I’ve had Catherine Gore on my list long before I started focusing on the works of women writers in the last two years. Gore was perhaps the most prolific authors of Regency and early Victorian era genre known as the silver fork or “fashionable” novel. As Tamara Wagner describes the silver fork novel on Victorianweb.org, “it was at once escapist in describing former elegance and glitter, anticipating the genre of the Regency Romance, and censorious in judging the frivolities and often supercilious emphasis on the aesthetic rather than the moral that characterised aristocratic high society.” At the time, these books sold like hot-cakes. By many estimates, one of the most representative silver fork novels, Bulwer-Lytton’s Pelham , was the single biggest bestseller of 19th century England. They indulged the fascination of a large share of the British reading public with the details of what the rich wore and ate, of the interiors and exteriors of their city houses and country estates, and of their manners and affairs.
Although the “silver fork” label is usually applied to works from this period, some consider it a genre that’s never gone out of style. As recently as 2008, Diane Johnson opened a New York Times review of Alex Witchel’s novel, The Spare Wife by asking the question, “Is it a ‘silver fork’ novel?” Silver fork novels, she argued, were “a subgenre that has been around almost as long as novels themselves, affording the reader the double pleasures of following the lives of the aristocracy and scorning its mindless snobbery, triviality and malice.” They allow us to peek in on “a world most of us can only participate in vicariously.” In other words, the literary equivalent of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or Keeping Up with the Kardashians–or, what comedian Jim Gaffigan calls “McDonald’s of the soul”: “Momentary pleasure followed by incredible guilt eventually leading to cancer.”
But my theory was that somewhere in Catherine Gore’s 60-plus pile of silver fork trash there must be a pony. And so I’ve carried a half-dozen of her books, none of which are now in print (I refuse to include the crap that comes from Kessingers and other print on demand recyclers of public domain material), on my Kindle for a couple of years, waiting for an opportune time to dive in. That time came recently, on a long flight from Frankfurt to Seattle, and so I launched into Men of Capital (1846) with an open mind, leaving it up to Gore to win me over.
“Few will deny that the age we live in is the age of Money-worship,” she writes in her preface, clearly declaring the moral tone she would be taking. While she credits the spirit of capitalism “constitutes a fertile source of national greatness,” she also identifies as one of its most corrupting elements a practice dating back to the Middle Ages: “One of the chief causes which render this pursuit a bitterer as well as more pardonable struggle in England than on the Continent, is the unequal and capricious distribution of family property.” She’s referring to primogeniture, the automatic inheritance by the first son of the entire estate — leaving any succeeding children to fend for themselves on a small annual income or the charity of their elder brother.
In “Man of Capital,” the first of the two novels that comprise Men of Capital“>Men of Capital, Gore illustrates the effects — good and bad — of primogeniture on the younger sons. It opens by introducing us to Bartholomew (Barty) Brookes, a daredevil younger son. Though he follows his older brother to Eton, their paths diverge from that point on. Sir Robert Brookes goes on to Oxford and becomes master of Wrenhurst Park, their father having died when they were still boys. Barty learns early on “that a man must square his elbows who has to push his way through the crowd; while his elder understood the wisdom of standing still, that his way might be pushed for him.”
Barty secures a commission in a Guards regiment through a family connection but quickly discovers that in the high-spending world of hunts, balls, and card-games in London clubs, five hundred pounds a year doesn’t go very far. At this point, he meets Percy, a fellow younger son in his regiment. It is Percy who narrates the story, which soon becomes as much about him as about Barty. Barty is easily the most popular lieutenant around, charming his way into invitations to country house weekends while Percy remains in barracks, reading about nature and taking long walks in the countryside. Percy confesses — in a passage that only a woman could have written — that,
Men by themselves, and in numbers, are the greatest beasts on earth. Like trees, they require thinning out from the plantation, to acquire anything like dignity of proportion ; and it is only by associating with women that the higher qualities of their nature are developed. The earthly particles require too much preponderance when fed with nothing but cigars, brandy-and-water, and the unlicensed gossip of bachelorhood.
But the two share their misery as paupers in a unit full of lords and baronets. They also share secret passions for beautiful but poor young women: Barty for Emma, orphan ward of his guardian, Justinian Broadham, M. P., and Percy for Barty’s own sister, Harriet. The two sets of lovers pledge their respective troths to wait for a day when they can wed and live on in humble happiness. But when Barty learns that his brother has up and married Emma, something cracks within him, and he sets his aim on finding the quickest route to a fortune he can. When Juckeson, a millionaire from the spice trade, acquires a grand estate near the regiment’s garrison outside Windsor, Barty begins stalking Juckeson’s daughter, Sabina.
The true heart of the story, though, is less about Barty than about the narrator himself. Walking in the Windsor Forest one day, he meets Mr. Stanley, an elderly gentleman, as they shelter together from a sudden rainstorm. Stanley invites him home for dinner, where Percy meets the very beautiful (and much younger) Mrs. Stanley. He hears that his friend Barty has been a regular visitor, and eventually realizes that Stanley had been wandering about the forest in hopes of catching Barty en route to a rendezvous with Mrs. Stanley.
Mr. Stanley and Percy soon become close friends, but a few months later, while on leave, Percy reads a death notice for Mr. Stanley. When he returns to Windsor, he learns that Stanley died from despair. And when he sees Mrs. Stanley again, he realizes why. Mrs. Stanley is … well … with child.
Percy proves himself a good Christian and sticks with Mrs. Stanley through her difficulties, shielding from her the fact that her husband took his revenge upon her infidelity in his will, leaving her to become destitute upon the birth of the child. And twisted the knife by dictating that the child be taken from her and sent to a guardian in London. The bad things continue to snowball until both child and mother are dead and Percy is left to pick up the pieces.
The dramatic twists don’t end there, though. The last thirty pages of “The Man of Capital” is chock full of plot turns, and the story ends in a lovely but tragic scene as the wheels of Percy’s coach roll through his beloved Harriet’s village, crushing the flowers from her wedding into the dirt, as he moves on to a new life as a “Man of Capital” like his former friend, Barty.
The second novel, “Old Families and New,” is longer and less effective than its predecessor. Gore contrasts the haughty Squire Cromer, a man of old blood, with Mordaunt, a man of new wealth from his Manchester cotton mills and his shares in the regional railroad. Gore writes cynically of Cromer that,
Of modern improvements in rural economy he knew nothing, and took care not to improve his knowledge either by reading or observation; while, as to refurnishing or remodelling his house, nothing short of a fire would have driven him to so dire an extremity. It was an article of religion with him that every thing should remain in the state in which, at the marriage of his father, sixty years before, Cromer Hall had been fitted up in honour of the bride.
She also reaches back to an old plot warhorse, the romance between the children of two feuding families. Squire Cromer vehemently opposes his daughter’s marriage to Mordaunt’s son, declaring, “I would as soon have my blood mix with that of the hangman, as with that of a Manchester cotton-spinner.” Like “A Man of Capital,” the story ends with a wedding — but a happy one this time around. Which, of course, is why you know it’s a bit of a let-down after the juicy drama and hanky-wringing tragedy of “A Man of Capital.”
An anonymous reviewer, assessing one of Catherine Gore’s novels for the Westminster Review, once wrote, “We do not deny the smartness, and occasionally, the shrewdness, of Mrs. Gore’s views of manners and life, but still we are far from tracing even a remote resemblance between the labours of the two ladies. Miss Austin’s [sic] novels are histories of the human heart, and in the more occasional parts, wonderfully exact analyses of character and disposition: whereas, in Mrs. Gore’s books, we can see little more than a series of brilliant sketches, bordering occasionally on the caricature.” Which, as April Kendra put it, is a little like Lloyd Bentsen’s retort to Dan Quayle, “Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
But honestly, isn’t any attempt to equate the work of two writers a bit of a slap in the face to one or both of them? Catherine Gore spent most of her life writing at a frantic pace to bring in enough cash to keep an unemployed husband and a house full of children (she bore ten, only two of whom survived to adulthood), so it’s not surprising that the average artistic quality level of her output might come in a few notches below Jane Austen’s. What should matter for a reader is whether the reading experience of a book proves worth the time invested. For me, “A Man of Capital” was more entertaining and more interesting than any movie Lufthansa had to offer, while “Old Families and New” tested my commitment to get through at least one of Catherine Gore’s books. “A Man of Capital” would make a terrific little show on BBC or Masterpiece Theatre. it moves, has a core cast of well-rounded characters, and plenty of plot twists to keep the momentum rolling. Its companion piece, “Old Families and New,” on the other hand, does come off a bit too stale and predictable to recommend to any but a Gore absolutist — and I suspect there aren’t any of them still walking the planet.