Dining was a very social aspect of upper-class living. There was a great deal of ceremony attached to it and one’s behavior during meal times was a huge indicator of social class. In fact, this is where the genre gets its name: aristocrats ate their fish course with two silver forks, instead of a knife and fork, and members of the middle class would never know this unless they either attended an upper class meal, or read the silver fork novels.
In 1827, writer William Hazlitt penned a vitriolic article in The Examiner called “The Dandy School“, in which he expressed his distaste for the genre as a whole, especially the contributions of Theodore Hook who ‘informs you that the quality eat fish with silver forks’. This article was widely read, and the name stuck. It is not unjust, either: there are numerous scenes set at formal tables in silver fork fiction, and they usually contain conversations and observations of significance.
General Customs and Habits
- “The short time which precedes an English dinner party is universally stigmatized as the dullest period which is passed in society” (Granby 1:85).
- “Every body knows what an uncomfortable half hour that is, in England, which precedes dinner” (Sayings and Doings, or, Danvers 121).
- “Children are usually a great resource during the formal quarter of an hour which precedes a dinner in the country” (Recollections of a Chaperon 2:299-300).
- “’Early visit . . . why, my dear madam, it is long past eleven o’clock. Hey day! not done breakfast yet! Umpgh! fashionable hours!’” (Finesse 1:17).
- “’You will have an egg for breakfast, and you will dine with the family at three o’clock: quite fashionable hours you see, Sir’” (The Disowned 1:102-103).
- “’I assure you we scarcely ever dine before eight, even in summer, nor have done breakfast entirely till a good deal past one’” (High Life 1:90).
- “dinner should be served at eight” (Tremaine 1:2).
- “It was just ten, and the supper-table laid” (High Life 1:36).
- “In the ancient kingdom of England it hath ever been the custom to dine previously to transacting business . . . . very often, after the dinner, an appointment is made for the transaction of the business on the following morning” (Vivian Grey 1:253).
- “’I never eat luncheons myself, I abominate them’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 83).
- “In every country-house . . . luncheon is an object of the utmost importance” (At Home 1:105-106).
- “He was a man of such rigid refinement, that he would have starved rather than have dined without a white neckcloth . . . It was he who taught the butler to say, ‘My lady is served,’ and who insisted on handing her ladyship in to dinner” (Vanity Fair 94).
- “A fine singer, after dinner, is to be avoided, for he is a great bore, and stops the wine . . . One of the best rules (to put him down) is to applaud him most vociferously as soon as he has sung the first verse, as if all was over, and say to the gentleman farthest from you at the table that you admire the conclusion of this song very much” (Sketches and Travels in London 263).
- “The dinner party consisted of twenty-four people, too many to be agreeable” (Tales of Fashion and Reality 66).
- “Lord Montreville told her that when the conversation took the turn of horses, hunting, dogs, or partridges . . . all women with any tact or discretion took advantage of the first pause to depart” (Recollections of a Chaperon 1:247).
- “No one should be allowed supper, however, that talks nonsense.” (Hyde Nugent 1:55).
Bad Table Manners
- “there is always some mistake at such dinners, some little blunder. . . people who go the horrid lengths of eating with their knives and calling for porter” (Sayings and Doings, or, Danvers 62-63).
- “imagine what the feelings of that young lady and her brother James were, when they beheld their new relation absolutely eating fish with her knife! Their horror, however, was complete, when, in addition to two or three glasses of Champagne, they literally saw her discuss two Brobdignagian tumblers of home-brewed October ale” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. I 28).
- “My nerves were somewhat shaken on perceiving with what heroic fortitude Wilhelmina not only divided her fish with her knife, but afterwards, immersing the clumsy blade in the vinegar so as to blacken the surface, plunged it fearlessly into her mouth. For a moment I was apprehensive that death might ensue. But as she survived it, so did I” (Cecil 272).
- “I once, I say, knew a man who, dining in my company . . . eat pease with the assistance of his knife . . . I had never before seen him with a dish of pease, and his conduct in regard to them caused me the deepest pain” (The Book of Snobs 5).
Fashionable and Unfashionable Food
- “after the exquisite course of gastronomy I had recently been following, I was reduced to the aboriginal food of the Britons; not exactly the hips, haws, and acorns of the Saxon Heptarchy, – but worse, far worse, the beefsteaks and apple-pie of a Red Lion bill of fare” (Cecil 231-232).
- “’let Mr. Rodney send you some lamb; it is a beautiful bit of meat. I went to Mr. Evans, who is our butcher . . . and I got him to kill his daughter’s pet lamb for us’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. III 22).
- “’who, Sir, in the name of decency, ever eats cheese? the sight, the smell, the knowledge that cheese is in the house, makes me sick’” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. III 249).
- ‘”I never eat cheese, except with maccaroni [sic] soup’” (At Home 2:119).
- “She called for fat with her venison, – liver with her fish; and was, in short, a very nasty old woman” (Cecil 298)*
- “’Truffles! . . . I am particularly fond of them, but I dare not touch one – truffles are so very apoplectic” (Pelham 1:25).
- “roast beef is a vulgar horror, and beer an abomination” (Yes and No 1:137)
- “exquisite foie-gras! . . . the goose rejoiced amid all her tortures – because of the glory that awaited her . . . Did she not, in prophetic vision, behold her enlarged and ennobled foiedilate into pâtés and steam into sautés . . . O, exalted among birds – apotheosized goose, did not thy heart exult even when thy liver parched and swelled within three, from that most agonizing death; and didst thou not, like the Indian at the stake, triumph in the very torments which alone could render thee illustrious?” (Pelham 1:178-179).
- “June came and went with its roses, – strawberries were already out of seasons (except for the “lower classes”) and cherries were becoming plebeian food”(The Fair of Mayfair 1:87).
- “young ladies should be dieted on the wings of boiled chickens” (Yes and No 1:136).
- “If a lady will eat supper, let it be some cold chicken, accompanied by a glass of Madeira; but let her not touch trifles and trashery” (Hyde Nugent 1:55).
- “’I cannot endure a woman to have what is vulgarly called a good appetite’” (The Exclusives 2:157).
- “The first thing that was offered me was a filthy composition called ginger beer . . . the sourness of the beverage affected me with such pains and distresses, that I verily believed I was going to give up the ghost” (Confessions of an Old Bachelor 88-89).
- “Cape-wine [was] . . . African nastiness” (Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. II 70).
- “’Hang champagne! . . . it’s only fit for gals and children. Give me pale sherry at dinner, and my twenty-three claret afterwards’” (The Book of Snobs 183).
- “You meet people occasionally who tell you it is bad taste to give Champagne at dinner – Port and Teneriffe being such superior drinking” (Sketches and Travels in London 263).
- “It is laid down in fashionable life that you must drink Champagne after white cheeses, water after red . . . Ale is to be avoided” (Sketches and Travels in London 263).
- “’I hope your Grace patronises our new plan of drinking white wine instead of port after cheese,’ whispered Lord Calvert” (At Home 2:118-119).
- “’I hope, Miss Anstruther, you like green tea? I must insist upon green tea, Colonel – ‘tis the only point I make’” ((Sayings and Doings, Second Series, Vol. I 285).
- “’No English woman knows how to make coffee, nor English man either, except, as in your case, he has learned on the Continent’” (The Reformer 1:3).