Victorian Literature Silver Fork Novel (Fashionable Novel)
by
Tamara Wagner
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 September 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0136

Introduction

The silver fork novel, or novel of fashionable highlife, was a popular subgenre of 19th-century English literature that flourished from the mid-1820s until the mid-century. Although it was parodied even at the height of its popularity, its cultural influences lasted well into the century. Some of the most prolific authors of silver fork fiction included writers from as diverse backgrounds as Benjamin Disraeli, the Countess of Blessington, Catherine Gore, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Rosina Bulwer Lytton, Lady Caroline Lamb, Lady Charlotte Bury, and Theodore Hook. Their works shared the same interest in aristocratic high society, usually packaged for socially aspiring members of the “middling classes.” Yet, even as silver fork novels promised tantalizing glimpses into highlife, exposed its downsides, and simultaneously ridiculed bourgeois hangers-on, the underpinning agenda involved the integration of middle-class characters and ideals into early-19th-century politics of aristocratic reform. The genre is best remembered for its influence on William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1848) and has long been read almost exclusively through the lens of subsequent parodies. Scholarly articles from the mid-1990s onward have worked to bring this still understudied genre back to attention. Initially, these were primarily projects of rediscovery that sought to reintroduce a nearly forgotten set of once fashionable writing. The early 21st century has seen a rise in interest in the genre’s underestimated potential as well as in the works of individual authors. New approaches to genre, in particular genre and canon formation, periodization, women’s writing, and material culture approaches, have formed a crucial impetus for further study.

General Overviews

Despite rising interest in silver fork writing, there are still very few studies of the genre. The most comprehensive overviews discuss it as a transitional development, as pre-Victorian fiction that fills in the gap between Romantic writing and Jane Austen on the one hand and early Victorian fiction by Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray on the other. The earliest full-scale studies of silver fork fiction, such as Rosa 1936 and Adburgham 1983, see it as a precursor to Thackeray’s pointedly satirical, retrospective take on the Regency period. Moers 1960 concentrates on the silver fork novel’s significance for the dandy figure. These studies tend to be largely dismissive of the genre’s own narrative potential and literary significance, although they present its social context with considerable insight. They offer useful starting points for further research by providing extensive biographical information on what are considered the most prominent among the silver fork authors as well as succinct summaries of their novels. These standard works of criticism are supplemented here by more recent accounts that have primarily appeared in the form of lengthy encyclopedia entries or as overview essays. Hart 1981, Chaplin 2012, Jump 2005, O’Cinneide 2007, and the introduction to Wilson 2012 (which is discussed in the sections on Primary Sources and Literary History and Genre) succinctly sum up the trends defining silver fork writing. They briefly discuss its main representatives and also provide a good summary of literary criticism. Wagner 2009 highlights the genre’s subsequent influences. The appendix in Copeland 2012, discussed in Politics, provides an alphabetical list of the authors, with brief biographical information, as well as a chronological list of their publications, accompanied by succinct plot summaries.

  • Adburgham, Alison. Silver Fork Society: Fashionable Life and Literature from 1814–1849. London: Constable, 1983.

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    This study concentrates on the social context. While somewhat dismissive of the novels under discussion, it presents a useful overview of the background and also the cultural relevance of the society that produced silver fork fiction.

  • Boucher, Abigail. Silver Fork Etiquette: Elite Manners and Philistine Faux Pas in the Early 19th Century, 2014–2015.

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    This is a useful introductory website, which includes a succinct description of silver fork etiquette as well as links to an extensive bibliography of silver fork fiction, a glossary, and a selection of quotes from several novels, sorted according to topic. It also includes a list of “crossovers,” which comprises both intertextual references and recurrent characters in several novels.

  • Chaplin, Sue. “Silver Fork Novel.” In The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature. Edited by Frederick Burwick, Nancy Moore Goslee, and Diane Long Hoeveler, 1261–1265. Chichester, UK, and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

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    This is a succinct overview of the main trends and developments of silver fork fiction and some of its standard criticism. It offers a useful starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the genre.

  • Hart, Francis Russell. “The Regency Novel of Fashion.” In From Smollett to James: Studies in the Novel and Other Essays Presented to Edgar Johnson. Edited by Samuel I. Mintz, Alice Chandler, and Christopher Mulvey, 84–133. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1981.

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    This is a good overview of fashionable fiction published during the Regency that firmly situates it within the literary history of the novel. It is a good starting point for those unfamiliar with the genre and its criticism.

  • Jump, Harriet Devine, ed. Silver Fork Novels, 1826–1841. 6 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005.

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    The “General Introduction,” ix–xxiii, included in Volume 1, provides a succinct account of the genre and its different exponents. Each volume contains a scholarly introduction to the specific text.

  • Moers, Ellen. The Dandy. New York: Viking, 1960.

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    This study of the figure of the dandy in literature contains some chapters on silver fork fiction. It describes the genre as concerned with and a product of “exclusivism,” which is presented as a “ruling principle” of Regency society. Providing a good discussion of the genre, it also traces continuities that can be observed through the dandy’s changing representation.

  • O’Cinneide, Muireann. “The Silver Fork Novel across Romantic and Victorian Views: Class, Gender and Commodity Culture, 1820–1841.” Literature Compass 4 (2007): 1227–1240.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4113.2007.00458.xE-mail Citation »

    This overview article concentrates on the class tensions that produced and were reflected in silver fork fiction. Discussing the twofold upper- and middle-class audiences, it also speculates on how this affected models of authorship. Addressing the genre’s significance as transitional, the article prompts us to rethink borderlines between Romanticism and Victorianism.

  • Rosa, Matthew. The Silver Fork School. New York: Columbia University Press, 1936.

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    This first full-scale study of the genre still provides an excellent starting point for research. It contains summaries of several key works by some of the better-known authors, including Disraeli, Bulwer-Lytton, the Countess of Blessington, and Catherine Gore. It also discusses Henry Colburn’s publishing methods. But as the subtitle signals, the discussion leads up to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as both the culmination and a parody of the silver fork school.

  • Sadoff, Diane. “The Silver Fork Novel.” In The Oxford History of the Novel in English. Vol. 3. Edited by John Kucich and Jenny Bourne Taylor, 106–121. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

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    This overview essay divides the genre into “first generation novels” by Benjamin Disraeli, Theodore Hook, Robert Plumer Ward, and Thomas Henry Lister that emerged from the sketch (p. 107) and a “second generation” of novels that were “written by women generally about women,” primarily by the Countess of Blessington, Lady Charlotte Bury, and Catherine Gore (p. 114). More attention is accorded to Gore’s Cecil (1841), as “the silver fork era’s culmination and as the mode’s representative type” (p. 112).

  • Sadoff, Dianne F. “Novel, Silver-Fork.” In The Encyclopedia of Victorian Literature. Edited by Dino Felluga, Pamela K. Gilbert, and Linda K. Hughes. Chichester, UK: Blackwell, 2015.

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    This entry presents a succinct overview of the main developments and criteria of the genre. The essay uses the influence of Jane Austen’s narratives as a starting point and emphasises the legacy for Thackeray and Dickens. It also discusses the importance of the publisher Henry Colburn. Reprinted online as Sadoff, Dianne F. “The Silver Fork Novel, 1824–41.” In BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net.

  • Wagner, Tamara S. “From Satirised Silver Cutlery to the Allure of the Anti-Domestic in Nineteenth-Century Women’s Writing: Silver Fork Fiction & Its Literary Legacies.” Women’s Writing 16.2 (2009): 181–190.

    DOI: 10.1080/09699080902978278E-mail Citation »

    This is the introduction to a special issue on silver fork fiction for the journal Women’s Writing. It provides an overview of the genre and its criticism, with an emphasis on literary history, including the genre’s precursors and afterlife.

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