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.

Mirabile Does Middlebrow: Snobbery, Linda Grant’s Blind Trust, & Violet Trefusis’s Hunt the Slipper

Mirabile Does Middlebrow.

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?”

Being schoolmarmish under fluorescent lights.

Schoolmarming under fluorescent lights.

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.

Blind Trust by Linda Grant1.  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.”

Hunt the slipper by Violet Trefusis2.  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.