- Ordinary Disappointments:Femininity, Domesticity, and Nation in British Middlebrow Fiction, 1920–1944
Cultural criticism has of late been much preoccupied with questions of affect, feeling, and emotion.1 Whether calibrating these conceptual categories one against another, or delineating their multiple manifestations and articulations, critical debate has ensured that these indexes of the common ground occupied by the psychic, the corporeal, and the social have remained firmly on the agenda. Trauma, in particular, has occupied critical center stage for some time now, more recently joined by disgust, shame, and boredom; and desire and fear are never far away. Despair, an enduring indicator of the ultimate in cultural and personal malaise, maintains its hold on critical attention, and disillusion, it has been suggested, is the stock-in-trade of the bildungsroman (Quinney 171–72). The intensity, clamor, and all-consuming character of these phenomena, their unmistakable capacity both to make and unmake the subject, lend them a defining existential status, and it is perhaps this, coupled with their insistence on deriding the niceties of bourgeois manners, that explains their ability to catch the critical eye. My focus in this article, however, is on an altogether quieter, less histrionic, more apologetic, and diminished feeling, and one that has not attracted anything approaching the same degree of critical attention: namely, [End Page 293] disappointment. Far from being an "ugly" feeling—as Sianne Ngai dubs the affective assortment that she scrutinizes—disappointment is a polite, well-behaved, docile, almost decorous one.2
Disappointment's good manners and respectability, the sense that it is perfectly at home at the afternoon tea table, emerges nowhere more clearly than in the middlebrow English novel of the interwar years, a body of work that inhabits, epitomizes, and anatomizes middle-class English social mores. These were the novels that were read most widely in this period: they "made the Book-of-the-Month lists in the newspapers, sold in their tens of thousands in book club editions, and packed the shelves of the lending libraries" (Humble 3). While British middlebrow included the detective fiction of G. K. Chesterton, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy L. Sayers, the comic fiction of P. G. Wodehouse and Saki, and the thrillers of John Buchan and Geoffrey Household, the "feminine middlebrow"—Nicola Humble's term in her eponymous study of novels by authors such as Margaret Kennedy, E. M. Delafield, E. Arnot Robertson, and Rosamond Lehmann—comprised novels for the most part written by women and aimed at a female readership, constituting, as Richard Dyer has suggested, a "cultural framework in which women spoke to women" (40). On the whole they spoke to them, focalized through a middle-class feminine sensibility, about a common ground of home and family: of girlhood, of young and mature adulthood, and of romance, love, siblings, spouses and children, spinsterhood and widowhood; and what many of them traced were the disappointments of their female protagonists.
In this article, I chart the confluence of femininity and disappointment in the British feminine middlebrow novel of the interwar years. My concern is twofold: On the one hand, I seek to historicize this conjunction by asking what common ground there might be between the specifics of the British interwar social and political configuration and the recurrent disappointments of these novels' heroines. What part does disappointment play in the reproduction of domestic femininity? More generally, how might feminine disappointment be implicated in the widely acknowledged reshaping of the structures of class and nation in the middle years of the twentieth century? On the other hand, I want to consider the possibility of there being a broader cultural relation between femininity and disappointment: might there be something about the structure and dynamic of disappointment that fits particularly comfortably with dominant understandings of femininity? Is disappointment a term that requires gendering? Putting the case at its starkest, might disappointment be a "particular affront to men," as Laura Quinney has suggested, because it highlights their failure to live up to a masculine ideal; while for women, disappointment [End Page 294] is a confirmation of their accession to the properly delimited psychic and social terrain of femininity (xiii)?3
E. M. Delafield's 1927 novel The Way...