The Silver Fork Novel Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Silver Fork Novel

The Silver Fork school is delineated most clearly by the years of its greatest popularity (1825-1837) and by the style of life that is portrayed in these novels—contemporary British aristocratic society, with its attention to etiquette, leisure activities, and luxuries. This kind of novel was given the epithet Silver Fork by William Hazlitt in a scathing review that derided the sub-genre's tendency to describe the minutiae of upper-class existence. Despite the brevity of the school's heyday and the consistently negative critical evaluation of these novels as superficial and formulaic, scholars credit Silver Fork fiction with stimulating the realism and concern with social justice that characterizes its Victorian successors.

Most critics identify the publication of Robert Plumer Ward's Tremaine in 1825 as the first of the Silver Fork novels, but the best-known representatives of the school are Benjamin Disraeli and Edward Bulwer-Lytton. In such works as Vivian Grey (1826) and Pelham (1828) respectively, these authors depicted well-traveled, wealthy young men whose adventures end in romantic union with innocent young women. The immense popular success of these novels carried over to the work of Catherine Gore and Lady Marguerite Blessington, both of whom, after 1830, largely dominated the market for “fashionable fiction,” which increasingly sold to a female readership. Although literary historians contextualize these novels within the tradition of the eighteenth-century novel of manners and later sentimental fiction, the Silver Fork novels had a distinct formula involving a few stereotypical and easily recognizable characters—the amoral and frivolous dandy, for example—a simple plot usually involving courtship and marriage, a lack of realism, and an idealization of the stability and comfort of the elite classes. Although the Silver Fork novel was preoccupied with upper-class pretensions, its primary audience consisted of the emergent middle class, whose members aspired to social advancement. To this end, the portrayals of glamourous figures, the attention to fashion and luxury, the complacency of the characters, and their indifference to politics were frequently exaggerated.

Increasingly, the novels brought into relief the conflict between two social ideals—aristocratic idleness and Calvinist virtue and industry—and contributed to the rise of literary realism, which often satirized the apolitical life of leisure that the Silver Fork novels celebrated so candidly. With their superficial treatment of class politics and uncritical delight in material comforts, these texts failed to address the existing economic and social inequalities of the time. After his publication of the paradigmatic “dandy” novel, Vivian Grey, Disraeli himself participated in this transition to more politically conscious fiction in his Young England trilogy (1844-1847), which merges romantic elements with reflections on imperialism and racism. Similarly, Bulwer-Lytton's Godolphin (1833) registers this shift in its failure to sympathize with the “malaise of the wealthy and indolent,” in William E. Cragg's terms.

Indeed, contemporary critics recognize the Silver Fork novel primarily for the reaction it provoked, rather than for its inherent literary value. In their study of Victorian fiction, Elliot Engel and Margaret F. King write: “The grist which the fashionable novels provided for the satiric mills of Carlyle, Dickens and Thackeray was precisely their ‘frothiness’—the insipid artificiality of the verbal texture itself and the insubstantial, trivial vision of human experience. …” Of particular importance is Vanity Fair (1847), which exposed the fashionable novels' attempts to glorify characters who “are not human beings first and pose and pretense second, but pose and pretense completely,” as Matthew Whiting Rosa comments in his classic study (1936). While the Silver Fork novel's popularity has long since faded, its focus on fashion provided the impetus for a literary reconsideration of elitism and apolitical self-absorption, and thus for a renewed sense of social responsibility.