‘The Plaint of the Middlebrow Novelist’

Phoebe Fenwick Gaye sometime in the 1920s, reused with thanks to The Library Time Machine
Phoebe Fenwick Gaye photographed sometime in the 1920s after publication of her first novel, reused with thanks to The Library Time Machine

Here’s a short comic poem to brighten your day. Written by the otherwise totally forgotten actress and novelist * Phoebe Fenwick Gaye and published (first? goodness knows) in 1937 in the feminist and progressive weekly magazine Time and Tide, this poem is valuable evidence of the cultural squabble that we in the trade call The Battle of the Brows.

Here, the middlebrow corner doesn’t so much fight back as bare all. Oh, the misery of successful and lucrative middlebrow trappings in interwar British literary circles, when all they really wanted was cultural status. Much like every aspiring writer then and since. What is it about cultural accolades that overpower the practical ability to pay the bills? Pride, sinful pride …..


‘The Plaint of the Middlebrow Novelist’

Phoebe Fenwick Gaye


I’ve written my dozen of novels

I’ve signed autographs by the score

(and my portrait in oils and my photo at Foyles)

And I’ve spoken at Harrods at four;

The money is never a problem

I sell like the proverbial hot cake;

And the libraries fight for each word that I write,

Yet I have this incurable ache: –



I wanna be known as a Highbrow.

I want my prestige to go up;

I don’t want romance – I want Mr Gollancz

– And a par. in the dear old Lit. Sup.

To hell with my library public;

To hell with a cheaper edition;

A sentence or two in a weekly review

Remains my unswerving ambition.

OH! –

I wanna turn into a Classic

– I’m as good as the next on the list –

I want some indication, from the Statesman and Nation

That I – as an author – exist.

To hell with the Book of the Month club;

And my serial rights in Cathay –

I wanna be known as a Highbrow

And I don’t care what Hutchinson’s say!


Retrieved with grateful thanks from Anthony Lejeune (ed.) Time and Tide Anthology (London: Andre Deutsch, 1956), 143.

  • Reading Catherine Clay’s rather good study of the literary friendships of Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Stella Benson, Naomi Mitchison, and other professional women writers in the Time and Tide circle, I find that Phoebe Fenwick Gaye was an assistant editor for Time and Tide, working under Holtby, and probably wrote essays for it as well.



9 thoughts on “‘The Plaint of the Middlebrow Novelist’

    1. There are simply so many, many British authors active in the early-mid twentieth century …. I haven’t read her, but I think from looking at her novels’ descriptions online, she may be a historical novelist, who have not attracted as much critical or reprint attention.


      1. Not when she’s being historical! I love Lolly Willowes, but really disliked The Corner That Held Them, and didn’t really enjoy Summer Will Show. Sarah Waters is about the only one I have enjoyed, of the not-very-many I’ve tried.


      2. Now I think The Corner That Held Them is stunning, and Summer Will Show ditto. But I don’t like Maggot or Don Juan at all.


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