Etiquette in Silver Fork Fiction

Abigail Boucher is a final-year PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on representations of the aristocratic body in Victorian Literature. The full project upon which this post is based (“Silver Fork Etiquette: Elite Manners and Philistine Faux Pas in the Early 19th Century”) can be found here. This project was completed as part of the Hunterian Associates Programme at the University of Glasgow. All quotations come from books held at the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections.

‘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.

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City Ball at the Mansion House – Glasgow Special Collections

The advice in these novels is significant since it not only provides a snapshot of early nineteenth-century fashions and customs, but also because it reveals middle-class perceptions of the aristocracy and what type of behaviour the middle classes desired to read about the upper classes (whether accurate or not). Since many silver fork novels were romans-à-clef, the genre as a whole falls into the strange territory of being one part tabloid, one part high fashion magazine, one part London directory, and one part society romance novel.

On Unfashionable Attire:

  • “‘Who ever thought of wearing the same dresses two nights successively?’” (The Davenels 1:53).
  • “‘Vulgar beyond measure!’ said Emma, ‘with very thick red elbows, and skin like nutmeg-graters, dressed exactly after the prints in the Ladies Magazine, and smelling horridly of musk’ A general groan resounded. ‘Monsters!’ ejaculated the Colonel” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. I 85).

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    Satirical depiction of dance lessons in ‘Northern Looking Glass’

  • “what an odious thing is a blue coat with brass buttons, shining as if to stare you out of countenance, and reflecting in every button an concave composition, which you recognise as a caricature of yourself. No lady should dance with a man who wears a blue coat and brass buttons” (Romance and Reality 1:38).
  • “‘it is, to my fancy, the extreme of bad taste to dress differently to other people. Such affectation spoils beauty, and makes ugliness more conspicuous’” (Almack’s 2:122)
  • “‘I hate to see a woman’s foot look like a man’s. Nothing so ugly as great coarse shoes upon a pretty woman’s little foot’” (Recollections of a Chaperon 1:242).
  • “‘I perceived yesterday, you had on a pink gown, with blue shoes, gloves, and ribbons. Lady Anne is a great critic in dress, and perhaps would have laughed at, what she would have called, the ‘bad taste’ of this: – you will recollect my love, if you have not shoes that match your gown, always wear white, and I’m afraid white gloves will always be indispensable here’” (Country Houses 1:207-208).
  • “‘I won’t try to defend them against the shocking imputation of being always too well dressed. I am afraid they are guilty, and, of course, they must bear the dreadful consequences’” (Herbert Lacy 1:83).

On Ladies’ Dining Habits

  • “young ladies should be dieted on the wings of boiled chickens” (Yes and No 1:136).
  • “If a lady will eat supper, let it be some cold chicken, accompanied by a glass of Madeira; but let her not touch trifles and trashery” (Hyde Nugent 1:55).
  • “‘I cannot endure a woman to have what is vulgarly called a good appetite’” (The Exclusives 2:157).

On Jokes and Laughter

  • “‘The truest kind of wit, they say, is that which raises only a smile’” (Granby 1:169).
  • “‘I almost fear I have been vulgar enough to be amusing’” (Vivian Grey 1:82).
  • “‘the aristocracy never laugh’” (The Governess 71).
  • “‘nothing is so monstrous, so vulgar, as a loud laugh from young ladies’” (Finesse 2:218).
  • “‘I never joke, Hester,’ said his Lordship; ‘jokes with me are very serious things; more mischief has arisen from jokes than any thing in the world’” (Love and Pride 2:70).

On Parenting

  • “Mr. Grey’s parental duties [were] confined to giving his son a daily glass of claret” (Vivian Grey 1:7).
  • “‘Oh! my plan,’ said the Countess, ‘ is to give every child two names, and call it the ugly one all its life, unless it bids fair to do justice to the pretty one; for nothing can be more outré or ridiculous, than to see a person with a name to which they do not justice’” (High Life 2:192-193).
  • “‘Sir Greville is much more able to give you the bulletin of the nursery than I am . . . I consider that I have done my duty to the little monkeys, by placing proper people [i.e.servants] about them; and I do not think myself obliged to sacrifice all my personal enjoyments, for the sake of acting police over their attendants’” (The Three Eras of Woman’s Life 3:9).
  • “‘I’m sure something will happen to him; he’ll never grow up to be a man . . . Why, he is so clever; – those clever children never come to good’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 246).

On Picking a Wife

  • “So far from knowing who and who were together, Emily Barnet knew not even who was whom. Had she been my wife, this would have been a defect . . . She never read a newspaper, – never heard a scandal” (Cecil 107).
  • “a woman must be charming indeed whose husband does not wish himself unmarried at least ten times a day” (Cecil 154).

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    A satirical take on liaisions in the 1820s from ‘Northern Looking Glass’

  • “he admitted her beauty, and could appreciate the extent of her capacity, and the excellence of her disposition. By these she was strongly recommended to his choice; but perhaps not more strongly than by the circumstance of her inheriting a fortune of eighty thousand pounds” (Herbert Lacy 2:2).
  • “The young Marquis of Dartington . . . resolved to fall in love with Lady Erpingham. He devoted himself exclusively to her; he joined her in the morning in her rides – in the evening in her gaieties. He had fallen in love with her? – yes! – did he lover her? – not in the least. But he was excessively idle! what else could he do?” (Godolphin 1:278).
  • “Although old fellows are as likely to be made fools as young in love matters . . . it is generally the young men who marry vulgar wives” (Sketches and Travels in London 280).
  • “A woman who cannot laugh is a wet blanket on the kindly nuptial couch” (Sketches and Travels in London 283).
  • “As if any man chooses a wife. Know, fond man, there is no choice left for you. She falls to you as necessarily as the card which the juggler has fixed on, while he seems to lay the whole pack at your disposal” (The Davenels 1:7).
  • “every woman, who is worth anything, will be jealous of her husband up to seventy or eighty, and always prevent his intercourse with other ladies” (Sketches and Travels in London 303).
  • “A man who is bold enough to marry an old maid, it must be acknowledged, deserves a better fate than what is generally in store for him” (Tales of Fashion and Reality 306).
  • “‘whenever I marry, it shall be a girl who will set off my curricle [carriage] and my coronet, and I will ask nothing more’” (High Life 1:108).
  • “‘A man ought to be a good deal older than his wife, that he may advise her, and guide her, and all that’” (Recollections of a Chaperon 1:197).

On Picking a Sexual Partner

  • “Nothing, my dear son, is like a liaison (quite innocent of course) with a woman of celebrity in the world” (Pelham 1:29).
  • “if you would have a proper value set upon your homage, pay your court to a woman of eight-and-thirty. The flutter of a little miss of sixteen, is nothing to the agitation with which the poor grateful soul uplifts her head above the waters of oblivion” (Cecil 8).
  • “Now-a-days, when a young man is affected by a fever of the heart, or ague of the mind . . . he goes abroad. The Continent is a might safety-valve. It is surprising the quantity of vice that escapes in that direction” (Cecil 150).
  • “Percy . . . sank into a seat beside a lady of forty-five, who sometimes amused herself in making love to him – because there could be no harm in such a mere boy!” (Godolphin 1:64).
  • “Like the generality of Whig noblemen, he was peculiarly loose in his notions of women, though not ardent in pursuit of them. His amours had been among opera-dancers, ‘Because,’ as he was wont to say, ‘there was no d – d bore with them’” (Godolphin 1:144).
  • “In marriage a man lowers a woman to his own rank; in an affair du Coeur he raises himself to her’s [sic]” (Pelham 1:29).
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