Casey, Ellen Miller. “The Aristocracy and Upholstery: The Silver Fork Novel.”
This is the first essay in the Blackwell Companion to Sensation Fiction, which is where I’ve decided to begin my research. According to this essay, the silver fork novel (also called the “fashionable novel”) was a precursor to the sensation novel, sharing the sensation novel’s interest in minute, realistic detail. The term “silver fork” came from William Hazlitt in his 1827 Examiner article entitled “The Dandy School.” The heyday of the silver fork novel extended from the 1820s through the 1840s, and began to wane in the 1850s. Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is, according to Casey, “both a repudiation of the silver fork genre and its apex” (20). Silver fork novels were usually published anonymously, so that publishers could suggest to the reading public that the novels were written by actual aristocrats, although it seems that reviewers often saw through this ploy. Nonetheless, reviewers enjoyed trying to identify the aristocratic authors of the novels, or suggesting that the novels had been published by footmen or maids (who would have had access to aristocratic scenery without being part of it).
Like the sensation novels of the 1860s, silver fork novels often followed stereotypical, formulaic plots. According to Casey, “[r]eviewers repeatedly suggested that these novels were written according to a formula which included a ball at Almack’s, a duel, a visit to a gambling club such as Crockford’s, an arranged marriage, and at least the suspicion of adultery” (17). The novels were usually set in London, on the West End (as opposed to the East End popularized by the Newgate novel). They were generally picaresque in form, “following the adventures of a male protagonist in his travels across Europe or the movement of a female one from shop to tea to dinner party to ball” (Casey 17-18). Casey cites April Kendra’s study placing silver fork novels into two gendered categories: the “dandy novel” and the feminine “society novel.” Silver fork novels reworked picaresque forms, as well as the bildungsroman, Byron’s own life and work (especially Don Juan), and the novel of manners popularized by Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen. However, one of the largest sources of the silver fork novel comes from the Reform Bill of 1832, which sought to enfranchise a new mercantile class. With the social definition of “gentlemen” in flux, the silver fork novel attempted to solidify its boundaries, though it also served as a kind of roadmap to gentlemanly status for the uninitiated. Casey also cites Edward Bulwer’s (later Bulwer-Lytton) suggestion that the silver fork novel even contributed to the Reform Bill by exposing the wasteful luxury of the elite classes.
Casey ends the essay by connecting the silver fork novel to its literary descendants, which include the sensation novel. Since the marriage reform law does not happen until 1857, the silver fork novel, like the sensation novel, is often topically interested in the unhappy marriage. Also like the sensation novel, the silver fork novel often focuses on secrets.
This essay helped me see the generic background of Vanity Fair, which seems like a fascinatingly elaborate response to the silver fork genre. More importantly, though, I can see the lingering of the silver fork genre in the background of Lady Audley’s Secret, which also focuses on ramblings of its lazy, aristocratic protagonist, Robert Audley. The unhappy marriage is clearly a central plot point, and Robert’s journey of self-exploration is definitely reminiscent of the bildungsroman. Also, something that struck me in Casey’s discussion of the silver fork novel’s reviewers seems pertinent here. The speculation over who actually wrote a given silver fork novel (an aristocrat? a maid? a footman? Benjamin Disraeli?) seems to be mirrored in the question of who gets to write Lady Audley’s plot (Lady Audley? her maid? her maid’s lover? Robert Audley?). The class dynamics here seem resonant with the legacy of the silver fork novel and its fraught relation to the Reform Bill of 1832.
Timeline of silver fork novels:
1819-23: Byron’s Don Juan: a major source for the silver fork genre
1825: the first full-fledged fashionable novel: Tremaine, or the Man of Refinement, by Robert Plumer Ward
Matilda, by Lord Normanby
1826: Granby, by Thomas Henry Lister
Vivian Grey, by Benjamin Disraeli (1826-27)
1827: William Hazlitt coins the term “silver fork” in an Examiner article titled “The Dandy School”
1828: Pelham, Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton)
Almack’s Revisited, by Charles White
The Roue, by Samuel Beazley
Yes and No: A Tale of the Day, by Lord Normanby
1829: The Adventures of a King’s Page, by Charles White
1830: The Oxonians: A Glance at Society, by Samuel Beazley
Basil Barrington and his Friends, by Robert Pierce Gillies
Women as They Are, by Catherine Gore
1831: Romance and Reality, by Letitia Elizabeth Landon
The Young Duke, by Benjamin Disraeli (his second of two silver fork novels)
1832: First Reform Bill
1833: Godolphin, by Edward Bulwer (later Bulwer-Lytton) (his second of two silver fork novels)
The Repealers, by Marguerite, Countess of Blessington
“The Dandiacal Body” in Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1833-34) attacks fashionable novels in general and Bulwer’s Pelham in particular
1834: Sayings and Doings, by Theodore Hook
The Hamiltons, by Catherine Gore
1836: Mrs. Armytage, or Female Domination, by Catherine Gore
Tales of Fashion and Reality, by Caroline and Henrietta Beauclerk
1837: The Victims of Society, by Marguerite, Countess of Blessington
Victoria becomes Queen
1838: Nicholas Nickleby (1838-39) attacks fashionable novels in chapter 28
1839: Cheveley: A Man of Honour, by Rosina Bulwer
1841: Cecil, or the Adventures of a Coxcomb, by Catherine Gore
Punch publishes the satirical article “Literary Recipes: How to Cook Up a Fashionable Novel”
1843: The Banker’s Wife, or Court and City, by Catherine Gore
1847: Thackeray publishes several parodies of silver fork novels in Punch: Lords and Liveries, Hearts and Diamonds, etc.
1890: H.R.H publishes Lothair’s Children, which is derided for its devotion to “the aristocracy & upholstery”