Henry Colburn has not been treated kindly by posterity. If he is remembered at all today it is as the purveyor of mass market “silver fork” novels. . . . He knew that his predominately middle-class readers did not want to be educated or improved, but lifted out of heir own parlours into the drawing rooms and exotic foreign landscapes occupied by the aristocracy. — Daisy Hay reviewing John Sutherland and Veronica Melnyk’s Rogue Publisher.
he silver fork novel was a fashionable subgenre in the late-1820s and 1830s. Frequently set in the Regency, it was at once escapist in describing former elegance and glitter, anticipating the genre of the Regency Romance, and censorious in judging the frivolities and often supercilious emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the moral that characterised aristocratic high society. It continued to influence mid-Victorian novels throughout the 1840s and even up to the fifties and sixties, as novelists set out to write anti-silver-fork fiction that would revise the genre's preference for high society, expose the snobbery underlying this bias, and provide alternative ways of writing about the recent past nostalgically without becoming escapist or sentimental. The derisive term “silver-fork” to describe these Victorian fashionable novels was coined by William Hazlitt in an article on “The Dandy School” in 1827, at the genre's heyday. Hazlitt particularly set out to deride the "under-bred tone" (vol. 20, 147) that characterised a substantial part of these novels about born and bred aristocrats, as they were increasingly written by middle-class would-be members of fashionable society:
The English are not a nation of dandies; nor can John Bull afford (whatever the panders to fashion and admirers of courtly graces may say to the contrary) to rest all his pretensions upon that. He must descend to a broader and more manly level to keep his ground at all. Those who would persuade him to build up his fame on frogged coats or on the embellishment of a snuff-box, he should scatter with one loud roar of indignation and trample into the earth like grasshoppers, as making not only a beast but an ass of him. A writer of this accomplished stamp, comes forward to tell you, not how his hero feels on any occasion, for he is above that, but how he was dressed [...] and also informs you that the quality eat fish with silver forks. (Hazlitt, vol. 20, 145-146)
This emphasis on the minute detailing of clothes led Carlyle to write Sartor Resartus (1838), while Thackeray parodied the clichés of the silver-fork genre and specifically middle-class snobbery in Vanity Fair (1847-48) and Pendennis (1848-50). When Thackeray satirised snobs “in every rank of this mortal life” (261) in The Book of Snobs, serialised from 1846 to 1847 and published in book-form in 1848, he moreover included in the narrator a literal-minded “member of the SILVER FORK SCHOOL” (265) who is particular about the distinction between those who do and those who do not eat peas with a knife. What both Hazlitt and Thackeray objected to most vehemently was the snobbery of would-be members of high society and the venting of a vicarious familiarity with fashionable life that led to the astonishment with which silver forks and other details were introduced to the "lowely bred" reader by equally low writers.
Ironically, early silver-fork novels of the twenties were openly marketed as providing the insider’s insights into high life. The genre, in fact, owed much of its popularity to the advertising skills of Henry Colburn, the publisher of almost all silver-fork novels as well as of the New Monthly Magazine. Colburn actively recruited titled writers and canonised the genre of the fashionable society novel with his series of Colburn’s Modern Standard Novelists (1835-41), which contained novels by Bulwer Lytton, the future Lord Lytton, and Lady Morgan (Sydney Owenson) as well as Theodore Hook and Benjamin Disraeli, the future Prime Minister. Among Colburn’s titled contributors were also Lady Charlotte Bury, Lady Blessington, and the Marquise of Normanby. Although it was Tremaine; or the Man of Refinement (1825) by R.P. Ward that launched Colburn on his career as a publisher of fashionable novels, Bulwer Lytton's Pelham; or The Adventures of a Gentleman (1828) can be said to have established the silver-fork formula. As Ellen Moers has put it in her study of the dandy, “[i]t was Colburn’s genius to see that a literature written about the exclusives, by the exclusives (or those who knew them well) and for the exclusives would be royally supported by those who were not but wanted desperately to become exclusives: the nouveaux riches of post-war England” (52).
Increasingly, however, silver-fork fiction was not only read, but written by middle-class novelists who could not even claim familiarity with high life. Railing against the novels of Theodore Hook, who was also — rather ironically given the silver-fork genre's preference for dandies — editor of John Bull — Hazlitt stressed that "Mr Hook has a fellow-feeling with low life or rather with vulgarity aping gentility, but he has never got beyond the outside of what he calls good society" (vol. 20, 147).
As women writers such as Catherine Gore turned to the writing of silver-fork novels, the genre became moreover increasingly moralised. The middle-class bias was indeed at the centre of the genre's ambiguity from the beginning. As Hughes has pointed out in her overview of its social contexts, “[w]hat the silver fork formula did was to allow both writers and readers to revel in that insolence and to partake of its power while simultaneously mocking or trivialising its aristocratic exponents. Even the most reform-minded reader could surrender himself or herself to its decadent titillations while preserving a sense of moral and class superiority” (330). This emphasis on middle-class superiority became more and more marked in later silver-fork novels. Their relish in detailing the demise of the aristocracy, however, also heralded their own downfall. The modern Regency Romance, of which the silver-fork novel has been said to be the "original" (Hughes, 328), significantly returned to an idealisation of the aristocracy of the Regency period and its emphasis on elegance, abandoning the emphasis on morality that was at the centre of Victorian silver-fork as well as anti-silver-fork fiction, even when they could not completely suppress the attractions of their disillusioned and often punished Byronic heroes.
Adburgham, Alison. Silver Fork Society: Fashionable Life and Literature from 1814 to 1840. London: Constable, 1983.
Hazlitt, William. The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. London: Dent, 1934.
Hughes, Winifred. “Silver Fork Writers and Readers: Social Contexts of a Best Seller,” Novel 25 (1992), 328-347.
Moers, Ellen. The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm. London: Secker and Warburg, 1960.
Thackeray, William Makepeace. A Legend of the Rhine. Notes of a Journey from Cornhill to Grand Cairo. The Book of Snobs. Ed. George Saintsbury. London: Oxford UP, n.d.
Some recent works (2013)
Copeland, Edward. The Silver Fork Novel: Fashionable Fiction in the Age of Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012 .
The novels are . . . “active participants in contemporary struggles for Reform”, designed to cajole their middle-class reaers into accepting an aristocratic version of political reform. . . . Copeland reads silver fork novels as composite texts, stitched together from newspapers and established literary models. Jane Austen's influence is everywhere to be seen, her dialogue, plots and characters reappearing in the commercial fiction of the 1820s with a regularity that gives the lie to the suggestion that her literary legacy only becomes apparent in the 1840s. — Daisy Hay
Wilson, Cheryl A. Fashioning the Silver Fork Novel. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.
Her focus throughout is on the silver fork novel as a conduit for debates about fashon, celebrity and shifting cultural norms. — Daisy Hay
Sutherland, John, and Veronica Melnyk. Rogue Publisher: The Prince of “Puffers” — The Life and Works of the Publisher Henry Colburn. N.p.: Everett Edward Root, 2018.
In a lively and polemical co-authored work [the authors] aim to set the record straight. — Daisy Hay, “Means of Production,” Times Literary Supplement (20 July, 2018): 13.
Hay, Daisy. “Shopping for Cutlery.” Times Literary Supplement (February 8, 2013): 28.
Created 12 December 2002
Last modified 29 July 2018