Silver Fork Novels and Romance

silver fork ballroomIn my own particular mental map of the modern novel’s river, the watershed is Jane Austen. Her books were romantic, but she was not writing romance as it was soon understood.

Within a very few years after her death one of the forks in that river was fashioned by Bulwer-Lytton in Pelham–the beginning of the so-called “Silver Fork” novels, the social romances, usually satiric but not always, that focused in on the bon ton. (My first post on this subject was here.)

Like many male authors of the time, Bulwer-Lytton has managed to stay in print while two female authors responsible for creating the silver fork subgenre are lost in obscurity. This is a shame as I think that of the three (Bulwer-Lytton and Lady Charlotte Bury–daughter of a duke, whose novels inveighed rather bitterly against exclusivism while glorying in it) Catherine Grace Gore at her best was a much better writer.


Gore’s origins are somewhat obscure.

Like many novelists and memoirists, she seems to have reinvented herself as much as possible. She probably was the daughter of a wine merchant whose wife, on his death, married slightly upward to a medical man. The young Catherine, in launching herself into society, seems to have used his name (Levinson) in preference to her own (Moody) until she married a Guardsman named Charles Gore, who promptly resigned his commission in order to write.

They soon moved to Paris, where life was cheaper. Picture them both busy at their desks, he translating French novels for fast money, and she writing a steady stream of novels while producing ten children.

woman writing at desk

When she shows up in letters of the period (because everyone in the literary world seems to have known everyone else—and met at the parties given by Bulwer-Lytton’s lion-luring wife) some people seem to have been slightly intimidated by the brilliance and wit of her conversation. All her life, in fact, that’s what people said about her: she was even wittier as a conversationalist than as a writer.

All we have now is her writing, and it is witty enough.

I can’t help wondering if Susanna Clarke, in creating Mr. Drawlight, was riffing off of Mr. Brill in Women as They Are:


…has worked his way into society by being what is termed a ‘useful man’: endowed with moderate abilities and great subserviency; who will lend an active pen and an untiring voice to any cause wherein he may be profitably retained; whose well-drilled temper can endure and forget a passing insult; and who brings to the table of his patron the passing news of the day, and a pun or two of moderate merit, in return for a cutlet and soufflé.

mrs gore

Within four years after Jane Austen’s death Gore published her first, anonymous, books—historical novels, some of them earning praise– but it was in 1830 she reached success with Women as They Are, and fame with Pin Money, which  came out a couple years later.

It’s easy to envision writers like E.F. Benson reading this from his grandparents’ shelves, before he wrote the Dodo novels, and Heyer discovering them when a teen, perhaps reading them aloud to her ailing brother.

Gore says in the preface that she was trying to translate Jane Austen’s novels of manners to a higher sphere. Elsewhere she admitted that she grew up reading rubbish, and wrote it.

Her novels don’t strike deep into the human heart the way that Austen does; while there might be a superficially moral theme in play, the characters are in effect presented the way they might wish to be seen, rather than as they truly are beneath the social facades. Wealth and social status are of primary importance, and women’s agency—unlike in Jane Austen’s work, where what women thought and how they saw the world truly mattered—Gore presents her ladies as submitting to masculine will as the natural order of things.


That doesn’t mean she accepted everything men did. She gets quite satiric about the vagaries of both men and women, though she, like the silver fork novelists to come after her (such as Georgette Heyer) reserve the sharpest satire not for evil-doing so much as for the presumption of social climbers.

And the deserving characters don’t find happiness by choosing to marry unworldly country curates, they might hold out nobly for love, but their love objects are always handsome, and possessed of titles, wealth, and social position.

What makes the good silver forkers readable is not just the vicarious fun of wealth and position, but the vividness of the characters who move about so confidently on the London social stage. Gore at her best wrote vividly and with enough wit that even Thackeray admitted that she was good at it, while otherwise utterly despising silver fork novels. Including hers.

Gore, like many novelists who tended to build stories around perfect and passive good heroines (or heroes who learn their lessons and become good), was at her best when creating the secondary characters. These can be varied and vivid, and most often, they are the ones who demonstrate actual human traits.

Tea party illustration

Pin Money opens with two middle-aged sisters sharing news: one’s daughter has just been proposed to, and the other, her godmother, childless and very busy with business, is listening.

Mother, on the prospective groom: ”The young man is very well spoken of. His aunt, Mrs. Martha Derenzy, was saying the other day that there is not a finer young man in town:–so steady, and so unlike the idle dashers of the day! He will spend a quiet evening playing dummy whist with her, and then go home, with his umbrella, in the rain, with as much good-nature as if he had been doing the thing he liked best in the world.”

Aunt: ”Umph!—rather creep-mousy for a young man of eight-and-twenty…I conclude your errand with me is to consult about your terms with Sir Brooke?”

Mother: “Terms? Surely I told you before, that Frederica acknowledges always having felt a preference for Rawleigh over the rest of her admirers; and that I entertain no doubt she will accept him at once.”

Aunt: “Yes, yes! I Understand. She will ask ‘time to become better acquainted with him;’—eat half-a-dozen dinners in his company;–spoil a row or two of netting while he sits whispering nonsense and pulling her workbox to pieces;–and finally, vouchsafe to give that consent at the end of a fortnight, which she might bestow with quite as good a grace this very day. All those young-lady etiquettes are perfectly understood. But what do you mean to ask for her?”

two ladies gossiping

They discuss the issue of pin money, the mother professing to be too high minded, and insisting her daughter is too innocent and too far above such mundane matters as money to care at all. The aunt returns the next day (…when Lady Olivia Tadester flustered her way into the drawing room, with her lustering pelisse rustling at every step, like a plantation of aspen) and deliberately bores away the young man so she can talk business with mother and daughter both.

At first the mother sticks to her high-mindedness, maintaining at her marriage her spouse said they would share a common purse.

”It must have been a very uncommon one, if it did not give you occasion to repent the bargain. A man who sets out by telling his wife ‘as long as I have a shilling, sixpence of it is yours’ generally takes care to never have more than a shilling at his disposal…”

Frederica, at least, considers her aunt’s words, finally admitting: ””No,” said Frederica musingly. “I certainly should not like to trouble him with my personal expenses. It is unwise on the part of any woman to allow her husband to discover of what shreds and patches her sex is composed.”

Mr. Collins

Wasn’t it the sensible Charlotte Lucas who, before she flattered Mr. Collins into making himself the happiest of men, said it was better to know as little as possible about the prospective person one was to marry?

There’s an interesting tension here between romance and reality: the implication that women (and men) must hide their true natures in order to win a spouse doesn’t promise a lasting romance, does it? And yet that is exactly what the silver fork novels want us to believe.

By the nineteenth century, people in literature, at least, did not want to have their spouses chosen for them, nor did readers admire those who made marriage into a business transaction. Male and female readers both wanted romance, but the romantic partner had to come not only with a spotless reputation but good looks, wealth, and social position. Being “in love” lifted the marriage above the dreary mundanity of a successful business coup.

Speaking of money, back to Mrs. Gore and Pin Money:

Frederica’s mother sighs and admits that when she bore her son, her delighted spouse gave her a five hundred pound note—but then for years afterward, if she needed money, he said, “All that five hundred gone so soon?”

image for silver fork post

The description of the young couple’s courtship is delightful. He veers between Frederica and a Miss Mapleberry, whose family he visits… with six unmarried daughters;–one of those large, lively, good-humoured, singing, dancing, riding, chatting families, where a young man seeking a wife is apt to fall in love with the joint-stock merit and animation of the group; and to feel quite astonished on discovering, after his union with Harriet or Jane, how moderate a proportion he has received in his lawful sixth of the music, information, accomplishments, and good-humoured gossipry of the united tribe.”

He wavers, she drinks oceans of healing camphor-julep to cure her nervous headaches at seeing him dancing with Miss Mapleberry, then she steels herself to smile on a couple of his rivals, and he promptly discovers his passion and proposed, whereupon her disorder was radically cured–or perhaps it might have found its way to Laura Mapleberry.

The story involves a lot of characters, but the romance is really between Frederica’s wild brother and his mysterious beloved, ending with a last line (after satisfaction for all) that makes one laugh out loud.

Gore’s novels are hard to come by, except in clunky e-editions, but they are immense fun to read as they lay down the path that modern romance novels eventually followed.

The best of these show the delicate balancing act between how we wish life could be and how it really is, both socially and emotionally. Plus a lot of vicarious fun with duels, ballroom passions, country house visits, and an endless supply of beautiful clothes.






Silver Fork Novels and Romance — 8 Comments

  1. Your description of the silver forks reminded me of Restoration Comedies. How alike are they?

    • Well, the Restoration comedies are much bawdier, and a lot more about sexual politics, in general. These are less about that than achieving romance in the highest social realm–and climbing even higher thereby.

  2. Always having found Heyer unreadable, don’t know about her, but woo, yes, Class Matters — status and wealth — remain a staple of movies and television, from ya Gossip Girls and Mean Girls to adult Odd Mom Out.

    These sorts of books have the added incentive to writers these days that they often get offered movie and / or television options. In the end of the 90’s and early aughts were the Nanny Diaries and the Second and First Wives Club books and novels, and Candace Bushnell was writing then too — most obviously her sex columns in the NY Observer that became Sex and the City. It’s clear that these days Our Protagonist’s virtue(s) is/are rather different than those of Ms. Gore’s time. 🙂 — which I’ve always found to be an interesting comparison and contrast in terms of the novel’s history.

    In fiction this summer features (but not only!) Candace Bushnell’s latest, Killing Monica, as well, but not only The Knockoff set in the cut-throat fashion industry, The Underwriting: Get Rich. Get Laid Get Even in the financial industry, The Rumor, in which rich people behave badly on Nantucket. There’s the reads-like-a-novel, sort-of-fictional, sort-of-anthropological study, Primates of Park Avenue, that some detractors say is all fiction because “wife bonus” should be “presents under the tree,” but willy nilly as a movie option.

    There are loads of these books featuring specific region angles published too — particularly southern fantasies of feisty women facing the troubles that only the rooted, rich (or at worst, genteelly poor, yet retaining the shabby family mansion and some land as well as faithful retainers going back generations to before the Wah) and mannered suffer. I.e a romantic antithesis to the poor girl who with her manners, verve and intelligence rises to join via marriage the rooted, rich and mannered, these are often reassuring fantasies that it is traditional values upholder Melanie Wilkes who is immortal, not Scarlett O’Hara.