The conference was a tremendous success, and was able to bring together researchers from many countries working in many European literary cultures. Further plans are being polished and discussed, but for now, this page will hold the abstracts from the papers presented, to give an idea of the range of topics, and also the emerging themes. These were didacticism, defining middlebrow, slipping periodicity across borders, and the effect of political and cultural restrictions on the development of a popular literature that entertained and taught, rather than challenged and obscured. Please contact the authors directly for more information about their papers. Abstracts will be added periodically.
Belle Époque France and the Birth of the Middlebrow
Diana Holmes, University of Leeds
Middlebrow in anglophone cultures is generally associated with the inter-war period, when the word was first coined. In France at least, it is my contention that middlebrow begins at the Belle Époque, around 1890-1914, when the material conditions of production converged with demand, from a newly dominant middle class, for a literature that could provide reading pleasure alongside the mapping of a rapidly changing social world. The sub-genres of the roman d’idées (novel of ideas) or roman de moeurs (novel of society) flourished, and corresponded precisely to what would later come to be named middlebrow: whilst the modernists rejected mimesis and recast literature as the creation of a subjective or transcendent reality, and the popular roman-feuilleton rollicked its way through the pages of the popular dailies, the middlebrow novel provided immersive, compelling plots and characterisation combined with the depiction of contemporary society and its tensions.
Most middlebrow authors were, unsurprisingly, male. The underlying ideology of their work was moderate, in tune with the hegemonic values of the Third Republic. But women formed a major part of the market for fiction, and publishers recognised the appeal of women writers. It is in the work of the small but significant minority of female novelists that the subversive and oppositional potential of middlebrow becomes apparent, for within the framework of the familiar, unthreatening roman de moeurs, they dramatised the contradiction between Republican values and the real inequality of women’s position; they explored the (fraught) relationship between romance and personal fulfilment, and created heroines who brought the ‘New Woman’ into respectable drawing rooms. Reviled as banal and outmoded by modernists, as sentimentally ‘feminine’ by traditional critics, these writers were hugely read by middle-class women. Focusing on the novels of Daniel Lesueur (Jeanne Loiseau), Marcelle Tinayre and Colette, this paper discusses definitions and functions of ‘middlebrow’ within this specific socio-historical moment.
Dutch Middlebrow Literature 1930-1940: Production, Distribution, Reception
1) Introduction: Is there a Dutch Middlebrow?
Erica van Boven, Universiteit Groningen, and Mathijs Sanders, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen
In this introduction, we focus on the connections and the differences of our project compared to Anglophone research. Among other things, we will discuss the idea of middlebrow as – in the words of Ann Ardis – a ‘distinctive in-between space’, that is: in between ‘high literature’ and ‘popular fiction’, an idea that seems to guide several Anglophone middlebrow studies. In our studying of Dutch literary networks and periodicals we found no clear boundaries between what we now refer to as a minority of ‘highbrow’ critics and the majority of critics who thought of themselves as representatives of a ‘middle sphere’. Rather than as a specific cultural space or field, we tend to see middlebrow as a variety of practices, aimed at guiding the increasing number of readers through the expanding and commercializing book market. Furthermore, we discuss the Anglophone practice of conceptualizing middlebrow as ‘modernism’s other’. We want to avoid reproducing modernist views and opinions and focus instead on the way middlebrow defines itself as a literary-social practice, based on a specific ethos and conducted by critics and other agents who felt a need to mediate between literature and readers to make ‘the popular respectable and the obscure accessible’ (Humble). Literary institutions and cultural mediation in the context of an expanding literary industry are at the very heart of our project. In a later stage, we plan to include middlebrow novels. The concept of ‘middlebrow’ (as well as its Dutch equivalent: ‘middelmaat’) comprises institutions, forms of mediation as well as the vast amount of popular novels of the time. We plan to study this whole range of middlebrow phenomena, including novels, in our project. Yet, in this conference we concern ourselves merely with criticism, mediation and socio-cultural institutions.
2) Cultural Mediation and the Lecture Circuit: P.H. Ritter Jr. and Dutch ‘University Extension’ Institutes
Alex Rutten, Open Universiteit Nederland
P H Ritter
In the late nineteenth century several Dutch entrepreneurs, inspired by the British University Extension Movement and institutions such as Toynbee Hall, started to experiment with higher education programs for the lower and middle classes. From 1913 onwards, these innovations led to the foundation of new institutions, the so-called ‘Volksuniversiteiten’ (‘People’s Universities’). According to S. R. Steinmetz, one of the ‘founding fathers’ of these universities, they tried to provide the middle, but especially the lower classes with courses that lie “in between a simple lecture and an academic lecture”. By doing so, they differentiated themselves from institutions that were primarily aimed at practical knowledge, such as ‘Ons Huis’ (the Dutch equivalent of Toynbee Hall), and from the curricula at regular universities. At the same time, the People’s Universities adopted the faculty system and therewith part of the allure of the regular universities.
The People’s Universities tried to provide a healthy alternative to the ‘cheap’ amusement of other media and institutions, such as the cinemas, popular magazines and pulp fiction. Cultural enlightenment was one of their central goals and multiple courses on art, music and literature were part of their curricula from the very start. These cultural courses proved to be most popular among the (mostly female) public, which comprised mostly members from the upcoming middle classes. Via the well visited courses on literature, the People’s Universities played an important role in the dissemination and mediation of both high and popular literature in the Netherlands. The audiences could learn to enjoy literature through the skillful aid of travelling teachers with literary experience, such as the popular speaker, journalist and critic P.H. Ritter Jr. In addition to that, the courses on literature also functioned as a stage for contemporary writers, such as the bestseller authors Jo van Ammers-Küller, A.M. de Jong and Ina Boudier-Bakker.
3) In the middle of middlebrow? The critical program of Gerard van Eckeren
Ryanne Keltjens, Universiteit Groningen
Gerard Van Eckeren
As a book seller, publisher, author and a literary critic for several popular magazines, Gerard van Eckeren (1876-1951) put his professional career in the service of his readers, keeping his own preferences and personality largely at the background. His modest attitude may have contributed to the fact that this well-known actor in the Dutch literary field of the early twentieth century nowadays has almost completely fallen into oblivion. Van Eckeren’s critical program took its underlying aims from the perspective of middlebrow criticism. The term middlebrow criticism is used here to indicate forms of public-oriented criticism that saw education and culture mediation as their main responsibilities.
For Van Eckeren, cultural guidance was an important function of his critical work, which he characterized himself as informing and reader-oriented. His starting point was an idealistic aim: it was his goal to bring literature and the reading public closer together. Reading would stimulate the mental development of the individual and society as a whole. Commercial objectives also played a role. Van Eckeren’s criticism was supposed to serve both the intellectual development of readers, and the flourishing of the book market. Van Eckeren believed that publishers, book traders and authors deserved to profit economically from cultural elevation. From that perspective, readers were approached like consumers. They were exposed to as many books as possible, and stimulated to buy books. This combination of educational goals and commercialism can probably be considered typical for middlebrow criticism.
With his critical program, Van Eckeren deliberately distinguished his work from more elitist forms of literary criticism, as performed by younger modernist critics like Menno ter Braak and E. du Perron. Van Eckeren made a distinction between his own objective reader-oriented criticism and subjective “critic-oriented” criticism, from which the reader would in the first place get to know more about the person of the critic. Although he considered both kinds legitimate, Van Eckeren noticed that the two kinds of criticism were practiced by different groups of people. With his reader-oriented approach, Van Eckeren joined the criticis of his own, older generation. However, I argue that the choice for an objective form of criticism for Van Eckeren was not so much a question of generation or position-taking in the literary field, but that it was rooted in his idealistic and commercial aims.
4) Herman Robbers: a cultural entrepreneur
Meriel Benjamins, Universiteit Groningen
During the interwar years, the Dutch book market grew as production techniques advanced and new sections of the population became interested in reading. Cultural entrepreneurs used the opportunities to make money with literature, conceptualizing it as a marketable commodity. Probably one of the most well-known and visible figures amongst them was Herman Robbers (1868-1937). Robbers occupied a central position in the literary field because he was involved in different branches of literary business. After making his name as a novelist, he worked as a critic, editor and essayist. He was the director of the publishing house owned by his family for a few years and a key figure in different literary and cultural associations. All these activities can be understood as an attempt to mediate between a mass-audience and the literary sphere.
Robbers started writing book reviews for the illustrated monthly Elsevier’s Geïllustreerd Maandschrift (EGM) in 1915 and at the same time he became the general editor of the magazine. EGM deliberately stayed out of the polemic critical debates, as its credo was that being a stage for critical controversy would not be in the interest of the readers. Robbers work as a critic had a similar starting point. He tried to write objective book reviews, employed a conversational, friendly tone and figures of speech to achieve what to him was the most important aim of criticism: the development of public taste. In the late 1920s and early 1930s when Robbers had to bear the brunt of the attacks of a group of younger critics, his critical practice changed somewhat. Although Robbers never became pro-active in attacking these younger critics, he started using his book reviews to react to their allegations.
In the British context, critics like Arnold Bennett, Wilfred Whitten and John Priestly held objectives similar to those Robbers strived for. They, much like Robbers, aspired to be taste makers as they sensed a need for cultural guidance. Yet they usually maintained a greater distance from their readership in their book reviews and essays. Part of this can be explained by the fact that some of the mentioned British critics were aspiring to earn a place in the realm of high culture, while Robbers seemed to be comfortable with his position as a middlebrow critic. Another explanation is that because the Dutch literary field was considerably smaller, the battle of the brows was not fought as fiercely as in the British literature and a critic like Robbers could permit himself to be closer to his reader.
The work of this middlebrow research project can be seen here.
Middlebrow Culture in Spain: The Case of Cinema
Sally Faulkner, University of Exeter [s dot faulkner at exeter dot ac dot uk]
This paper takes Spanish cinema as a case study to question the translatability of the term ‘middlebrow’, rooted as it is in the Anglophone context of the 1920s-30s. While the beginnings of a middlebrow culture may be discerned in Spain in the 1920s, for example in literary adaptations in silent film, like José Buchs’s adaptation of key realist novelist Benito Pérez Galdós in 1924 (The Grandfather / El abuelo), the paper argues that the term becomes fully meaningful in the 1970s. The Franco dictatorship replaced its isolationist economic policies of the 1940s with an opening up of markets over the 1950s, which led to soaring living standards and educational levels in the 1960s and the birth of a new and dominant middle class. In 1970s cinema we find films that both depict this new middle class, and were aimed at them as audiences: a middlebrow cinema. José Luis Garci’s Unfinished Business (Asignatura pendiente Garci 1977), for example, features middle-class characters and displays key characteristics of the middlebrow in film: serious or didactic content (here the exploration of Spain’s political Transition through a love affair); references to high culture that allowed audiences to acquire Bourdieu’s ‘cultural capital’ (for example inclusion of Modernist art and poetry, like images by Pablo Picasso, and lines from Pablo Neruda); high levels of accessibility for audiences via the use of well-known film genres (here North-American-influenced comedy); and high production values (like the casting of admired actors Fiorella Faltoyano and José Sacristán).
The emblematic film of the Spanish Transition, Unfinished Business, also demonstrates the productivity of the term ‘middlebrow’ beyond the Anglophone context to Film Studies more widely. Further, the middlebrow culture that followed the recent rise of Spain’s middle class offers a model for thinking through cultures of developing nations beyond Europe, for example in Latin-American and Chinese examples.
For further details of the transnational project that Sally Faulkner leads on middlebrow cinema, see this link to the University of Exeter’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Film Research.
Middlebrow In the Italian Cultural and Literary Context : the Novels Of Pitigrilli
Sarah Bonciarelli, KU Leuven, Universiteit Gent [sarah dot bonciarelli at ugent dot be]
The aim of the paper is to discuss the concept of “middlebrow” and its function in the Italian cultural and literary context and to analyze a specific case study: the novels of Pitigrilli (pseudonym of Dino Segre, 1893-1975). The paper moves from the theoretical Anglo-American conception of the middlebrow, tothe Italian literary debate,discussing (a) whether a category of ‘middlebrow’ literature can be found there and (b) if and how the term has been theorized in the national criticism.
The novels written by Pitigrilli between the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, such as L’esperimento di Pott(1929)and I vegetarianidell’amore (1931), combine relatively plain language and entertaining narrative plots with experimental stylistic techniques used as well by highbrow authors like Palazzeschi and Campanile.
Examples of similar techniques in Pitigrilli’s novels are the use of newspaper headlines, advertizing slogans, and typically cinematographic narrative techniques, such as shots, a fragmented syntax organized in short descriptions, a visual organization of the text, as well as simultaneous and non-linear actions. With this striking combination of readability on the one hand and stylistic or narrative devices echoing highbrow cultural and literary repertoires on the other, Pitigrilli’s novels to a certain extent aresymptomatic of the position of the Italian novel in the interwar period, caught between the perception (or prejudice) of being an unsophisticated genre oriented towards a wider audience and the presence of (or search for) at least some degree of literary quality.
A trashy novel with some depth: Vicky Baum, the New Realism, and the Middlebrow
Juliane Roemhild, University of Melbourne [J dot Roemhild at latrobe dot edu dot au]
Juliane sent her presentation by YouTube link, which you can see here.
Baroness Orczy’s Le Mouron Rouge and the Nelson Collection: Selling Gallophobic fiction to the French
Sally Dugan, Institute of English Studies, University of London [sally dot dugan at gmail dot com]
Baroness Orczy’s jingoistic Scarlet Pimpernel series celebrates the chivalry and ingenuity of a band of English aristocrats who perform dramatic rescues in the French Revolution. It demonises the French sansculottes and valorises the British upper class crusader. The successful marketing of such conservative Gallophobic fiction in France is a testament to the canny foresight of the Scots publishing house, Nelson, and to the mythical power of Orczy’s superhero.
However, the story of the Scarlet Pimpernel’s adaptation in all media for a French audience – a process which created a swashbuckling image far removed from Orczy’s patriotic, mild-mannered English gentleman – helps to reconstruct an important European dimension in a process that is widely assumed to be Americanisation.
The Scarlet Pimpernel first appeared on the London stage in 1905, the Figaro reviewer dismissing it as a vehicle for the husband-and-wife acting team, Julia Neilson and Fred Terry. Coquelicot, an adaptation by the fencing and self-defence expert Jean-Joseph Renaud, opened with different actors at the Ambigu in Paris on 23 April 1912. Orczy – who had authorised the adaptation – was horrified at its ‘bourgeois’ touches. Renaud’s interest in fighting – coupled, perhaps, with a sense of his audience – led him to emphasise the man of action rather than the lofty aristocrat living on his wits. This paved the way for film portrayals of the swashbuckling Pimpernel.
As a novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel’s conservative slant on French history gained respectability with a shortened schools edition in French (Le Mouron Rouge, John Murray,1911); its listing in the Nelson Collection – published ‘under the direction’ of Charles Sarolea, Professor of French at the University of Edinburgh – ranked it with the classics. At the heart of my paper is a detailed study of cuts made in the Mouron Rouge series (Nelson, 1913–1955) to avoid offending French sensibilities and to keep the reputation for wholesomeness that enabled the French Catholic Romans-revue to recommend it as suitable reading for young people. Using the Nelson Archive at Edinburgh, and French periodicals, I chart the novels’ reception and highlight the marketing practices that enabled Nelson to sell not only English novels in translation, but also French novels to the French. My paper ends with Jean-Claude Lavocat’s Le Retour du Mouron Rouge (1951) – a last-gasp attempt to recapture the early glamour of Orczy’s hero. Written in French, it was never translated into English. The patriotic Pimpernel had had his day.