Reality at the End of a (Silver) Fork
I lack a historian’s stamina. The ocean of fact that some of our hoydens swim in threatens to drown me. Too much undigested actuality pulls me under.
What I really love is the history of stories, the big, changing meta-story of how different cultures in different eras have gazed at themselves in mirrors, charted themselves on paper.
I like to write characters who are also readers. In Almost a Gentleman, Phoebe and Kate are inspired by Jane Austen’s Persuasion to seek love beyond their first youth; reading Emma, Fannie and Elizabeth of The Slightest Provocation ask whether Mr. Knightley is dreamy or maybe a little bit weird.
But lately I’ve been wondering if my characters should be reading Austen at all. Because chances are that what they’d really have been reading was the era’s “silver fork novels.”
Of course people of the Regency read Austen. But in truth many more of them read what could much better be called “Regencies.” An author of the 1820s could sell more copies than Austen ever did by penning witty, brittle, yet also romantic novels about bored, exquisitely dressed (yet also extremely manly) men with names like Tremaine, De Vere or Vivian Grey, with pedigrees and social standing to match their clothes.
According to Ellen Moers’ superlative study The Dandy: Brummell to Beerbohm, what the authors and publishers of “silver fork” novels were going for was an air of “exclusivity”: a highly formalized portrayal of the social life closed off to the common run of humanity was something that the common run of humanity found oddly titillating and delightful.
At first I found this all a bit surprising. Of course we spend our lives in a media-generated haze of images of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. And often, like Woody Allen in Annie Hall, we might be less than interested in any club that would have us as members. But I’d imagined this phenomenon as a recent one, spawned by TV and the web. Just as I’d thought that the novel of Regency high life had been invented by Georgette Heyer in the early-to-mid-twentieth century.
Seems I was wrong. Seems that it took the tonnish lifestyle little more than a decade to propagate its own reflections into popular fiction. Brummell and company had their heydays in the streets, clubs, and ballrooms of the first decade of the nineteenth century. By 1820, when the Prince of Wales had become King George IV and the debt-ridden Brummell had beat his retreat to Calais, gentlemen of fashion had made their way between the sheets and beneath the covers of fashionable novel.
Silver fork heroes were as elegant, witty, and clever as Heyer’s Corinthians, and as available to have their hearts melted by lovely, worthy women. People debated who the originals for these men were. And an early silver fork author, Robert Plumer Ward, reported with delight that he’d overheard a group of young ladies gushing over his rakish hero, Tremaine. Ward must have known that he’d done his job well when he heard them say they’d have married his hero “for the sake of converting him.” Plus ca change…
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. You don’t need mass electrification to have a mass media. The Georgian-to-Regency-to-Georgian era had an immense popular press. According to Wikipedia, Regency London had 52 newspapers. Clearly this was a society that adored its own image.
And so I’ve come to imagine the socially prominent Regency ton living their lives surrounded by glittering panes of glass – windows you could see through and silvered mirror glass you could see yourself in. If you were an insider, you spent a fair amount of time scanning the mirrors of the on-dits and the silver fork novels (and it must have been devastating not to see your own face reflected therein). And if you were among the much bigger group who hadn’t been invited, the gossip and the novels were like big French windows that you could peek through to watch the dancing.
Ellen Moers tells us that the originator of the fashionable novel, the brilliantly successful publisher Henry Colburn, saw 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.”
One could perhaps write a Regency about a Henry Colburn – or about one of his authors. Some of these authors were women; one was the future British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. When he wrote Vivian Grey Disraeli was a dreamy dandyish Jewish boy in his early twenties; he made up most of what he wrote, for of course he was not to be admitted to Almack’s for many years after.
Perhaps one could write about the sort of man who might want to have a silver fork novel written about him.
Or how about the reader of a silver fork novel? How about a Birmingham manufacturer of… oh, say, silver forks, or big, beautiful panes of glass?
I obviously haven’t gone beyond musing and meandering yet. Still wandering through the hall of mirrors and windows that’s my and our literary history.
And wondering whether any of you share these fascinations…