hroughout the 1830s, Benjamin Disraeli became one of the most famous authors of silver fork novels although he had little experience of the fashionable world. The young Benjamin, who lived in the afterglow of the great Romantics, particularly Lord Byron, and dressed like a dandy, wrote four popular silver-fork novels: Vivian Grey (Part One 1826, Part Two 1827), The Young Duke (1831), Contarini Fleming (1832), and Henrietta Temple (1837). All these novels were reprinted during the Victorian period and also appeared in the collective editions of Disraeli’s fiction.
In The Young Duke, Disraeli provides a parodic recipe for writing a silver-fork novel: Take a pair of pistols and a pack of cards, a cookery-book and a set of new quadrilles; mix them up with half an intrigue and a whole marriage, and divide them into three equal portions. [II, 22]
The ‘three portions’ refer to the Victorian habit of publishing silver fork novels in three volumes nicknamed ‘three-deckers’, which sold at a standard price of a guinea and a half for the set. Unlike Dickens and Thackeray, Disraeli never published his novels in serial form. Henry Colburn (1784-1855) was the major publisher of silver fork novels and he printed almost all Disraeli’s early novels (except for Contarini Fleming which was published by John Murray). These early novels do not contain any important political issues, but reveal a lot about the author’s mental state and ambitions and carry romantic rhetoric. They illustrate ‘the young author’s limited experiences and unlimited aspirations’ (Baugh 1365). As Robert O’Kell has pointed out, ‘Disraeli’s fictions increasingly become a means of self-discovery, and agent of development, rather than a form of self-advertisement’ (59).
In a way, Disraeli’s silver fork novels, which made him notorious among the London fashionable society, were a reaction to Walter Scott’s historical romances. They were gossipy and successfully imitated the language of English high society. However, unlike other silver fork novels, which mostly dealt uncritically with fashionable life, Disraeli’s silver fork novels also conveyed social and political commentary. They also paved his way to enter the beau monde and achieve his main target — political eminence. Disraeli’s silver fork novels are melodramatic and bombastic in style, the characters are overdrawn and hardly credible, but they reveal the young author’s extraordinary power of style. They also expose a strong influence of Byron’s idealism and Walter Scott’s romantic medievalism filled with dreams of love, heroism, and rebellion against a materialistic society which follows the path of liberal and utilitarian ethics. They are essentially semi-autobiographical fantasies of a young romantic man torn between literature and politics, and they served not only to promote their author in London fashionable society, but also manifested his reverence for the English aristocracy and his conservative view that a regenerated aristocracy would lead social change.
References and Further Reading
Adburgham, Alison. Silver Fork Society: Fashionable Life and Literature from 1814 to 1840. London: Constable, 1983.
Baugh, Albert C. A Literary History of England. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1948.
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Eyre & Spottiswode Publishers, 1967.
Cesarini, David. Disraeli: The Novel Politician. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.
Chaplin, Sue. ‘Silver Fork Novel’. 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.
Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Disraeli, Benjamin. The Young Duke. A Moral Tale Though Gay. In three volumes. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1831.
Flavin, Michael. Benjamin Disraeli: The Novel as Political Discourse. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2005.
Hazzlitt, William. ‘The Dandy School’, The Examiner, 10 (November 18, 1827), 721-723.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. Kebbel, 1960.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
Jump, Harriet Devine, ed. Silverfork Novels, 1826-1841. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2005.
Kirsch, Adam. Disraeli. New York: Nextbook and Schocken, 2008.
Kuhn, William M. The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli. London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2006.
O’Kell, Robert. Disraeli: The Romance of Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013.
Richmond, Charles, Paul Smith, eds. The Self-fashioning of Disraeli, 1818-1851. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. New York: Crown, 1995.
Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Walton, John K. Disraeli. London: Routledge, 1990.
Wilson, Cheryl. Fashioning the Silver Fork Novel. London: Pickering-Chatto, 2012.
Last modified 2 November 2016