‘Unwholesome Tissues of False Sentiment’: Jane Austen, the Silver Fork Novel, and Fashions of Reading

  • Clare Bainbridge


There was a time when Jane Austen’s work was classified as ‘women’s fiction’. Now it has lost that generic label, been subsumed into ‘literature’, and become subject to very different critical approaches. At the same time, it has become widely accessible to a non-specialist public. The ‘silver fork novel’, however, is still bound within tight generic limits. Its inaccessibility to a wider audience lies in a general sense that it is not of literary value, that it was a mere ephemeral production, and that it is all about the upper classes and therefore not appealing in an era where extending historical interest downwards to include the voices of women, servants, and others previously excluded has been a priority.

Like Austen, the silver fork writers are rooted in the eighteenth century, but, unlike her, they do not attempt technical innovation nor do they share her critique of the existing order. They rely instead on civic humanism in a determined attempt to regenerate and reinvigorate aristocratic hegemony, at a time of intense social and political challenge. Each writer does so in his or her distinct and individual way, to the extent that I argue that the term ‘silver fork novel’ should be abandoned, in favour of some looser and less pejorative descriptor such as ‘Late Regency novels’.

I conclude with an analysis of a very late novel by Catherine Gore, Progress and Prejudice (1854), which brings together a Victorian emphasis on the redemptive quality of family life with a Late Regency insistence on the necessity for aristocratic men of engagement in politics, replaying Austen’s great story in a different key.


Civic humanism Aristocratic hegemony Regency novels Women’s writing Family life 


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© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Clare Bainbridge
    • 1
  1. 1.Independent ScholarExeterUK

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