Magazine article The Spectator

Majors and Minors in the Ivy League

Magazine article The Spectator

Majors and Minors in the Ivy League

Article excerpt

Majors and minors in the Ivy league Isabel Colegate THE FEMININE MIDDLEBROW NOVEL: 1920's TO 1950's: CLASS, DOMESTICITY AND BOHEMIANISM by Nicola Humble OUP L45, pp. 272, ISBN 0198186762

Nicola Humble read English at Cambridge in the 1980s, and found that she and her friends increasingly sought refuge from their academic studies in those feminine novels of a previous generation which their intellectual mentors disparaged as `middlebrow'. They thought of their pleasure in these books as self-indulgence, to be equated with the wearing of bright red lipstick, which despite their radical feminist attitudes they somehow gleefully approved of. Lumped together as part of a camp cult, the works of such diverse writers as Elizabeth Bowen and Agatha Christie, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Monica Dickens, Rosamund Lehmann, Margery Allingham, E. Arnot Robinson, Nancy Mitford and Barbara Comyns (Our Spoons Came from Woolworths) were all consumed guiltily like soft-centred chocolates. Only later did it come to seem that the word 'camp' did not cover the case, and this book is an attempt to reclaim these writers as worthy of serious consideration.

The author's concern is not so much with literary excellence as with what these novels reveal about the attitudes of the time to class, domesticity and the family. Novels have always been a rich source of social history. The class system loomed large in the period under survey. The extraordinary complexity of its categories, its deeply ingrained assumptions, its sometimes hilarious absurdity, provided novelists in the Jane Austen tradition with a rich and apparently inexhaustible subject. Women were expected to be particularly sensitive to class distinctions, being in control of entertaining in the home and therefore constantly on the look-out for interlopers - particularly those with designs on their daughters. Domesticity still set the boundaries of most women's lives. Rosamund Lehmann's Dusty Answer (1927) was a sensation not only because of the hint of lesbianism but because it was about girls as Cambridge undergraduates. The preoccupation in E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930) with the servant problem was more typical of her time. Nicola Humble discerns an increasing hostility in the attitude of employers towards the servants on whom they resented being dependent. …

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