Current English Literature PhD student, Abigail Boucher, has passed the last year as a Hunterian Associate working with Special Collections’ “Silver Fork” novels. Here she describes here experiences and the outcome of all of her work, an Etiquette compendium offering insights into the do’s and don’ts for aspiring class-climbers of the early 19th century.
‘Silver fork’ fiction (also called ‘fashionable’ fiction) was a popular genre from the 1820s to the 1840s which is hardly studied at all today. One of the primary purposes of silver fork fiction was to provide middle-class readers with an inside view to high society, with each novel giving semi-satirical guides for upper class behaviour. This advice covers all aspects of aristocratic life, from clothing and beauty tips, to the treatment of servants, house décor, courtship protocol, dueling, politics, and more. The advice simultaneously gave the middle classes the information they needed to emulate the aristocracy while at the same time often satirizing the aristocracy.
“It is not every many who can wear a white waistcoat and cravat, without looking either as insipid as a boiled chicken, or as dingy as a Spanish olive. But for those qualified by nature by clear complexions and well planted whiskers to surmount the difficulty, nothing like it to mark the inborn distinction between a gentleman and a butler!” (Cecil 104).
The University of Glasgow’s Special Collections houses 75 rare silver fork novels, usually in a 3-volume format, with each novel typically numbering over 1,000 pages. Over the course of this project, I have read each of those 75 novels and extracted from their narratives all of the fashionable advice voiced by both characters and authors.
“No man should read after nineteen. From thirteen to nineteen, hold your tongue, and read every thing you can lay your hands on . . . From nineteen to twenty-two, action, action, action.” (The Young Duke 2:6-7).
The fashionable advice that I pulled from these novels filled roughly 100 typed pages, which is far too dense to generate much public interest. Therefore, the advice was strained down to a ‘best of’ version, and this website was created where that advice could easily be divided up into user-friendly chapters based on the subject. Each chapter has its own page, its own introduction, and its own contemporary illustration of the subject matter. Each chapter is usually subdivided into smaller, cohesive sections, depending on how large the topic is and how frequently the silver fork novels provide advice about that topic.
“The first requisite for a newly-initiated member [of high society] is, how to cut [snub] all friends and relations who are not deemed worthy of being of a certain coterie” (The Exclusives 2:136).
At some point, the full 100 pages of extracted advice will be tidied up and put on the site as a PDF, for the use and convenience of other scholars.
The site also has a full bibliography, complete with the shelf-mark number for each book housed in Special Collections, in order to promote the usage of those books. The website also provides a glossary of terms: since these novels are almost 200 years old, some of the terminology or concepts are archaic. In addition, these novels depict a very exclusive social class, which makes use of its own slang or speaks in French.
“least of all, did he affect that most displeasing of minor ostentations, that offensive exaggeration of neatness, that outré simplicity, which our young nobles and aspiring bankers so ridiculously think it bon ton to assume” (Godolphin 1:213).
The goal of this project is to generate popular and academic interest in a genre that defined the early nineteenth century in Britain. The superficial and faddish nature of most of this fiction sadly meant that the novels became outdated very quickly and were not considered literary enough to stand the test of time; this is unfortunate, since these novels provide snapshots of very popular modes of thought from the 1820s to the 1840s, as well as problematising and providing further insight into what is already known about early nineteenth-century literature and culture.
This project serves to continue the legacy of the silver fork novel: it strives to give the average reader a window to a lesser-known world, to provide that reader with rarely-seen advice, and, most of all, to entertain.
If you’re a current University of Glasgow Postgraduate Research student, and Abi’s project has whet your appetite to become involved in the Hunterian Associate Programme, please note that we’re currently recruiting for the 2015 intake.
Images in this post come from the satirical Glasgow/Northern Looking Glass published in the mid 1820s.