Thursday, August 06, 2020

A pair of poets …

… The Middlebrow Men: Clive James on Philip Larkin | Sydney Review of Books. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

n 1965 [Larkin] wrote to his publisher lamenting the fact that ‘ordinary sane novels about ordinary sane people doing ordinary sane things can’t find a publisher these days’. Such novels represent ‘the tradition of Jane Austen and Trollope’, and Larkin continues: ‘I like to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful or lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so called “big” experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour’. This middlebrow aesthetic is hardly the earth, sea and blood sensed by Clive James, but it claims a more substantial moral tone than the middlebrow is usually accorded, and it crucially locates the roots of the middlebrow in such ‘classic’ writers as Austen and Trollope. Many admirers of Austen and Trollope are more familiar with the visual adaptations of their work for television, the middlebrow medium, than with the printed versions. BBC’s The Pallisers (1974), a 26-part adaptation of Trollope’s political novels, and BBC’s 6-part adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (1995), are established television classics that have contributed to a reworking of cultural categories.


  1. If the expression middlebrow is useful at all, it should refer to the treatment, not the subject. Plenty of middlebrow work has used the same plots, set in roughly the same worlds, as Austen and Trollope used; but that does not mean that Austen or Trollope were middlebrow writers.

  2. You are exactly right.