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The Novel of Fashion Redressed: Bulwer-Lytton's Pelham in a 19A-Century Context l^auren Gillingham The nineteenth-century novel of fashion isn't terribly fashionable these days. A fictional genre that dates in Britain from the late eighteenth century, that dominated the Uterary marketplace in the 1820s and 30s under the epithet of the süver-fork school, and that remained popular through the nineteenth century in the various sub-genres to which it gave rise, the novel of fashion has been widely dismissed by both its nineteenth-century and more recent critics. Despite the duration of its popularity and the breadth of its appeal among then-contemporary readers, critics have disregarded the genre on the grounds of its foUy, insipidity, and general irrelevance to the novel's development in Britain.1 Seen to possess none of the prerequisites to Uterary value, fashionable Uterature is assumed to aspire mainly to novelty, popular appeal, and commercial success. Freighted with charges of overproduction, bad writing, and "extravagant romance," fashionable novels are said to be interesting only insofar as they "increase our understanding of those who react against them, especiaUy of Thackeray " (TiUotson 5). Perhaps most damning of aU, the genre is seen to concern itself solely with the "condition of the rich" - a point of focus that appears particularly inexcusable on the other side of the industrial fiction and bourgeois social reaUsm that emerges immediately in its wake (Rosa 4). These various accusations are not without foundation: the novel of fashion does aim to be popular, it does take up the fashionable trends of its day, and it does focus principaUy on an exclusive social class. The genre's interest in fashion, however, is one of the traits Victorian Review (2006)63 L. GiUingham which makes it most worthy of our consideration. The critical obloquy which has been heaped on the fashionable novel has obscured the literary and cultural significance of the problem of fashion with which the genre is openly concerned. Fashion serves, in this literature , less as a means to avoid or deny the acute social problems preoccupying many Britons in the early nineteenth century, than as a vehicle for articulating a new consciousness of the unprecedented rapidity of social change. Fashionable society itself provides a venue within which to explore the mixture of gentility and merit, of old tradition and new energy, which some contemporaries believed held the potential to regenerate and reform society as a whole.2 Indeed, the fashion for fashionable writing and for self-fashioning heroes that reached a certain pitch in the lirninal era between the Romantic and Victorian periods formed part of a broader literary movement in the early nineteenth-century to recast then-prevalent models of narrative history and heroic subjectivity. On a generic register, the fashionable novel's contribution to this movement served to influence subsequent novelistic developments, and to interfere in the generic norms taking shape in the days of the novel's mounting cultural hegemony. On a cultural register, the genre shared the concern, voiced by so many in the post-Napoleonic period, about the legitimacy and fitness of the ruling class to lead modern British society, in both its political and moral domains. Although frequendy denounced as an uncritical derivation of aristocratic corruption and exclusivism, the süver-fork school provided a key cultural locus in which both the possibilities and bounds of emerging subjective and social formations could be articulated and critiqued.3 To draw into focus the genre's engagement of these issues, I turn in this article to one of the foremost — and most notorious — novels of the süver-fork school, Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1828 Pelham; or, The Adventures of a Gentleman. The eponymous hero of Pelham is a quintessential Regency dandy: he cultivates the appearance of an irreverent fop, concerns himself with aU things fashionable, and, when not lounging about with his aristocratic friends, spends a good deal of time adjusting his "best curl' and worrying about his wrinkles (Pelham 64volume 32 number 1 The Novel of Fashion Redressed 15). Beneath this dandiacal persona, however, Pelham veüs a set of carefuUy-cultivated social principles, a firm commitment to social reform...


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