THIRTY OR FORTY YEARS AGO, in the United States at least, we confidently used the terms “highbrow,” “middlebrow,” and “lowbrow” to describe not only reading matter but all sorts of cultural artifacts; and we generally assumed that the terms described quality or value as well as defining the social and intellectual class of people who chose one instead of the others. When it came to the study of British literature, we learned that the novel and the popular novel were (in the beginning) one and the same: that when the fictional prose narrative became a recognized literary form in English it was distinguished by its commercial character and its wide readership. Novels were the reading of the middle classes and particularly of women, tainted both by gender and by the disrepute attached by writing with an eye on public reception rather than artistic integrity. By the 1840s, however, novels had become a vehicle for serious thought. For a very short time, best-selling authors were also great writers. A serious novelist could speak with a voice of cultural authority–and also earn a substantial income. There were, of course, light and ephemeral fictions (and whole classes of sub-literature such as penny dreadfuls and cheap romances), but in the middle of the nineteenth century, we once learned, it was generally assumed that a book read by a great many people was probably worth reading.