “Great Post?” Tsk, tsk, gals! 🙂
Ellen, I’ll happily send you my copy of Trefusis if you’d like it. For me it’s definitely a one-time-and-you’re-done book.
Sliver Season: Truthfully, Linda Grant is a much better writer than Trefusis, and this might be a classic mystery. I’m keeping my genres separate, though. Otherwise I’ll go crazy!
Alex, Grant is different from Paretsky, but very, very good.
Perhaps a good example of Middlebrow now is “Gone, Girl” by Gillian Flynn. It started out as definitely Middlebrow, but with its incredible sales, now even Highbrows are giving it attention. I haven’t read it.
It’s HARD to define middlebrow. I read lots of very good middlebrow books: I consider them well-written books that fall short of classics. And since online is surely a sanctuary for middlebrow readers, one hesitates to say too much about it. I like middlebrow books and don’t consider it a disaparaging word.
For instance, I think:
With Virago, Molly Keane’s books are classics, Violet Trefusis and E. H. Young are middlebrow.
With Penguin Modern Classics, Margaret Drabble’s books are classics, Norman Collins’ are middlebrow.
I haven’t read Gillian Flynn, but I’m sure you’re right about it!
Yes, difficult to define middlebrow. Nancy Mitford? P G Wodehouse? Daphne Du Maurier? Actually, I’m quite partial to superior chicklit, too!
Yes, these are middlebrow classics! Or classic middlebrows! I don’t who who fits what.
Thanks for the tip on Linda Grant. I am not familiar with her, but her mysteries sound to be right up my (dark) alley! And I see that my library has many on hand.
Visit the official website: http://www.violettrefusis.com