introduction from fashioning the silver fork novel
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INTRODUCTION: WHY SILVER FORK? WHY NOW?
To understand literary form is, in other words, to understand how it is both generally and at particular moments coincident with or identical to social form.1
Lady Charlotte Bury, Robert Plumer Ward, T. H. Lister, Lady Catherine Stepney, Marianne Spencer Stanhope, C. D. Burdett, Theodore Hook: names that have all but fallen out of the annals of literary history. Benjamin Disraeli, Countess of Blessington, Catherine Gore, L. E. L., Edward and Rosina Bulwer Lytton, Lady Caroline Lamb: names that echo on the fringes of Romantic and Victorian studies. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, however, readers could expect to encounter any one of these authors while browsing the shelves of a fashionable bookstore or circulating library. Indeed, what all of these writers and many others have in common is their contribution to the short-lived, but nonetheless significant, phenomenon of the fashionable or silver fork novel.2 Flooding the marketplace from the mid-1820s to the mid-1840s (with a few holdovers into the 1850s), silver fork novels were popular with readers and profitable for both authors and publishers. In the still new three-volume format, they detailed the lives and loves of London fashionables or members of the ton, as they were known. In doing so, the novels positioned themselves as a type of conduct book, offering guidance for socially-aspirant members of the middle class who longed to peer behind the faade of fashion into the world of the ton and, perhaps, even gain access to that world. In the following chapters, I discuss the characteristics of the genre and its place within the literary and cultural marketplace of the early nineteenth century; however, I would like to consider first the critical and social implications of studying this genre and raise the questions: why silver fork? Why now?
Fashioning the Silver Fork Novel
A Critical SituationFor over seventy years, Matthew Rosas The Silver-Fork School: Novels of Fashion Preceding Vanity Fair (1936) was the only book-length study of the silver fork novel and one of the few pieces of scholarship on the genre. Fairly comprehensive, Rosas text includes chapters on many of the most prolific silver fork novelists, such as Bulwer Lytton,3 Disraeli, Gore, Bury and Blessington, as well as publisher Henry Colburn. Part biography, part critical overview, Rosas text provides an invaluable starting point for a study of the silver fork novel as it brings together a wealth of primary sources and historical contexts for the novels. However, as the books subtitle suggests, Rosas attitude towards his subject matter often hovers between condescending and dismissive. The value of the silver fork novel, according to Rosa, lies primarily in its ability to contextualize Thackerays masterpiece. Indeed, Rosa closes his work on a nostalgic note, effectively reducing the entire silver fork genre to a few notable pages, concluding, Today, only he [Thackeray] remains, but countless leaves [from silver fork novels], some of them delicate and lovely, drifted into the mold out of which grew the sturdy trunk of Vanity Fair.4 Harsher value judgements, too, abound, such as the claim with which Rosa opens his chapter on the Countess of Blessington: The quality of Lady Blessingtons work does not entitle her to an important place in literary study.5 In Contingencies of Value (1988), Barbara Hernstein Smith argues that the way in which literary scholars assign value to works can be limiting and problematic, writing:the fact that literary evaluation is not merely an aspect of formal academic criticism but a complex set of social and cultural activities central to the very nature of literature has been obscured, and an entire domain that is properly the object of theoretical, historical, and empirical exploration has been lost to serious inquiry.6
Smiths work offers a useful frame for the study of the silver fork novel because the genre is fully embedded within and responding to the social and cultural contexts surrounding its production. That close engagement with fashionable elements of early nineteenth-century culture, however, has also caused silver fork novels to be mostly ignored by contemporary critics and seen, instead, as passing fads or sociological curiosities. Fashioning the Silver Fork Novel aims to reinsert the silver fork novel into critical conversations by focusing on literary and cultural contexts, including the fashionable world, the concept of exclusivity and the literary marketplace. As Smith writes, value creates value, and the perpetual devaluing of the genre, as I argue in Chapter 2, has its roots in the early reviews of silver fork novels and has continued to influence scholarship throughout much of the twentieth century.7 The novels did hold considerable value for nineteenth-century readers, however much of which was self-consciously cre-
ated by authors and publishers and this process of creating value is part of what makes the novels relevant for literary study today. Publishing both before and after Matthew Rosa, Michael Sadleir has also made significant contributions to the study of the silver fork novel. His extensive Nineteenth-Century Fiction (1951) catalogues a number of silver fork novels and provides attributions for many works that were published anonymously or pseudonymously. Sadleir also offers a brief critical commentary on the silver fork novel in his introduction to the volumes, acknowledging the challenges facing scholars of this genre because the silver fork school produced a higher proportion of downright bad novels than any similar group, with the possible exception of the gothic Romances; but the flimsiest and gaudiest specimen bears inevitably the mark of the hectic period which produced it.8 The hectic period of the 1820s and 1830s was marked by changing social structures, particularly with regard to class and gender, and the silver fork novel evolved as a form uniquely suited to negotiating and profiting from those changes; thus, the study of form and the relationship between the literature and the fashionable world can lend interest and relevance to some of these downright bad novels. Sadleir rightly questions the literary merit of silver fork novels, yet he does gesture towards the possibility that the study of silver fork novels could be useful for the study of the novel in general because between these two categories of desired fiction [Gothic novels and novels of sensibility] lay the output of upwards of fifteen still neglected years.9 Sadleir refers to the period from 1825 to 1840, when the silver fork novel was in its heyday, and I begin my study where he left off acknowledging the shortcomings of the genre yet also offering a reconsideration of the silver fork novel with the goal of reinserting it into the continuum of literary history.10 Other notable contributions to the study of fashionable fiction include Ellen Moerss The Dandy (1960), Francis Russel Harts The Regency Novel of Fashion (1981), Alison Adburghams Silver Fork Society (1983) and Elliot Engel and Margaret F. Kings The Victorian Novel Before Victoria (1984). Of these, most are primarily social histories, with only Engel and Kings work focusing mainly on literature. Engel and King include a short section on the silver fork novel, however, like many of their nineteenth- and twentieth-century predecessors, they are somewhat dismissive. For example, they assert, The fashionable novels of Williams reign certainly deserve much of the ridicule directed at them through satire and parody.11 Such a dismissive tone damages the future critical reception of the novels, not because they were underappreciated brilliant texts, but because it effectively stops the critical conversation from considering the broader cultural work of these novels and the implications of their popularity. In contrast to Eliot and King, Moers, Adburgham and Hart treat the silver fork novel as a historical artefact that continues to be relevant for its accounts of the lives and lifestyles of the Regency fashionables. For example, in discussing the character types in T. H.
Fashioning the Silver Fork Novel
Listers Granby (1826), Hart writes, The presence of such figures makes Granby uniquely interesting as an anatomy of the social politics of fashion.12 Silver fork novels certainly do function in this way, and many readers may find this to be the genres most useful element. Nonetheless, as contemporary scholarship has begun to demonstrate, fashionable novels are also rich for more complex literary study, particularly with regard to their implications for book history, material culture and the development of the novel during the nineteenth century. Beginning in the 1990s, feminist theory, cultural studies and re-evaluations of the canon led a handful of scholars to revisit the silver fork novel. Winifred Hughess Silver Fork Writers and Readers: Social Contexts of a Best Seller (1992) was one of the first articles to offer an analysis of the genre based on readership studies, arguing, The source of the silver fork novels undeniable popular appeal during the Reform Bill era seems to have been precisely its ability to accommodate the mixed motives of its largely middle-class readership.13 And, several other critics, including April Kendra, Tamara Wagner, Ellen Miller Casey and Muireann OCinneide, have taken feminist approaches to these texts, considering the ways in which they offered opportunities for the publication and professionalization of nineteenth-century women writers.14 Indeed, the importance of the silver fork novel to gender studies was underscored in 2009 with the publication of the first-ever special issue of a journal Womens Writing dedicated