Here's the abstract:
This thesis examines the romantic thrillers of Mary Stewart, which were internationally bestselling novels in the post-war British fiction marketplace. Through my reading of Stewart, I nuance current critical perceptions of the mid-twentieth century middlebrow novel, which, I argue, is characterised in part by a self-conscious investigation of its position within the parameters of highbrow literature and popular fiction. As a critical category which is defined by its relation to literary value, I argue that works considered to be middlebrow are inherently self-reflective and metafictive, seeking to discreetly undermine the hierarchical structures which attempt to contain them. I posit the term ‘soft-metafiction’ to describe this; as opposed to ‘hard’ metafiction, which explicitly and insistently proclaims its self-awareness, soft-metafiction is involved in an understated, often sub-textual, exploration of its status as text. I argue that Stewart’s work is characterised by frequent use of intertextual reference and metafictive reflection on the nature and purpose of text as a concept. In Chapter One, I discuss Stewart’s engagement with notions of canonicity and literary value, showing how she defends the reading of middlebrow fiction against such figures as Q.D. Leavis, and how she challenges the position of women within the masculinised canon. In Chapter Two, I demonstrate how Stewart reflects upon the generic conventions of romance, fairytale, crime and gothic fiction to raise questions about gender and genre. Chapter Three explores how Stewart reflects on the nature of texts, and how they function in relation to history (both personal and national), memory, and identity. Throughout, I demonstrate Stewart’s interest in the various ways that text is categorised: generically, hierarchically and canonically. In doing so, I demonstrate that Stewart’s novels are more than, as one reviewer writes, ‘charming little love stor[ies]’: rather, they are intellectually searching, self-aware works, with a serious interest in their wider literary context. By mapping Stewart’s work in terms of the soft-metafictive, I aim to open this term up as a wider area for study within the middlebrow, and to prompt a recalibration of critical understandings of the British fiction marketplace in the mid-twentieth century.