The authenticity of the middlebrow : Warwick Deeping and cultural legitimacy, 1903-1940
My project has been to examine how the hierarchical structures of taste implied by the term 'middlebrow' were negotiated by the bestselling novelist, Warwick Deeping, 1877-1950. Deeping is my focus for three reasons: he was immensely popular; his popularity was perceived by such critics as Q. D. Leavis as a threat to the 'sensitive minority'; he was prolific. His 68 novels from 1903-1950 thus give the cultural historian the unusual opportunity of tracing the development of an author's attempts to protect both himself and his readers from a process of cultural devaluation. After 1925, the best-selling Sorrell and Son and its immediate successors established 'a' Deeping as a product about which both admirers and detractors had certain expectations. Deeping's response to these expectations provide an exemplary site within which to examine how certain cultural distinctions were being negotiated and contested in England between the wars. My introduction traces the genealogy of my theoretical approach. The theories of Pierre Bourdieu have informed my understanding of the ways in which any expression of taste reflects the class positioning of the consumer. However these theories are concerned chiefly with patterns of consumption. They do not account adequately for the generation of texts in response to perceived cultural hierarchies. Deeping's texts are increasingly explicit in the ways they dramatise their own questionable cultural status. I use this self-consciousness to test the limits of the usefulness of available theories of cultural production. My first chapter historicises the emergence of the term 'middlebrow', using the contrast between its use on either side of the Atlantic to demonstrate the necessity of placing its use in a particular class and cultural context. My second chapter, therefore, is a short account of Deeping's own class positioning, focusing on the way in which his biographical constructions marketed the writer of popular fiction. My third chapter examines how his first twenty novels dramatise the kind of fiction that Deeping thought himself to be writing before the term 'middlebrow' had currency. My fourth chapter examines the group of novels, preceding Sorrell and Son, in which the writer is depicted as feminised and declassified. My fifth chapter concerns the nature of the extraordinary success of Sorrell and Son and what this implies about the gendered cultural and class positions both of Deeping and his loyal readers. My final chapter deals with the animosity to which Sorrell's success exposed the culturally beleaguered Deeping and with how consciousness of this animosity shaped his later novels. My thesis seeks to demonstrate that the way cultural hierarchies are established shapes the nature of the products generated. Although commentators on mass culture have stressed the homogenous identity of popular texts, the mechanical nature of their production and the passivity of their consumers, Deeping's novels imply readers aware of and resistant to such characterisations. Q. D. Leavis identified this resistance, but she and other self-appointed members of the cultural elite, failed to recognise that the 'game' of drawing cultural distinctions blunted the exercise of the very quality on which the self-appointed umpires based their claim to cultural superiority: moral intelligence and discrimination. In a similar way commentators on the left, anxious to assert their affiliations with the working class, were only able to register the petit-bourgeois 'image' of Deeping's work from which they wished to distance themselves. They therefore failed to perceive that it is, amongst many other things, about class images. The project aims to encourage a greater attention to the particularity of cultural commodities consumed by the lower middle classes in the 1920s and 1930s.