Posts tagged ‘Silver-fork novel’

08/06/2019

I bet it’s not as much fun as it sounds…

 

Ahem.

Evidently Benjamin Disraeli’s third novel, The Young Duke, fits the general parameters of the silver-fork novel; it has accordingly been added to my provisional reading-list for the genre. However, The Young Duke was published in 1831, four years after Vivian Grey—and therefore after the silver-fork novel had become “a thing”. It will be interesting to compare the approaches of these two novels to their subject matter…

…or perhaps I should say, if and when I can compare them.

Having wrapped up Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, I rewarded myself by starting my hunt for a copy of Benjamin Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, considered the first English response to Goethe’s Bildungsroman and a silver-fork progenitor work.

This proved unexpectedly difficult, due (in the first instance) to a combination of the novel’s publishing history and the idiosyncrasies of the cataloguing system recently adopted by our major libraries: because the book was initially published anonymously and then later reissued as by “the Earl of Beaconsfield”, it doesn’t always come up if you search for it as by Benjamin Disraeli.

But that was, or soon became, a relatively minor speed-bump. A more immediate obstacle was the surprising discovery that neither of the usual suspects (i.e. Penguin and the Oxford University Press) had ever issued an edition of Vivian Grey; that except for an expensive, limited-edition reissue by Pickering & Chatto of “The Early Novels Of Benjamin Disraeli” in 2004, there has not been a hard-copy, English-language edition of the book since 1968; and that the edition before that was from 1934 (in the US) and 1927 (in the UK). There are, of course, ebook and print-on-demand editions around, but I prefer to avoid those if I can.

Well. Okay. It turned out there was a copy of 1968 edition available for interlibrary loan, and inexpensive ones of the 1927 edition online. But while I was pondering that, a far more insidious issue raised its head: the incompatibility of these single-volume releases with the fact that Vivian Grey was originally published in five volumes, two of them in 1826 and the other three in 1827.

And my ugly suspicions were correct: when Vivian Grey stopped being by “Anonymous” and was reissued as by “the Earl of Beaconsfield”, it was also cut to pieces – “severely expurgated”, to use one academic’s description – and (I gather) lost a lot of its fun in the process. The much-shortened 1853 edition is now considered the standard text.

This, of course, shall not stand…

It seems that my academic library holds the five-volume version in its Rare Books section; and while this is theoretically tempting, trying to get it not only read, but written up, in-library is too impracticable even for me.

Fortunately some online library collections do hold scans of the original edition; and while reading a five-volume novel online isn’t exactly appealing, this finally seems like the most sensible way of tackling Vivian Grey.

Meanwhile—a separate issue altogether is the simultaneous discovery that while Vivian Grey and Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham represent the English reaction to Wilhelm Meister, and certainly did significantly inspire the development of the silver-fork novel proper, there are a couple of other works that also played an important part in the latter, and which pre-date both of these better-known books.

One of them, indeed, may also have been an influence upon these two—as we may judge from its title alone: Robert Plumer Ward’s Tremaine; or, The Man Of Refinement, published in 1825.

And before that we find something that is not strictly a novel at all, but nevertheless appears to warrant a place in this timeline: Theodore Hook’s Sayings And Doings; or, Sketches From Life, from 1824. Published in three volumes, these were a collection of short stories – “tales” – intended to illustrate particular maxims…and, it seems, offer not-infrequently malicious portraits of public figures, including most of Hook’s acquaintances. These proved so popular that the perpetually debt-ridden Hook continued to write them, eventually producing two more “series” of tales that eventually filled nine volumes.

I haven’t looked into the availability of these yet. I’ve been too busy slamming my forehead against my keyboard…

 

09/05/2019

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…