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  • 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 Things Are explores territory familiar from countless novels and films: the contradictions and incompatibility of the desire for romance and for the comforts and pleasures of domestic life. In Delafield's novel, Laura is married to the dull but dependable Alfred; they have two children, live in the countryside, find it difficult to hold on to their servants, and worry, slightly, about money. Then, as the Times Literary Supplement review put it, "up the stagnant reaches of her existence there floats one day—incredibly!—a lover," Duke Ayland (qtd. in Beauman, Introduction iv). After vacillating as to whether or not to have an affair with Duke, Laura finally decides to give him up and to stay with Alfred and the children. In the closing paragraphs of the novel, she contemplates her decision:

Alas, for the brief-lived romanticism of an attachment between a man and a woman, unsupported by even occasional proximity! Laura at last admitted to herself that she and Duke Ayland, in common with the vast majority of their fellow-beings, were incapable of the ideal, imperishable, love for which the world was said to be well lost.

She would never give herself to Duke, but hers was not the Great Refusal that ennobles the refuser and remains a beautiful memory for ever.

The children, her marriage vows, the house, the ordering of the meals, the servants, the making of a laundry list every Monday—in a word, the things of respectability—kept one respectable. In a flash of unavoidable clear-sightedness, that Laura would never repeat if she could avoid it, she admitted to herself that the average attributes only, of the average woman, were hers.

Imagination, emotionalism, sentimentalism . . . what woman is not the victim of these insidious and fatally unpractical qualities?

But how difficult, Laura reflected, to see oneself as an average woman, and not, rather, as one entirely unique, in unique circumstances. . . .

It dawned upon her dimly that only by envisaging and accepting her own limitations, could she endure the limitations of her surroundings.


Laura reconciles herself to her decision by seeing it as founded in her own ordinariness—"the average attributes only, of the average woman, were hers." The capacity of the minority, the romantic elite, [End Page 295] to sustain "the ideal, imperishable, love" is not for her; to think that it might be is to fall victim to the "insidious and fatally unpractical qualities" of imagination, emotion, and sentiment (the latter two rendered pathological through their nomination as "–isms"). Her proper domain, as for "the vast majority," is the domestic: "the children, her marriage vows, the house, the ordering of the meals, the servants, the making of a laundry list every Monday." The end of the affair, therefore, is not really to do with making a choice between Alfred and Duke—a choice that might have been based on love and desire, on economics and respectability, or on affection and responsibility. Nor is it to do with a recognition of the inherently false promise of romantic love. Rather, it results from a perception that she, personally, is not up to that romantic ideal. Because she is average, her marriage to Alfred (with its petty, repetitive, time-consuming, and anxiety-provoking domestic regime) is where she properly belongs.

Laura's disappointment in these closing moments is palpable. She is not disappointed in Duke; he has as much allure as he ever had. There has been, in Roland Barthes's terms, no moment of amorous "spoiling": nothing has appeared that "suddenly attaches the loved object to a commonplace world"; nothing has happened to show Duke to Laura "as a paltry image . . . caught up in the platitude of the social world" (28, 25, 26). Nor is she disappointed in Alfred, even though his "main preoccupations lay in the vegetable kingdom, and her own in the realm of the emotions" (138). She has long ago acknowledged that she never really had any romantic expectations of him, but got married while only "reasonably" in love with him so that she would no longer have to live with her Aunt Isabel (89, 156). Her disappointment is in herself, that she has "the average attributes only, of the average woman." Hitherto, she had assumed that the mundanity of her daily lot was merely preparatory to the advent of an exceptional future, an expectation given shape in her longings for romantic intensity:

She thought: "I look nice—but there's no one to see it, really. Unless—"

Unless was the unspoken tribute paid to romance, that lurking possibility to which Laura woke every morning of her life.


The loss of this romantic "unless—"extinguishes her expectations of a different kind of life. At the point that Laura loses her orientation and drive toward an imagined future, the narrative closes on a note of understated, undramatic, undespairing, but entirely disabling, disappointment. [End Page 296]

"Disappointment" is one of a sizeable group of words to carry a prefix (dis-, mis-, in-, im-) that structurally and etymologically constitutes them as a negative, but for which a positive (unmarked) counterterm is absent from the language: words like "dismay," "importunate," "inept," "dismantle," "disgust," and "disconcert." Just as one can "dismantle" something but not "mantle" it, feel "disgust" but not (any longer) "gust," so one can be "disappointed," but not—at least, not in a countersense—"appointed." This has two related implications for the cultural status of disappointment and the structure of feeling of which it is an element.4 First, because there is no living, culturally present counterterm embedded within the form of the word itself to remind us that this is only the reverse side of something better (as there is in binaries like happy/unhappy or fortunate/unfortunate), "disappointment" implies an absolute condition rather than a secondary and dependent possibility balanced against and held in check by its polar positive. Second, and pulling in a rather different direction, the presence of a negative term without a concomitant positive counterterm lends "disappointment" a flexibility in terms of its cultural associations and registers, since the opposites with which it can be paired are so disparate.5 Thus "disappointment" can be conceived and invoked on a spectrum ranging from the transient and insignificant ("I was disappointed not to go for a walk") to the profoundly far-reaching and enduring ("he was disappointed in love"). Together, these associations imbue "disappointment" with the weight and presence of an unchangeable condition, but also free it up to serve in an extraordinarily diverse range of cultural and affective economies.6

In my search for critical work on the concept, I found little interest in exploring the deceptively gentle contours of disappointment. Besides Janet Landman's study of regret (related to, but different from, disappointment), I found two significant studies: Ian Craib's The Importance of Disappointment, a psychoanalytic and sociological study of disappointment in late modernity, and Laura Quinney's exploration of Romantic and post-Romantic lyric poetry entitled The Poetics of Disappointment: Wordsworth to Ashbery.7 Craib uses "disappointment" as an umbrella term under which to gather a disparate range of often negatively valued terms: "conflict, difficulty, work, failure, complexity, ambivalence, rationality, morality, restraint, judgement" (1). His approach is inclusive not only of a broad range of definitions, but also of all human subjects: we are all disappointed, he suggests, if only in that "life ends in the ultimate disappointment of death"; consequently, he argues for the importance of recognizing "the inherently divided, unsatisfied and necessarily disappointed nature of the self" (vii, 32). Craib seeks to combine the [End Page 297] universalisms of a psychoanalytic perspective with a more located sociological analysis of late modernity; there is, he suggests, "much about our modern world that increases disappointment and at the same time encourages us to hide from it" (vii). Most significantly for the purposes of this article, he argues for the profoundly constitutive capacity of disappointment with regard to subjectivity, and it is this that Quinney's study elaborates so persuasively.

While Craib works with broad and flexible notions of disappointment, Quinney's study favours what she calls "the discrimination of literary affects" (xiv), arguing for a much more restricted and precise application of the term. Disappointment, for Quinney, is qualitatively, structurally, and psychically quite different from disenchantment, disillusion, or other related terms. Fundamental to the paradigm of disappointment, she argues, is the loss of a previously valued version of the self and the loss of a projected future. It is, she writes, a "state of the self estranged from the hopes of selfhood" (ix); in "the cul-de-sac of disappointment, the subject loses the inner assurance of purpose at the same time when external frustrations have made his need for that assurance more acute" (4). Loss of such hopes, of a sense of expectation or possibility for the self in an imagined future, results in a rupture with both past and future: "experience loses all shape, initiative loses its point of application, and time becomes a strange vacuum" (7): "To cease to believe in the destiny of the self empties time of its teleological promise. One loses one's orientation towards the future, and time comes to a halt, giving rise to drift and silence. . . . Without the promise of evolution, time is pared down to an iterative stutter, proceeding rather than progressing" (8). For Quinney, disappointment is "the frustration of general expectations of experience, general hopes for the self and its destiny" (1; my emphasis). Contrary to the rather dismissive implications of the popular usage of the term, she argues that disappointment is neither insignificant nor ephemeral, precisely because it goes so deep "in rooting out the hopes of the self" (2). Not all critics see such hopes as benign: Lauren Berlant, in contrast, diagnoses them as pernicious, the "cruel optimism" of attachments that threaten a subject's well-being at the same time as providing "something of the continuity of the subject's sense of what it means to keep on living on and to look forward to being in the world" ("'Cruel'" 21).8 "The vague futurities of normative optimism," she suggests, "produce small self-interruptions as the utopias of structural inequality"; their cruelty lies in the poverty of their compensatory capacity, the ultimate inability of "shifts in affective atmosphere" to change the world (35). For Berlant, this optimism is an opiate, immobilizing the subject's desire or demand for social change; for Quinney, in contrast, such optimism, however [End Page 298] unfounded or compromised, is necessary if "ontological catastrophe where restitution is no longer possible" is to be avoided (ix). Both Quinney and Berlant, despite their radically different evaluations of the subjective and social consequences of the failure of hope, have similar analyses of its importance in subject formation. For Berlant, such optimism is cruel because it promises what it cannot deliver, while for Quinney, the cruelty is in its loss, not in its promise.

Quinney finds something peculiarly masculine about literary anatomizations of the condition of disappointment. She suggests that "though some women write about the self-disenchanted self . . . it has been an especially prominent topic in poetry by men. Perhaps the upset of self-confidence comes as a particular affront to men" (xiii). Tantalizingly, given my interest in the gendering of disappointment, her study offers no further thoughts on the matter. Nonetheless, while her exemplary study cautions against the temptation of claiming disappointment per se as the special province of femininity, there might perhaps, nonetheless, be something strikingly feminine about the formal, structural, and subjective qualities of Laura's disappointment and of other literary representations of feminine disappointment contemporary with it. The popular estimation of disappointment as small-scale, muted, and ephemeral, and its consequent dismissal as insignificant, may be indicative of its status as a particularly feminine ending, the whimper of the dying fall rather than the bang of despair or disillusion. In other words, the self-effacing character of disappointment, and the effacement of the self that disappointment itself effects, might both point to a particular cultural relation with the feminine and to the constitutive operation of disappointment with regard to subjective and social formations of femininity.

Certainly, feminist theorists and critics have testified to the pervasiveness of disappointment within discourses of (in particular) marriage and motherhood. From Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) onwards, second-wave feminism has offered numerous accounts in many different forms—from novel, to memoir, to sociological analysis—of alienated, frustrated, and disappointed wives and mothers immured in the postwar homes that promised so much but delivered so little.9 More recently, accounts have broadened to examine the dynamic of disappointment from the perspective of the daughters of disappointed mothers. Annette Kuhn, for example, in Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination, analyzes her mother's ambivalence towards her daughter—her pride in her and her investment of time, effort, and hope in her as "a vehicle for the mother's desire to transcend the limitations, dissatisfactions and disappointments of her own daily life" (57). Inevitably, Kuhn concludes, this investment simply compounded her mother's already ingrained [End Page 299] dissatisfactions, for her daughter "got fat, looked terrible in everything she wore, and answered back. What a disappointment to her mother" (58). Carolyn Steedman tells a similar story of maternal disappointment. To her mother, she writes, she had been "a spell, a piece of possible good fortune, a part of herself that she exchanged for her future: a gamble" (Steedman 141). The gamble, however, fails to pay off: her children come to represent an insuperable barrier between herself and the New Look skirt that stands for all her manifold material, social, and psychological longings; they are the source of her bitter disappointment, her lost hope for a different self in different circumstances. Nothing, Steedman writes, could compensate her mother "for a full skirt that took twenty yards of cloth, for a half-timbered cottage in the country, for the prince who did not come. For my mother, the time of my childhood was the place where the fairy-tales failed" (47). In these accounts, disappointment is deeply embedded within the discourses of marriage and motherhood that, in other literary and cultural forms, are often invoked as sites and symbols of optimism and expectation. Certainly in these retrospective analyses of 1950s British childhoods, disappointment is an inescapable structuring presence within the psychic and social dynamic between mothers and their daughters.

The recognition, anatomization, and diagnosis of feminine disappointment in relation to domesticity and family have not, of course, been confined to writings coterminous with or emerging from the second-wave feminist movement. While the years from the 1920s to the 1960s are usually characterized as a kind of inter-feminist low-point falling between first-wave and second-wave feminism, a lull initiated by the winning of the vote by women in 1918 (or the extension of the suffrage to women on the same terms as men in 1928), and while an explicitly feminist analysis may indeed have been less culturally prominent at this time, nonetheless a concern with the feminine structures, and the costs to women, of the domestic and familial economy was not.10 One site of such concern was interwar literary fictions such as Delafield's, the so-called feminine middlebrow, a body of work in which domesticity is repeatedly an arena for feminine disappointment. The fiction designated by the term "middlebrow," and within which The Way Things Are stands foursquare, burgeoned in Britain from the 1920s onwards. These novels are usually seen as occupying a cultural position between the highbrow (the formal and intellectual challenges of modernism) and the lowbrow (the mass-produced and disposable romances and thrillers), and their proliferation is usually attributed to the expansion of the reading public in the wake of the 1870 and 1918 Education Acts, serviced by the many lending libraries (their class-related credentials calibrated [End Page 300] in relation to whether they were free or paying), coupled with the interwar expansion of the middle classes, the principal social group to which the middlebrow appealed.11 And of that social group, it was the women who most avidly consumed these novels: women were, throughout the twentieth century, the buyers and borrowers of almost three-quarters of all the fiction in circulation (Bloom 51).

It would be inaccurate to call the feminine middlebrow a literature of disappointment. The category, after all, includes the acid social analysis of Rose Macaulay's Crewe Train (1926), the comic debunking of social and literary pretension in Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm (1932), the cheerful self-satisfaction of Jan Struther's Mrs. Miniver (1939), the disparate disappointments of romantic love in Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer (1927) and The Weather in the Streets (1936), and the constricting and doubtful feminine worlds of Elizabeth Taylor's and Barbara Pym's fiction. But it is nonetheless the case that, within the wide canvas of the feminine middlebrow novel, there is a striking structuring of the narratives through the disappointments of their female protagonists. To examine the traffic in feminine disappointment in middlebrow fiction, I shall look at its psychic and social structures in three novels: as well as returning to Delafield's The Way Things Are, I shall consider E. Arnot Robertson's Ordinary Families, and Mary Renault's The Friendly Young Ladies. All three writers inhabited the solid center ground of the feminine middlebrow. Delafield had already published fourteen novels prior to The Way Things Are, and this novel was such a success that she wrote a dramatization of it, To See Ourselves (1930), staged in both London and New York. By the time Ordinary Families, Robertson's fourth novel, appeared, her readership was so loyal and enthusiastic that its publication was "one of the literary events of the season, book club choice of the year, and greeted with almost unanimously good reviews" (Ordinary Families xi). Renault, later the doyenne of middle-brow historical novelists, began her writing career with contemporary narratives such as The Friendly Young Ladies; her popularity and success was confirmed by her next novel, Return to Night (1947), which won a £40,000 MGM prize. All three novels were popular in the sense of being well received, high profile, and selling in significant numbers; in this they could be said to occupy the mainstream of the feminine middlebrow, and it is for this reason that I focus on them here, as indicative rather than exceptional literary texts.

In The Way Things Are, Laura came reluctantly to recognize the need to accept her own ordinariness if she were to reconcile herself to the mundane dissatisfactions of her familial lot. This notion of the ordinary, together with its countercategory of the extraordinary, is a binary through which many of these novels analyze—and sometimes [End Page 301] rationalize—feminine disappointment. The ordinary for Laura is indistinguishable from the average, the commonplace, and the mediocre. The extraordinary, on the other hand, is not just unusual, but is charged with the glamour and desirability of the exceptional and the unique. If, for Laura, the ordinary is intimately associated with the stultifying trivialities of the domestic, then disappointment becomes inevitable, as the extraordinary is impossible to sustain if you live in a house that needs cleaning, have children who need tending, or a relationship that is played out in a social as well as an emotional domain. The unique is thought to reside in a mutually confirming combination of subjectivity and circumstance, neither of which is compatible with the repetitions of the everyday—this is the disappointment that Laura finally has to face.12 To think differently is a romantic delusion.

Laura, we are told, sought to satisfy her cravings for romance by reading "an immense number of novels" (Delafield 91). So too does Elsie, the seventeen-year-old girl who is one of the protagonists of Renault's The Friendly Young Ladies. Living with her endlessly bickering parents, Elsie takes refuge in romantic fiction. The effect is insidious: "A groom from the local riding school, exercising one of the horses, cantered by, silhouetted grey against the sky, and her imagination added to him a cloak and a black mask, silver pistols, a posse of blood-hungry redcoats behind, and a sweet distraught heroine weeping for his peril in a manor over the hill" (Renault 11). Such imaginings do not serve Elsie well. She is not, the novel suggests, of a caliber to warrant them: "She was a dim, unobtrusive girl . . . afraid to grow up, lest the change should attract attention to her." The novel tracks her passage to still greater dimness and unobtrusiveness through the extinguishing of the glimmer of possibility that is allowed her at the outset of the novel, condensed in a faint and arrested gesture of agency and expectation as she stands in her parents' living room, "with her fingers contracted round the door-knob" (6), hoping to sneak out of the room before they notice she is there and recruit her to their row.

Elsie's ordinariness is set against the extraordinariness of her androgynous, bohemian, and rebellious sister Leo.13 With the introduction of Leo to the narrative, when Elsie runs away from home to live with her, it quickly becomes apparent that Elsie is no more than the naïve, painfully ordinary, and deluded feminine foil to Leo's extraordinary, unillusioned masculine femininity. The narrative focus returns only briefly to Elsie toward the end, as, her romantic delusions stripped from her, she has to face her own disappointment. She finds a traffic policeman to whom to surrender: [End Page 302]

Elsie considered him; his size, his sternness, his hieratic impersonality. They satisfied her; she saw that she had reached the end of her quest. She lingered for a moment; it was the last moment she would spend, to-day, alone with herself, and she wanted its emotional content to be worthy. But now, at the instant of her gesture, it seemed that already her life had moved on beyond it. Hers was not a spirit equipped to endure nakedness for long. . . . She was going to live in London now. There would be cinemas, shop-windows, perhaps a secretarial training now that it could be had near at hand; a twopenny library not miles away on the bus but in the next street. She was conscious of these thoughts diluting the high instant of tragedy. . . . [A]lready within her, truth was losing its sharpness, she was passing from the failure that has courage to know itself, into the deeper failure that disguises and evades. . . . [T]here had been moments when the life of her spirit had stirred and spoken. . . . She had let them go by; and now she could no longer remember them. In this last pause of hesitation she turned again from the knowledge of her own collusion, to the gesture she had planned. . . .

"I have come," she said clearly, "to give myself up."


Elsie is not even equal to the spiritual and emotional state of disappointment, for that implies a capacity for clear-sightedness—"the failure that has courage to know itself"—that in Elsie dissolves "at the instant of her gesture," replaced only by "the deeper failure that disguises and evades." Now, she will melt into the world of feminine banality, of cinemas, shop-windows, secretarial training, and a twopenny library, her demise making the world of aspiration, achievement, and masculine clear-sightedness safe for her extraordinary sister. Romance, The Friendly Young Ladies suggests, is the ordinary delusion of the ordinary person. Only those refined by higher sensibilities and extraordinary capacities can, or should, escape these delusions and the ordinary disappointments that quite properly attend them.

In giving herself up to the policeman, Elsie is also giving up on herself, relinquishing her past aspirations. In so doing her past changes shape, recast as comprising impossible delusions to which her impoverished spirit had no right to lay claim. Her imagined future too is remade, the romantic fantasies of the self giving way to the properly trivial feminine distractions of the cinema and shop window. As her horizons contract, Elsie's disappointment brings only [End Page 303] momentary recognition of the diminished self behind this change. Laura, in contrast, was clear-sighted enough to know that her future was no longer to be shaped by that anticipatory romantic "unless—" predicated on an imagined amelioration, but was to become a matter of enduring the endlessly repeating domestic present—the servants will continue to leave, Alfred will continue to talk about sugar beet, and pudding will still have to be decided on. For both Elsie and Laura, disappointment constitutes the means whereby their lives' imagined and actual trajectories were forcibly reconfigured.

In The Poetics of Disappointment, Quinney suggests that "to cease to believe in the destiny of the self"—as both Laura and Elsie are required to do—"empties time of its teleological promise," erasing its progressive character and reducing it to an "iterative stutter," a pattern of succession and repetition (8). For both characters, however, the loss of that promise is compounded by a continuing recognition of its reach and purchase. This recognition is reminiscent of Barthes's observation concerning what he terms "exile" from "the amorous condition": that is, the state of having lost not the loved object, but the amorous passion. In this state of "amorous mourning, the object is neither dead nor remote" (Barthes 106):

As long as this strange mourning lasts, I will therefore have to undergo two contrary miseries: to suffer from the fact that the other is present (continuing, in spite of himself, to wound me) and to suffer from the fact that the other is dead (dead at least as I loved him). . . . A double lack: I cannot even invest my misery, as I could when I suffered from being in love. In those days I desired, dreamed, struggled; the benefit lay before me, merely delayed, traversed by contretemps. Now, no more resonance. Everything is calm, and that is worse.


This "exile," Barthes suggests, maroons the subject in a stagnant present. No longer able, through desire, dream, and struggle, to figure a heroic self in an imagined future, he is becalmed in a present with "no more resonance." Lynne Pearce glosses this "double lack" of disappointed love as a compound comprising the loss of the other as a presence in one's life and the loss of one's desire for them (Feminism 170). Moreover, it is not only that the other, whether amorous, textual, or imagined ideal, is lost, but also it is the part of the self—the ego-ideal, or what Juliet Mitchell calls the "heroic self" (16)—constituted through a relation with that other that is also lost. By this account, disappointment effects a strange temporal condensation of a slightly different order from the one posited by Quinney. The "iterative stutter" of the present might fracture the link to an imagined future, but [End Page 304] it neither erases the past—its hopes and expectations—nor produces a complete rupture with them; rather, it preserves or embalms them, severing their live connection with the present and with the imagined future self. The past comes to stand in relation to the present as an ossified and dreadful but unavoidable memorial to lost possibility. Disappointment inheres not only within the "iterative stutter" of the present, but also more precisely in the continued witnessing, from the vantage point of the present, of the defunct expectations of the past and a future of unrelieved and repetitive monotony.

The reformation of temporality in disappointment's reconstitution of the subject gives shape to E. Arnot Robertson's feminine bildungsroman, Ordinary Families. The narrative opens with the first-person protagonist, Lallie Rush, recalling her ten-year-old self. By this age, she was already convinced of time's malleability: "I had already in me the seeds of the obsession with time which developed later: I can remember no period when I was not uneasily aware of time as something that slipped by too quickly unless I thought about it at intervals, when his passage would slow up a little" (Robertson 16). Lallie's desire to control time accompanies her desire to control others—here, her already remarkably beautiful younger sister, Margaret, by telling her that she's not really her sister, but "had been taken out of an orphan home for [her] to play with" (19). This desire for control is tracked, once again, through the protagonist's changing analysis and negotiation of the ordinary, signaled from the outset by the novel's title. Lallie begins from the premise that her family, which has a pronounced sense of its own distinctive identity, is no ordinary family, but she comes to amend this in the light of Margaret's contention that "I suppose all families are like ours, really. Not ordinary when you know them" to conclude that people are "ordinary only on the outside" (138, 139). Ordinariness, in contrast to the other two novels, from then on occupies the place of the longed-for fantasy state, principally through the figure of Gordon Summers, with whom Lallie falls in love and finally marries. Shortly after meeting him, she muses, "He was thoroughly nice, I thought: he talked of ordinary things in an ordinary way. . . . After sixteen years of family life, I found this entirely charming" (186–87). Gradually, inevitably (given the novel's credo), Gordon's ordinariness reveals itself to be as fictional and illusory as everyone else's, his past life as complicated, his present self as riven and driven by unresolved and uncontainable desires.

Lallie's disappointment results from a forced recognition of the incommensurability of her desire for control and knowledge of others with their own opaque and unconscious wishes. The enchantment she had initially felt with regard to Gordon's ordinariness dissolves in the [End Page 305] face of her recognition that he will never feel about her as she does about him. The final words of the novel compound this disappointment, as her sister, the beautiful Margaret, unthinkingly furthers the spoiling of the romantic illusion attaching to Gordon:

I went into the bedroom to take off my things.

They had not moved when I came back. Margaret was in our worn armchair, and he was bending over the gas-ring by the fire, but they were tense and still—unnaturally stilled for me by the sudden stopping of Time as I stood in the doorway—and looking at one another with the expression I knew, having seen it once before.

Even this she must have, in all but fact at least. Even this. Gordon was fond of me: actually nothing would happen. For me, Time would start again, sooner or later, would fling tortured seconds into the gulf that had opened in it once more, would flow on and obliterate it at last. . . .

Time. Time was starting now slowly, agonizingly, gathering way. Time, flow on.


The stillness of the two figures fixes them as an image for Lallie's eyes, and, as Barthes suggests, in "the amorous realm, the most painful wounds are inflicted more often by what one sees than by what one knows. . . . Precise, complete, definitive, it leaves no room for me, down to the last finicky detail: I am excluded from it" (132). Lallie's disappointment is figured in her exclusion from the image and matched by the resulting unwilled stalling of the steady onward flow of time. In the opening chapter, Lallie's assertion that she could control time accompanied her bid to control her sister; here, in contrast, it is clear that she is in control of neither. Losing, first, her sense of her family as unique, and recognizing the ordinariness of their dysfunctionality, she is then compelled to abandon her fantasy sense of Gordon as safely and functionally ordinary. The disappointments entailed in both cases are engendered by the unknowability and uncontrollability of other people. Time's teleological promise for Lallie had been bound up in fantasies of control and predictability. The frozen moment of her disappointment arrests time, this moment of temporal paralysis countered by Lallie's closing imperious imperative: "Time, flow on." The "iterative stutter" of stopped time is replaced by its willed return as a progressive force empowered to obliterate this moment of painful recognition. Her disappointment can only be kept at bay by the judicious retention of a fantasy of agency and control already revealed as illusory.

Lallie's disappointments are never feminized by means of an association with a diminished and impoverished feminine popular culture, [End Page 306] as Laura's and Elsie's are through their attachments to romance. Nonetheless, the text marks disappointment out as a feminine territory in a number of other ways. It does so, first, through the privileged sense of Lallie's interiority produced by the voice and point of view of the first-person narrator, which afford Lallie's changing perceptions and understandings an authority and gravitas beyond the individual. Second, the novel prioritizes the anatomization of complex and ambiguous networks of feeling between female characters—between Lallie and Margaret, Marnie, and Esther MacDonald, in particular. Finally, the novel constructs a series of feminine counterpoints to Lallie's own disappointment in most of the other women in the novel—in, for example, her sister Dru's retreat to heartiness as compensation for her failure to net a husband, in her mother's sudden and unexplained renunciation of her guiding Catholicism, and in the late revelation of the respectable middle-class Mrs. Cottrell's failed bid to escape the confines of her marriage in order to have a career. Only Margaret is protected from disappointment by the hardness and impermeability endowed by her beauty.

The designation of disappointment as feminine in these novels, whether through its associations with a deluded romanticism or through the more formal means of voice and focalization, is not to argue that the relation is essentialized. On the contrary, the novels map the social constitution of feminine disappointment as much as they delineate its psychic structures and narrate its consequences. That there is a historical specificity to the forms, channels, and dynamics of feminine disappointment—that is, that the social and the psychic travel the same roads, often hand in hand—is suggested by these and many other middlebrow novels. The Way Things Are, for example, insists on attributing Laura's beliefs, desires, and anxieties to her cultural moment. Her "careful agnosticism," we are told, "belonged to her date just as surely as the habit of orthodox belief did to that of an earlier generation." Her longing for romance is just as much a product of her social position—specifically her class, her age, and her gender—as is her agnosticism: "Laura, for the sake of her self-esteem, strenuously ignored the fact that in all probability she was sharing this desire [for an emotional life] with a large number of middle-class, middle-aged Englishwomen all over the country" (Delafield 8). Similarly, her ultimate renunciation of Duke is attributed not to any individual qualities, but to her social and material circumstances: "the things of respectability . . . kept one respectable" (336). Laura perceives her respectability to be conferred—or, more accurately, lent—by the circular dynamic of her relation to the social structures and practices that she reproduces and by which she is reproduced. [End Page 307]

Laura's reluctant awareness of the manner in which her beliefs, ideals, and decisions are not the properties of her unique individuality, but rather the shared fate of a whole class of women like her, feeds her disappointment: it is yet another way in which her founding fantasy of uniqueness is undone. However, it is also indicative of the novel's production of disappointment as the marker of more widespread structures of feminine feeling at this time. The novel anatomizes the process of subjectification as produced by and embedded within broader contemporary socio-historical circumstances. The fabric of the novels refuses any absolute distinction between public discourse and private feeling; rather, each inhabits, is shaped by, and responds to the other. Two instances from the novels might exemplify these processes: first, the invocation of a taken-for-granted popular Freudianism, and, second, these narratives' preoccupation with the so-called servant problem, which was the increasing difficulty from the early 1900s through to the 1950s of the middle classes to secure for themselves the domestic servants they sought. Both suggest a two-way traffic in disappointment between the social and the psychic.

The popular Freudianism of these novels, as of many others, attributes to sexuality an omnipresence and omnipotence, casting it as a force to be resisted only at the cost of enormous damage to one's psychic wellbeing.14 There are countless passing references in The Way Things Are to the subconscious self (48), sex-complexes (73), repressions (141), neuroses (109), inhibitions (152), dreams (206), and nymphomania (270). In Ordinary Families, the fatherson relationship is mapped through a clear if implicit reference to the oedipal trajectory (Robertson 91–92, 120). And in The Friendly Young Ladies, the comparison of Elsie's psychic structures with Mme. Tussaud's (with "Love, represented by kings and queens in velvet, on the upper floors, and Sex, like the Chamber of Horrors, tucked away underground" [Renault 11]), relies on a notion of the unconscious (or at least of a subconscious), while Peter, the object of Elsie's romantic fantasies, is adept at the glib and inexpert bandying of psychoanalytic concepts: "The word transference floated, with the comfortable assurance of text-book and experiment, across his mind" (35). All three novels situate their protagonists' disappointments in relation to a paradigm of subjectivity and sexuality that had only entered into the domain of popular middle-class culture in the early 1920s. Its invocation serves as an index of the modernity (its presence or lack, for better or worse) of those characters versed in it. But it also confirms a sense of the presence and potency of unconscious desires and anxieties, and brings femininity and sexuality into undeniable conjunction with each other. Popular Freudianism becomes a means to articulate the sense there really is more to life than ordering pudding [End Page 308] and planting bulbs, and confers a subterranean foundation to feminine disappointment by positing a psychic substantiveness to feminine desires that cannot simply be subsumed, or contained, by a dutiful adherence to the domestic. The real costs of a wholly domestic femininity are made apparent by showing the weight of what it precludes.

Just as popular Freudianism constituted a new and specific language for the delineation of disappointment, so the more prosaic historically determined circumstance of "the servant problem" provided another. For complex and much debated reasons, the first half of the twentieth century witnessed the decline of domestic service as a mainstay of middle-class household organization and management. As working-class women increasingly took work in factories, shops, and offices, fewer were available to work as maids or cooks in the homes of the middle classes; hence, the much-rehearsed pre-occupation with "the servant problem" in middle-class middlebrow culture.15 This preoccupation is manifested in various registers, from the self-deprecating humor of The Way Things Are and the earnest empathy of Lettice Cooper's The New House to the frankly offensive caricature of the imbecilic Olive in Ordinary Families. This preoccupation is, Richard Dyer has argued in relation to the film Brief Encounter (1945), double-edged: "for all the patronisation of the working-class characters, there is surely also a sense of envy" (61). There is without doubt a patronizing othering of the working-class characters through humor in both Jan Struther's and Delafield's caricatured reproduction of working-class accents: "there's a norrible smell," proclaims Mrs. Downce, the housekeeper in Mrs. Miniver (Struther 42); "Bleck or whayte?" asks a waitress proffering a coffee pot (Delafield 320). More striking, however, is the sense, common to many of these novels, of a powerful inverted class envy, whereby middle-class women attribute to their servants a greater degree of agency, power, mobility, economic independence, and even privilege and freedom than they accord themselves: servants decide when to leave and when to stay; they can pick and choose their employers; they earn a wage; they can even have illegitimate babies, be rewarded by their employers by a wage-rise, and then commit infanticide without penalty.16 In Lettice Cooper's The New House, this envy is made absolutely explicit: the middle-class Rhoda reflects on her feelings about Ivy: "It's absurd, thought Rhoda, to envy this child, but I believe I do. She's independent. She's a servant in our house, but she can go whenever she wants. She has her good times and enjoys them. She's out in the world, at grips with it, working and keeping herself, not just a parasite" (103). The combination of envy and superiority (for all her analytical reflection, Rhoda still infantilizes Ivy as "this [End Page 309] child") endows the disappointment of the middle-class protagonists with a class specificity: their longings are structured and articulated through an explicit recognition of their own class position, and what they conceive as its superiority in cultural capital, but to which they also attribute a series of lacks—a lack of earning power and its accompanying freedoms, but also a more general sense of their own lack of a vibrant affective life: Ivy is not only more independent, but she also "has her good times and enjoys them." Such formulations are based on a non-recognition of middle-class privilege, but they are also striking for the way that they annex the historical phenomenon of a shortage of working-class women willing to enter domestic service to the broader task of anatomizing these middle-class protagonists' sense of being trapped, immobilized by their conflicting desires. Middle-class feminine disappointment is formed by a self-comparison with, and envy of, the working-class women who were increasingly leaving them to their own domestic devices. In these instances, disappointment takes shape within channels carved out by the specificity of contemporary ways of thinking and socio-historical circumstance. It might be feminine, and it might be pervasive, but to show its generation and transmission within the particularities of its cultural moment insists on its being read within a broader nexus of cultural and gender relations, rather than just as a phenomenon of an essentialized and deracinated individual feminine psyche.

In their production of the disappointed feminine subject, these three novels articulate the impossibility of any reconciliation between romantic promise and familial domesticity. All three also move beyond the individualization of this tension and into the structural and institutional forms and dynamics of the middle-class family and its modes of living as mechanisms of feminine constraint. While the incommensurability of romance and domesticity is a familiar preoccupation in women's writing, the reconfigurations and revaluations of the meanings of gender and domesticity in the wake of the Great War generated a historically specific inflection to their manifestations and, consequently, to the instances of feminine disappointment with which I am concerned.17

In her evaluation of the impact of the Great War on the cultural formations and valuations of gender, Judy Giles argues that the war produced a rupture with "Victorian theories of sexual differentiation" (Women 21), while Susan Kingsley Kent finds a more conscious ideological investment in the war's potential to put a brake on the shifts in gender relations currently in train (12–13).18 Both agree, however, that in the aftermath of the war, heroic masculinity appeared both untenable and bankrupt as an ideal within a domestic national context, though it survived in the fantasized territories and relations [End Page 310] of Empire.19 Novels such as Robertson's Four Frightened People (1931) suggest the extent to which both masculinity and femininity, fundamentally changed in the postwar world, were refracted and reconceived through fantasies of Empire. The novel explicitly repudiates the discourses of masculine heroism and adventuring associated with both the Great War and with the popular narratives of Empire; instead, the novel explores the relation of these self-consciously reformed, postwar masculinities and femininities—sensible, clear-sighted, passionate but unromantic, cultured, and invested in heroism only in the guise of fortitude and as a test of "civilized" values—to the colonial enterprise.

If heroic masculinity could be reconfigured on the margins of empire, it seems that it also survived, saved from the ignoble and emasculating comforts of suburban domesticity, in the aesthetic ideals and manifestos of the modernist avant-garde exemplified by figures such as Wyndham Lewis and Le Corbusier. Christopher Reed has argued that, in reaction against Aestheticism, the Arts and Crafts movement, and the "domestic modernism" of the Bloomsbury group, as well as against the democratizing impact of interwar social changes, modernism was informed by an explicitly masculine heroic ideal: "Exploiting the Odyssean contrast of heroic mission with domestic stasis, the modernist avant-garde positioned itself in opposition to the home" (2). "Heroism," Reed contends, became the counterterm to "housework" (2), and heroes didn't need homes, but "machine[s] for living in" (3).20

This shoring up of heroic masculinity by an avant-garde repudiation of the domestic was a reaction against the changing relations of class—in particular, the expansion in size, political power, and cultural prominence of the middle classes—as well as of gender. According to Alison Light, the reconstitution of the nation in the aftermath of a profoundly destabilizing world war involved a reconfiguration of middle-class domestic values as the proper and defining location of the English character. Her study defines the interwar years as a matrix in which particular modes of middle-class femininity became culturally prominent in the reproduction of a newly domesticated and inward-looking model of Englishness, which she terms "conservative modernity."21 These years saw not only an expansion and domestication of the middle class, she suggests, but also, through the domestication of the national character, its feminization. Hence, by extension, the idea of the English nation itself—for which the middle class increasingly stood in hegemonic synecdoche—became "at once less imperial and more inward-looking, more domestic and more private" and was thereby increasingly associated with a set of values hitherto marked as feminine (Light 8). Femininity is not [End Page 311] at this time the repressed or diminished other of the discourses of dominant masculine and conservative national identity, but itself becomes a key constitutive bearer of many of the values of those discourses. Femininity—at least certain kinds of femininity—moved culturally and ideologically center-stage. Moreover, Light suggests, a middlebrow cultural aesthetic was one of the places in which the rapidly transforming and newly feminized middle class redefined itself: "the new accents of the British middlebrow between the wars [helped to shape] that idea of a nation of benign crossword puzzlers and home owners, enjoying privacy and moderation and domestic consumption, and indifferent to Politics at large." Feminized and privatized middle-class family practices, mores, and values were ensconced as the norm but also presented, as the classless ideal, a benignly domestic national self: "the pleasures of domestic life were not merely a complementary alternative to those of the public sphere but infinitely superior: home, indoors, could provide proper values and behaviours . . . which could become a model for a better public life" (106). The rhetoric was no longer of two spheres, the public and the private, complementary but separate, with "home" figuring as a retreat from the exigencies of the public world. Instead, those spheres were increasingly represented as dimensions of a single domain, governed by shared values and common practices; by this account, the domestic was increasingly understood as a template for a public world in sore need of reformation.22

Light's account, itself part of a much broader critical interest in the histories of masculinity and domesticity, constitutes a compelling characterization of the reshaping of the equation between femininity and the domestic (an equation that in itself, of course, was nothing new) in the interwar years.23 In particular, its emphasis on the ideal of a more domestic and privatized Englishness raises important questions about the rehearsal of feminine disappointment in these middlebrow novels. The discursive elevation of domesticity as a defining site of national character, and the domestication of ideals of masculinity, coincided with a pronounced insistence in these middlebrow novels on the exploration of the disappointments of the domestic for women, and this coincidence raises its own questions. If the femininities explored in these novels are constituted by constraint, compromise, and disappointment, then we might ask what the costs are of marking out middle-class femininity as the bearer of this new, more domesticated kind of Englishness. In other words, how should we understand the place of nation within the traffic in disappointment between gender and domesticity at this juncture?

First, there is the question of the gendering of the reserve, understatement, and self-effacement that became the defining characteristics [End Page 312] of this domesticated and middlebrow version of Englishness. As the nation sought to redefine itself within a new world order in the wake of the Great War, self-deprecation might signify an appealing modesty in the middle-class masculine subject. However, when relocated to the feminine subject, such self-abnegation not only has a different set of signifiers, but also is frequently conjoined to, and articulated within, a structuring dynamic of feminine disappointment. While the rhetoric of unpretentious domesticated modernity shares a certain amount with the discourses of feminine disappointment explored here, in that both are premised on a diminished sense of a previous self, where they differ is in relation to a sense of teleological purpose: the national self, however shaken by the Great War, is reshaped precisely in order to preserve and remodel a sense of destiny—to make for itself a new future. The drawing in of the national horns, the remaking of the national self as inward-looking, minding its own business, at its best and truest to itself in the context of home and family, constitutes an ideological move effected precisely to safeguard the newly vulnerable masculine subject. Teleology is not foregone, but recast within a new set of coordinates in order to ensure the future of the nation.

Making the home the arena for the performance of the national self meant something different, of course, for the middle-class women who were already defined by their domesticity, or lack of it.24 The elevation of the domestic subject to national subject raised the stakes with regard to women's investment and expertise in maintaining and safeguarding the home at the same time that they were also being raised by the so-called servant problem, a process that itself also contributed to the increasing privatization of domestic space. To jeopardize the home—whether through extra-marital attachments, dysfunctional children, or housewifely inadequacies—was no longer just a personal matter, but one that spoke to wider questions of national value and identity. If the home was conceived as a proper space for the formation, reproduction, and celebration of the masculine self, rather than simply a place of recuperation and retreat from the cares and strife of the masculine public world, to threaten its stability could be understood as undermining of masculinity itself. And if the home was newly identified with, and validated as, the epitome of what was best about the English, then self-sacrifice for the good of the nation could no longer be seen only as a masculine matter undertaken on the battlefield. The domestication of that self-sacrifice made it also a feminine matter undertaken at home. Feminine selflessness and domestic duties become, by this account, matters of national as well as familial loyalty.

The diminished and disappointed feminine self can thus all too easily be read as a dimension of the privatized, domesticated national [End Page 313] self found at the heart of so much interwar middlebrow fiction. Sometimes that domesticated self is celebrated through the feminine voices of this fiction, as it is in Mrs. Miniver. Sometimes the celebration is tempered by a deflationary humor, where some of the costs of the domestic to those responsible for it are allowed to interrupt the celebrations, as in Delafield's best-known (and less acid) analysis of middle-class family mores, Diary of a Provincial Lady (1930). But in the three novels examined here, the discourse of feminine disappointment is profoundly disruptive of that celebration. These novels might demonstrate the appeal of a subjectivity predicated on a quiet domesticity (and it is part of the power of these narratives that they do not disallow that appeal by dismissing it as trivial and worthless). But they also insist on the subjective cost of this appeal—a cost generated by the irreconcilability of romance and everyday life, by the continued deceptive predication of femininity on an expectation that they might be reconciled, and on the sense that the internalization of that failure is structural rather than individual. These fictions of disappointment participate in, and to a degree endorse, the terms of conservative modernity. But they do so while demonstrating the ways that the feminine "self-disenchanted self" is not only the casualty of this process, but also its engine. Through the lowering of horizons and the retraction of expectation, disappointment confirms and approves the diminished stature of the feminine subject and effects her reconciliation to the culturally ascribed and sanctioned vision of her lot, which her prior hopes, ideals, and expectations had exceeded. Disappointment thereby normalizes the contraction of the self that it effects but seems only to witness. In its interruption of teleology, as in its production of a self deprived of a destiny, disappointment produces the self that thereafter apprehends its disappointment as a symptom of something prior. It is a performative masquerading as a done deal. These novels show the place of disappointment not only in "the way things are," but also—and more importantly—in the way they come to be as they are.

Hilary Hinds

Hilary Hinds <> teaches in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, UK. This article represents the early stages of a larger research project investigating the structuring of middlebrow women's fiction in the middle years of the twentieth century through trajectories of disappointment. She also continues to publish on early modern sectarian women's writing.


I am grateful to the following for their comments on earlier drafts of this article: Laura Doan, Richard Dyer, Keith Harvey, Lisa Henderson, Diana Holmes, Gail Hornstein, Annette Kuhn, Kathy Mezei, Lynne Pearce, and Jackie Stacey. I also benefited from the discussion, and particularly from the comments, of Sneja Gunew and Beth Seaton following a presentation of this work at the Centre for Women's and Gender Studies, UBC, Canada in March 2006. [End Page 314]


1. These titles are too numerous to cite comprehensively. Indicative publications include Ahmed, Brennan, Caruth, Felman and Laub, Ngai, Nussbaum, Paster, Probyn, Sedgwick and Frank, Spacks, Spelman, and Stachniewski.

2. The states, registers, and feelings that Ngai theorizes, and which provide her chapter titles, are "tone," "animatedness," "envy," "irritation," "anxiety," "stuplimity" (sic), "paranoia," and "disgust."

3. I am grateful to Richard Dyer for posing this question during a conversation about an earlier draft of this article.

4. "Structure of feeling" is Raymond Williams's term for the "felt sense of the quality of life at a particular place and time: a sense of the ways in which the particular activities combined into a way of thinking and living" (47).

5. A. K. H. Boyd, in The Recreations of a Country Parson. Second Series, notes the difficulty of matching disappointment to an exact counter-term:

I am going to write Concerning Disappointment and Success. In the days when I studied metaphysics, I should have objected to that title, inasmuch as the antithesis is imperfect between the two things named in it. Disappointment and Success are not properly antithetic; Failure and Success are. Disappointment is the feeling caused by failure, and caused also by other things besides failure. Failure is the thing; disappointment is the feeling caused by the thing; while success is the thing, and not the feeling.


6. See Quinney for a brief, but fascinating discussion of the etymology of "disappointment"; particularly interesting is her analysis of how current usage reveals traces of this etymological history (1–2).

7. Landman suggests that what distinguishes disappointment from regret is the former's constitution through failed expectations: "it is more precise to say that I am disappointed with than I regret an unexpected negative outcome" (47). On regret, see too Spelman 103–07 and Ahmed 118–19.

8. Berlant's The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture makes a further decisive contribution to this area of thought, but was published too late for me to discuss here.

9. See for example Gavron, French, Lessing, and both of Oakley's texts listed in the works cited. Arguably, the recent American television series Desperate Housewives depends on the broad cultural recognition and acceptance of feminist analyses of the frustrations and disappointments of middle-class marriage and the psychic, sexual, and social tensions, contradictions and subterfuges that are masked by its smooth veneer of unruffled respectability. [End Page 315]

10. See Beddoe (135–40), Kent (6–7, 33–34, 120–21, 132–34, 140–43), and Wallace (41–45) on the tension in the 1920s between "old" feminism, with its emphasis on equal rights, and "new" feminism, which concentrated on the welfare of women at home and campaigned for family allowances.

11. For definitions and discussions of the middlebrow, see Beauman's Very Great Profession, Botshon and Goldsmith, Briganti and Mezei's "House Haunting" and Domestic Modernism, Humble, Light, and Rubin; on late-twentieth-century feminine middlebrow, see Radner; and on the expansion of the reading public and patterns of reading, see Beddoe (126–27), Hanson (7–10), and Bloom (29–70).

12. Langbauer offers a comprehensive overview of theories of the everyday, from Freud, to Horkheimer and Adorno, to Lefebvre and de Certeau. Of particular interest in relation to this article is the emphasis placed on gendering of the notion of the everyday (4–5), and on the seriality that theorists have agreed lies at its heart (131)—a repetitiveness which in itself renders impossible the unrepeatability on which uniqueness (the counterterm to Laura's "average") relies.

13. On the significance of sisterhood as kinship bond and as symbol in women's fiction of this period, see Wallace.

14. This oversimplification or misrepresentation of Freud is exemplified by the suggestion (twice) in The Way Things Are (262, 292) that Freud's conclusions were at one with one of William Blake's "Proverbs of Hell" from '"The Marriage of Heaven and Hell": "Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires" (185).On the popularization of Freud and psychoanalysis, see Giles, Women 122–23 and Parlour 122–23; Kent 102–113; Humble 225–30; and Light 102–04.

15. The preoccupation with "the servant problem" was not confined to middlebrow culture: Virginia Woolf returned repeatedly to the "question of Nelly, the perennial question" in her diaries (see Giles Women, Identity and Private Life in Britain: 141–42 and a continued discussion of Nelly in The Parlour and the Suburb: 72–4). On domestic service, see Beddoe 48–53, 61–63; Light 119–21; Humble 114–24; Giles Women 132–64 and Parlour 65–100.

16. This characterization relates to The Way Things Are and Ordinary Families. The Friendly Young Ladies, with its bohemian houseboat setting, offers no comment on "the servant problem."

17. On the incommensurability of romance and domesticity, see for example Pearce, Romance Writing, and Dyer, 38–40, 49–53.

18. On the remodeling of masculinity following the Great War, see also Bourke.

19. See The Friendly Young Ladies for Elsie's romantic fantasies about Lawrence of Arabia, "[c]ulled from popular biographies and the yellow press" (Renault 19), which herald the initial arrival of Peter, the [End Page 316] most sustained (and damaging) object of her fantastic longing for romance.

20. See Giles, Parlour 141–42, on the relation between modernism and the domestic. See also Reed, and Briganti and Mezei, "House Haunting" and Domestic Modernism.

21. One important site for the reproduction of this characterization of Englishness was popular travel commentaries such as H. V. Morton's In Search of England and The Call of England, and J. B. Priestley's English Journey, which celebrate the national "home" as residing not in the pomp and ceremony of the metropolis, but in the quiet decencies lived out in, and embodied by, the countrysides, villages, and small towns of England. The popular success of and demand for these books is striking: both In Search of England and its companion volume The Call of England went into six editions within two years of their publication. The former, a record of Morton's journey through England, first appeared serially in that bastion of popular conservatism, Daily Express, and generated what Morton calls an "overwhelming correspondence." The reason for this enthusiastic response from readers, Morton speculates, is that "never before have so many people been searching for England" (In Search vii). This England, however, is also thought to be under threat in the new social circumstances of the 1920s and 1930s: it is in need of searching out, nurturing, and valuing before it is eroded by the creeping and corrosive "red rust" of suburbia (Forster's image, from Howards End, 29–30, 141–42, 329), or swamped by the "chars-à-banc parties from large manufacturing towns" (Morton, In Search viii).

22. This was not solely an interwar phenomenon but has remained a powerful rhetorical tendency within post-World-War-II British politics, finding its apotheosis in the figure of Margaret Thatcher, with her repeated invocation of what "every housewife knows," and the media dubbing of her government as her "kitchen cabinet"; see McNeil.

23. For an invaluable survey of the critical literature on masculinity and domesticity, see Francis; Tosh, whose work also suggests a Victorian precedent for this interwar ideal of "domestic masculinity"; and Webster, who extends the debate into the post-World-War-II period.

24. For a middlebrow protagonist defined by her refusal of domestic femininity, see Macaulay.

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