Dianne F. Sadoff, “The Silver Fork Novel, 1824-41”


Between 1824, when Theodore Hook’s sketches, Sayings and Doings, were published as a volume, and 1841, when Catherine Gore’s Cecil, a Peer, appeared, the silver fork novel was among the most popular fictional modes. This sub-genre rewrote Jane Austen’s narratives for a more exclusive class and a new, reform-minded middling reader with class aspirations, thus preparing for the mid-century emergence of William Makepeace Thackeray’s and Charles Dickens’s novels.

    Benjamin Disraeli

    Photograph of silver-fork novelist, Benjamin Disraeli (1878)

    Although now largely unread and the subject of little critical attention, the silver fork novel has left its mark on the English novel.[1] Between 1825 and 1836—from the financial panics that bankrupted Archibald Constable’s publishing firm, sending shock waves through the British book trade, until Chapman and Hall’s accidental innovation of the monthly serial, with Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers (1836)—little was published that we recognize as worth reading today. Yet in this period, prolific writers published widely, and the fashionable novels of the 1820s-1830s historically linked the novels of Jane Austen with the major Victorian narratives of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens. In the 1840s and beyond, Thackeray and Dickens appropriated and transformed or ruthlessly satirized the dandies and aristocrats of the silver fork school, who thus lived on as parodies in the Victorian novel.

    Is it possible that Jane Austen is a little bit silver fork herself? Edward Copeland ponders such a question, as he traces in silver fork fiction many borrowings of Austen’s characters, dialogue, story events (such as Mansfield Park’s amateur theatricals), inscription of female subjectivity, and, most importantly, the narrative negotiation of rank and class necessary for individual and social improvement during the age of reform. When looted by the fashionable novel’s authors, Austen’s courtship novels about lesser gentry girls eager for upward social mobility morph into novels about newly married, or married-up, aristocratic brides keen to dazzle the Exclusive ladies who command the social elite at map iconAlmack’s, the club to which those hoping to rise in social class needed to seek entry. But the best silver fork tales are not without moral or political critique. In The Diary of a Désennuyée, for example, Catherine Gore derides the conversation at an upper-class dinner by invoking “Miss Austin[‘s] [sic]” “admirable novels”; Gore appropriates Austen’s irony even as she one-ups her predecessor by linking female aspiration not to marriage but to the early silver fork mode’s favorite narrative punishment for uppity women, death (43). Critics other than Copeland implicitly agree that Austen influenced silver fork fiction; Austen’s powerful females in Emma—Emma herself and the newly married Mrs. Elton—may well be, for example, figures for the Lady Patronesses of Almack’s, those proto-feminist arbiters of matchmaking and rank.

    Not female but male authors, however, initiated the silver fork vogue. When William Hazlitt reviewed the two earliest silver fork novels in the Examiner (1827), he accused Theodore Hook, author of Sayings and Doings (1824), and Benjamin Disraeli, of Vivian Grey (1826), of exposing their “servility, egotism, and upstart pretensions,” of teaching the middle-class reader toadyism, lack of fellow-feeling, and class aspiration (144). He censured the novels’ topicality, their assembling of a “collection of quack or fashionable advertisements” for Regency things and commodities. Hazlitt mocks, for example, Hook’s apparent fascination with aristocratic table manners, noting that, provided that “a few select persons eat fish with silver forks,” Hook thinks it “a circumstance of no consequence if a whole country starves” (146). Hazlitt vaunts instead the moral imperative he views as central to the cultural function of literature: its ability, “by the aid of imagination, to place us in the situations of others and enable us to feel an interest” in their fates (144). Thus, had a young middling man from the country

    wished to set up for a fine gentleman, [he] might learn from these Novels what hotel to put up at, what watering place to go to, what hatter, hosier, tailor, shoemaker, friseur to employ, what part of the town he should be seen in, what theatre he might frequent; but how to behave, speak, look, feel and think in his new and more aspiring character he would not find the most distant hint in the gross caricatures or flimsy sketches of the most mechanical and shallow of all schools. (147, italics original)

    In the pages of Punch, an anonymous writer sketched “How to Cook up a Fashionable Novel,” wittily attributed to the celebrity chef, Louis Eustache Ude:

    Take a consummate puppy—M.P.s preferable . . . ; baste with self-conceit—stuff with slang—season with maudlin sentiment—hash up with a popular publisher—simmer down with preparatory advertisements.  Add six reams of gilt-edged paper— . . . garnish with marble covers . . . . Stir up with magazine puffs . . . . Add “superfine coats”—“satin stocks”—“bouquets”—“opera boxes”—“a duel”—an elopement . . . . (39)

    Here, the reviewer satirizes the silver fork novel’s stock themes: the reform-era desire for upward social mobility, the ways to manage acculturation, and the anxieties caused by fashionable life.

    This satirist’s target is Henry Colburn, the popular publisher who is now understood as a central figure in the history of publicity. As the editor noted in Fraser’s Magazine, Colburn invented the art and mystery of puffery, of book advertising’s deceptive pre-publication practices. He withheld the names of notorious or titled authors, published advance paragraphs to excite readers, and paid fashionable people to “talk up” his books. After publication, his authors or their friends published good reviews, often of each others’ novels. Among his most popular books were romans à clef, which appealed to an aspiring middling readership as well as to insider aristocratic elites. This was also the great age of the British periodical, and each shaped a particular readership; Colburn’s Gazette targeted polite or genteel readers, and his New Monthly Magazine presented fashion for the Exclusives among its readership. Colburn’s journals followed the then-current vogue, moreover, of publishing reviews without signatures to provide a periodical, and its audience, a sense of ideological conformity and political unity; only after mid century did periodical authors begin to sign their work. As a result, reviewers, such as those who published in the rival Fraser’s, could trash silver fork fiction with impunity. Yet Colburn not only benefited from the silver fork vogue; he invented the mode. Colburn lavished money on his authors, both for their novels and periodical essays; he launched Bulwer’s and Disraeli’s careers, and his stable included all the leaders of the silver fork genre, including Hook, Lady Charlotte Bury, Robert Plumer Ward, the Marquis of Normanby, Thomas Henry Lister, Gore, Frances Trollope, and Marguerite, Countess of Blessington.

    Colburn also helped consolidate the dominance of the three-volume novel—the Punch satirist’s “six reams of gilt-edged paper” enclosed in “marble covers.”  The early-century popularity of Walter Scott’s historical novels and Byron’s poems had driven the triple decker’s price up from the 3s per volume it cost in the 1790s to 31s 6d, a price that stuck throughout much of the nineteenth century. The tax increases necessary to pursue and the high prices caused by the Napoleonic Wars, as well as the tax on knowledge (which included duties on stamps, paper, advertisements, and newspapers), drove book costs up during these decades. The cost of books remained high not only because it underwrote high authors’ fees but because book publishing was a conservative business: because publishers kept editions small, generally around 750 copies; because the circulating libraries, especially Mudie’s, bought one quarter to one third of print runs at a publisher’s discount; because costs of materials and labor were great; and because a guaranteed price made publication commercially safe, providing built in insurance against loss. The contemporary efforts to cheapen the cost of books did not undermine the three-decker but, in fact, underpinned it, creating an interdependence of expensive and cheaper forms serving an ever expanding market of fiction-hungry consumers. It served, as well, to ensure the abundance of new product, not only Colburn’s fashionable tale but the proto-Victorian novel as well.

    The first volume-length silver fork novels, Bulwer’s Pelham and Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, link the M.P. and the dandy, yet show their narrative incompatibility. In both novels, the plot turns on a political betrayal or failure, as the hero aims to renounce fashionable society and take up politics. In both, our dandiacal heroes hope to flatter, charm, and maneuver their way into aristocratic favor so as to begin a political career. Yet Vivian Grey’s intrigue collapses, and, invited to duel, our hero mistakenly shoots his rival, and so must flee England. Pelham’s eponymous hero, espousing no principle while canvassing the electors and failing to address political issues of the day, such as parliamentary reform, Catholic emancipation, and the Queen Caroline debacle, wins a seat but is challenged and turned out by the House. In both novels, a Byronic subplot mimics the hero’s striving yet subverts the plot’s coherence, recounting midnight rides and cloaked stalkers stalking, trips to the races, gaming at the club, suppressed wills and mysterious half brothers, and duel after duel after duel. . . .

    As these masculine plots demonstrate, Byron figures in the silver fork novel’s pre-history, and so he appropriately appears as a character in Gore’s satirical Cecil, or the Adventures of a Coxcomb, cavorting with the hero in Europe, serving as an outrageous spoof of Romantic masculine posturing, gender ambiguity, and sexual excess. Other writers critiqued this masculine adventurism more directly. In Fraser’s in 1833-34, Thomas Carlyle famously described the dandy in Sartor Resartus as “a Clothes-wearing Man, a Man whose trade, office, and existence consists in the wearing of Clothes. . . . [A]s others dress to live, he lives to dress” (207). Having read little of Pelham, Carlyle reduced the dandiacal figure to that ultimate narcissist, Beau Brummell, whose signature fetishization of costume—with its tightly buttoned jacket with tails and lapels rising to ears, white cravat, and form-fitting pantaloons with Hessian knee boots—changed English male dress. At mid century, George Eliot launched her career in part by pillorying the “silly novels by lady novelists [that] rarely introduce us to any other than very lofty and fashionable society.” Writing, Eliot sneers, “in elegant boudoirs, with violet-colored ink and a ruby pen,” these silly lady novelists, such as Georgina Chatterton, sketched “improbable” “peers and peeresses” and “impossible” “tradespeople, and cottagers.” Failing to show fellow feeling with rural laborers, artisans, and working-class families, the fashionable novelists of the “mind-and-millinery species” thus render with “equal unfaithfulness” what the author has observed, if she is aristocratic, or failed to witness, if not, at the Exclusives’ balls at Almack’s (85-86). Although she writes a generation after Hazlitt, the as-yet anonymous Eliot mocks the female silver fork novelists as thoroughly as he had ridiculed the males.

    Yet later silver fork novels, written by, about, and for women, ruthlessly satirize the social system the Exclusive ladies superintended in an earlier generation. In each, the reader encounters a group of conventional characters:  the innocent bride or unmarried girl from the country; the upright and manly aristocrat or upper-gentry gent, often an M.P.; the usually scurrilous dandy; the fashionable ladies who govern the London Season’s activities; the maneuvering mother or doting father; the wealthy young widow, the flirt, or the scandalous divorcée; the parvenus, toadies, and newcomers from the middling sort. Some of these figures, especially those who serve as villains in any given re-inscription of the formula, facilitate even as they delay the plot, decoy the heroine, and foreground the miscommunications and near misses of the marital tale. If misjudging or misreading the Exclusives among whom they seek socially to move, these women are educated and so earn their happy endings—or they die of broken hearts; if seduced by the fashionable world’s rituals of taste, they get their comeuppance in ruined reputations or near brushes with divorce; if constant and rational as wives, they are rewarded with a newly intimate marital life—or they die of a broken heart. Although they occasionally recount courtships, as did Austen’s novels, most of these tales preach fashionable society’s dangers for the newly married young woman. They function by virtue of marital secrets withheld, social plots hatched and practiced on unsuspecting brides, and flawed efforts at reading the social scene.

    Gore’s Pin Money (1831) ruthlessly satirizes social mixing and political change. In a series of hilarious scenes, aged fashionable ladies lament the end of the Tory “old order” and the coming of “la nation boutiquière” (2: 1-11). They love a drawing-room presentation to royalty, which, they say, rightfully polices rank barriers, and they bewail the class and imperial changes produced by the American and French revolutions and by, they shudder, the upcoming Reform Bill. Gore represents a society in which shared cultural values among members of the landed establishment, the wealthy merchant class, and the gentrified middling ranks have begun to blur class boundaries, creating a border-zone of modern social interaction and status anxiety among both middlings and elites. At a private fête, for example, a “vulgar” “parvenu” mother, her now-wealthy and highly cultured industrialist husband, and their unaffected daughter rub elbows with profligate heirs presumptive, giddy upper-gentry brides, seductive aristocratic cads, upright dukes, and noble patriots, all at the newcomers’ hilariously faux Gothic mansion (1: 41-45). Triangulating the familial, sexual, and property desires of its class-crossing characters in a comedy of mistaken identities, exposing fashionable deceit and manipulation, and seeking to intervene in the political, social, and cultural constitution of a genteel “middling sphere of life,” a “moral middle-order” (2: 76, 2: 167), Gore’s writing delightedly muddles the divisions between titled and untitled society, business and landed interests, professionals and non-professionals, town and country, and the upper and middle classes. Jokingly invoking Cinderella’s fairy tale cross-class wedding and Othello and Desdemona’s cross-race, cross-rank tragedy, Gore ultimately submits her flighty heroine not to “slavish obedience” to her husband but to a “system of gentle acquiescence” and credit management that “render[s] the domestic circle a circle of harmony” (3: 267-68). The novel ends with the heroine’s cautionary words for fathers and fiancés: never write a marriage settlement with “an article of PIN MONEY!—“ (2: 200).

    The silver fork novel also experiments with narrative structure and narratorial voice, as would the novels of Thackeray and Dickens, even as it anticipates high-Victorian tales of endangered domestic angels, separate spheres, and marital duty. Indeed, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is the greatest example of the genre. With his invocation of metropolitan fashionability, its “august portals . . . guarded by grooms of the chamber with flaming silver forks [to] prong all those who have not the right of the entrée” (500), Thackeray’s stage-managing narrator indicts his dandies for posing, newcomers for upwardly striving, and wannabes for masquerading as gentry. Borrowing from Bury and Gore, as well as from the domestic novel pioneered by Harriet Martineau, Vanity Fair splices Becky’s aspirational silver fork plot to Amelia’s pitiful domestic tale, figuratively portraying the fashionable figure as possible murderess and deploying the domestic angel to critique an emergent bourgeois ideology. That most silver fork of Victorian novels, The Newcomes, satirizes class mixing and mobility, as did Pin Money. Risen from the artisan ranks, the Newcomes—newcomers, parvenus—have married profitably, become banker-capitalists, and made alliances with aristocrats. Modest, generous, and honorable, however, the moral Colonel Thomas Newcome serves with distinction in map iconIndia, pensions his old nurse, and makes his artist son, Clive, rich. Yet Clive knows that some men are gentlemen and “some men not” and “it isn’t rank” that defines the difference (1: 62); he knows, too, that his cousin Barnes, a baronet’s son, is a “coxcomb”—a byword for “dandy” (1: 286).

    Dickens also enjoyed parodying the silver fork novel’s anxiety about rank mobility, its insistence on class hierarchies, and often ironic endorsement of the Regency sex/marital system. In Bleak House, the omniscient narrative’s aristocrats and hangers-on scream status anxiety: the parvenu Lady Dedlock’s insistent ennui and demand for deference from her inferiors; Sir Leicester Dedlock’s fear that “distinctions” are threatened when ironmasters enter Parliament (392-93); Mr. Turveydrop’s pinched-in, puffed-up, dandiacal devotion to memory of the Prince Regent, that “model of Deportment” (109-91). Although, our narrator notes, no George IV now “set[s] the dandy fashion,” “no caricatures of effeminate Exquisites . . . , swoon . . . in opera boxes” (159-60), a pernicious post-Reform dandyism nevertheless seeks to cancel historical time.

    Yet it was Thackeray who sounded the genre’s death knell. Bulwer and Disraeli had triggered the silver fork mania, and Gore, Thackeray’s rival and the genre’s most successful practitioner, saw its popularity wane even as she continued to practice and satirize it. In Cecil, or the Adventures of a Coxcomb, her satirical style, narratorial irony, and narrative drag, as she writes Cecil’s memoir from a jaded, ennui-laden, and nostalgic dandiacal perspective, recount the Regency’s just-past literary history. Yet Cecil also prepares the way for Thackeray’s narratorial stage managing: his satirical send-up of Becky Sharp, who through Lord Steyne’s pandering is presented to the Prince Regent, and his scorn of Amelia Sedley, whose father fails during the 1820s financial panic. (On the panic, see Alexander J. Dick’s “On the Financial Crisis, 1825-26.″) The Victorian novel emerges, at least in part, from the parodic urge to spoof the silver fork tale, to appropriate so as to morph it. The Victorian novel thus transforms these tales of fashionable, aristocratic society into tomes that promulgate a middle-class domestic ideology more acceptable to a post-Regency metropolitan and provincial world.

    published September 2014

    Dianne F. Sadoff is professor of English at Rutgers University, map iconNew Brunswick.  She has published Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen (Minnesota 2010), Sciences of the Flesh:  Representing Body and Subject in Psychoanalysis (Stanford 1998) and Monsters of Affection:  Dickens, Bronte, and Eliot on Fatherhood (Johns Hopkins 1982).  She has co-edited Victorian Afterlife:  Postmodern Culture Rewrites the Nineteenth Century (Minnesota 2000) and Teaching Contemporary Theory to Undergraduates (Modern Language Association 1994). Her current project, “Beyond Waterloo: Pre-Histories of the Victorian Novel,” examines the emergence of the Victorian novel from earlier nineteenth-century popular fictional modes.


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    —. Vanity Fair. 1848. Ed. Peter L. Schillingsburg. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1994. Print.


    Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2012.

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    [1] Sections of this essay first appeared in “The Silver Fork Novel,” The Nineteenth-Century Novel, 1820-1880, ed. John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor, vol. 3, The Oxford History of the Novel in English, gen. ed. Patrick Parrinder (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012), 106-12.