Silver forks, stereotypes, and regency romance.
[T]he three-years' run of the fashionable novels was a shrewd sign of the times; straws they were, but they showed the upgathering of the storm .... Few writers ever produced so great an effect on the political spirit of their generation as some of these novelists, who, without any other merit, unconsciously exposed the falsehood, the hypocrisy, the arrogant and vulgar insolence of patrician life .... The Utilitarians railed against them, and they were effecting with unspeakable rapidity the very purposes the Utilitarians desired. (2)
We can assume that Bulwer's "three years' run" includes the publication of his own novel Pelham; or The Adventures of a Gentleman, which appeared in 1827; thus he establishes the fashionable novel as both a product of and a response to the reign of George IV, what is sometimes called the late or extended Regency.
With its emphasis on clothing, dining, shopping, entertaining, and other fashionable pursuits, the silver fork novel certainly seems a fit emblem of the Regency, an era notoriously characterized by glittering artifice and conspicuous consumption. Although Richard Altick acknowledges that the genre was influenced by the pamphleteering novels of Robert Bage and William Godwin, and by Maria Edgeworth's moral tales, he denies that the fashionable novel carried out any project of reform: "Soon abandoning whatever slight pretense of ideology or edification it had borrowed from those other forms, it devoted itself to the presentation of glittering life in high society, a kind of fictionalized gossip-column or jet-set journalism." (3) Noting fashionable novels' preoccupation with the luxurious lifestyles of the rich and famous, Winifred Hughes labels them the "original 'Regency romances'--arguably the first best sellers in the modern sense of the term and the remote ancestors of our perennial drugstore paperbacks." (4) Bonnie Anderson and Andrew Elfenbein have also drawn parallels to popular romance novels by pointing to the silver fork's largely female audience, formulaic structure, and low production values. (5) However, the fashionable fiction of Catherine Gore challenges this simple identification with the Regency romance and supports Bulwer's claim that these novels served a more serious social and political purpose.
Although she is less well-known than Bulwer and Disraeli, Gore was the most prolific of the fashionable novelists, sustaining a publishing career for almost three decades. (6) It is true that her masterpiece, Cecil: or, The Adventures of a Coxcomb (1841), and its sequel, Cecil, a Peer (1841), revisit the years of the actual Regency, from 1811 to 1820. However, Gore seems to have been more fascinated by the historical moment at which she began writing: Women as They Are; or, The Manners of the Day (1830), Pin Money (1831), Mothers and Daughters (1831), The Hamiltons; or, Official Life in 1830 (1834), and The Popular Member (1844) all explore the years leading up to 1830, which Gore clearly regards as a benchmark. Although Gore's novels acknowledge the shadow of George IV (he actually becomes a minor character in The Hamiltons), it is clear that her concern is with the future, not the past; thus, for Gore the 1820s do not represent the late Regency but the movement toward the reforms of the Victorian period. A close examination of Gore's work reveals that the fashionable novel is not a Regency romance for two important reasons. First, although it may include elements of a love story, the fashionable novel is not a romance at all as modern readers, publishers, and scholars define the term. Second, the genre's relationship with the Regency period and its values is far more vexed than the contemptuous term "Regency romance" suggests.
The silver fork novel has been closely associated with the Regency era largely because of the two most famous examples of the genre: Benjamin Disraeli's Vivian Grey (1826-27) and Bulwer's Pelham (1828) were published near the end of George IV's reign, and their dashing mixture of fashion, politics, wit, and an ostentatious display of wealth and privilege reflects the glittering values of the era Gore calls "the gilded, not the golden, age." (7) Indeed, Vivian Grey is accepted as the quintessential silver fork, not because it is the best or most representative text, but because Disraeli's novel, along with Theodore Hooke's Sayings and Doings, formed the subject of William Hazlitt's famously scathing review "The Dandy School," which appeared in The Examiner on 18 Nov. 1827. Disgusted by Hooke's lovingly detailed descriptions of fashionable dining rooms, Hazlitt irritably declared that "provided a few select persons eat fish with silver forks, [the author] considers it a circumstance of no consequence if a whole country starves," neatly providing both a memorable name for the fashionable novel and the primary basis for its scholarly disparagement. (8)
Hazlitt was similarly outraged by Disraeli's creation of Vivian Grey, an egotistical dandy-hero who "look[s] down upon the rest of the species with indifference, abhorrence, or contempt," (9) and by the association of this affected creature with the First Gentleman in Europe:
Vivian Grey is dedicated to the Best and Greatest of men, as if the Illustrious Person who will take this compliment to himself approved of the sentiments contained in it. Are ushers odious to the Best and Greatest of men? Does he hate the great mass of his subjects, and scorn all those beyond Temple-bar? Is he King only of the Dandies, and Monarch of the West [end]? We scarcely believe it. (10)
Despite Hazlitt's protests, the dandy proved irresistible to the reading public. He could hardly be otherwise, considering that he was modeled on two of the most fascinating celebrities of the Regency era: Beau Brummell, (11) who presumed to set the fashion not only for the beau monde but for the sovereign himself; and Lord Byron, whose exploits as a lover, a wit, and a bon vivant (not to mention as a poet) had become legendary. Eager to capitalize on the latter association, publisher Henry Colburn promoted Vivian Grey as "a sort of Don Juan in prose," no doubt with greater effect than accuracy. (12) Fifteen years later, Catherine Gore saw Disraeli's Byronic bid and raised it significantly: not only does Cecil (1841) cast Byron as the narrator's favorite traveling companion, but Cecil modestly announces that he is the original model for Don Juan. As part of an ongoing argument about nature versus civilization, Byron wrote much of his mock epic by appropriating and modifying his friend's adventures, such as an affair with a fashionable Parisienne who nurses Cecil back to health after he has been thrown from a horse:
I am pretty nearly sure, nay, I have a strong inclination to prove in black and white, in Childe Harold's handwriting, (quite as authentic as that exhibited by certain pretended friends, who have so memorably abused his confidence,) that the episode of Haidee was planned and executed, as a sort of moral counterpoise to the pictures with which I favoured him in my letters, of my blessed existence in the Chaussee d'Antin. Byron evidently shipwrecked his hero, as a setoff to my spill, -- imagined the cave, as a contrast to my boudoir, and devised the fried eggs as an antithesis to my violettes pralindes. (13)
Cecil so completely usurps Byron's position--appropriating the role of Don Juan, demonstrating such genuine ennui that it becomes apathy, even enjoying a midnight encounter with a beautiful gypsy--that Byron himself appears superfluous.
The Fashionable Novel and the Regency Romance
Engaging as these dandy novels are, they do not represent the entire genre of the fashionable novel. As I explain in "Gendering the Silver Fork," many fashionable novels eschew the dandy-hero to focus on women's experience in the beau monde, that is, the dizzying and dangerous "world" of high society. These texts, which I identify as "society novels," are the ones most frequently likened to the Regency romance. Imitating the witty, engaging, and meticulously researched historical novels of Georgette Heyer (who modeled her own books on those of Jane Austen), scores of Regency romances are published every year. Indeed, they comprise the largest group of historical romances on the market today, so large that the Romance Writers of America regards the Regency romance as a separate subgenre. Harlequin's guidelines for prospective authors express high expectations for Regency romances, including a wealth of period detail:
Regency tales remain ever-popular and cover the range from drawing-room antics that scandalise the ton, to the salacious underworld inhabited by pickpockets and prostitutes, to the hazardous battlefields of the Peninsular War .... The central relationship is the key driving force, set against an accurate backdrop. Readers should feel as if they are there. These novels are for born storytellers with a love of history, who have the ability to bring a period vividly to life, and to create characters that involve and absorb the reader from page one. (14)
The nineteenth-century fashionable novel has a number of parallels to the Regency romance novel, including its painstaking attention to verisimilitude and material detail, enduring popularity with women readers, poor reputation as formula literature, and scornful reception by critics and scholars. Winifred Hughes makes the most convincing argument for the relationship between the two genres: "It was in large part the silver fork novel that created the enduring image of the period, which still haunts our own Regency romances, and engraved it in the popular consciousness of the coming Victorians." (15) My own experience in reading popular literature confirms the durability and specificity of the Regency image; I have found a valuable key to Gore's numerous references to London assemblies, vendors, and celebrities in Georgette Heyer's Regency Buck, The Corinthian, The Grand Sophy, and her other historical romances.
Andrew Elfenbein finds another parallel in the production values of silver fork novels and category romance, noting, "Like today's Harlequin romances, silver fork novels assimilated the mentality of the assembly-line to artistic production. One novel virtually identical to the next poured from Colburn's presses." (16) Hughes also blames publisher Henry Colburn for his commodification of the genre:
For a quarter of a century, his silver fork novels were turned out in bulk, like so many elegant yard goods. Even the astoundingly prolific Mrs. Gore, whose fortune Colburn made along with his own, later decried the "hateful factory system of the twice three volumes per annum" as the rate of overproduction demanded by the insatiable circulating library monopoly. (17)
Despite these similarities, the fashionable novel and the popular romance are not identical or even closely related. It appears that the association is usually made to indicate a negative judgment, as scholars make little attempt to hide their disdain for romance. The clearest example is Bonnie Anderson's 1976 article "The Writings of Mrs. Gore":
Although fashions in women's novels change, from Ouida to Georgette Heyer, from Mrs. Oliphant to Mary Stewart, they are all love stories. Whatever the setting or the style, the plot turns on falling in love, courtship, and marriage. Heroines in a culture which espouses the womanly ideology, argues Joanna Russ, can only be the protagonist of love stories. (18)
Anderson further asserts that Gore's novels, "like much popular literature written for a female audience," follows a formula "of the familiar domestic romance, whose central event is the heroine's winning of the hero." (19) Anderson makes two rather significant assumptions here: first, that nineteenth-century women authors, restricted by the gender politics of their time, could not help but write love stories (which would certainly come as a surprise to Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot); and second, that Gore wrote for an exclusively female audience, despite evidence that many men (including Leigh Hunt, George IV, Bulwer-Lytton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne) read and enjoyed her works. Since the majority of Gore's readers probably were women, however, let us proceed without further quibbling.
In her influential A Natural History o[ the Romance Novel, Pamela Regis offers a broad definition of the romance:
The romance novel is a work of prose fiction that tells the story of the courtship and betrothal of one or more heroines. All romance novels contain eight narrative elements: a definition of society, always corrupt, that the romance novel will reform; the meeting between the heroine and hero; an account of their attraction for one another; the barrier between them; the point of ritual death; the recognition that fells the barrier; the declaration of heroine and hero that they love each other; and their betrothal. (20)
According to Regis, Anderson's rather dismissive definition of romance is nonetheless accurate. However, Anderson's insistence that Gore writes within this genre is surprising given that her novels frequently subvert the traditional courtship narrative in various ways. Many of her novels, such as Women as They Are, Pin Money, The Hamiltons, and The Popular Member, begin rather than end with the marriage of the heroine. The independent protagonist of A Diary of a Desennuyee (1836), the survivor of a very unhappy marriage, rejoices in her widowhood and demonstrates no eagerness to remarry, declining a number of proposals from very eligible men. Despite his many amorous adventures, Gore's most famous protagonist, Cecil, never marries at all.
Although she glosses over her characters' courtships, Gore's depictions of married life frequently include several of the romantic elements Regis identifies. For example, Gore places several barriers such as a great disparity in age and experience between Lord Willersdale, the austere hero of Women as They Are, and Helen, a shy and awkward girl of eighteen pressured by her parents into marrying without love. Afraid of appearing gauche or ungrateful, Helen alternates between a pose of jaded indifference and forced raptures of delight, both of which chill her husband's affection. "I shall never learn to please him," she concludes despairingly. (21) The newlyweds of Gore's novella The Popular Member make a more promising beginning, but Robert Myrton's enthusiasm for a new factory creates an unexpected hardship for his wife, Caroline:
Accustomed to share his walks, his rides, his missions of charity .... [s]he examined the plans, plodded through the estimates, calculated the returns, laid the foundation stone of the new building, and promised herself to watch diligently over its daily advancement. But she soon found her part must be a very subordinate one. Myrton was on foot every morning at daybreak; confabulating with the clerk of the works, whose slightest word was more important in his ears than the strongest opinion expressed by his wife. (22)
The strain on both marriages is exacerbated when the husbands become absorbed by political duties, leaving their wives to navigate the unfamiliar and treacherous waters of London society.
In each case, husband and wife become increasingly estranged by a series of miscommunications and unfortunate events until they reach what Regis calls the point of ritual death, at which the relationship appears doomed. In Women as They Are, the ritual death threatens to become an actual fatality; Lord Willersdale is gravely wounded in a duel, but Helen is kept from her husband's sickbed by the machinations of her jealous sister-in-law, Lady Danvers. The point of ritual death in The Popular Member is reached when Caroline must cope with her child's fatal illness while her husband, unaware of the crisis at home, hovers over the deathbed of his political patron.
The couples overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but with varying degrees of success. Defying her treacherous sister-in-law, Helen bursts into her husband's sickroom and confesses her love for him; before the second volume is well begun, the couple has reconciled and the dramatic tension animating their relationship all but disappears. The reconciliation of Robert and Caroline Myrton, which does not occur until the end of The Popular Member, is less romantic than didactic; united in mutual grief, husband and wife withdraw from the temptations of London and return, sadder and wiser, to their Yorkshire home, where they learn to moderate their ambitions and appreciate the blessings left to them.
These examples demonstrate that the mere presence of romantic elements does not make a novel a romance, as Janice Radway explains in her ethnographic study Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture. Based on her intensive study of the Smithton readers, a community of romance enthusiasts in the American Midwest, Radway discovers more stringent requirements of the genre:
To qualify as a romance, the story must chronicle not merely the events of a courtship but what it feels like to be the object of one.... In all of their comments about the nature of the romance, the Smithton women placed heavy emphasis on the importance of development in the romance's portrayal of love. (23)
It is the lack of emotional development that disqualifies Gore's novels as romance. The Popular Member functions primarily as a cautionary tale about the dangers of ambition, although Gore also poses a provocative question about the appropriate outlet for the talents and energies of an accomplished young woman whose domestic obligations leave her dissatisfied. Although Women as They Are chronicles the inauspicious beginning of an unequal marriage and the series of misunderstandings that follow, the focus remains on the flaws of the social system that produces such unhappy marriages rather than on the heroine's feelings. At the dramatic moment of reconciliation, Helen appears more anxious to decry the follies of fashionable life than to express any passionate attachment: "Believe me, oh! believe me, that I have seen and proved, and firmly resolved to shun, the dangers of the path to which you so rashly consigned my unguarded footsteps." (24) Once Helen and Willersdale have reached a mutual understanding, Gore abandons the pretence of the love plot altogether and relocates her characters to Ireland, where the heroine studies the absurdities of her neighbors and compares the pretensions of Irish rural society to those of the beau monde. In the third volume, Lord Willersdale is recalled to Parliament to serve as Prime Minister, and Helen returns to fashionable society as a chaperone to a "wild Irish muse" whose mysterious background is revealed in the novel's sensational climax, which reinforces Gore's lessons about proper behavior. Marriage may be more important in the society novel than in the dandy novel, but the overriding concern for communities, customs, and social progress does not allow for the "resolute focus on a single, developing relationship between heroine and hero" which the Smithton readers find so essential to an ideal romance. (25)
The problem with the identification of the fashionable novel with romance is not simply a matter of distinguishing between genres; the comparison has become a kind of shorthand for critical disparagement, conjuring up the negative adjectives most commonly hurled at popular romance--formulaic, trite, antifeminist, mass-produced, commodified. The fashionable novel currently labors under a number of burdens: the pejorative tag of "silver fork," the poor reputation bestowed by critics like Hazlitt and Carlyle, the association with notoriously unscrupulous publishers like Henry Colburn, the paucity of representative texts in print, the inaccessibility of primary texts (most of which reside in rare book rooms and microfiche drawers), and the limited scholarship available on the genre and its writers (much of which lies buried in period studies and biographies of more canonical authors). Although growing interest in the fashionable novel is remedying this last difficulty, the genre should not be further handicapped by a misleading identification with another marginalized and frequently vilified category of popular literature.
The Social Mythology of Fashion
If the fashionable novel is not a Regency romance, what is it? In "The Regency Novel of Fashion," Francis Russell Hart proposes the concept of a "social mythology" that suggests a very different function for the genre and reveals a strong relationship between fashionable novels and earlier, more canonical works:
For literary historians it is debatable whether Burney's followers from Edgeworth to the early "Silver Fork" novelists constitute a single generic development. For contemporaries it was less doubtful. A New Monthly reviewer saw Tremaine (1825) as in "the movement inaugurated by Mafia Edgeworth"; (26) Vivian Grey was a deliberate successor to Tremaine, and Pelham took both for antecedents.... I will suggest that the lineage is--as an evolution in social mythology--clear and meaningful. (27)
For Hart, Frances Burney's Evelina (1778) is the "first predominantly social novel in English [because of] its obsessive preoccupation with being in society." Evelina finds herself in new and unexpected situations with little trustworthy guidance for negotiating "an unstable, intricately codified sphere of scenes, ceremonies, specious 'manners'." (28) She admits, "I seldom, till too late, discover how I ought to act," and is frequently bewildered and ashamed of her own mistakes. (29) Hart claims that Evelina's bewilderment and shame, resulting from ignorance of the appropriate behavioral codes whose transgression will bring punishment, are persistent elements in the social mythology of fashionable novels. These codes are both elusive and dangerous because of fashion's restless mutability and obsession with appearances.
Novels of fashion are particularly concerned with these dangers and assert positive social virtues to combat them. Thus Hart defines the social mythology of fashion as a system of objectives:
The affirmation of ... real virtues in a time of social confusion and transformation, the search for new stabilities in a period of revolutionary change, the striving to articulate a proper balance of personal autonomy and responsible worldliness: these become the objectives of the novelists of fashion.... We can trace their emergence if we begin with Fanny Burney, glance next at her successors Maria Edgeworth and Susan Ferrier, turn then to Hook, Ward, and Lister, and end with early Bulwer and Disraeli. (30)
Hart does not include Catherine Gore in this line of descent because the endpoint of his study is 1828, two years before Gore's first fashionable novel was published. However, using Hart's objectives--the search for virtue in social confusion, stability in an era of change, and balance between autonomy and "responsible worldliness"--we can see strong thematic parallels between the works of Burney and Gore.
One of the stories most central to the mythology of the society novel is that of the newcomer, the stranger at the gate. How does the outsider gain entrance to society and how can she win acceptance without losing her own integrity? Those outsiders termed parvenus are strangers not only to London society but to the leisured class; thus the division may not be one of mere geography, but also of class and class markers, such as dress, speech, education, and manners. In Burney's novels, the newcomer is usually an outsider by virtue of her youth and inexperience rather than of her birth. To borrow from the famous subtitle of Evelina, the novels are histories of a young lady's entrance into the world: a very complex adult society in which behavior and etiquette are heavily coded in systems the heroine does not know how to interpret. For example, at her first London ball, Evelina mortally offends Mr. Lovell by refusing him but accepting Lord Orville for the same dance. Unaware that etiquette requires her to wait until the next number after refusing a partner, Evelina unwittingly insults one man and embarrasses herself by broadcasting a preference for another.
As earlier discussed, Gore inventively subverts Burney's myth of the newcomer by beginning, rather than ending, many of her novels with the marriage of the heroine and her subsequent entrance into the worlds of adulthood, fashionable life, and matrimonial difficulties. Thus, the heroine may re-enter a society already known to her, but her changed status as a married woman creates unfamiliar social situations and introduces dangerous new acquaintances within that society. Lady Frederica Rawleigh, the heroine of Pin Money, is a perfect example. She is not new to London; her mother, Lady Launceston, has kept a house in town for many years, and Frederica appeared as a debutante the year before her marriage, so the theater, the opera, and the weekly balls at Almack's are already familiar to her when the novel begins. But Lady Launceston, an amiable hypochondriac in the style of Emma's Mr. Woodhouse, did not move in a fast set or allow Frederica to keep late hours, so the young bride has more freedom than she enjoyed as a single woman; her past experience has not prepared her for the temptations and difficulties she will encounter as a matron.
Not only are Burney's heroines newcomers, but they are isolated, cut off from the guides they trust, unable to trust the guides at hand. Separated from her guardian, Evelina is at the mercy of the vulgar Madame Duval and the ineffectual Mrs. Mirvan. The eponymous heroine of Cecilia must choose between a bewildering array of guardians and admirers, all of whose interests oppose Cecilia's in some way. The Incognita of The Wanderer (later identified as Juliet) is the most isolated of Burney's heroines. The product of the late Lord Granville's secret first marriage, Juliet dares not claim her father's name until his family recognizes her legitimacy. Even then, Juliet cannot own a last name until she can be assured of the invalidity of the marriage into which she has been compelled. Unable to trust anyone with the knowledge of her name and family identity, Juliet is forced to perform a number of humiliating roles; unable to present herself truthfully, she must submit to constant misrepresentation.
Gore's heroines are also adrift in society, although their separation from family is often emotional and intellectual rather than physical. After her marriage to a busy politician, Helen Willersdale (Women as They Are) is left to enter London society under the chaperonage of her unscrupulous and power-hungry sister-in-law, Lady Danvers. Fearing that Helen's influence over Lord Willersdale may exceed her own, Lady Danvers deliberately sabotages the younger woman's reputation by encouraging her to accept a libertine's services as a cavalier servente whenever her husband is unable to escort her in public. This of course places Helen in a compromising position which threatens the health of her marriage. Although he eventually discovers his sister's machinations, Lord Willersdale returns to his ministerial duties, leaving his inexperienced bride alone to cope with the attentions of social climbers and would-be seducers, as well as with her new role as chaperone to a young Irish woman making her own "entrance into the world."
Both Burney and Gore identify domestic affections as a source of stability in a changing society, although this positive view is complicated by the fact that family members often pose a danger to the protagonist as well. For example, Evelina and Juliet feel magnetically drawn to strangers who later turn out to be close relatives, suggesting a kind of subconscious recognition or spiritual affinity; however, Evelina is subject to the self-interested schemes of her grandmother, and Juliet's estranged brother attempts to seduce her into an incestuous relationship. Similarly, Gore's "happy endings" usually center on a family reconciliation, but this resolution does not always erase the negative effects of the conflict. For example, Mothers and Daughters is essentially the story of a mother's quest to secure her own financial comfort and social status by arranging brilliant marriages for her daughters, particularly the two eldest. Acting upon their mother's lessons, Claudia and Elinor gain a reputation for avarice and heartlessness that effectively prevents them from marrying the men they love or, indeed, anyone at all. Although the youngest daughter, Minnie, becomes an heiress and insists upon establishing her mother and sisters in her home, their domestic circle does not promise to be a comfortable one. Lady Mafia cannot stop scheming for her best advantage, despite having achieved her goal, and Minnie's sisters, though still young and eligible, cannot look forward to any change in their dependent status.
Burney finds her true ideal in elegance of mind and the old-fashioned courtesy displayed not only by the more mature heroes but also by older men who take a paternal interest in the heroine: e.g., Mr. Villars in Evelina; Giles Arbe, Sir Jaspar, and the Admiral in The Wanderer. Gore's novels also present young women in relationships with chivalrous older men such as Lord Willersdale and Lord Laxington (The Hamiltons) but these figures are flawed by pride and a preoccupation with business that prevents them from developing strong familial relationships. Burney's ideal relationship is clearly modeled on a father-daughter bond, but Gore's is a marriage of partners who communicate openly and support one another's goals rather than pursuing separate interests. Like the popular romance, the society novel posits companionate marriage as a value, but Gore demonstrates in novel after novel that this kind of partnership is the product of deliberate, long-term effort rather than the automatic reward for arriving at the end of courtship: throughout most of Pin Money, Frederica and her husband struggle with misunderstanding, suspicion, jealousy, financial difficulty, and increasing estrangement. However, in their final declaration that their relationship is more important than success in fashion or politics, and in their commitment to a new program of joint decision-making, Gore holds out hope that this marital ideal may be realized. (31)
To summarize, the fashionable novel is not a romance, despite the presence of many romantic elements, because it does not focus primarily on the developing relationship between the hero and heroine. Rather, the fashionable novel concerns itself with the experience of being in society, deciphering its codes, and navigating its dangers, which include the loss of personal integrity, reputation, and domestic affections, as well as financial ruin. As in the works of Frances Burney, the fashionable novel strives to identify stable values in a period of turbulent social change, not to prevent such a change from occurring; it seeks a balance rather than a choice between personal autonomy and responsible participation in society. Gore finds these stable values in strong family relationships, companionate marriage, and a "patriotism" which manifests itself in greater concern for the welfare of country and constitution than for individual ambition or security. This brings us full circle to the issue of reform in the fashionable novel.
Reforming the Regency?
The settings of Gore's many fashionable novels reveal that she favors periods in which the established social hierarchy was directly threatened by revolution or agitation for reform, such as the French Revolution, the Regency, and the period immediately preceding the passage of the First Reform Bill. Such historical settings clearly afford her the opportunity to portray class conflict, to examine the legitimacy of the fashionables' insistence on exclusivity, and to satirize their efforts to maintain a separate and privileged existence.
Despite the fashionable novel's reputation as a socially conservative genre, Gore clearly supports political and social reform, which she defines as the extension of the franchise, the dismantling of rotten boroughs, Catholic emancipation, greater relief for the poor, and less severe penalties for petty crime. All of her morally attractive characters support one or more of these causes, and a surprising number of her heroes are politicians, although political views are expressed somewhat obliquely in her earliest novels. For example, Women As They Are never discloses Lord Willersdale's party affiliation, but he identifies himself as a man of conscience by resigning over the dubious constitutionality of "a question of great popular interest --it matters not whether 'Catholics or corn'." (32) The fact that the principled Lord Willersdale is recalled from his Irish estate to become the new Prime Minister represents a reform of the corrupt Parliament. In A Diary of a Desennuyee, reform is closely affiliated with philanthropy and becomes a kind of litmus test for potential spouses. Harriet Delaval is at first repulsed by Lord Hartston's cold and disdainful behavior, but his passionate speeches in favor of reform and his private acts of charity win her admiration and ultimately her heart; similarly, Lord Hartston combats his physical attraction to Harriet, whom he believes to be a thoughtless votary of fashion, until he learns of her financial support of an indigent family. Although her treatment occasionally lapses into sentiment or melodrama, Gore consistently uses the fashionable novel to promote her brand of reform.
Perhaps Gore's political ideals are most clearly articulated in her presentation of two flawed reformers, Sir Brooke Rawleigh (Pin Money) and Robert Myrton (The Popular Member). Although Sir Brooke, the morally compromised member for Martwich, he is neither evil nor corrupt; he is simply out of his depth.
His eloquence would scarcely have suspended the breath of five hundred startled senators.... Nevertheless, it made a respectable stand at the after-dinner debates of the squirearchy of his neighbourhood; and his maiden speech at the county meeting, on the poor-laws, or the corn-laws, or the anti-slavery, or anti-knavery associations ... had found its way into the County Chronicle, well italicized with "Hear, hear." (33)
Despite his modest abilities, Sir Brooke is persuaded to enter Parliament through a shady business deal and becomes a tool for his more practiced and less scrupulous colleagues. Accustomed to a position of eminence in his rural neighborhood, he receives a rude shock: "a country member finds himself reduced to his natural level in a houseful of squires." (34) His self-esteem wounded, Sir Brooke makes himself "disagreeable and ridiculous" at home, but even his domestic tyrannies are presented comically. (35)
In contrast to Sir Brooke, Robert Myrton truly is gifted enough to be an important Parliamentary leader, and his experience in improving his Yorkshire estate and factory has convinced him of the necessity of reform. Although The Popular Member was published in 1844, it is set twenty years earlier, when Myrton's sympathies with the working class would have been received as radical:
In those unreformed days of British legislation, rarely did the highest order of landed proprietors come in contact with a man of enlightened mind, practically familiar with the necessities and spirit of the lowest. Myrton was, without enthusiasm, a steady friend of the people.... After treating the welfare of his workmen as a sacred deposit in his hands, and listening to their benedictions, it was difficult not to desire a wider horizon for his endeavours. (36)
Despite his lofty ideals, Robert becomes corrupted by his ambition, pride, and craving for acceptance by the very aristocrats whose prerogatives he challenges. Uncomfortably aware of his social inferiority to his wife's family, he gratefully accepts the patronage of the Marquis of Harringhurst, who professes "Liberalism ... as warmly as is compatible with a rentroll of fifty thousand a-year." (37)
The moral downfall of Sir Brooke Rawleigh and Robert Myrton is symbolized by their willingness to represent rotten boroughs. In each case, the hero's abandonment of the principles of reform not only robs him of moral authority in the text, but it seriously jeopardizes his marriage. This unhappy experience teaches one of Gore's favorite lessons: a man may enact more valuable and lasting reforms by tending to his duties as a husband, father, landlord, or businessman than by entering public life as a politician. Despite his zeal and skill as an orator, Myrton provided far greater service through "his active beneficence in his neighborhood, his conscientious administration of justice among the multitude dependent upon him, [and] his perfect fulfilment of all the duties of an enlightened interpretation of the Christian faith." (38) The best that can be said of Sir Brooke's political career is that he has done no harm, but he and his wife embark on a significant reform in private life, establishing a more equitable marriage based on honesty, trust, and joint decision-making.
Bonnie Anderson, Winifred Hughes, and Andrew Elfenbein assert that Gore imposes Victorian values on a Regency setting, but these critics disagree about the effect of this juxtaposition. Anderson argues that the earlier period represented a safe escape for Victorian readers:
The glamour, fashion, and elegance of the period were appealing to women who yearned for a Regency without the licentiousness, drunkenness, and corruption which marred the Regency in Victorian eyes. Mrs. Gore's creation of a fashionable Regency world which recognized Victorian middle-class values was uniquely satisfying to women who wanted both glamour and respectability in their reading. (39)
Hughes contradicts this view, suggesting instead that it was through the influence of the fashionable novels that "the Regency period, as they embalmed it, became the central, if increasingly negative, point of reference--both moral and historical--for the new Victorians." (40) Hughes explains that Victorians wanted to read about the licentious Regency, warts and all, in order to reassure themselves of the greater wholesomeness of their own era.
Elfenbein also rejects the notion of a sanitized Regency for fastidious readers, observing that the presentation of Byron in Victorian novels like Gore's Cecil (1841) and Benjamin Disraeli's Venetia (1837) "mark boundaries between their age and that of Byron by associating him and the Regency with glittering elegance and moral emptiness." (41) It is difficult to think of a more accurate way to describe Gore's anti-hero, "the arch-coxcomb of his coxcombical times," whose highly polished wit and unabashed egotism simultaneously delight and disturb the reader. (42) Perhaps the most unnerving aspect of Cecil's personality is his "predisposition to woman-slaughter," which turns out to be literal as well as figurative. (43) Aware that his reputation and fortune depend on marrying a wealthy woman of fashion, Cecil deliberately, even maliciously, drops his very public pursuit of the beautiful Emily Barnet, a young Portuguese woman with few friends or protectors. Compromised by these attentions and slandered by a careless comment Cecil lets fall, Emily is turned out of the house by her English guardian and returns to her native Portugal, where she dies, presumably of shame and a broken heart. After Emily's disgrace and death, Cecil carries with him a secret sorrow and guilt (as any self-respecting Byronic hero should) and enlists in the army, hoping to be killed in an honorable fashion. But he learns, "More people ... expect to die of grief than fall victims to the poignancy of their sensibility. I was not an Emily Barnet. I was only Cecil Danby, the coxcomb!" (44)
We are never able to completely dislike Cecil, but it is hard to forgive his cheerful resiliency as he saunters through life, inadvertently destroying the women who cross his path. As Elfenbein perceptively notes, Gore's presentation of the "Regency dandy at once as brilliant wit and repellent cad" creates "a strangely compelling aura of bad faith," which is hardly consistent with Anderson's argument for the fashionable novel's whitewash of the Regency period. (45) On the contrary, Elfenbein claims that by invoking the image of Byron and turning a critical eye on his relationships with women, fashionable novels like Cecil and Venetia "suggest the inadequacy of Regency values and the need for their ultimate supersession by the supposedly better world of Victorian England." (46)
It is worth pointing out that Hughes and Elfenbein both focus on Cecil, which explicitly recreates the high Regency with a mixture of longing and (implied) censure; however, not all fashionable novels employ this setting, and very few are so free of moralizing commentary. For too long, definitions of the fashionable novel have rested on dandy novels like Vivian Grey and Pelham, without taking the numerous and varied works of women writers like Catherine Gore into account. As we have seen, many of Gore's society novels trace the social and political movements toward reform in the 1820s and early 30s; this steady gaze into the future rather than the past suggests that her employment of the late Regency setting is not necessarily a celebration of or an elegy for a world that has passed away. Thus the application of terms like Regency or indeed silver fork to works like Pin Money, The Hamiltons, and The Popular Member is misleading, as these names conjure up images of excess, frivolity, debauchery, and gilded corruption--precisely those sins Gore invokes in order to combat them. In her preface to The Sketch Book of Fashion, Gore declares, "The only apology admissible for a fashionable novel is the successful exposure of vices and follies daily and hourly generated by the corruptions of society," (47) echoing Bulwer's claim: "The novels of fashionable life illustrate feelings ... productive of no common revolution." (48)
Francis Russell Hart's articulation of the fashionable novel's social mythology and set of objectives further destabilizes the association of the genre with the English Regency. Whereas Bulwer limits the fashionable novel's popularity to a three-year window (presumably from 1826 to 1829 or, at the latest, from 1827 to 1830), Hart identifies a lifespan of fifty years, with Frances Burney's Evelina, published in 1778, as the starting point. However, even this broader window is inaccurate because it fails to accommodate fashionable novelists who wrote after 1828, including Catherine Gore, whose last original novel appeared in 1858. Redefining the silver fork novel as a text representing the experience of being in society, seeking to correct folly and injustice through satire, searching for stable values in a time of social turbulence, and representing the socio-historical moment by means of time-specific details, we find that the fashionable novel is neither a short-lived fad produced by and reflective of the Regency period nor a forerunner of the mass-produced popular romances dominating bookshelves today. Rather the fashionable novel is a subset of the novel of manners, devoted to exploring the matrix of wealth, family, celebrity, fashion, and political power in order to expose, if not remove, the barriers to reform.
(1) Edward Bulwer did not change his name to Bulwer-Lytton until 1843, long after he had established himself as a fashionable novelist and man of letters. Following scholarly precedent, I use the shorter name "Bulwer" for ease and historical accuracy. However, I use "Bulwer-Lytton" in citing editions of his works that employ this version of his name.
(2) Edward Bulwer-Lytton, England and the English (London: George Rutledge and Sons, 1876), 252.
(3) Richard Altick, The Presence of the Present: Topics of the Day in the Victorian Novel (Columbus: Ohio State U P, 1991), 34-35.
(4) Winifred Hughes, "Silver Fork Writers and Readers: Social Contexts of a Best Seller," Novel 25.3 (1992): 328.
(5) Bonnie Anderson, "The Writings of Catherine Gore," Journal of Popular Culture 10.2 (1976): 404-23; Andrew Elfenbein, "Silver-Fork Byron and the Image of Regency England," in Byromania: Portraits of the Artist in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Culture, ed. Frances Wilson (New York: St. Martin's, 1999), 77-92.
(6) For a discussion of the ways in which the construction of the silver fork novel has pushed Gore into the shadow of her more famous male colleagues, see April Kendra, "Gendering the Silver Fork: Catherine Gore and the Society Novel," Women's Writing 11.1 (2004): 25-38. In keeping with this argument, I prefer the value-neutral term fashionable novel and use silver fork only when it refers to this biased construction of the genre.
(7) Catherine Gore, Cecil: or, the Adventures of a Coxcomb (1841; reprint, London: Richard Bentley, 1845), 102.
(8) William Hazlitt, "The Dandy School," in The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1934), 20:146.
(9) Ibid., 144.
(10) Ibid., 143.
(11) The hero of Gore's Cecil confidently predicts that future generations will revise the prudish Victorian view of Brummell and do him greater justice: "our grand-nephews will behold in George Brummell a great reformer,--a man who dared to be cleanly in the dirtiest of times," 103.
(12) Quoted in Alison Adburgham, Silver Fork Society: Fashionable Life and Literature From 1814 to 1840 (London: Constable, 1983), 80. For a summary of Vivian Grey and its debt to Byron, see Adburgham, 80-91; and Matthew Whiting Rosa, The Silver-Fork School: Novels of Fashion Preceding Vanity Fair (New York: Columbia UP, 1936), 100-107.
(13) Gore, Cecil, 222-23.
(14) "Writing Guidelines: Harlequin Historicals," <http://www.eharlequin.com> (8 Jan. 2008), Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
(15) Hughes, "Silver Fork Writers," 334.
(16) Elfenbein, 79.
(17) Hughes, "Silver Fork Writers," 346.
(18) Bonnie Anderson, "The Writings of Catherine Gore," Journal of Popular Culture 10.2 (1976): 405. Anderson argues that Gore's novels helped to shape and perpetuate "a non-feminist womanly ideology whose tenets included the beliefs that women are the second sex and should ultimately be subordinate to men, that women's place is in the home, and that women are happiest when fulfilled as wives and mothers," 405. Anderson cites Joanna Russ, "What can a Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write," in Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, ed. Susan Koppelman Cornillon (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1972), 9.
(19) Anderson, 406.
(20) Pamela Regis, A Natural History of the Romance Novel (Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 1984), 14; italics original.
(21) Catherine Gore, Women as They Are; or, The Manners of the Day, 2nd ed. (London: Henry Colbum and Richard Bentley, 1830), 1:37.
(22) Catherine Gore, The Popular Member, in The Popular Member, Wheel of Fortune, Etc. (London: Richard Bentley, 1844), 1:23.
(23) Janice Radway, Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Culture (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984), 64-65; italics original.
(24) Gore, Women As They Are, 1:330.
(25) Radway, 122.
(26) Alison Adburgham speculates that Robert Plumer Ward's Tremaine owed its success to publisher Henry Colburn's puffery: "many must have been disappointed to find no characters identifiable with living persons, no incidents that could be related to current politics. Maybe it was intellectual snobbery that prevented people from declaring the book to be a bore," 76.
(27) Francis Russell Hart, "The Regency Novel of Fashion," in From Smollett to James: Studies in the Novel and Other Essays Presented to Edgar Johnson, ed. Samuel I. Mintz, Alice Chandler, and Christopher Mulvey (Charlottesville: U P of Virginia, 1981), 106.
(28) Ibid., 95.
(29) Frances Burney, Evelina, or The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, ed. Margaret Anne Doody (London: Penguin, 1994), 334.
(30) Hart, 86.
(31) For a more complete discussion of Pin Money's movement toward the ideal of companionate marriage, see April Kendra, "'You, Madam, Are No Jane Austen': Mrs. Gore and the Anxiety of Influence," Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, 3.2 (Summer 2007) <www.ncgsjournal.com>.
(32) Gore, Women as They Are, 1:251.
(33) Catherine Gore, Pin Money: A Novel (1831; reprint, London: George Routledge, 1854), 10.
(34) Ibid., 142.
(35) Ibid., 143.
(36) Gore, The Popular Member, 1:46-47.
(37) Ibid., 50.
(38) Ibid., 53.
(39) Anderson, 420.
(40) Winifred Hughes, "Elegies for the Regency: Catherine Gore's Dandy Novels," Nineteenth-Century Literature 50.2 (1995): 191.
(41) Elfenbein, 78.
(42) Gore, Cecil, 13.
(44) Ibid., 177.
(45) Elfenbein, 90.
(46) Ibid., 78.
(47) Quoted in Vineta Colby, Yesterday's Woman: Domestic Realism in the English Novel (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1974), 57.
(48) Bulwer-Lytton, 251.
University of North Texas
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2007|
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