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British Women Novelists, 1910s-1960s:
The 'middle-brows'

'...that generation of women in literature who had earned for themselves the term woman novelist, or simply novelist, as distinct from "lady-novelist" or "authoress".... They were modern in the 1920s and 1930s, very much belonging to the literary world of Maugham, Walpole, Wells and Bennett.... they were not a "school" in any sense and had no more in common than a belief in the novel.' Rupert Croft-Cooke, The Sound of Revelry (1969)

This page is not an exhaustive selection but contains information about some women writers of this period/classification who I find readable and/or interesting, but who are on the whole rather neglected in literary studies. I can find out very little about a few of the names listed here and would be extremely grateful for any additional details: please email me if you have anything to add.

Criteria for selection. These were all women writing in the first half of the twentieth century, who first published a novel before the Second World War. There are doubtless a number of other interesting women I could include: either I haven't read them (e.g. Noel Streatfield could probably go in here but her pre-war adult novels are fairly hard to come by), or don't much care for the individual writer. They were not necessarily feminist (although I did first discover several of them, marked *, through essays in "Man, Proud Man: A Commentary" edited by Mabel Ulrich,1932) but they do deal with the problems of being a woman in the society of their day, which is why I haven't included one or two writers who were dealing in the eternal verities of rural life (e.g. Mary Webb, Sheila Kaye-Smith, though having now (2008) read some Kaye-Smith I think this characterisation may be a little unfair, as she did deal with the effects of economic and social change on rural populations: Constance Holme is in because she definitely dealt with rural society undergoing processes of change, especially in the expectations of women).

I'm still hovering over whether to include writers such as Margery Sharp and Elizabeth Goudge: the Margery Sharp website at one point invokes the concept of 'gentle fiction' as a subcategory, which seems to me distinct from the middlebrow fiction listed here: or perhaps not. O Douglas possibly really belongs in this company.

Nicola Beauman, A Very Great Profession: The Woman's Novel 1914-1939 (Virago, 1983) and Nicola Humble, The Feminine Middlebrow Novel 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity and Bohemianism (Oxford University Press, 2001) have some discussion of some of the names who fit within this group and provide some suggestions for further reading. Some of them, most notably Rebecca West and G B Stern are discussed by Bonnie Kime Scott in Refiguring Modernism: The Women of 1928 and Refiguring Modernism : Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West, and Barnes (both Indiana University Press, 1995). See also Anthea Trodd, Women's Writing in English- Britain 1900-1945 (1998).

A number of the perhaps rather more obvious writers and examples of their works were republished by Virago Press in the 1980s, and Persephone Books are currently bringing some of the less-wellknown writers and works back into print.

Biographical and background information on most of these writers can be found in Virginia Blain, Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy, The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (Batsford, 1990). See also Faye Hammill, Ashlie Sponenberg, Esme Miskimmin, Encyclopedia of British Women's Writing 1900-1950 (2006): 'information on many previously neglected British women writers (novelists, poets, dramatists, autobiographers) and topics. Also including detailed entries on women writing across a whole range of genres, it provides contextualizing material, with concise introductions to related topics, including organizations, movements, genres and publications, as well as literary and historical events.... and a thorough, annotated bibliography of relevant critical material'.

Further evidence that the middlebrow is becoming an object of scholarly interest: Middlebrow: An Interdisciplinary Transatlantic Research Network. A useful resource.

Also of possible relevance: The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914-1945: The Space Between is a society for the study of literature and culture of the period between the First and Second World Wars. It provides an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary forum for discussion and research of texts, authors and new approaches to traditionally canonical works. It also encourages fresh examinations of art, society and culture illuminating the interwar and wartime periods. The society sponsors an annual conference and a journal.

And of related interest: Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network

FURROWED MIDDLEBROW: off the beaten page: lesser-known British women writers 1910-1960: blog of somebody who also enjoys these sometimes overlooked writers.

Mary Borden*
Lettice Cooper
Clemence Dane
E M Delafield*
O Douglas
Susan Ertz*
Pamela Frankau
Stella Gibbons
Constance Holme
Winifred Holtby
Storm Jameson*
F Tennyson Jesse
Rosamund Lehmann
Rose Macaulay
Naomi Mitchison
Mary Renault
E Arnot Robertson
Sarah Salt
May Sinclair
G B Stern*
Jan Struther
Hilda Vaughan
Rebecca West*
Dorothy Whipple
Antonia White
Romer Wilson
E H Young

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Mary Borden


Mary Borden, later Turner, later Lady Spears (1886-1968) - also published under name of Bridget Maclagan.
Brief biographical note.

Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Lettice Cooper

Cooper's novels tend to fall into the 'Northern provincial' category, and it seem very likely that the panoramic sweep of National Provincial (1938) owed something to Holtby's South Riding. There is a very brief biography on the Persephone Books website: Persephone recently reissued The New House (1934).

Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Clemence Dane

How did I come initially to omit Dane (pseudonym of Winifred Ashton (1888-1965))? She is probably best remembered now for her first novel, Regiment of Women (1917) (which was rather curiously, given its very negative depiction of relationships between women, republished by Virago in its 'Lesbian Landmarks' series), but in her day she was a noted dramatist and novelist, several of her novels drawing on her experiences in the theatre and her knowledge of theatrical history.

There is a brief and incomplete outline of her career here, but further details require being a subscriber to the Orlando Project or having institutional access. Poemhunter has a rather fuller list of her works

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E M Delafield

pseudonym of Edmee Elizabeth Monica de la Pasture, later Dashwood (1890-1943). Her mother (Mrs Henry de la Pasture) was also a novelist, and Delafield's daughter, Rosalind Dashwood, produced a 'tribute' novel, Provincial Daughter (1961). There is a biography, currently out of print, by Violet Powell (Find this on BookFinder.com).
A good deal more than just the Provincial Lady books. There is an E M Delafield website, though its characterisation of her works as 'delicate' does not, I think, do justice to a writer who in a characteristically subtle and oblique way undertook some fairly 'strong' themes and struck some subversive notes. Find copies of Delafield's books on BookFinder.com

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O Douglas

pseudonym of Anna Buchan (1877-1948), sister of John Buchan, Lord Tweedsmuir.
Wikipedia entry.
Her cosy books, mainly set in 'Priorsford' a small town in the Scottish Lowlands based on Peebles, where she spent most of her life, are the antithesis of her brother's thrillers. Unlike most of the writers listed here, she does not really, even in the most delicate and oblique way, tackle the problems of women's lives in the post-Great War era (although there is the odd dead fiance or potential husband). But they make great comfort reading. Find copies on BookFinder.com

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Susan Ertz (1894-1985)

Wikipedia entry
Born of American parents in England, spent much of her childhood and youth in the USA. Came back to London at the age of 18 and did war work in England and France. Her first novel, Madam Clare was published in 1922, followed by numerous others. She married Major J Ronald McCrindle in 1932.

Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Pamela Frankau (1908-1967)

Wikipedia stub here
Her grandmother and father were also novelists. Her first novel was published before she was 20 and was a runaway success. Became friends with Rebecca West and G B Stern. Longterm relationship with married poet and civil servant Humbert Wolfe.

List of her works.
Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Stella Gibbons

Stella Dorothea Gibbons, later Webb (1902-1989)
A very underrated writer. Extremely well-known for her early comic novel Cold Comfort Farm (1932) (which is, indeed, hilarious and well-deserving of its fame), she wrote a significant quantity of other novels which, while they have a good deal of the same wit and include several similar themes, are not in the outright comedic vein. However, they are to be highly recommended. There used to be a Stella Gibbons website, set up by her nephew Reggie Oliver, author of her biography, Out of the Woodshed (1998), but it now appears to be defunct. The Wikipedia entry for her is here.

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Constance Holme

Constance Holme, later Punchard (1880-1955). Wikipedia entry.
Spent most of her life in Westmorland, where all her novels are set. Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Winifred Holtby (1898-1935)

Brief biographical note
Another well-known figure. Her most famous novel, the posthumously published South Riding (1936) has never been out of print, has been filmed and also twice serialised on television. Find books by Winifred Holtby and books about her on BookFinder.com

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Storm Jameson

Margaret Storm Jameson (1891-1986)
A brief outline of her life and career, and a somewhat more extended essay on her significance.
She wrote a great deal (in her autobiography she claims that she wrote too much under financial pressure to make a living, which may explain the unevenness of her work). I haven't read anything like all of her books, but some of them are well worth a look - e.g. Delicate Monster (1933)and the trilogy 'A Mirror in Darkness': Company Parade (1934), Love in Winter (1935) and None Turn Back (1936). Find copies of Jameson's books on BookFinder.com.

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F Tennyson Jesse

Fryniwyd 'Fryn' (Wynifried Margaret) Tennyson Jesse (1888-1958). Brief account of her life and career, focusing on her activities in crime reporting.
Took a particular interest in crime and edited several volumes of Famous Trials series. Her most famous novel, A Pin to See the Peepshow was based on the Thompson/Bywaters murder case. There is a biography, A Portrait of Fryn, by Joanna Colenbrander. Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Rosamund Lehmann (1901-1990)

Wikipedia entry.
Find books by her and about her (there have been at least two biographical studies) on BookFinder.com

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Rose Macaulay

Emilie Rose Macaulay, DBE (1881-1958)
Brief biographical note
Published novels from before World War I until the 1950s. Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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Naomi Mitchison

nee Haldane (1897-1999). Brief bio/bibliographical note, and another brief bionote, with photo, and an obituary appreciation
Most of her books don't fit the category (historical novels, even if she was using them to explore contemporary issues of feminism, class and politics, and in her later years, science fiction, ditto, and adding environmental concerns), but We Have Been Warned (1935) is set during the 1930s in the milieu of Labour politics and intellectual and artistic bohemia which Mitchison knew well. She discovered with this book that it was a whole different thing to write about sex at all explicitly in a contemporary setting, whereas she had got away with all sorts of things in historical costume. (See the volume of her autobiography, You may well ask: a memoir, 1920-1940 which includes her struggles with her publishers' attempts to precensor the book)
Mitchison is gradually gaining some critical attention: see my own Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her life and work, Aqueduct Press, 2007.

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Mary Renault

Eileen Mary Challans (1905-1983). Wikipedia entry
Best known of course as a historical novelist, but at the beginning of her career wrote several intriguing novels of contemporary life, focussing on non-traditional and unconventional relationships. Find books by her and about her on BookFinder.com

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E Arnot Robertson

Eileen Arnot Robertson, later Turner (1903-1961). Wikipedia stub at least lists her works.
Manifests a 'characteristic anti-sentimental tone', and was possibly the first woman novelist to mention the effects of menstruation and pre-menstrual tension on her protagonists. Her novel Ordinary Families (1933) has been much reprinted, and others of her earlier works, Cullum(1920), Three Came Unarmed (1929), and Four Frightened People (1931), have also been republished (but all are currently out of print). Find copies of her books on BookFinder.com

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Sarah Salt

Her works are fairly relentlessly gloomy (to the point where one almost feels that she is a parody by Stella Gibbons). Find books by her on BookFinder.com

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May Sinclair

Mary Amelia St Clair Sinclair (1863-1946)
A brief biographical note. Article on The Guardian blog.
Encountered new ideas about psychology (including Freud) and was involved with the Medico-Psychological Clinic in London before the First World War, this influenced her fictional writing. Find books by her and about her on BookFinder.com
There is now a May Sinclair Society

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G B Stern

Gladys Bertha (she later changed this to Bronwen) Stern, 1890-1973. Born into a non-practising London Jewish family with strong cosmopolitan links (which provided the basis for her best known 'Rakonitz' novel sequence). She married Geoffrey Lisle Holdsworth (with whom she occasionally collaborated) in 1919. She converted to Catholicism after the Second World War.
A prolific but insufficiently appreciated writer ('fluent, animated and accomplished') of novels, short stories, plays, memoirs, and literary criticism. Even better, perhaps, than her novels are her volumes of idiosyncratic personal memoir, reminiscence and observation ('rag-bag chronicles').

List of her works.
Find copies on BookFinder.com (though this search also brings up many other writers named Stern).

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Jan Struther

Joyce Anstruther, later Maxtone Graham, later Placzek (1901-1953). Wikipedia entry
Most famed for her collection of sketches, Mrs Miniver (1939), first published on the Court Page of The Times and only subsequently collected into book form. It, and others of her works including her poems, are available online, as part of A Celebration of Women Writers. A famous tear-jerking film of the same name was made by MGM, starring Greer Garson, but bore little resemblance to the book - as it was set after the outbreak of World War II. The recent biography, The Real Mrs Miniver: Jan Struther's story, by her granddaughter, Ysenda Maxtone Graham, reveals how unlike her heroine Struther was. Not only did she have a successful career as a journalist and broadcaster (and also wrote a number of popular hymns, although a non-believer herself), and little taste for the niceties of domestic life celebrated by Mrs Miniver, she also had several extra-marital love affairs, the final one being with a younger Austrian Jewish refugee, who eventually became her second husband.

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Hilda Vaughan

Hilda Campbell Vaughan (1892-1985) Welsh poet, novelist and short story writer, married to the novelist Charles Morgan. The Wikipedia article lists her novels, several of which have been reissued by Honno Press, and Parthian Books. It also mentions a couple of critical studies.

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Rebecca West

(the Ulrichs volume was far from my first encounter with her) Cicely Isabel Fairfield, DBE (1892-1983). Famously bore an illegitimate son to H G Wells. Later married Henry Maxwell Andrews.
A biographical note, though my understanding of the reason for the name-change was that Cicely Fairfield was writing for The Freewoman, a shocking and radical feminist periodical which her mother forbade her daughters to read. Another short account of her life, career, and connections (with photo).
A wellknown and distinguished figure. Stern and Frankau were among her close friends (though she quarreled with the latter). Find books by her on BookFinder.com, and also find books about her, biographical and critical on BookFinder.com

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Dorothy Whipple

nee Stirrup (1893-1966). Some biographical information here, along with critical assessments of her work; also Wikipedia entry; Persephone Books Whipple page (Persephone Books has been largely responsible for the revival of interest in Whipple by republishing several of her novels and a collections of short stories).
A writer of the 'provincial middlebrow' novel of considerable interest. Find books by Dorothy Whipple on BookFinder.com

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Antonia White

Eirence Adeline Botting (1899-1980)
Profile.
White's life, which formed the basis for her published novels, would be regarded as highly implausible in fiction. Three marriages, the first two annulled for non-consummation, a mental breakdown severe enough for her to be incarcerated in Bethlem Hospital as hopelessly insane, recovered, had an abortion, underwent psychoanalysis, had two daughters. Her novels were highly influenced by the Catholic faith to which her father converted when she was a child and to which she reconverted herself in later life. She suffered from debilitating writer's block, but made a living as a translator,although she managed to keep diaries, extracts from which have been published. Find books by Antonia White and about her on BookFinder.com

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Romer Wilson

Florence Romer Muir Wilson, later O'Brien (1891-1930). Some biographical and bibliographical details here.
Her novels and novellas 'deal with issues of art, love, and contemporaneity'. According to the obituarist in The Times'Her chief inspiration was a conviction that there is a span of bliss "outside the region of fear," an escape from mor[t]ality to divine beauty, to which even a mortal can attain': this conviction appears to have informed her study of Emily Bronte, All Alone (1928). The obituary also suggests that 'she realized the emotive, passionate side of masculine psychology with quite unusual vividness', claiming her to be 'one of the few entirely original writers of her day', manifesting 'virtuosity and [an] uncanny inner flame'. Find copies of her books on BookFinder.com
.

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E H Young

Emily Hilda Young (married name Daniell) (1880-1949) Some biographical details here and Wikipedia entry here.
Her novels are set mainly in the Bristol/Clifton area. Wikipedia curiously suggests that Young has been 'almost completely forgotten by recent generations', although several of her novels were reprinted by Virago Press during the 1980s and a critical study by Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei, Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and E. H. Young appeared in 2006.
Find copies of her books on BookFinder.com. A couple of her works are available online via Project Gutenberg.

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Last modified 26 November 2014