The Fashionable Novels of the 19th Century -The Toast

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This post, and several others to appear in due course, are generously sponsored by a gentleman-scholar from County San Francisco, supportive of the production and assessment of nasty novels, dealing familiarly with gamblers, misandrists and flashy reprobates. Said gentleman-scholar has re-upped his donation, so keep pitching me, academics longing for freedom.

A quick fiddle with the Google ngram tool shows a rapid spike in the use of the word “exclusive” just before the 1840s. That’s because, at some point in the 1820s and for some reason that no one can quite explain–more newspapers? better roads? new money?–it became fashionable to be fashionable. Governed neither quite by money nor quite by status, this new type of society was solely and tautologically concerned with being in, which could only be done by excluding those who weren’t.

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Documenting this new and baffling obsession with exclusivity were fashionable novels, a genre popular in the 1820s and 30s that’s like nothing so much as Gossip Girl: fictionalized accounts that presented themselves as providing an insider’s view into the life of the fashionable elites. In Gossip Girl, those elites are privileged Manhattan private school students. In fashionable novels, they were the lords and ladies of London’s high society, who every May streamed in from their country estates for the Season, a marriage market round of balls and parties that oh-so-conveniently overlapped with the Parliamentary season.

Characters in fashionable novels procure vouchers for Almack’s, the private club ruled over a rotating cabal of seven women; they visit John Ebers’s Italian Opera; they present themselves at court in carefully chosen dresses designed by Madame Maradan, which thankfully no longer included the ungainly hoop of the Regency. (Apparently, tastemaker George IV hated the hoops.) And, of course, they buy stuff.

Here, for example, is a partial list of merchants, shopkeepers, and brand names mentioned in prolific and still-readable novelist Catherine Gore’s 1831 Pin Money:

British novels absolutely have a long tradition of being interested in stuff; the difference is that they don’t appear to have been interested previously in specific kinds of stuff. Robinson Crusoe had an axe, but he didn’t have a $350 Best Made axe.

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 1.13.21 PMThere was so much stuff, in fact, that the literary journal The Westminster Review snidely accused Gore of having made advertising deals with merchants just the way Sex and the City might have been accused of taking a check from Manolo Blahnik: “A book like Pin Money is, in fact, a sort of London Directory … We are not sure that the authoress of this work has made any bargains with her tradespeople; but we are very certain she might.”

In the minds of contemporary readers, “stuff”–along with aristocratic authorship, real or otherwise–was a defining feature of the novels. As with any kind of popular fiction read primarily by women, they and their stuff inspired a lot of anxiety. Who was writing them? Since they were often published anonymously, it was difficult to know if they were written by true insiders or just by middle-class upstarts pretending to have the insider’s access they offered. Who was reading them? Were the right kinds of people reading them–or would the wrong kinds read them and Get Ideas about becoming fashionable? Were they moral books, or did they introduce readers to a dissolute world of fashionable reprobates?

The books themselves don’t let on, either. In Lord Normanby’s 1828 Yes and No, for example, the narrator talks about “new publications,” which “were now discarded with leaves as yet uncut, and the stiffness of still unbroken boards,” and has his protagonist tell a friend “Leave them here, to be sure; let the chambermaids study sentiment from the novels … they will have found their proper level at last.” Figure this out: these characters in a fashionable novel are way too fashionable to read fashionable novels.

Or in T.H. Lister’s 1826 Granby, a fictional stand-in for Lady Caroline Lamb hopes that her conversational partner likes “nothing of Miss Edgeworth’s or Miss Austen’s. They are full of commonplace people, that one recognizes at once.” You can practically hear the LOL: Lady Caroline was notoriously scandalous and a bit daft, so savvy readers know that her literary judgements are unreliable.

This kind of self-aware satire, a shuffling refusal and coy disavowal that winks at the in-crowd and has the rest of us wonder what we’re missing, makes the novels more than just some early nineteenth-century version of US Weekly. Any celebrity rag can tell you what’s fashionable; only by reading a novel can you tell if you are.

Hey Lords and Ladies

url-1There are dozens if not hundreds of fashionable novels, ranging from excellent to unreadable. Many of them were written by the kind of women whom George Eliot dismissed as “lady novelists”, but a surprising number came from quite serious men: Lord Normanby, a marquess and politician; Edward Bulwer-Lytton, now the butt of jokes but at one time an enormously popular and respected writer and later politician; and Benjamin Disraeli, no less than the future Prime Minister of England. (Just for fun, imagine if Arnold Schwarzenegger had written a bestselling roman à clef about his Hollywood years.)

Once we move past the brand- and status-obsessed front, it starts to make sense that the genre originated with a group of party-boys-turned-heads-of-state. Take Lady Charlotte Bury’s 1830 The Exclusives, which comes in somewhere in the middle of the excellent-to-unreadable scale. In The Exclusives, a group of bitchy ladies tries to work together to control society but then falls to in-fighting and cattiness: an early nineteenth-century version of “Hey Ladies”, complete with actual ladies.

The group includes prime manipulator (Lady Tilney), sarcastic outsider (Comtesse Leisengen) and innocent newcomer (Lady Glenmore) who manages to escape. Here’s a sample of their conversation at the meeting they hold to establish the rules of the exclusive society:

  • Lady Tilney: “We want to establish some regulations by which our society shall be distinguished, and which shall save us from the inroads of all these people whom we are constantly meeting, and obliged to be civil to, whether we will or no”
  • Lady Tilney: “there is one rule very necessary to be observed … that is, to admit no unmarried ladies … And then I propose that we none of us go to the old-established dullifications; but, on their nights, each one of us must in turn take care to chuse that same evening for our coteries”
  • The Comtesse (sneering, about Lady Ellersby): “Who is her Milord just now?”
  • The Comtesse (about a woman’s inadequate smile): “But what sinifies? She does very well for what she is good for”
  • Lady Tilney (about the Comtesse): “How frightfully red her nose is become”

These snide remarks, backbiting, and constant, obsessive calculations about who gets to belong and who doesn’t might as well be Mean Girls with a better vocabulary. They’re also a devastating political critique: Put a “Lord” rather than a “Lady” in front of “Tilney” and discuss voting rights rather than parties, and you might as well be in Parliament. The Exclusives may never make its way into book groups, but it understands modern relationships between people, which is just another way of saying politics. It knows that politics, governed by those who are either in or out, is really just another form of fashion.

Fashionable novels tend to be tediously written, much too long, and in need of a good–or even a bad–editor. (Pity the poor writer who had to stretch her plot to fill the standard three-volume publishing format of the time.) Still, they shows us a world obsessed with fashion, concerned with in-grouping, and convinced that the political system is about to break down; their characters relate to each other in the context of what’s in and what’s out, on unstable ground in a sped-up world characterized by vanity, insincerity, and the pursuit of the viral bon mot–not to mention full of things to buy. They show us, in other words, a world a lot like ours.

Josephine Richstad is a writer and editor temporarily living in central New York. Her dissertation on fashionable novels did not land her an academic job, but she did recently update her blog.

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