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  • Speculation, Suicide, and the Silver Fork Novel
  • Leigh Wetherall Dickson (bio)

Having finished reading a new novel, Lady Holland wrote to her son with her verdict: "There is nothing that makes much genius in the author: it is evidently by a man who has seen London society, tho' he talks of a person as gentlemanly. It is mixed up with bad religious stuff, and a strange discourse, which I had not the patience to read, on suicide" (qtd. in Adburgham 95; emphasis original). The novel was Thomas H. Lister's 1826 Granby, which is recognized as one of the first of the silver fork novels. The term "silver fork" was taken from William Hazlitt's now infamous review of Thomas Hook's 1824 Sayings and Doings, in which he fumes about Hook's apparent admiration of that narrow section of society that "eat their fish with silver forks" (722). That suicide should be a feature of silver fork fiction is not surprising given the perceived close association of suicide with the fashionable society that gives the genre its soubriquet. Donna T. Andrew observes that suicide, alongside dueling, adultery, and gambling, "constitut[ed] a sort of constellation of corruption" practiced by society's elite (4). The emergence of the silver fork novel in the first quarter of the nineteenth century coincided with significant changes in how suicide was viewed. On the one hand, while juridical and religious discourses and practices, representing venerable traditions of thought on suicide, continued to exercise authority over acts of self-destruction, these approaches of condemning and sanctioning suicide were increasingly pressured by changing attitudes toward the act and its perpetrators. The problem of suicide was coming to be seen as a social problem as well as a judicial, medical, religious, and philosophical one. There has been a recent rise in the re-evaluation of the significance of the silver fork novel in relation to two connected key themes: reform and the rise of the socially aspirant middle class. Suicide in the silver fork novel has not received any such attention, though Murieann O'Cinneide does note that "many silver fork novels features a flurry of murders, suicides and all-round collapses" (58). This article is the first to consider the centrality of suicide to a genre that is only now beginning to receive due scholarly attention, in part because, as Angela Esterhammer observes, the silver fork novel is a genre that makes a "strong claim to be an accurate observer of societal behaviour" [End Page 103] (Esterhammer). In Granby Lister makes suicide the key moment in the plot, and I will argue that the reason Lady Holland found the discourse upon the subject so strange is that it is represented without judgement, condemnation, or argument. As Matthew Whiting Rosa notes, Granby "firmly established" the fashionable novel in that "moral lessons . . . virtually disappeared [as] the desire for accuracy in the portrayals of rank and setting grew" (55). The lack of judgement upon the contentious subject of suicide within a genre obsessed with accurately representing society signals this shift toward considering the act as a social problem. However, this shift in attitude and the silver fork novel both emerge from conditions specific to the 1820s, the result of which Esterhammer identifies as being a self-conscious culture of speculation.

Edward Copeland argues that silver fork novels were "attempts to lever power, to bring about the major changes in attitude necessary to make an effective union of the middle classes and the traditional ruling classes" (5). Cheryl A. Wilson posits that the novels "positioned themselves as a type of conduct book, offering a guidance for socially-aspirant members of the middle class" (1). Wilson's reading of the genre chimes with that of Copeland's in that the middle classes would be entering a brave new and interconnected world of politics and fashion, and both attribute a certainty of purpose to the silver fork novelist. On the surface Granby does indeed appear to promote the "Whig principles of political change" (Copeland 71). Lister's recent editor, Claire Bainbridge, attributes to Granby a similar sense of purpose in relation to the reform agenda of Copeland. In her introduction to the...


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