Monday, May 8, 2017


100-91    90-81    80-71    70-61    60-51

50-41    40-31    30-21    20-11    10-1
Ta dah! 

Here we are at the final section of the list, the crème de la crème, the icing on the cake, etc. etc. And now, too, the recriminations can begin about authors I've left off the list—bring 'em on! I think you'll agree, though, that the Top 10 is contains a lot of great books, and there might even be a bit of a surprise about my choice for #1. These books are all favorites of mine, but, more importantly for our purposes here, all have solid fan bases and some hefty advocates in the world of bloggers, critics, and even, in many cases, academia. It's shocking for me to think that one of these books is inexplicably out of print (though readily available second hand), and even the #1 title was only rediscovered in the past decade or so. How much the literary landscape of women writers has changed in only a few years!

In a few days, I'll post a concise, complete version of the list, to make it easier to look over (or to print). But in the meantime, if you're looking to explore middlebrow fiction for the first time, you really couldn't (in my humble opinion) do better than to start with the titles in this post.

10) DODIE SMITH, I Capture the Castle (1948)

Written partly during World War II but set in the years before it, this novel is part eccentric family tale, part romance, and part purely delightful. Like many of the authors on this list, I read it before I started blogging, so I've never written about it in depth. But New Republic published a piece about it here. In print from St. Martin's in the U.S. and Vintage in the U.K.

9) E. H. YOUNG, Miss Mole (1930)

Funny and touching, with an unexpectedly sympathetic heroine—damaged, outspoken, a bit paranoid, sometimes dishonest, yet charmingly able to appreciate the little joys of life—is a subtle and unflinching, yet terribly entertaining novel. I wrote a bit about it here, and Simon at Stuck in a Book reviewed it more thoroughly here. Hideously, criminally out of print, but old Virago editions are fairly readily available.

8) ELIZABETH BOWEN, The Heat of the Day (1948)

The Atlantic Monthly wrote of it: "Imagine a Graham Greene thriller projected through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf." Which rather sums it up. And Anthony Burgess added, “No novel has better caught the atmosphere of London during the second world war.” One of the my two or three favorite examples of "Blitz lit." The Guardian chose it as one of its 100 best novels here. In print from Anchor in the U.S. and Vintage in the U.K.

7) D. E. STEVENSON, Miss Buncle's Book (1934)

I've read it three times and each time it gets better. The irresistible story of Miss Buncle, who publishes a pseudonymous novel about residents of her village and then must try not to be unveiled as the author when the whole village gets up in arms. Witty and charming, but also sharp and observant. Book Snob reviewed it here. In print from Persephone in the U.K. and Sourcebooks in the U.S.

6) ELIZABETH TAYLOR, A Game of Hide and Seek (1951)

A story of star-crossed lovers, but told in Taylor's inimitable funny/tragic style. There's enough brilliance here for several novels by most authors, but Taylor compresses it into one gorgeous little diamond. The New York Times has an old but perceptive article about Taylor's work in general, but with a section devoted to this novel, here. In print from New York Review Books Classics in the U.S. and Virago in the U.K.

5) F. M. MAYOR, The Rector's Daughter (1924)

The most tragic of my top ten titles and one of my favorite novels, period, this tale of a spinster's one chance at love is the very best kind of tragic—strangely uplifting and with profound insights into love and loneliness. Harriet Devine reviewed it here, and novelist Susan Hill called it a masterpiece. In print from Virago.

E. M. Delafield

4) E. M. DELAFIELD, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930)

Probably one of only a few titles on this list that's never been out of print since it first appeared, and one of the best-loved. The first of four fictional diaries, loosely based on Delafield's own life, by a wife, mother, and—in later volumes—successful author, trying hilariously and self-effacingly to balance family, servants, and literary life. Jilly Cooper wrote about it in The Guardian, here. In print from Persephone and in other editions.

Barbara Pym

3) BARBARA PYM, Excellent Women (1952)

I was tempted to go with A Few Green Leaves or the beautifully melancholy Quartet in Autumn, but let's face it—this is the book that has kept Pym's writing alive and become, appropriately or not, representative of her work. Funny, snide, and layered with careful observation. Alexander McCall Smith wrote about it here. In print from Penguin in the U.S. and Virago in the U.K., paperback and e-book.

2) SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER, Lolly Willowes (1926)

I bet a lot of you thought this would be my #1, but I like to keep you on your toes. It's certainly my #1—a delightfully interpretable, funny, profound, poignant tale of a "superfluous woman" who heads to a small village and becomes a witch. Read it, and then read it again. I raved about it here (in my very first review), but if you don't believe me Leaves & Pages just reviewed it this year in similarly glowing prose (see here), and I just stumbled across this brilliant 1985 assessment of Warner in The New York Review of Books here. In print from Virago in the U.K. and New York Review Books Classics in the U.S., paperback and e-book.

And now, drum roll please...



Marghanita Laski

1) MARGHANITA LASKI, The Village (1952)

Obviously, there's no way to choose the "#1" British feminine middlebrow novel in any definitive way, but this one floated to the top of my list almost as soon as it came to mind during my initial brainstorming, even ahead of several other novels in the top 20 that might have held this spot. I went with it because here Laski demonstrates so beautifully how middlebrow concerns can make pure, brilliant, socially-conscious, yet completely entertaining literature. Filled with class and gender insights, and offering a vivid view of life in the time just after the end of World War II, it has my vote as one of the best books Persephone has rescued from obscurity. Books and Chocolate reviewed it here. In print from Persephone.

So, what did I leave out, and what did I get wrong?


  1. Thank you so very much for doing the list Scott - it was not only interesting and fun to look forward to in parts but will be a great resouce! Love it.

  2. So pleased about The Village. Most people seem to mention her other books but I love this one. Brilliant list, thank you, and I'll be coming back to it many times.

  3. I have or have read 9 out of the 10. But not No 1. I think I shall have to rectify that immediately!

  4. I loved The Village also, but I was surprised to see it at number one -- I would have thought Miss Pettigrew or The Provincial Lady. But they're all on the list so really, what does it matter? Hopefully this will get The Village the attention it deserves, it's one of my favorite Persephones ever. Great list and I look forward to seeing the compilation so I can count how many I've actually read.

  5. I am stunned by your work and your vast knowledge. Yes - stunned! AND grateful. No quibbles from me (well, not aloud!) You and your list have inspired me to start reading, or in some cases, re-reading. AND - for that, I am truly grateful. Virtual hugs and real accolades! Tom

  6. Thank you so much for this! I have really enjoyed this every week. Although, I actually haven't read all the books in the top 10... something I think I will need to rectify immediately. Brie

  7. Excellent work, Scott. While I might have a quibble or two, I am not the one who put together this amazing bit of work, so all glory to you and your choices. Thank you thank you thank you for this.

  8. What a terrific list! I'm surprised by no 1 but pleased to see a less well-known novel get some time in the sun. I've read all but Miss Mole so will have to remedy that soon. Hopefully it will be reprinted soon. Wonderful to think that the other 9 are all in print. Thanks for all your work on the list.

  9. I haven't read Miss Mole either! Another guaranteed treat for the summer ... Thank you for the sheer happiness and 'reading togetherness' that your Middlebrow Syllabus has given - and will go on giving.
    I'm so glad you included Barbara Pym's Excellent Women - and interested that you were tempted by A Few Green Leaves, rather than say A Glass of Blessings. I've just come back from the Spring meeting of the BP Society where we heard a superb lecture by Professor Alison Shell on Anglican Women novelists, ahead of a book to which she is contributing, published next year by Bloomsbury - something not to be missed.
    Apologies - but can I ask a question? Do you think the expression 'excellent woman' has become part of the language, or is it only Pym devotees who would grasp its meaning? I used it, perhaps mistakenly, on the blurb of 'Of Human Telling' in the hope that it would be recognised ...

  10. Thanks so much for all your hard work Scott! I've read some on your list, but have lots still to enjoy. It's a valuable resource! Thanks, Helena

  11. Diary of Provincial Lady is my all time favourite book. I have read it so often that I could probably recite it by heart. Love this list and working my way through it!!

  12. This entire list is brilliant. I'd say "just what I'd hoped for!" but honestly it's even better than that. Thank you so, so much for compiling this list. I'm going to read my way through it (happily I've already read several, and had many more already on my to-read list). What a gift you've given to this blogging community.

  13. Thank you! I only recently discovered Middlebrow fiction and quickly my to-read pile grew overwhelming. I'll prioritize the ones on the list and then go from there!

  14. I've thoroughly enjoyed reading my way through the installments of this list. Thanks for sharing it and for putting a few more "must-reads" on my list.

    And I *love* "I Capture the Castle." So glad to see it in the top 10!


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