A silver fork in the road

I have a clutch of unwritten posts to catch up, so naturally I’m thinking about starting something new instead.

As I have mentioned previously, one of my areas of interest – which so far I haven’t gotten around to pursuing – is the so-called “silver-fork novel”. There are a couple of different though linked reasons for this interest. The first is that these novels occupy what tends to be regarded as a lacuna in the timeline of English literature: those years between the time of Jane Austen and Walter Scott, during the Regency, and the coming of William Makepeace Thackeray and Charles Dickens, more or less simultaneously with the ascension of Victoria. It is generally considered that there was an absence of great writers and writers during that period, that it was occupied instead with popular but ephemeral fiction of limited literary merit, and is therefore not worth studying.

Though this is a common viewpoint, it doesn’t happen to be my viewpoint. Though on the whole I don’t dispute the criticism of the fiction of the 1820s and 1830s on the grounds of its lack of artistry, I do dispute its worthlessness. As we have seen before, literature of this ephemeral nature is often extremely revealing of the society that produced it; and this is perhaps more the case with the silver-fork novel than with any other genre, as it was intended specifically to offer immediate, detailed portraits of the English upper classes.

However popular they were with the reading public, the critics savaged this branch of writing. In fact, it was the critic Walter Hazlitt who inadvertently gave the genre its enduring name, in an article attacking the novels of Theodore Hook, which (in Hazlitt’s view) were not only poorly written, but further marred by the self-evident fact that the author was not even of the society he purported to depict. If he had been, Hazlitt sneered, surely he would not have been so dazzled by a certain aristocratic dinner-table ritual:

Provided a few select persons eat fish with silver forks, he considers it a circumstance of no consequence if a whole country starves; but these privileged persons are surely not thinking all the time and every day of their lives of that which Mr Theodore Hook has never forgotten since he first witnessed it, viz. that they eat their fish with a silver fork

Nevertheless, for approximately twenty years, the English reading public devoured these vivid accounts of upper-class life. For the aristocracy, they were an amusing mirror; for those with social aspirations, a guidebook; for the rest, either a glimpse of a dazzlingly exclusive world to which they could not even dream of finding an entrance, a shocking exposé of aristocratic immorality, or a comforting reminder that wealth does not necessarily bring happiness.

Then, almost overnight, these most fashionable of novels became unfashionable; what had made them so popular in the easy-going days of the Regency and under the profligate rule of George IV put them beyond the pale in a society increasingly gripped by (in the mournful words of Alfred Doolittle) middle-class morality.

The death-blow was struck by Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which managed simultaneously to be the silver-fork novel to (literally) end all silver-fork novels, and a savage deconstruction of the genre. From the mid-1830s onwards, the silver-fork novels began to disappear from the shelves of the circulating libraries, to be replaced by more “improving” tomes; very few were reprinted, and even those tended to be bowdlerised. Within a surprisingly short space of time, it was if they had never existed.

And this subset of writing remained largely disregarded until almost 150 years had passed, when historians (social and literary) began to realise that these novels, whatever their shortcomings as fiction, offered an extraordinarily detailed window into early 19th century life. Moreover, those academics who didn’t let their preconceptions or their snobbery get in the way discovered that among the silver-fork novelists were several who, if not “great”, were clever and entertaining—in particular Catherine Gore, who almost made the genre her own.

Being myself of the opinion that the literary canon does not properly reflect what people were really reading – and disliking the critical tendency to simply leap over decades while supposedly tracing the history of the novel – I have always had it in mind to take a look at some of the silver-fork novels—but my usual impulse to do everything “in order” and “from the beginning” repeatedly got in the way; not least because this story has an unexpected and rather peculiar beginning.

While I was researching early 19th century crime novels, such as Frances Trollope’s Hargrave and Catherine Crowe’s Men And Women; or, Manorial Rights – which emerged in the same lacuna as the silver-fork novels, and were similarly critically attacked – a strange web of novelistic connections began to emerge.

In particular, it seems that a major influence upon Mrs Trollope and her tendency, not just to include crime-plots in her novels, but to blend together different genres, was the work of Edward Bulwer-Lytton—and most of all his 1828 novel, Pelham; or, The Adventures Of A Gentleman. And this, in turn, was influenced by Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, which was published the year before.

And both of these had already come to my attention—being mentioned in dispatches, as it were, not as actual silver-fork novels but, with their upper-class settings and social self-consciousness, as progenitor novels for the genre.

(Disraeli, like Theodore Hook, was pilloried for pretending to a knowledge of aristocratic life that he did not possess. Of course, as the Earl of Beaconsfield, he eventually had the last laugh.)

However, this is still not the starting-point: both Bulwer-Lytton and Disraeli were influenced in the writing of their novels by Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1796 novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, and the first version (it was later revised) of its sequel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years. Together, these novels are themselves considered to represent to birth of a new genre, the Bildungsroman.

So I’ve been pondering going back to Goethe for quite some time—and was finally prompted actually to do it by a coincidence. One of my off-blog reading projects (because, you know, I don’t have enough on-blog reading projects) is working through perhaps the first ever “Best 100 Novels” list to be compiled by a critic, that constructed by Clement King Shorter for The Bookman in 1898. Put together chronologically – and starting with Don Quixote – it’s an interesting if highly idiosyncratic list (which you may find here, if you’re interested) that I am using chiefly to plug some gaps in my reading.

(And because I just can’t get enough of lists.)

And at #28 on Shorter’s list we find Wilhelm Meister, the title given to Carlyle’s compiled translation.

What can I say? – I took it as A Sign…

 

7 Comments to “A silver fork in the road”

  1. You’ll probably do fewer fork puns than I would…

    • The way I proceed (or don’t), it will no doubt be some considerable time before I make any at all…

  2. Great, great post Liz! Thanks for all your research on a neglected but mildly fascinating part of the history of the novel.
    But must you always create book bullets with my name on them?

  3. I don’t know that I’ve ever encountered a mention of Edward Bulwer-Lytton that wasn’t in relation to “It was a dark and stormy night …” Congratulations, Liz. You’ve almost tempted me to actually try reading the fellow! (Here’s where you explain that his dire reputation as a wordsmith is wholly undeserved, I’m sure.)

    • I’m going to go out on a limb and say…”mostly”. The impression we get from the Bulwer-Lytton Award is certainly wrong, though this is not to say his writing wasn’t very flawed. But he was another leading writer of the lacuna of the 1820s and 1830s and therefore automatically of interest to me.

      I have actually read a couple of his books, but too long ago to retain a critical memory. I won’t say definitely, but hopefully I will be getting to Pelham in the course of this project and then we can all see for ourselves. 🙂

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