Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, in The Lost Week-End (1940), their generally fascinating and informative social history of Great Britain between the world wars, make a great many Olympian pronouncements. They say, for instance, that Auden “perhaps never wrote an original line,” a claim that, to the person who has read even a handful of Auden poems, is instantly revealed as one of the most dim-witted statements in the history of literary criticism. (“Who stands, the crux left of the watershed” — oh goodness, that hoary old chestnut?) And they declare that by the 1930s “low-brow reading was now dominated by the detective novel.”

Well … if the detective novel is “low-brow reading,” then how to describe magazines devoted to movie stars or Mills & Boon romances? “Such things,” we can imagine Graves and Hodge saying in the plummiest of tones, “scarcely deserve the name of ‘reading.’” But people who read such books really are reading, and contra G&H, detective novels, in their literary ambitions and expectations, are an ideal example of middlebrow literature.

I tend to think of middlebrow writing as the kind of thing that highbrows would never write but still enjoy. Auden, for instance, whether an original poet or not, loved detective stories, as did T. S. Eliot (among many others).

Dorothy L. Sayers — my current biographical subject — strikes me as a paradigmatic middlebrow writer, possessing the intellectual equipment of the highbrow but believing implicitly in the capabilities of what Virginia Woolf condescendingly called “the common reader.” Woolf was highly aware of the deficiencies of the common reader:

The common reader, as Dr. Johnson implies, differs from the critic and the scholar. He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously. He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole — a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing. He never ceases, as he reads, to run up some rickety and ramshackle fabric which shall give him the temporary satisfaction of looking sufficiently like the real object to allow of affection, laughter, and argument. Hasty, inaccurate, and superficial, snatching now this poem, now that scrap of old furniture without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure, his deficiencies as a critic are too obvious to be pointed out; but if he has, as Dr. Johnson maintained, some say in the final distribution of poetical honours, then, perhaps, it may be worth while to write down a few of the ideas and opinions which, insignificant in themselves, yet contribute to so mighty a result.

Not well educated, not generously gifted, instinctively (not consciously) moved to create a whole but capable of constructing only the “rickety and ramshackle,” the common reader can only form “insignificant” ideas and opinions. Lovely.

Sayers would agree with some of this. But she did not think the ideas and opinions of the common reader insignificant; indeed, she thought them typically superior to the opinions of highbrows. More important: while Woolf takes the shortcomings of “the common reader” as givens, almost as natural phenomena like mushrooms or cloudy days, Sayers, by contrast, sees any such deficiencies as remediable — and sees such remediation as part of her responsibility as an intellectual.

Let me just make a few pronouncements of my own:

  1. Woolf is a truly great writer; Sayers is not.
  2. Woolf is a highbrow; Sayers is not, and indeed frequently makes highbrows the butt of her satire.
  3. Sayers in her fiction regularly shows an interest in a wide range of social classes, with their accompanying habits, inclinations, and modes of speech; Woolf is interested in none of these things: all of her characters are of the same social class.
  4. Sayers is far better-educated than Woolf, more learned, and has a wider intellectual capacity: Woolf could not have managed cryptograms in a novel, or forced herself to learn the biochemistry of poisons, or translated Dante and and Song of Roland … but of course Sayers couldn’t have written Mrs. Dalloway either.

(Digression: I might add, in relation to that last point, that while Sayers was only eleven years younger than Woolf, a major transformation in the possibilities of education for women in England accelerated between Woolf’s adolescence and Sayers’s. Virginia Stephen was largely educated at home, though she did get to attend classes at King’s College London for a time; Sayers took a first-class degree at Somerville College, Oxford: when she completed her studies in 1915, women could not yet receive Oxford degrees, but she was awarded hers retroactively in 1920. The whole business of women’s education was immensely complicated in this era, with different universities changing their policies at different rates. For instance, Flora Hamilton, later to be Flora Lewis and the mother of C. S. Lewis, took a first-class degree in logic and a second in mathematics at Queen’s University Belfast in 1885. But by the time Sayers took that belated degree openness to both sexes was nearly universal, though of course informal bigotry would continue.)

I would further suggest that Sayers’s translations of Dante, and her sequence of radio plays The Man Born to be King, are classic middlebrow endeavors: attempts to render old, difficult texts and ideas comprehensible to a general audience. (A project in remediation.) I will also argue in my biography, though probably not in detail here on my blog, that her detective novels do some of the same work, as she tried in them to do what Wilkie Collins had done in the previous century: marry the story of detection with the social novel.

But wait: I haven’t defined my brows, have I? What do I mean — what should one mean — by highbrow, middlebrow, lowbrow? As it happens, that was a central question of mid-twentieth-century intellectual life — and it gave us some categories that we still use today. So I’ll be exploring that in future posts.