- The Origins of the BroadbrowHugh Walpole and Russian Modernism in 1917
In his London Letter of May 1929 in the New York Herald Tribune, Hugh Walpole described the selection committee of the newly formed Book Society as "broadbrow".1 The term is an important one for the emerging mediums of the early twentieth century: radio, film, and their overlap with the older forms of theatre and the novel. This article focuses on the cultural construction of the term broadbrow and the artistic influence of Walpole's sojourn in Russia during the First World War on his novels which adopt symbolism and ekphrasis.2 Walpole used the word "broadbrow" describe the intellectual combination of the playwright and actress Clemence Dane,3 academic Professor George Gordon, and authors Sylvia Lynd, J. B. Priestley, and himself. To these we may add the contributions of Edmund Blunden, who worked alongside Gordon and Priestley on the Book Society selection committee by 1932. Together they had wide-ranging experience of the arts, and by invoking the term Walpole made a contradistinction with his imagined "highbrow" committee: Aldous Huxley, Raymond Mortimer, Edith Sitwell, Edwin Muir.4 The term came to be associated with Walpole and the Book Society and the discussion of taste in the 1920s and 1930s.
The more commonly used "middlebrow" has received much critical attention. Joan Shelley Rubin's pioneering work on the emergence of the American middlebrow has led to valuable work on reevaluating women's reading in Britain by Alison Light and Nicola Humble. Janice Radway and Nicola Wilson have examined the work of the bookclubs in this commodification of the readable novel. Rosa M. Bracco's Merchants of Hope and Kate Macdonald's edited collection recapture the masculine middlebrow. This scholarship reclaims and questions the territory of the middle-list, the works of writers which sell steadily but are neither very popular fastsellers nor works which gain acclaim and endure. Journalists, intellectuals, and authors seeking higher literary rewards looked down on this market, as we [End Page 280] see in Erica Brown and Mary Grover's edited collection which contextualises the "Battle of the Brows" between and after the wars. In the UK Allen Lane's famous sixpenny Penguins were drawn from these authors.
Allied to class distinction, but not restricted to it, the middlebrow stood for comfortable taste, middle price brackets in theatre and cinema seats, and book prices from 6d to 3s 6d. Such audiences could be wooed across media boundaries as Eliot Stannard, the scriptwriter, aimed to do when he sought to "turn into picture-goers" these middlingly cultured book readers through his film adaptations.5 In film studies researchers have explored case studies of middlebrow adaptation, as in Lawrence Napper's work on Priestley's Good Companions in British cinema and Keith Williams's work on the broadbrow and the big screen in his cross disciplinary book on H. G. Wells.6 This article connects with this scholarship and others by focusing on the less used term "broadbrow" and the neglected author Hugh Walpole.
This article argues that the "battle of the brows" between lowbrow, high-brow, and middlebrow in periodical press in the 1920s has obscured the richer qualities of the term "broadbrow", whose meaning had deeper resonances in the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century. Walpole's Russian experience in the First World War was formative: his wide reading across all fiction and his eclectic and voracious consumption of Russian modernism and culture formed an attitude to the arts which was more inclusive and less class-ridden than that which prevailed in Britain. Walpole's and Wells's definition of the broadbrow embraced an aspiration to be open to all experiences and to all knowledge which engendered "a noble and broad view of life". This openness was important to those who were finding a place within the emerging mediums of radio and film and seeking to engage and enlighten audiences of every kind.
Walpole's distinguishing quality was his ability to engage with all the arts. He read fiction voraciously, attended the theatre weekly, saw plays and operas on repeated occasions, and collected pictures and sculpture for his...