The Ultimate Middlebrow List

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I love a list & this is the ultimate list for lovers of middlebrow fiction. Scott has compiled his list of the Top 100 middlebrow novels at his blog, Furrowed Middlebrow. He’s been unveiling the list gradually over the past few weeks but has now given list nerds everywhere the entire list here, organised by ranking & by publication year. What more could we want? Of course, the first thing I did was count how many of the 100 I’d read. I’ve read 55 of the 100 & 19 of the Top 20. You can see my Top 20 collection above (with multiple copies of particular favourites). I don’t own a copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day. The book I haven’t read is Miss Mole by E H Young but it’s ready & waiting on my Kindle.

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I have 21 books on the tbr. Here are the physical books & the rest are on the Kindle. So, that leaves me 29 books to track down… Hopefully some of them will eventually become part of the Furrowed Middlebrow list that Scott is publishing with Dean Street Press. Isn’t it wonderful that so many of these books are back in print thanks to Scott & the champions of the middlebrow novel, Persephone Books & Virago Modern Classics.

Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck

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There are some few men who possess undoubtedly an aura of evil, visible even to those who profess no psychic powers, and Thomas Ulder was one of them. His personal appearance had not been attractive in old days but five years of sloth and self-indulgence had revealed the ugly contours of his narrow brow and heavy chin till they resembled a pear in shape; his figure had widened on the same lines; his intemperate life had resulted in watery eyes and a twitching face. … it was only when he focused those eyes on you, with the secretive stare of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats, that the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots; and felt, in Bunyan’s phrase, threatened by an evil, a very evil thing.

The Bishop of Evelake, Dr Broome, is preparing to host a party of young men about to be ordained in his Cathedral. His wife & daughter, Sue, are doing their best to get the draughty, inconvenient Palace ready with the help of the Bishop’s Chaplain, Robert Borderer, known as Bobs. The Bishop will be assisted by Canon Wye & the Chancellor of the diocese who are also staying at the Palace. One of the ordinands, Dick Marlin, is an old friend of the family. Dick served in Military Intelligence during the War & has returned to the Church looking for a life of service. As well as trusted family servants, Mrs Broome is trying to cope with a seriously ill housekeeper & Soames, a very unsatisfactory butler, employed only because so few servants are prepared to live so far from the life & bustle of the town.

The Rev Thomas Ulder is a thorn in the side of the Bishop. A truly wicked man, he has been sidelined by the Church in the past to avoid scandal. When he writes to the Bishop announcing his imminent arrival, Dr Broome is horrified. When the Bishop’s daughter, Judith, spoilt, beautiful & reckless, arrives with a story of being blackmailed by Ulder over a love affair that threatens her divorce, the Bishop despairs. Ulder is an accomplished blackmailer & he has timed his visit to cause the maximum distress to several of the Bishop’s guests as well as his family. When Udall arrives, obviously intoxicated, & then collapses, Mrs Broome puts him to bed & summons the doctor, already in the house to care for the terminally ill housekeeper. Doctor Lee diagnoses acute heart trouble & gives strict instructions that no stimulants & no more morphia are to be given to the patient. Next morning, Ulder is dead, poisoned with an overdose of morphia, a glass of whiskey by his bed.

Arrest the Bishop? is a thoroughly entertaining mystery in the Golden Age tradition. The setting – a Bishop’s Palace in the depths of winter, just before Christmas, in fact – is perfect. I could feel the draughts & the ill-fitting windows & doors with the fires not lit until teatime. Although the book was published in 1949, it’s set in 1920 & has that post-WWI feeling of melancholy & austerity. There are several scenes that combine embarrassment, humour & the awfulness of the food of the period as well as the custom of reading something improving like Pilgrim’s Progress at meals. If nothing else, the reading forestalls awkward conversation. Judith has just asked the local policeman, Tonks, if he’s found another corpse,

With that, Judith flashed into the dining-room, cast her lovely smile on the company, made a face at the pudding, and declined fish. It was left to Bobs to read on while the company watched Mack leave the room to interview Tonks, and return to summon the Chancellor away with him, with a wholly ominous expression. “Moreover, my brother, thou talkest of ease in the grave, but hast thou forgotten the Hell whither murderers go,” concluded Bobs, as the dreadful meal ended at last.

There are more suspects than you can poke a stick at. Ulder had so many visitors in the hours before his death that it’s a wonder they weren’t tripping over each other in the corridors. Ulder is such a repulsive character that we feel no sorrow at his demise. The servants are either pillars of rectitude or decidedly dodgy like Soames. The Chief Constable, Mack, is a Scotsman with a prejudice against the Anglican Church. In a typically country way, the local police are all connected through marriage with the servants at the Palace & gossip spreads quickly. Mack does take Dick Marlin into his confidence & Dick is a shrewd investigator, suspecting Soames from the beginning & equally desperate not to suspect the Bishop who doesn’t help by behaving very suspiciously. There are so many satisfactory motives & so many suspicious goings-on that I found the novel a joy to read.

Dean Street Press have reissued Winifred Peck’s mystery novels as a complement to the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of Bewildering Cares, which I enjoyed so much a few months ago. Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction to the novels. I very much enjoyed Winifred Peck’s novel, House-Bound, reissued by Persephone & I would love to read more of her work. I’ll be picking up her other mystery, The Warrielaw Jewel, very soon.

Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck

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Camilla Lacely & her husband Arthur, an Anglican vicar live in Stampfield, near Manchester, a manufacturing town with an inconveniently large vicarage & a Victorian Gothic church. Bewildering Cares is the diary of a week in Camilla’s life in the first months of WWII & encapsulates the drudgery, troubles & sometimes unconscious humour of her role as a clergy wife.

The war is already impinging on Camilla’s life as her son, Dick, is training with his regiment & seems to be taking a romantic interest in Ida Weekes, daughter of her husband’s Church Warden. Mrs Weekes is one of those irritating women who loftily tells Camilla that her life would run more smoothly if only she had more Method. Dick’s happy-go-lucky, irreverent outlook on life often pops into Camilla’s mind at the most inopportune moments. The major drama of the week is caused by Arthur’s curate, Mr Strang, who gives a pacifist sermon (which Camilla unfortunately sleeps through), outraging the entire parish. Mr Strang is a highly-principled but,¬†unfortunately, not very sympathetic man who rubs everyone up the wrong way. Arthur is put in the impossible position of having to support a colleague while also being expected to denounce him from the pulpit. Only a life-threatening illness seems likely to resolve the situation.

Camilla has domestic as well as parish problems. Her maid, Kate, is an uninspired cook who takes advantage of her boyfriend’s imminent departure to France to pop out & see him as often as she can get away with as well as inviting him in to share the Lacely’s frugal meals. Camilla knows she’s lucky to have domestic help at all & accommodates Kate in the hope of keeping her. She knows that she would be unable to carry out all the unpaid parish work she’s just expected to do without domestic help & there’s certainly enough of that, mostly endless committee meetings with the same group of elderly women now that all the younger people have joined the war effort. Camilla, as the vicar’s wife, is often called on to adjudicate in disputes among the members of rival sewing parties,

An earth-shaking schism seemed imminent, and was only prevented by the decision to adopt my casual suggestion of holding two parties weekly, Comforts for Converts on Monday, and Warmth for Warriors on Thursday. There are not really enough members to make this worth while, especially as since our unhappy division no Monday worker will knit on Thursday, and no Thursday knitter will button-hole pyjamas on Monday.

Shopping for a hat is difficult when Camilla feels she should not be seen to be extravagant but knows her old hat is about to fall to pieces. Then, amongst all the trivialities, the constant phone calls & visitors dropping in for help, Camilla feels really useful, as when she’s able to help Mrs Strang in her husband’s illness or comforts an old friend on her deathbed. However, the underlying humour & exasperation is never far away. Maybe the greatest trial of Camilla’s week is the Quiet Day, a retreat for clergy wives led by a celibate priest who no doubt finds it easy to empty his mind of trivialities & concentrate on God.

Again I pulled myself up and tried to meditate, but by this time the text on which we were to concentrate had wholly eluded me, and by fumbling in a prayer-book I only hit on the Psalm which, as a clerical correspondent to The Times so wittily pointed out, would just coincide with meat-rationing: “They run hither and thither for meat and are not satisfied.” No other woman present, I am quite sure, could have sunk to such a low level of inward debate between the respective merits of point steak and neck of mutton for a household of three, when we all rose and trooped back to the drawing-room.

I loved the humour of Camilla’s efforts to keep everyone as happy as possible, especially as she fails as often as she succeeds. One of her easier tasks is making sure Arthur eats enough as he worries about the “luxury” of their frugal meals.Only by keeping him talking about some knotty parish problem or by reading at meals will Arthur become so absorbed that he forgets his scruples.

Arthur came in looking so exhausted that I went to the book-shelf and took out Mr Mulliner Speaks. I propped this against the water-jug for him, and Wild Strawberries by Angela Thirkell, which I have read thirty times already and will probably read thirty more, against the loaf for myself. There is nothing so good for worried people as to read at their meals, and funny books if possible; for laughter grows so rusty in war time.

Any writer who references Wodehouse & Thirkell as well as E M Delafield, Winifred Holtby & Dorothy Whipple, is going to be sympathetic to a lover of the middlebrow & is obviously why Winifred Peck is such a perfect choice for the new Furrowed Middlebrow imprint from Dean Street Press. Camilla is a kind woman, as sympathetic to the thought of a budding romance in the parish as she is alarmed by the very real prospect of Dick being posted overseas. Her irritation over the constant interruptions, Kate’s fecklessness & the petty squabbles of the various parish factions never overwhelm her knowledge that the work she & Arthur are doing is valuable. Above all, she & Arthur maintain their sense of humour through it all which makes Bewildering Cares a delight to read. Winifred Peck grew up in a clerical household & knew the life intimately. She brings all her knowledge & understanding to this charming story of the early days of WWII.