What I Mean by Middlebrow & Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass

"I'd rather be reading middlebrow!"

“I’d rather be reading middlebrow!”

I wrote my first “Mirabile Does Middlebrow” column on Jan. 24, 2013.  It consisted of  five short pieces on books by Emma Tennant, Hilma Wolitzer, Angela Huth, Sherry Jones, and Jo-Ann Mapson.

I use the term affectionately.  It’s all in good fun.  But a friend recently objected to my use of the word, saying it devalued the books I recommended.

I am not a critic.  Unlike Virginia Woolf, I do not use “middlebrow” as a derogatory term.

I love language, have a quirky sense of humor, and enjoy the bubbly sound of the word. I often use “middlebrow” to describe well-plotted, traditional novels, or light, charming books that do not quite meet the criteria for classics. We could argue for hours about what is a classic, but the bottom line is that much popular fiction is well worth reading.

It can also give you a sense of the times we live in.

The House of Velvet and Glass by Katherine HoweOne of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this summer is Katherine Howe’s engrossing second novel, The House of Velvet and Glass. Not widely reviewed when it was published in 2011 but marketed wisely online, it is loved by almost exclusively female readers at Goodreads who say they stayed up all night to read it.

I confess I had a similar reaction.

If you’re interested in the Titanic, spiritualism, or opium dens at the turn of the last century, this well-researched historical novel is for you.  Set in Boston in 1915, it centers on the brilliant, witty Sybil Allston, the spinster daughter who holds her father’s household together after her mother and younger sister, Eula, die on the Titanic.  She turns to spiritualism to contact them, but when the medium  gives her a scrying glass (a tiny crystal ball) to use on her own, she doesn’t expect anything to happen.  As the cracks in her life widen–her younger brother, Harley, gets kicked out of Harvard and is beaten up by thugs, and his disreputable bohemian girlfriend, Dovie, moves in with them on Beacon Street–Sibyl visits an opium den with Dovie.  Under the influence of the drug, she sees scenes of the Titanic in the scrying glass.

It soon becomes obvious that her visions are real.   Her old boyfriend, Benton Derby, a psychologist who studied with William James, has recently been widowed and returned to Boston to teach at Harvard.  Ben can’t decide whether to forbid her to take drugs or experiment on her.

Thinking back on the past, Sibyl remembers her guilty fury when her mother decided to take Eula on a trip to Europe and leave Sybil behind to take care of her father.  At first Eula pretended she wanted to stay home with Sybil.    Sybil observes, with humor,

It was the duty of Boston spinsters to encourage and reassure marriageable young women, and Sibyl slipped into that performance with worrisome ease.  ‘You mustn’t talk that way.  You know mother dotes on you…. Just think of all you’ll see.  The pictures.  A real opera.  The cafes, full of artists and writers and singers.  I’d love to visit a Parisian cafe, you know.  You’ll order your clothes, and if I’m very lucky you’ll lend me a few of them when you get back, provided I haven’t gotten too fat pining for your return, of course.  You’ll meet all sorts of interesting people.’

Sibyl isn’t the only one in the family with psychic powers.  Parts of the narrative follow her father as a seafaring teenage boy in Shanghai, where he sees the future on the drug opium.

And parts of the narrative, set in 1912, describe Eula and Helen’s joyful experiences on the Titanic.  Eula has met the man she plans to marry, and Helen is thrilled by the match.

Great fun to read, and Howe is a smart writer:  at the end, however, the novel definitely turns from literary to pop by a decision Howe makes to focus on all the good things in the lives of the troubled Allston family.   The ending doesn’t spoil the book; it just changes it.  Another turn, and the novel would have been marketed differently, as literary fiction.

Howe, a historian who teaches at Cornell, is also the author of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, a novel set in Salem about a historian studying witches.

2 thoughts on “What I Mean by Middlebrow & Katherine Howe’s The House of Velvet and Glass

  1. Yes I agree. I wonder how much an editor-friend counselled Howe to end her book lightly. I did like Wendy Wax’s While we were reading Downton Abbey — she too has a big readership and is not recognized by mainstream publications that are honorific. I like the cover.

  2. Yes, I’m sure there is a “collaboration” between editor and writer. She is a very good writer and I loved this book, and It is much more complex than her first, but the ending… I don’t want to give it away, but it’s a little too too…

    I haven’t heard of Wendy Wax, but with a title like While We Were Watching Downton Abbey, it would certainly have many readers!

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