Article body

Yet, after all, there is something sacred in the old den!—The Opera House pretty nearly the only place of public amusement of the Prince’s time still left standing. Carlton House, Buckingham House, Ranelagh, Lords, Commons, Whitfield’s [sic] Chapel, Vauxhall, Forzard’s Riding School, the Argyll Rooms, and the King’s Mews—all evaporated—all flown off in fumo! This is the age of demolition—the era of rubbish.

Catherine Gore, Cecil (1841)

Silver fork novels, those high-flying depictions of aristocratic, fashionable London life of the 1820s and 1830s, can hardly be imagined without the Italian opera and London’s Italian opera house, The King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. It is also true that a night at the opera in these novels cannot be understood without the bustle of reform politics and the Reform Act of 1832 to explain the action. Radical critics treated silver fork novels with casual contempt, creating a reputation for their frivolity that stays with them even today. Forty years later in his essay “Fashionable Novels,” Andrew Lang referred to this world as, “a lost country, the seat of a fallen and forgotten civilization…this desolate region, once so popular, so gaudy, so much frequented and desired” (94).[1] For Hazlitt, fashionable novels were no more than egregious how-to books for middleclass aspirants to fashion. Mocking Theodore Hook’s excessive admiration of the aristocracy in The Examiner (18 November 1827), “because they eat their fish with a silver fork,” he inadvertently presented the genre with the name by which these novels are now known.

If the fashionable novels were indeed leading the middle classes to “fashion,” there was a political consequence, as Hazlitt well knew. Jennifer Hall-Witt’s recent essay, “Representing the Audience in the Age of Reform: Critics and the Elite at the Italian Opera in London,” confirms the political power of fashion in the decade leading up to the Reform Act and the one following it. The largest number of silver fork novels are in fact so closely attached to the reform ideology of the Whig party (also doomed to disappear after the 1840s, as Norman Gash writes, to become the Liberal party), that the brief lifespan of the genre is inscribed by the “age of reform,” that is, from around 1822 to 1842.

The King’s Theatre, the home of Italian opera, stood literally at the center of the London political map [image1], located in the Haymarket, almost exactly halfway between Parliament and the domestic dwellings of power, north in Mayfair and Marylebone, and near enough to the clubs in the adjacent streets to the west to act as an extension of them.[2] Partington’s National History and Views of London (1834), for example, treats the opera house as a major civic institution, fixing its centrality by situating its print illustration of significant London sites with The King’s Theatre placed at center-page, and lesser places of interest (the University Club House, the Egyptian Hall, the Burlington Arcade, and Crockford’s) grouped around it as auxiliaries (I, 154) [image2]. A Rudolph Ackermann print of the period, “Twelve views of London Sites Seen Through Arches” (1820), grants The King’s Theatre equal visual status with Westminster Abbey, the Palace of Westminster, Whitehall and the Horse Guards.

Image 1

The location of The King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (bird’s eye view from the north). Detail, A Balloon View of London (1851).

The location of The King’s Theatre in the Haymarket (bird’s eye view from the north). Detail, A Balloon View of London (1851).

-> See the list of figures

Image 2

The King’s Theatre, exterior, from Partington’s National History and Views of London (1834). By permission of the British Library. Partington, C.F., 2 vols. (London: Simpkins and Marshall, 1834). BL

The King’s Theatre, exterior, from Partington’s National History and Views of London (1834). By permission of the British Library. Partington, C.F., 2 vols. (London: Simpkins and Marshall, 1834). BL

-> See the list of figures

As a quasi-political institution, the opera house offered itself to the authors of silver fork novels as the only politically potent institution in London where women could be seen to take part in the spectacle of reform. The “foreign” hero of Catherine Gore’s The Opera (1832), actually a British aristocrat raised abroad (an “Irish-Austrian,” says one character), comments on the unusual London practice of identifying opera boxes at The King’s Theatre with “the names of their female proprietors which, according to English custom,” he notes, “are affixed above each several door” (I, 123). A published yearly List of the Subscribers (1837) includes a map of the boxes, with box numbers attached to a list of owners, making it possible to identify opera box occupants from any place in the house [image3]. Theodore Hook’s middleclass Mrs. Thompson, in his novel Love and Pride (1833), attended the Royal Academy exhibitions to match portraits of “‘Lord Whiskin in the uniform of the North Somerset Militia,’ and ‘Lady Mary Fopsey, and child,’ in order that she might find them out when she next saw them at the Opera” (I, 45).

Image 3

Seating plan for The King’s Theatre, from A List of Subscribers(1839). By kind permission from the collection of Anthony Gasson.

Seating plan for The King’s Theatre, from A List of Subscribers(1839). By kind permission from the collection of Anthony Gasson.

-> See the list of figures

Opera as a great public trope gives structure to both public and domestic issues of reform politics. First, there is concern in the novels for the relationships among groups within the ruling elite,—the old guard and the new guard, nabobs and aristocrats, Whigs and Tories. Closely allied to this social jockeying, there is a new, politicized attention focused on the middle classes. Who is included in this group? How are they placed socially and politically? Finally, and certainly the most pressing issue for the women authors of silver fork novels, there is the redefinition of women’s public and private roles that accompanies the reform movement. How must the image of the aristocratic woman be reshaped to fit the new politics, particularly in her duties to class and family? What kind of attention to an opera performance, for example, is it proper for her to engage in? How does she renegotiate the spaces of the opera house itself, the boxes, corridors, staircases, public rooms, and especially the colonnade in the Haymarket, that unsettling threshold to “the people”?

Attendance at the opera in the silver fork novel moves in tandem with changes in the political culture of the nation. If the novel is “the site where struggles over cultural identity are most acute,” as Deidre Lynch and William Warner have recently argued in their “Introduction” to Cultural Institutions of the Novel (1996), The King’s Theatre in the Haymarket is the site within a site, literally the place where silver fork novelists attempt to frame a new national consensus of politics and society. Opera attendance as an aristocratic duty to rank, for example, must alter in the silver fork novel to opera attendance as an haut bourgeois aspiration to station. The change does not come without sharp contention. In the early 1820s, silver fork novels engage political reform only as a distantly wished-for good, and this chilly distance is represented in the novels. After 1829, sparked by prospects of a reform bill, silver fork novels join the political debate with warmth. After the passage of the bill in 1832, silver fork novels commence a program reflecting their own version of a new political and social consensus. And, in the early 1840s, the last silver fork novels succumb to a reluctant acceptance of the realities of new social and political arrangements for the nation. The opera house registers the difference. Sutherland Edwards, in his History of the Opera (1862), laments the democratization of Italian opera in London: “On the whole, the Opera has become less aristocratic, less respectable, and far more expensive than of old.” Quoting Mount Edgcumbe’s Reminiscences, that “tickets bearing the names of ladies of the highest class have been presented by those of the lowest, such as used to be admitted only the hindmost rows of the gallery,” Edwards reflects, “This last remark belongs to Lord Mount Edgcumbe, but it is, at least, as true now as it was thirty years ago” (II, 135).

David Cannadine in The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain (1999) writes that in contrast Dickens and Thackeray, the leading writers of the next generation, are not concerned with “collective social categories,” that is to say, with politics. Dickens focuses on “individual character and family relationships,” says Cannadine, and Thackeray concentrates on “manners, social ambition, high fashion, and pretensions to gentility” (88). Patrick Brantlinger, likewise, claims in his Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694-1994 (1996) that Dickens and Thackeray reduce larger public questions “to the machinations of individual frauds, villains, and skinflints” (157). In striking contrast, the silver fork novelists—Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Bulwer, T.H. Lister, Catherine Gore, the Countess of Blessington, Lady Charlotte Bury, among the most prominent practitioners—are not only concerned with “collective social categories,” they are obsessed with them. In politics, according to Dror Wahrman in Imagining the Middle Class (1995), “collective identities count most” (9). Manners, consumer competition, social ambition, and pretensions to gentility furnish out the action and settings for silver fork novelists, just as they do for Thackeray, but the engine that drives the silver fork novel is competition for social and political power—who has it, who is seeking it, who is losing it.

The King’s Theatre provided a showcase, literally, for these candidates for power to size up one another across the politically charged space of the opera house [image4]. For the male novelists, Disraeli, Bulwer, and Lister, their heroes negotiate the opera house and the urban topography of power as a matter of self-definition. For women writers of the silver fork school, Catherine Gore, Lady Charlotte Bury, and Lady Blessington, power presents a difficult and confusing dilemma. Attendance at the opera for their heroines, for example, can never be an innocent and private leisure amusement. At The King’s Theatre, where aristocratic power parades itself in its most ostentatious robes, women engage in the public sphere, not as trespassers, but as the centerpiece of aristocratic display. The aristocratic woman and her opera glass are iconic companions in portraits of the 1820s and 1830s [image5]. As the hero of Catherine Gore’s The Opera (1832) observes of the heroine:

There she sat;—her ivory arm, in all its perfection of graceful symmetry, carelessly reclining on the crimson cushion. Her eyes, without even an affectation of interest in the business on the stage, glancing through her glossy curls…, her small and delicately rounded waist displayed as she lifted her glass, or turned her beautiful head towards the persons standing in the background…

III, 192

Thackeray’s parody of Mrs. Gore’s style in “Lords and Liveries”, from his Novels by Eminent Hands first published in 1847 in Punch as Punch’s Prize Novelists, is accompanied by a picture of his heroine, “Amethyst Pimlico,” in her opera box with grotesquely outsized opera glasses at her side. Juliet McMaster in her essay, “Novels by Eminent Hands: Sincerest Flattery from the Author of Vanity Fair,” notes the strong resemblance between Amethyst’s picture and a widely known print portrait of Catherine Gore.

Image 4

The King’s Theatre, interior, c. 1816. Collection of the author.

The King’s Theatre, interior, c. 1816. Collection of the author.

-> See the list of figures

Image 5

Landseer, “The Countess of Chesterfield,” depicted in her opera box. From Heath’s Book of Beauty for 1838. By permission of The British Library. BL P.P.6680.

Landseer, “The Countess of Chesterfield,” depicted in her opera box. From Heath’s Book of Beauty for 1838. By permission of The British Library. BL P.P.6680.

-> See the list of figures

Attendance at The King’s Theatre in the silver fork novel presents the heroine with a lively conflict of virtues between the public duty to her class and the equally pressing private duty to her “natural” sphere of home and family, both positions politicized by the debates on reform. At the opera house the conflict plays on two different stages: the operatic stage itself, where the operas comment on the plots of the novels, and in the misnamed private boxes of the opera house, where the heroine herself becomes the object of a thousand eyes. Henry Chorley, in his Thirty Years of Musical Recollections (1862), remembered Lady Blessington herself as a major fixture of glamour at The King’s Theatre: “Opposite the Royal box was to be seen another celebrity—much observed…. Her queenly and sweet beauty (animated, withal, whenever she spoke, and set off by her peculiar dress) was of itself sufficient to attract remark…. Her wit, too, which her books in no respect represent…. It enchanted the men” (I, 81). The Countess of Chesterfield’s regal opera box pose memorialized by her portrait in Heath’s annual (as shown in image5 above) is the silver fork trope of aristocratic power.

The heroine’s own troubled choices are mirrored in the contradictions of the Whig reform agenda, which are themselves puzzling to those of us trained to think of the Reform Act of 1832 as part of the inevitable march of historical progress towards modern democracy. Lord John Russell in 1823, for example, claimed expansively in his Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution that the Whigs, the reform party, “look towards the people, whose welfare is the end and object of all government” (180-1). Yet Earl Grey, the party’s leader, assured the House of Lords in November 1831, “If any persons suppose that this Reform will lead to ulterior measures, they are mistaken; for there is no one more decided against annual parliaments, universal suffrage, and the ballot, that I am. My object is not to favour but to put an end to such hopes and projects.” Recent historians of the aristocracy (Michael Brock, David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Peter Mandler, Ian Newbould, L.G. Mitchell) explore the paradoxical conditions of the Whig program of political reform. The Whigs, that most aristocratic of British political parties, held concurrently two opposing aims: both an earnest desire to respond to “the people’s” demands for political reform, and an equally powerful wish to accomplish this reform without any significant loss of aristocratic power. The paradox resolves itself, for the Whigs anyway, through the mythology of the Glorious Revolution, the political justification being that the impetus for political reform rightly comes from below, from “the people,” but that the responsibility for implementing reform lies with the aristocracy, as L. G. Mitchell puts it succinctly, to “lead the people in their aspirations, to make contact with them, and to give practicality to their hopes” (25). The King’s Theatre, that epitome of aristocratic refinements, offered an irresistible setting for satirists to represent the debates, and the social comedy, that gathered around the paradoxes of the Whig program of reform.

Henry Chorley remembered the powerful aristocratic presence in The King’s Theatre during the reform agitation: “There were then conspicuous figures in the boxes, in their places as regularly as the opera nights came around. Among these were a couple of Royal Dukes, one of whom was resolute to be heard as well as seen…. Then, on Saturday nights, The Duke [of Wellington] was rarely absent: and the sight of his eagle profile advancing from behind the red curtains of the box was sure to be accompanied by a motion of eager heads and eager whispers in the pit” (I, 80). In William Heath’s cartoon of George IV as “The Manager” (October 1829) [image6], The King’s Theatre stands in for the nation itself, becoming the political point of reference for a tumultuous year in which Wellington, the king’s “fag,” had overseen, against the king’s wishes and against Wellington’s own inclinations, the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Bill (March 1829). In the reasonably friendly satire of Heath’s print, the king appears resigned to the successful management of his “fag,” but the significant and immediate fallout of the Catholic relief bill, according to Eric Evans (43-44) and Peter Jupp (378), was that it introduced the real possibility of making further alterations to the British constitution through parliamentary action. Only a short time later the political print, “The Rival Artistes” (1832) [image7] depicts the major Whig and Tory leaders as members of the ballet (an important part of any opera evening at The King’s Theatre) with Wellington, the Tory leader, mocked for his political “turn round” on Catholic emancipation and Peel remembered for his party’s first chance in fifty years for power, “standing long & steadily upon one leg.”

Image 6

“The Manager” (26 October 1829). “Ah you think it a fine thing to be a Manager—but it is no Sinecure I assure you—devilish hard job to keep the Company to gather—To be sure I have got a capital Fag” (26 Oct. 1829). ©Copyright The British Museum.

“The Manager” (26 October 1829). “Ah you think it a fine thing to be a Manager—but it is no Sinecure I assure you—devilish hard job to keep the Company to gather—To be sure I have got a capital Fag” (26 Oct. 1829). ©Copyright The British Museum.

-> See the list of figures

Image 7

“The Rival Artistes” (17 July 1832). Grey: “That you shine in Pirouette, I readily admit, but for standing long on one leg, I flatter myself that I enjoy some reputation.” Wellington: “I defy any man to turn round quicker than I can.” ©Copyright The British Museum.

“The Rival Artistes” (17 July 1832). Grey: “That you shine in Pirouette, I readily admit, but for standing long on one leg, I flatter myself that I enjoy some reputation.” Wellington: “I defy any man to turn round quicker than I can.” ©Copyright The British Museum.

-> See the list of figures

On the eve of reform, the political protagonists in the reform debate appear in full opera costume in the print satire, “King’s Theatre, Persons Engaged to Bring Out the New Opera of Reform” (1832) as shown in the next two images. This print features caricatures of six of the major political players in the months prior to the reform act: the King as “Lessee” of the opera house; Queen Adelaide as “Prima Donna”; Grey, as “Stage Manager” [image8]; Wetherell, the outspoken ultra-Tory who sparked the Bristol riots, as “Primo Basso”; Brougham, the ultra-liberal Whig politician, as “Tenor”; and John Bull himself, as “Basso” [image9]. Two months after the Reform Bill was enacted in June of 1832, “The Last Scene of the Triumph of Reform, or the Fall of the Boro’Mongers” [image10] appeared in August representing the passage of the act as grand opera. Wellington and Grey flank William IV and Queen Adelaide, seated in the royal box; the connoisseurs in the pit cry, “Bravo”; the fashionably dressed aristocrats and gentry in the boxes above echo the pit with their own “Bravo”; and the more humbly attired, but now politically enfranchised middleclass folk in the gallery join the applause, calling out, “Throw ‘em Over” and “Turn them Tories out.” Thus “The Triumph of Reform” pictures the ideal Whig political audience—1) the gentry and aristocracy comfortably seated in the boxes; 2) the men of talent (the connoisseurs) mingled in the pit; 3) the newly enfranchised middle classes seated in the gallery—all these reform minded groups brought together under the same political roof to cheer the success of the Whig driven reform bill.

Image 8

“The King’s Theatre, Persons Engaged To Bring Out The New Opera of Reform” (1 February 1832). ©Copyright The British Museum.

“The King’s Theatre, Persons Engaged To Bring Out The New Opera of Reform” (1 February 1832). ©Copyright The British Museum.

-> See the list of figures

Image 9

“The King’s Theatre, Persons Engaged to Bring Out The New Opera of Reform” (1 February 1832). ©Copyright The British Museum.

“The King’s Theatre, Persons Engaged to Bring Out The New Opera of Reform” (1 February 1832). ©Copyright The British Museum.

-> See the list of figures

Image 10

“The Last Scene of the Triumph of Reform or the Fall of the Boro’mongers” (August 1832). ©Copyright The British Museum.

“The Last Scene of the Triumph of Reform or the Fall of the Boro’mongers” (August 1832). ©Copyright The British Museum.

-> See the list of figures

Deidre Lynch’s division of reading into acts of the “mind” and acts of the “body,” in The Economy of Character (1998), helps us understand the relationship between the satirical prints of opera in the popular press and the representations of opera in the silver fork novel. As readers of novels, Lynch suggests, we have been trained to respond to the influence of the Victorian critical heritage, to read novels as “literature,” that is, to contemplate the characters in novels for their inner lives. But, Lynch argues, Regency and post-Regency literature push the “limit case” of “literature’s self-recognition” by ignoring the familiar critical demand that characters must have inner lives. Silver fork novels actually belong in the literary company, she writes, of such visually oriented artifacts of the period as, “the annuals and forget-me-nots, character sketches of the picturesque lower orders, anthologies of remarkable characters, microcosms of the city such as Pierce Egan’s Life in London,” and, I would add, popular political cartoons (not cited by Lynch), that “[render] characters, classes, locales, and bodies adamantly visible” (150). The silver fork novel and its neighboring visual sub-literature of political prints literally embody the age of reform by giving it presence and topography, shape and space. Fictional characters come to life in these novels through external social representation, not through their reflections on an imagined interior life. Silver fork novels are like a “newspaper” (II, 133), claims a character in Catherine Gore’s Women As They Are (1830). A character in Disraeli’s Henrietta Temple (1837) observes that when a silver fork novelist describes a ball, “everything lives and moves,” but “when the hero makes love, nothing can be more unnatural” (III, 136).

As for knowledge of opera, silver fork novelists assume from their readers a considerable range of familiarity both with Italian opera and with the arcane etiquette of attendance at The King’s Theatre. The management of The King’s Theatre recognized a mixed audience. As T. M. Mason, a contemporary proposed, “Books of the Opera, with the Translations executed in a superior manner, and handsomely printed in small octavo (including the Bills of the night), shall be sold in the House for one shilling each, by proper servants” (10). At the lowest level of audience familiarity, celebrity names suffice: “Mara, Banti, Grassini, Catalini, Pasta, Sontag, Malibran, Grisi—Mozart, Rossini, Cimarosa, Paesiello, Bellini, Meyerbeer, Donizetti—the very names have music in them” (I, 269-70), sighs Catherine Gore’s dandy hero in Cecil: or, The Adventures of a Coxcomb (1841). A general familiarity with approved taste, comprises the next level: “I would send you down Lord Mount E_____'s Musical Reminiscences,” the hero’s mother writes him in Bulwer’s Pelham (1828), “not only because it is a very entertaining book; but because I wish you to pay much greater attention to music than you seem inclined to do” (III, 100). This level of opera knowledge includes staying abreast of fashionable tastes, as do the Miss Cliftons, two socially aspiring middleclass women in T. H. Lister’s Granby (1826), who “always knew something of the new opera” (I, 104), as well as having up-to-date knowledge of the right and the wrong music to be imported into the home. “You may not sing a note of Rossini,” a dandy tells a young woman in Granby (I, 97). Rossini, whose popularity with aristocrats peaked in the 1820s, becomes a mark of artifice and aristocratic corruption in silver fork novels, according to John Bokina in his Opera and Politics (42-44). Handel’s Teseo, however, is allowed to be comfortably respectable for home concertizing in Lady Bury’s novel of 1830, The Exclusives (III, 70). At the most discerning level of familiarity, the plots of the operas can contribute to the knowledge of character: “You never saw so tender a Nina as this pretty little Mrs. Perceval,” claims a character in Catherine Gore’s The Opera (II, 68), an allusion to Paisiello’s two act opera, Nina, ossia La pazza per amore (Nina, or The Girl Mad through Love), first produced in London 27 April 1797. Reference to a specific aria confirms the reader’s own exclusivity at the same time that it enriches the ironies of the reading experience: “It was extremely irritating to poor Adrian…to listen to Adleberg’s incessant citations of the charming Constantia’s trill in the descending thirds of ‘Ah! perdona!’” (III, 46). “Ah perdona al primo affetto” is from Mozart’s opera seria La Clemenza di Tito, a telling hint laden with irony about the direction of the plot.

In the first wave of silver fork novels during the 1820s, Italian opera at The King’s Theatre simply offers occasion for traditional criticisms of aristocratic luxury. Opera is expensive, fashionable, and tainted by vice. Disraeli’s hero-dandy in Vivian Grey (1826), for example, mocks the domestic ills of an extravagant aristocrat with taunts drawn from his expensive taste for opera: “the Thames entered his kitchen windows, and the Donna del Lago was acted in the theatre with real water,—Cynthia Courtown performing Elena, paddling in a punt” (II, 148). T.H. Lister’s Granby (1826) exposes a young aristocrat’s obsession with the Italian opera as no more than his thinly veiled interest in the female performers: “He was also well versed in foreign affairs—could always tell the private history of the new ‘prima donna,’ and knew long before any body else…that the French government would not suffer the expected ‘premier danseur’ to come to England” (I, 84). Lady Blessington treats the opera in her sketches of fashionable life, The Magic Lantern (1822), as simply one more foolish stop on the season’s calendar of questionable aristocratic amusements: “The fine ladies come to see and be seen; to excite admiration, and to flirt,” and, she warns ominously, an evening at the opera is where “many a fair and titled belle may date her ruin, and many a noble family its disgrace” (59).

Lady Blessington’s Magic Lantern offers, however, a veiled indication that the “titled belle’s” inherited right, nay, aristocratic duty to attend the opera might have political significance, that her elegant box could be under threat from a rising new class. An aristocratic right to power is affirmed by the behaviour of the titled women in their boxes:

A frequenter of the Opera will soon distinguish the casual occupiers of a box from the owners. The dress, the air of self-possession and ease, with which the latter enter, and present themselves in the front of their boxes; a little premeditated bustle in opening and shutting the door, drawing and undrawing the curtain and moving the chairs, attract the attention of the audience to their boxes, and they support the staring and leveling of glasses pointed at them, with a well bred nonchalance that shows them well accustomed to it….


The middleclass intruders get harsh treatment, though typically for the 1820s, there is no deliberate articulation of any prospect of their political future, only their unwelcome presence in an aristocratic arena:

…while those who hire a box for the night, enter it with an appearance of mauvaise honte that keeps them back for the first five minutes after their entering, and when they do come forward, their flushed faces mark the dread which they feel at encountering the eyes of so great a crowd of spectators, and their over dressed heads shew how much trouble they have taken to adorn themselves for the unusual exhibition.


Theodore Hook, an ultra-Tory, in his novel Sayings and Doings (1824) agrees that middleclass aspirants make a ridiculous sight in the aristocratic opera house, though his more acerbic tone may expose political sympathies. In Sayings and Doings, the Misses Podgers attend the opera as “companions in finery, noise, and vulgarity; they were attendant nymphs on their father, a retired Plymouth slop-seller” (I, 56).

Opera and The King’s Theatre turn distinctly political in the 1830s. The task of the Whig politicians, as David Cannadine writes in The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, and, by implication, the task of sympathetic silver fork novelists, lay in “diminishing the unacceptable face of aristocratic power” (79). One way to accomplish this was to create a kind of “sub-aristocracy” by enlarging the base of the ruling elite, most obviously, as Peter Mandler notes, through a “shrewd and progressive alignment of the landed with the commercial classes” (129). In the novels, this could be done by enlarging the net of power associations: first, by exploiting the traditional designation of the gentry as “middle” in the hierarchy of British classes as Dror Wahrman suggests (14-15), thus shading an older power group into the aspiring status of a new one; second, and even more widely employed by silver fork novelists, by appropriating versions of “the middleclass idiom” to describe and identify a reformed aristocracy (46).

Silver fork novelists of the 1830s submit the opera house and the opera box to a complete rhetorical transformation. Catherine Gore and Lady Charlotte Bury, for example, develop a sharp distinction between “good” aristocrats and “corrupt” aristocrats who attend the opera, in line with Lord John Russell’s own articulation of Whig ideology (1 March 1831):

[I]f by aristocracy those persons are meant who do not live among the people, who know nothing of the people, and who care nothing for them—who seek honours without merit, places without duty, and pensions without service—for such an aristocracy I have no sympathy; and I think the sooner its influence is carried away with the corruption on which it has thriven, the better for the country, in which it has repressed so long every wholesome and invigorating influence.

With Lord Russell’s inspiration, silver fork novelists display merit, duty, feeling, and domesticity, as the mark of their reform-minded, “good” aristocrats—all qualities easily assimilated from the middle class language of virtue—and in the same novel they satirize a corrupt aristocracy uncooperative with political reform. Whereas Gary Kelly observes a narrative pattern in silver fork novels that reveals hidden virtue and unsuspected higher rank in their hero dandies (224), Andrea Hibbard argues that this unmasking of rank and virtue enables silver fork novelists to expand the “correlation between authenticity and social class” (251). In effect, public service, business probity, domestic order, and even religious piety become watchwords of a reformed aristocracy in the silver fork novel.

Lady Charlotte Bury, a friend of Lord Russell, converts the crimson curtained opera box at The King’s Theatre into its own little theatre of reform. The image is not unusual. Leigh Hunt emphasizes in his essay, “Madame Pasta,” that regularly at The King’s Theatre, “the performers in the boxes prepare for disputing attention with those on the stage” (242-3). Lady Bury’s opera-box dialogues employ the new idiom of the “good” aristocrat to drive out the associations of Old Corruption with opera. In Bury’s Flirtation (1828), for example, the heroine, Lady Emily Lorimer, attends a performance of Rosinni’s Tancredi at The King’s Theatre:

Her animated countenance expressed, without reserve, the delight she experienced, unlike the nonchalant manners of the greater part of the audience, (of those in the boxes, at least) which might lead a beholder, unversed in the secret, to suppose they came there to perform some necessary but dull duty.

II, 276

In fact, the contrasting, inattentive aristocratic box holders are indeed there for duty, to perform their aristocratic rank on the stages of their private opera boxes. It is of course a performance of corrupt aristocrats, their blasé response to the opera contributing to the kind of sexual vice, “flirtation,” named in the title of the novel. As one disapproving observer in the novel comments: “I never saw any corps de ballet more perfect than they are in their parts” (II, 282). Lady Emily’s embodiment of the good aristocrat is the heart of the lesson:

This lively interest, on the part of Lady Emily, drew the attention of many persons, whose admiration and astonishment were alike excited by the novelty and charm of her appearance; so that the whisper of –“Who is she, who is she?” went quickly around the boxes, and she continued to be stared at during the rest of the performance.

II, 276

Lady Emily, however, is described by her author as not performing in the opera box—she is natural, not “nonchalant”—“She hears nothing but Calidori’s ‘Quanto dolce nell’ alma’” (II, 281).[3] Yet, as a consequence, she is “stared” at and remarked for her poor representation of title and rank. “Really,” comments a dandy,

Lady Emily’s beautiful features are quite disfigured sometimes by all those violent commotions…. It is only permissible for a lady to suffer the corner of her mouth just to turn, when the irresistible Mr. Liston is on the stage, and she may hold the corner of her pocket-handkerchief to the eye when Madame Pasta acts Medea. But really those sobbings and showerings—and then the laugh, which may be heard in the next box!

III, 3-4

Lady Emily, of course, performs her part to perfection in Lady Bury’s little opera box drama, which might be called “Aristocratic Reform,” and she does it explicitly in the middleclass idiom appropriated to the cause of political reform. Lord Mowbray, a reform-minded aristocrat is drawn to her box by her close attention to the opera performance: “as I have for some time observed you from the pit engaged entirely with what was passing on the stage, I conceived that I might venture to steal in, determined not to interrupt your amusement, by my conversation, at least, but merely to make my bow and retire again” (II, 283-4).

Not only does Lady Emily have “feeling,” recognized from across the opera house by Lord Mowbray, she has admirable domestic tendencies as well. She nurses her old uncle when he loses his fortune and stays to cheer him during his days of impoverishment in a small cottage near Clifton, one possessing painted glass in the casements, plenty of “household linen and piles of yarn,” and a shelf full of such books as “the Family Bible…, Lewis Bayley’s ‘Practice of Piety,’ Jeremy Taylor’s ‘Holy Living and Dying,’ and Baxter’s ‘Saints Rest.’” “Some of these,” says the heroine, a model of morality, “I had read before” (III, 112). In telling contrast to Lady Emily’s virtues, her fashionable older sister, Lady Frances, marries the dissipated Lord Bellamont, who has the unhappiness of watching her from his own separate opera box as she flirts with other men in her opera box. The chilly, unreformed aristocratic marriage ends in scandalous high-life adulteries, duly reported to a now politically sensitive public in the Morning Post, which “teemed with the fracas for some days” (III, 302).

The opera in Lady Bury’s next novel, A Marriage in High Life (1828), enters the now lively debate over the middle classes and their place in reform. Bury’s heroine, Emmeline Benson, daughter of a self-made and very rich banker, with “an artlessness of disposition, ill-calculated to contend with a guileful world” (II, 53), marries Lord Ernest Fitzhenry, who, refuses to consummate the marriage to Emmeline in order to please his mistress, Lady Florence Mostyn. He and Lady Florence act out the familiar and oppositional opera box drama of “Old Corruption” directly before the eyes of the heartbroken Emmeline who is seated in her box across the way:

She [Emmeline] moved to the opposite seat, drawing the curtain of the box so as entirely to hide herself…. Before long a man entered the box where Lady Florence was; he seated himself directly with his back towards Emmeline; but it was impossible for her to mistake him—the oval head, the brown, curly hair, the attitude and air of the arm that leant on the edge of the box, the action of the hand, all told her but too well it could only be Fitzhenry.

II, 57

Lady Florence speaks to Fitzhenry, and, “soon after, Emmeline saw him turn round toward the box where she was, with a glass, as if in search of some one. She hastily, although she hardly knew why, shrunk back, hiding herself behind the curtain which she drew still more forward” (II, 58). As Emmeline tries to escape the opera house, she is assisted by Mr. Pelham, the good aristocrat of Bury’s novel, but they are seen together “at the top of the great stairs” only to have their relationship grossly misinterpreted by the worldly onlookers: “Well!” says an amused matron, “that is the best arranged, best understood affair I ever saw. Lord Fitzhenry and his chère amie are just gone down one stair, and Lady Fitzhenry and Pelham are making their escape by the other! and then we English boast of our morality!” (II, 64-65).

Emmeline’s embarrassment at The King’s Theatre is marked explicitly as a confrontation of class by Emmeline’s old banker father. He reads of a clash, a traffic accident, between between Emmeline’s and Lady Florence’s carriages at the opera colonnade: “A singular fracas took place at the Opera on Saturday night…” (II, 97). The newspaper naturally assumes that a “double intrigue” is taking place, but Emmeline’s father is outraged not by what the newspaper gets wrong, but by the class corruption it gets right. “Emmy,” he tells her, “I had rather have seen you the wife of the lowest clerk in my banking-house, than that of this Lord Fitzhenry, or any other lord in Christendom with his vile paramour” (II, 137). Emmeline, however, against her father’s wishes, refuses to divorce her philandering aristocratic husband. In effect, she insists upon upholding both her duties as a woman of rank and her duties as a model wife from the middleclass. She follows Fitzhenry to France to nurse him in his final illness, reading to him on his deathbed “that beautiful Essay of Miss Bowdler’s on the Advantages of Sickness.” With gratitude the dying aristocrat tells his middleclass wife: “it will ever be a comfort and joy to think, that through your means I have been saved from destruction” (II, 282-3). Fitzhenry’s dying words operate not only on the level of personal piety, but in 1828 they have special resonance as Lady Bury’s admonitory advice to Britain’s aristocratic negotiators of reform.

The opera box, in effect, becomes a preaching box for Bury, a pattern that is repeated in her succeeding novels, Separation (1830), The Exclusives (1830), and The Devoted (1836). But it is in this last novel that Lady Bury makes her most ambitious attempt to link political reform to the opera trope. Delamere, the opera-loving hero of The Devoted, who actually sings a “cavatine” in home performance, is a Byronic figure—young, handsome, with a withered leg, disillusioned, directionless, and flawed in spirit, rather like the Whig political program itself in 1836. In this year, William IV dismisses Melbourne in November, replacing him with Wellington; Peel becomes prime minister in December; in January, 1835, the Whigs win the General Election, but the king asks Peel to stay in office; in April, Peel resigns, and Melbourne forms a second ministry.

Politically and culturally displaced, Delamere is a man of the Regency caught in the new world of the 1830s. The King’s Theatre for Delamere represents the fashionable world, all the world worth knowing, and one that he surveys on opera nights with weary condescension:

Saturday night was come round again, and Mr. Delamere had, from habit, taken up his accustomed station in the Opera House. With his usual glance of recognition, he ascertained who was, and who was not there. He smiled contemptuously, as he thought his wonted round of visits must be made to the various boxes, of the consequences that might be serious on the day following. The first he entered was tenanted by a young married lady, whose celebrity as a beauty, and hitherto as a good wife, was the general theme whenever her name was mentioned.

II, 167

The woman turns out to be fashionable and foolish. Delamere talks to her of fashion, “till she was lost in a maze of conjecture respecting the threatened reform in fashion.” The currency of the word “reform,” however, is so great that Delamere cannot get it out of his thoughts: “Women had better employ themselves and their powers on that subject [fashion], than on reform in politics,” he says to himself. Lady Bury interjects to undercut Delamere’s pronouncement with heavy irony: “So thought Mr. Delamere” (II, 170).

Delamere also possesses excellent abilities, good feelings, but high-aristocratic prejudices that Bury attempts to correct in his evening’s round of visits to the opera boxes. In the next box, Bury’s model aristocrat in this novel, Lady Evelyn, reproves Delamere for the jargon of fashionable society that he introduces into their conversation: “This is very well in certain societies,” she tells him, “but we are tête à tête. Is there any more delightful place for a tête à tête than an opera box?” And she encourages him with some urgency to reform himself: “Awake from this idleness—cast off the slough that conceals your real brightness—be the person that God and nature have intended you to be, as respectable as you are superior” [italics added]. Lady Bury’s outspoken matron, Lady Evelyn, confirms Jane Rendell’s observation in her essay, “London’s Italian Opera House,” that the opera house “gaze” is not confined to men alone, but that women from their opera boxes have “an excellent vantage point from which to look at other women and men,” and, as she suggests, to make them subject to their own independent representations (11).

As Dror Wahrman observes, immediately prior to 1832 the word “respectable” had taken on a highly charged political significance for middleclass identity (305-09). Lady Evelyn suggests that Delamere enter the government, engage “a post of eminence.” “‘A post of eminence, Lady Evelyn!’ he resumed, ‘where, at this crisis and at this point of time? Are you not aware that all the high things of the earth are cast down?’” (II, 175). Delamere, significantly out of step politically in 1836, finds the new post-reform order of society both beneath his contempt and impossibly different from anything he has known.

The key to Lady Bury’s employment of the opera trope in her novels lies in the imaginative freedom it offers by its very lack of specificity. At one point in The Devoted, the disillusioned Delamere inveighs against opera as a frivolous aristocratic dissipation:

The time has long since arrived for me, when the singing-men and the singing-women, and the pasteboard woods and streams, and the factitious moons, are become worse than playthings: they are hateful mockeries, and render even their realities distasteful;—like a fine air ground upon an organ, these things become valueless…. The graver pursuits of men, are they better?—politics, science, money-making? Pantomime, or pandemonium, all.

II, 199

Bury provides an answer to Delamere’s criticism of opera in the words of a struggling professional artist, a middleclass man by definition, who can attend the opera only through the generosity of aristocratic friends. The artist, who is trying to place the figures in his socially freighted painting of “Boaz’s Field,” finds inspiration in Italian opera that enables him to address the recalcitrant issues that defeat Delamere:

I have often experienced that imagination was never so luminous as when it was exerted in scenes which seemed least appropriate to the subject upon which it was to be exercised…. There is pleasure in forcing outward circumstances to minister to our wants, which seems to endue the imaginative faculties with a stronger spring; and this I sought and found in the Haymarket.

II, 206

The responsibility for social and political reform lies with a feeling and attentive aristocratic audience: “The Griselda music grows upon one like all real pleasures,” says the heroine of Bury’s Journal of the Heart (1835), but, she admits, “Sometimes music is too painful, and a time may come when I may not be able to bear it” (17-18). Corrupt aristocrats have no such fears: “Madame de M_____ played on the piano-forte, with all skill of execution and power of touch. But there was no soul in her” (20).

Catherine Gore, a more trenchant analyst of politics than Lady Bury, employs the Italian opera and The King’s Theatre in her novels to present an intensely combative political scene. When, for example, one reactionary old aristocrat in Gore’s Pin Money (1831) declares “her adherence to Arne,” an eighteenth-century composer of operas (also responsible for “Rule Britannia”), the author describes her as, “the stiffest Tory which ever closed its blinking eyes against the new light” (I, 293-4). But as Gore notes in Mothers and Daughters (1831), even the worthiest of her middleclass characters, no matter how admirably firm they are in their Whig principles, must appear in The King’s Theatre as no more than spectators on the margins of power by virtue of the very moral principles that make them so admirable: “At tables such as the Westlands, there exists so little of the coterie-intercomunication distinguishing the gossipry of the fashionable world, that the newspaper publicities of operas and plays, exhibitions and executions, levees, and drawing-rooms, and parliamentary debates, generally provision the commissariate department for the war of words” (III, 2-3). It was a recognition of middleclass identity taken by a silver fork novelist that struck the contemporary observer Richard Hengist Horne in his A New Spirit of the Age (1844) as unique, depicting “in the portraiture of the upper section of the middle class, just at the point of contact with the nobility, when their own distinguishing traits are modified by the peculiarities of their social position” (228). The hardened aristocratic women in Gore’s novel, The Dowager (1840), a Tory coterie, have the advantage of conniving in their opera boxes to canvass votes for the Tories, Gore says mockingly, “with the same solemn pomp that attends the oath-scene of the three champions of liberty, in the drama of William Tell” (II, 151). In The Sketchbook of Fashion (1833), Gore describes a woman, a Tory, who grants sexual favors for political influence as extending from her opera box, as in an imagined substitute for parliament, “smiles to both sides of the House” (III, 278).

Gore’s novels written before the Reform Act of 1832, Women As They Are; or, The Manners of the Day (1830), Pin Money (1831), and Mothers and Daughters (1831), represent, without much conviction, the tired old tradition of opera as luxurious excess: a way for men to lose their money, for women to lose their virtue, and the middle classes to lose their self-respect. But this is not where her political or moral interests lie. Gore’s keenest addition to the opera trope is to focus on the sacrifice demanded of aristocratic women by the reform movement. An aristocratic woman’s attendance at the opera formerly had been accepted as her duty to rank and station. But with a new ideology of aristocratic power now expressed in the rhetorical dress of a middleclass idiom, the heroine in her opera box with tiara and opera glass becomes inappropriate for a reformed political order.

Helen Mordaunt, in Women As They Are (1830), participates in opera’s “aristocratic refinements” to please her husband, Lord Willersdale, a high ranking and reform-oriented minister, Whig by implication. Newspapers report a scandal, a love affair in the opera box. Helen is innocent. She seeks advice from a trusted female friend, who tells her, “Il faut faire face à l’ennemi. You must both accompany me to the opera to-morrow night” (III, 288). All the women of her family appear that evening in Helen’s opera box to bear witness to her innocence and to put to rest this “recent catastrophe in high life.” Lord Willersdale’s career is safe, and that seems to be the point—or one of them. Nevertheless, the heroine has troubling words to say about her unstable predicament in the new political world where women have so important a private role, but so undefined a public role: “I have been much to blame,” she tells her husband, “but you too have been in error…in devoting your whole time and consideration to public questions, without sparing one word of admonition, one restraining counsel, to the wife you have sworn to cherish, and whom it was your duty to strengthen by your better judgment” (III, 279).

Gore’s next novel, Pin Money (1831), written almost at the moment that parliamentary reform seems inevitable, explores potential types of Whig alliances with the middle classes (political, economic, social), but at the center it is the heroine on whom the burdens of the new domestic idiom of aristocratic virtue must rest. The heroine, Frederica, is an aristocrat; her husband is merely a country squire—handsome, virile, loving, decent, not as bright as Frederica, but an excellent domestic man. Gore submits Frederica’s aristocratic pride to humiliations, both comic and instructive, as she must learn to accept new social arrangements with the middle classes—in fact, a current paradigm of contemporary social and political issues. But like Helen Mordaunt in the previous novel, she too is left to make her way in the world as an uninstructed, unsupervised wife of a politician. She takes an opera box with a friend, who is fashionable, extravagant and dishonest to Frederica in misrepresenting the cost of the box. Frederica ends up overspending her “pin money,” a yearly sum granted to her in marriage articles independent of her husband, which is in itself an aristocratic affectation that Frederica had never wanted anyway. By discrediting Frederica’s management of her pin money, Gore is not, I think, suggesting that women are financial incompetents, though the image leaves an unfortunate taste. Gore’s main point is to condemn aristocratic economic irresponsibility, using the price of the opera box as her example, and to validate simultaneously traditional middleclass virtues of good business sense, payment of debts, and financial probity as good for the aristocracy as well. But the real burden of reform in Pin Money and Women As They Are still lies uncomfortably with their heroines, who are at sea in knowing how to situate themselves in a world with new values that challenge their traditional roles.

Gore’s most ambitious attempt to focus on contemporary politics, however, occurs in her novel The Opera, published in 1832, the year of most intense public interest in parliamentary reform. Gore uses the opera trope to explore a social and political world that threatens to be turned upside down. The operas that Gore cites in this novel, most of them in recent performance at The King’s Theatre according to Chorley’s Recollections, figure in Gore’s novel as reflecting contemporary political and social apprehensions. Rossini’s Otello, Il Turco in Italia, Semiramide, and L’Inganno Felice, Piccinni’s La Buona Figliuola, Paisiello’s La Pazza per Amore, Bellini’s Il Pirata, Vaccài’s Giuletta e Romeo, with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito and Idomeneo all appear in Gore’s novel as commentary on a very public text.

The hero, Adrian Maldyn, has arrived in London for the first time, from his home in the Bavarian Alps where he has been raised by his father, Lord Abbotsford, who is in exile as a member of the old Irish aristocracy. The splendid female protagonist of the novel, the anti-heroine, is Adrian’s former lover, a peasant girl named Stephanine Haslinger, summarily separated from Adrian years ago by Lord Abbotsford, but now scheduled to arrive in London at the same time as Adrian. Stephanine has become a world famous opera star, the toast of European society, known in London only by the manufactured history that precedes her, as La Silvestra or Mademoiselle Sandoni, the sole support of her respectable old father, Colonel Sandoni. Colonel Sandoni is actually her husband, the cruel old brute who accompanies her to London and manages her career. Adrian’s present love is a well-born, pale and suffering English girl, his cousin Miss Maldyn, with whom he has fallen in love at the Paris Opera. She is now Mrs. Perceval, a widow, but is an impossible match for Adrian since she belongs to a branch of his family, the new Scottish peerage, with whom Lord Abbotsford, old peerage, is engaged in a deadly feud. The range of United Kingdom representatives in this novel, in fact, makes The Opera a decidedly British novel, with Irish, English, and Scottish peerages all challenged by their eager, but uneasy, acceptance of the talented La Silvestra into their aristocratic society. The peasant girl turned opera star, however, has her own agenda: a burning desire to wreak revenge both on Lord Abottsford for his contemptuous treatment of her in separating her from Adrian, and on Adrian himself for his desertion.

Maria Malibran, the blazing comet of Italian opera during the late 1820s and early 1830s, is the likely inspiration for the passion in La Silvestra’s character. “From the first hour when Maria Garcia [Malibran] appeared on the stage,” writes Henry Chorley in his contemporary account, “it was evident that a new artist, as original as extraordinary, was come—one by Nature endowed, not merely with physical powers, but also with that inventive, energetic, rapid genius before which obstacles become as nothing, and by aid of which the sharpest contradictions can be reconciled” (I, 12). Henriette Sontag, Malibran’s contemporary rival in London, with her reputed gentility and her unlimited access to high society through her engagement to a nobleman, probably served as the model for La Silvestra’s career in high society in the novel. Howard Bushnell in his biography of Maria Malibran (1979) recounts the very different receptions in high society given to Malibran and Sontag as rival stars (98-99, 108).

A.E. Chalon’s revealing double sketch of Malibran, depicted as on stage in her opera costume and then, placed next to that in an opera box in formal audience attire with her opera glass in hand [image11], demonstrates just how sensitive contemporaries were to an opera star’s role both as an insider and outsider of privileged society: “After playing Fidelma [sic] in Cimarosa’s opera Il Matrimonio Segreto,” Chalon notes on his sketch, “Malibran went into a Pit box to see the Ballet, or rather to afford the Public a better opportunity of appreciating her powers of transformation.” In fact, the event scandalized London. Malibran’s appearance on stage as the aged Fidalma created an uproar: “To see a lady of twenty-two or so…disfigure her spirited, intellectual countenance…to witness such a transformation was a feature in the cast of characters which few of the audience were prepared for…. This preposterous travesty can only be regarded as a wayward freak of caprice,” wrote the critic in the New Monthly Magazine (1829). Malibran’s infamous “transformation” prompts Gore in The Opera to probe such an unlikely “transformation” for its ominous political implications. “There is something to me almost awful in the perfection of dissimulation practised by this woman,” Adrian writes of La Silvestra: “it seems abetted by the inspiration of an evil spirit!” (II, 206).

Image 11

Double portrait of Maria Malibran. A.E. Chalon, “Spettatrice-Attrice” (1830). ©Copyright The British Museum.

Double portrait of Maria Malibran. A.E. Chalon, “Spettatrice-Attrice” (1830). ©Copyright The British Museum.

-> See the list of figures

In 1832, such a “transformation” trope is seen to break down all the traditional firewalls between politics and opera. The opera season and the opening of parliament self-consciously merge in The Opera into a general pool of public opinion: “Next week, however, parliament will meet,” the hero writes, “and as Adelberg invariably adds,—next week the Opera will open;—and thenceforward something will be going on in London. The great sea-monster will lash its tail, and we shall all share its reanimation” (I, 319).

La Silvestra’s self-constructed story of her life, framed as it is in the new pieties of respectable reform, forces itself upon the society of “good” aristocrats as an unassailable credential for her social acceptance: “The devotion of a young and timid girl, descending from the dignified respectability of a private gentlewoman to all the humiliations of a theatrical life for the sake of an infirm father, was sufficient to bespeak the good will of Gertrude and Mrs. Perceval” (II, 269). Her consummate acting, her ability to provide the right cues of respectable domesticity as well as the elegancies of aristocratic social etiquette, gives the prima donna a decided advantage over the hobbled idiom of the well-intentioned aristocrats: “Even Constance Fitzgerald, on other occasions so vigilant and discriminating, found reason to admire and praise the tokens of gentle blood visible in her elegant demeanour, the expression of feminine gentleness adorning her countenance” (II, 165). Gore subjects this sentimental, domestic idiom of new aristocratic respectability to bitter irony for its incapacity to describe or even to understand the new society it promotes: “She is a charming creature; so frank,—so naïve,—so unlike what I expected in a public performer,” says one admirer of La Silvestra, “How I hate the word profession when applied to so ladylike and delicate a person!” (II, 165). Even Adrian, her former lover, is nonplused by La Silvestra’s plausibility:

Were those mellifluous accents which had recently so melted my soul, the same whose coarse Lower-Austrian dialect had breathed, that night, a tender farewell to her ‘Schatzerl?’—Was that fairy foot in its sandal of silvery satin, the same which had plodded away in its buckled hob-nailed shoe…

II, 113

The social threat, and here Gore puts it clearly in terms of class, lies in the constitutional reform that La Silvestra’s acceptance represents. “We are none of us safe!” says one the older matrons in the novel, “If such people as this Mademoiselle Sandoni are to be introduced into our private circles, merely because they have a sweet voice and an ingratiating manner, all the barriers of society may as well be turned over at once. We shall find figurantes on the bench of peeresses, and…” (II, 277).

Even casual operatic citations in Gore’s novel point towards a class representation which parallels Stephanine’s struggles. La Buona Figliuola, “The Good Daughter,” by Piccinni, taken from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, is the story of a servant girl who resists her master’s attentions, and marries him. Paisiello’s La Pazza per Amore, “The Girl Sent Mad by Love,” provides an instructive comparison between the aristocratic Mrs. Perceval and the peasant born La Silvestra. But La Silvestra, who chooses vengeance against her oppressors for the loss of Adrian’s love, most certainly does not lose her wits. Mrs. Perceval, whose loyalties to class and rank prevent her from taking action of any kind to express or show her love for Adrian, is quite literally “sent mad by love,” locked up and left to die. Even “Ah perdona” (“Ah, forgive my earlier love, this unwise endearment…”), from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, which is only referred to by Adrian in a passing joke, would alert readers familiar with the opera that Adrian and Stephanine’s love, like the affair in Mozart’s opera, hangs on a power disparity, though one with little chance of ending so benignly as Mozart’s.

La Silvestra’s resentment at the abuses of power—at Adrian, at Adrian’s high-handed father, at her cruel husband Sandoni, and at the snobbery of British aristocratic society—is raised to public significance by association with her performances at The King’s Theatre. Early on in the novel’s plot, she sings Rossini’s Otello, in which the heroine is locked away by her father, accused of unfaithfulness, and murdered by her lover (II, 82). Later in the novel, she sings in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italo, and then appears at a party after the opera dressed in her part as Fiorilla, a woman in love with a younger man, but married to an old, oppressive and ridiculous husband (II, 186). Near the conclusion of the novel, “from the desolate depths of her own wounded heart,” she sings Imogene’s arias from the last act of Bellini’s Il Pirata, responding to infidelity, love, and oppression, in passages from Il Pirata that Gore quotes at length (III, 68-70). At the crisis of La Silvestra’s plot to revenge her own past, she sings the title role in Semiramide, where the Queen has her husband murdered in order to marry her lover. Finally, in her last stage role in the novel, she appears as Nisa (Isabella), the heroine of Rossini’s L’Inganno Felici (“The Happy Deceit”), who, thought to be dead, is discovered by her husband, who has not been faithful to her memory, to be still alive and faithful to him. Nisa forgives, La Silvestra does not. It is, in fact, L’Inganno Felici that is in performance when Adrian’s old father, Lord Abbotsford, is taken to The King’s Theatre. As the curtain rises, he recognizes Stephanine and drops dead in the opera box (III, 280, 303).

It is as if Gore explodes a small bomb on the reform discourse of 1832 by opening up the ambivalent potential of reform. The Duke of Cardigan, besotted with La Silvestra, proposes marriage in the last pages of the novel, against the vigorous opposition of his family. In a shocking act of defiance, La Silvestra rejects him:

Infatuated, miserable man!—listen to my reply.—I loathe you!—There is not an atom of dust lying at my feet more worthless in my sight than yourself;—there is not an atom of dust at your feet one half so vile as I should appear to you, did you know me in my real character!

III, 312-13

She reveals her background and history: peasant girl, Adrian’s youthful mistress, Sandoni’s abused wife. She lays claim to her love of Adrian and of virtue, and to her ruined aspirations to embrace the new domestic version of the aristocratic woman: “Had I been allowed to become his wife, I would have adorned that name with deeper devotion than ever yet impelled the career of woman. Happy in his arms—at his feet—I would have shown the world an example of conjugal humility, of conjugal devotion” (III, 313-14). Instead, locked out of Adrian’s class and abandoned to survive on her own talents, she has become the very model of middleclass virtue: hard working, successful, and exquisitely trained in the essential upper class social skills of conversation and deportment. Is this a vote for reform, for a widened enfranchisement of class, or is it a vision of the future that appalls the author?

In one sense, and not the least important sense for Gore, La Silvestra’s unhappy career may refer to the social betrayal and abandonment of women that she articulates in Women As They Are and in Pin Money, where the heroines are essentially abandoned by their husbands and left to invent and enforce new models of their place in society on their own. In The Opera, La Silvestra’s poignant rendition of Desdemona’s “Se il padre m’abbandona” is cited more than once by those who hear her sing it (II, 87, 93). And in Bellini’s Il Pirata, the “guilty” Imogene, La Silvestra’s starring role, goes mad, abandoned by two men, her husband and her lover. Adrian, in his opera box witnessing La Silvestra’s performance, claims that he “felt inclined to retract every evil opinion he had conceived of the prima donna. A woman so tremblingly alive to the best sensibilities of human nature, could not be the worthless being he had lately pictured to himself” (III, 70). Lady Blessington’s report of a Malibran concert in The Victims of Society (1837) uncannily echoes Adrian’s expressions here and elsewhere in the novel: “the sounds appear to emanate from a soul thrilling with sublime emotion; and its deep harmony causes mine to vibrate. There is something mysterious, something magical in its influence on me. It haunts one for many succeeding hours” (pp. 117-18).

In the larger political sweep, La Silvestra’s opposition to an effete, vicious and frozen aristocracy seems to reflect Gore’s sympathy with the position. But as an unresolved example of either approval or warning, Gore’s novel mischievously probes the paradoxes of reform. “Such then is the Silvestra,” the prima donna says defiantly to the dumbfounded Duke of Cardigan:

—Such the woman you would have worn as a treasure in your bosom,--as a wife in your heart of hearts;--whom you have placed hand in hand with your sisters—your venerable mother—your pure and spotless females friends!—Take warning, my lord duke;--and, in acknowledging that I have dealt candidly with your proposals, refrain for the future from such rash and selfish precipitancy!

III, 314-15

A reactionary voice seems to be in charge here, a self-confession of La Silvestra’s degradation and a condemnation of his, the Duke of Cardigan’s, foolish judgment.

On the other hand, the prima donna turns around for a final defiant gesture of contempt, a genuine showstopper. “For me, I am about to leave this country;—to leave it triumphantly—to leave it with that dread desperation of a broken heart, which feels that its purposes have been accomplished—its triumph sealed upon the grave of all that was dear to it on earth.—Farewell for ever!” (III, 315). Having caused the deaths old Lord Abbotsford, who dies in his opera box, Mrs. Perceval, who dies locked away and deranged by love, and the hero, who dies of guilt and a broken heart, and, in perhaps the most shocking development in the novel, having rejected a Duke with contempt and insults, La Silvestra, middleclass and triumphant, remains standing at the final curtain.

The political implication in 1832 that inevitably hovers around La Silvestra’s violent and operatic triumph, becomes inevitable: What ever is to happen to Great Britain if the constitution is not mended? Leigh Hunt in his essay, “The Duchess of St. Albans, and Marriages from the Stage,” recognized the subversive power of such silver fork figures as La Silvestra: “The novels of Gore and Blessington,” he writes, “have avenged the vulgar insults offered to the sisters of the stage by the demireps of the days of Walpole and Montagu” (309). Contemporary politicians were deeply concerned about the consequences of parliamentary action or inaction. In a well known satirical cartoon by Charles Grant, 1831, “Four Weighty Authors on Reform” (31 March 1831), the Radical declaims: “I say ‘If we don’t have a Real Radical Reform, we will have a Revolution.” The Liberal spokesman says, “A Little Reform is wanting, but fiddlededee about Revolution.” The Whig character warns, “Reform is absolutely necessary to prevent Revolution.” The Tory asserts, “I do maintain that Reform means nothing else than Revolution.” Gore’s novel, The Opera, engages the high seriousness of this great public debate. As the contemporary Denis Le Marchant recorded privately in August of 1831, “Peel considers a revolution at no great distance,” adding by way of cold comfort, “not a bloody one and perhaps not one leading to a republic, but one utterly subversive of the aristocracy and of the present system of carrying on the government.”

Catherine Gore’s final silver fork novels of the late 1830s (not her last fiction, by any means) measure the declining power of opera or the opera house to represent great public issues, and in particular the Whig ideology of reform. Her novel Mrs. Armytage; or Female Domination (1836) seeks an accommodation between old-style reactionaries in the Whig party and the need for political change. But the young hero and heroine must renounce opera to live in the country where they can superintend local elections, now an important task because of the widened enfranchisement produced by the reform bill. The opera boxes in this novel are turned over to Tory aristocrats and middleclass parvenus, Tory hangers-on. In The Dowager (1840), the opera house becomes the place for well-intentioned Whig families to meet other well-intentioned Whig families, and even consort with moderate Tory families by way of an accommodation that mirrors an analogous political accommodation, to marry off their offspring. The matchmaking between moderates of both parties is Gore’s domestic-level response to the instability of this second-to-last year of Lord Melbourne’s enfeebled Whig government. The heroine of The Dowager now goes to her opera box freed of the troubling political and social issues that tormented previous opera going heroines. She simply attends to improve her “genius” for music: “If you could have heard that divine quartette!—I who had always fancied one could understand music by force of study!—I who thought I knew Bellini—who conceived I understood the Puritani, yet had actually never heard Lablache—Rubini—Grisi!—Oh! That duet!” (I, 187-88).

Catherine Gore’s last silver fork novel and her best, Cecil: or, The Adventures of a Coxcomb (1841), is her valedictory to opera and to The King’s Theatre as a significant source of imagery for social and political issues. Cecil Danby, the narrator, speaks from 1841, nostalgically looking back on his life in the Regency, but politically positioned, of course, by his and the readers’ implicit knowledge of political events of the late 1830s and early 1840s. In Cecil, Gore uses the opera house as a melancholy site for charting the historical failure of Whig reform, pre-1832 and post-1832.

The Regency is the setting for the first crisis, when Cecil falls in love with middleclass Emily Barnet, the daughter of a Portugal wine merchant. He first sees Emily in her unfashionable fifth tier opera box at The King’s Theatre:

I made my way to the upper tier of boxes; pigeon-holes, to which I had occasionally glanced upwards from Fop’s Alley, as a boy looks upon a kite traversing the fields of air, and with about as much idea of ever finding myself elevated to the same enviable attitude…. I had thought her handsome…, but now, with the brilliant light of the chandelier irradiating her fair face and tingeing with gold her chestnut ringlets, I was startled by her surpassing loveliness.

I, 119

Emily’s “natural” innocence displayed in her fifth tier opera box contrasts sharply with the corrupt hardness of the aristocratic women in the better opera boxes that Cecil habitually visits:

For a month past, my eyes had rested upon nothing but those withered complexions and hardened countenances of fashionable life, which, when viewed in a mass, with their paint and varnish of ton fresh upon the surface, excite neither surprise nor disgust. But the aspect of this young, bright, innocent-looking creature, so impressed me with admiration of its freshness and purity, that there needed no severer criticism upon the deficiencies of Lady Harriet and her companions.

I, 119-20

Cecil rescues Emily from a rude assault in the opera colonnade by “dandies of a secondary order,” the “Rule Britannia class,” as he calls them, as she attempts to get a hackney coach home. Reports of the affray get back to his mother, who attacks him for reckless association with the middle classes, for “skulking down the back-stairs at the Opera, with women in bonnets, whom he shuffles into a hackney-coach” (I, 181). Cecil, who is troubled by Emily’s middle class origins almost as much as his mother, assuages his conscience even as he falls in love with her: “She cannot suppose, poor girl, that there is anything in common between the son of an English peer and the daughter of a Lisbon merchant—between a Downing-street diplomat, and the ward of a stuffy old solicitor in Southampton Buildings!” (I, 239). Winifred Hughes, in her essay “Elegies for the Regency: Catherine Gore’s Dandy Novels,” sees Cecil as split between middleclass and aristocratic ideals, but notes that Gore also doubts the resources of his Victorian successors, while Claire Nicolay, in “Delightful Coxcombs to Industrious Men: Fashionable Politics in Cecil and Pendennis,” argues that Cecil is a transitional figure, a “defender of the past,” but also a “firm advocate of social progress” (290).

In recounting the story from his 1840s vantage, Cecil reflects sadly on the history of the past twenty years: “I begin to think there is a destiny in the said Opera (King’s Theatre—Queen’s Theatre,—what is it, just now?) for embroiling the affairs of bankers, managers, and lovers!” (I, 263-4). Embarrassed by his relationship with a woman of Emily’s class, he breaks an appointment with her at the opera and leaves early. The next he knows, Emily has disappeared, gone, returned to Portugal. Cecil follows her to Lisbon, only to find her tombstone: “Emily Barnet, Aged eighteen years. Died on the 17th of February” (II, 76). “Newgate and the Tower have recently been dug up and unrolled, like mummies, for the contemplation of the curious in villainy,” he writes bitterly of his “crime” against Emily: “Between ourselves…, there is good ground still to be broken at the Opera!” (I, 266). The consequence of Cecil’s failure to make this alliance—the union of a feeling, but proud middleclass heroine and a sensitive, intelligent aristocratic hero—lives on, Gore implies, as an historical consequence.

The second failed love affair takes place late in Cecil’s career with the opera house figuring centrally again, but now not so much as the site of a failure of Cecil’s aristocratic moral nerve, as specifically the representative site of the Whig party’s political impotence. The date of Cecil’s narrative of the Winstanley episode is 1823-25, but the politics are of 1840-41, when the fall of Lord Melbourne’s government was generally expected. Public interest was sufficiently agitated that, alarmed by a rash of blackballing attributed to the imminent political upheaval, the Travellers’ Club committee did “earnestly entreat members to divest their minds of prejudices arising from recent unpleasant circumstances,” according to Travellers’ historian Sir Almeric Fitzroy (39). The Winstanleys, a baronet family with aspirations to marry into the aristocracy, invite Cecil to their home for dinner to meet their daughter Helena: “I had half a mind not to go; for one knows beforehand the sort of fussy, full-dress, grand dinner-party of a country baronet, with a clumsy old service of plate, and clumsy butler, and clumsy saddle of fat home-killed mutton,” but, he admits, “I was agreeably disappointed.” It turns out that Sir Gabriel not only “looked highly respectable, when carving his own venison,” but had also, “assembled about him the chief worthies of my ancestral county, wherein he was himself a landed proprietor” (III, 193). The Winstanleys represent a thoroughly modern middle rank family, titled gentry, but not aristocratic (the middleclass is no longer Gore’s issue) and a golden opportunity for the aristocratic Cecil to make an alliance with this highly respectable class. Helena, the daughter, is charming, and not at all fashionable with her “plain, rational, common-sensical conversation” (III, 194-5), qualities that Cecil has the good taste to admire. The relationship with Helena blossoms, but an event at The King’s Theatre, Gore’s recurring site of crisis, intervenes.

This time there is no opera in performance at the theatre, but a benefit night for the starving Irish, with “the brilliancy of the Italian Opera House, --- floored into a ball-room, decorated with flags and lustres, garlands and trophies, --- but above all, beaming with beauty from every box.” Aristocratic power is literally on stage, “in its finest gauds,” says Cecil, and on show for a price to non-aristocratic ticket holders, “exhibited by the blaze of ten thousand lights, under patronage of some fifty peeresses of the realm, at the cost of a guinea a peep, for the benefit of Old Ireland and her paupers” (III, 197-8).

Despite broad hints from her mother that Helena needs an escort, he avoids a commitment in order to join the court group from Carlton House and thus, to “secure one of the best places of the night, and the entrée of the private staircase,” and achieve a major goal: to be seen in attendance on the reigning fashionable beauty of the court. As he escorts this great beauty across the theatre to another opera box, he reports that, “we came suddenly upon Lady Winstanley’s party, I saw the cheeks of Helena flush crimson, and turn to an ashy paleness” (III, 200-203). He later discovers that Helena’s ambitious parents have insisted that very evening, and because of Cecil’s defection, on Helena’s acceptance of an offer of marriage from Cecil’s titled cousin, the Earl of Wolverton, known to his friends as “Squeamy,” a suitor repellant to Helena, and, according to Cecil, grotesquely unattractive to even the most casual observer.

Deeply disturbed by this turn of events, but still taking no steps to stop the marriage and declare himself, Cecil attends the wedding, thoroughly aware of Helena’s suffering, and then takes a long tour of the Mediterranean to heal his broken heart. He returns to England through Southampton two years later, and stumbling drunkenly into the wrong room in his hotel, he comes upon a patently operatic scene laid out before him: “It was the chamber of death,—a gorgeous coffin,—two gorgeous coffins,—with lights burning at the head, and domestics in deep mourning, keeping watch over the dead!” (III, 263). It is, of course, Helena, dead in childbirth, and Squeamy’s stillborn son.

Helena Winstanley is a shadow before she becomes a shade—unlike the proud, assured aristocratic operagoers of Blessington’s Magic Lantern (1822), or the instructive Lady Evelyn in Bury’s The Devoted (1836), or the struggling Helen Mordaunt in Gore’s Women As They Are (1830), or even her impatient Frederica Rawleigh in Pin Money (1831). The opera-going heroine in Gore’s Cecil (1841) dwindles into submissive acceptance of her domestic fate, an operatically spectacular role in Helena’s case.

Cecil blames everyone for the catastrophe but himself—Helena for her weakness, the Winstanleys for their ambition, Squeamy for his lust. Great blame does indeed lie with the ambitious Winstanleys, who as people of moderate rank are seduced by the corrupt, even “murderous” promise of an aristocratic title for their daughter: “her diamond tiara had been a crown of thorns” (III, 268). But, as Gore makes clear, the major fault lies with Cecil, a man of proven talent and abilities, conscious of the high significance of the political and social options offered to him, who once again fails to embrace a potential new order of society. Sadly for Gore, the conservative side of Earl Grey’s aristocratic Whig principles—“My object is not to favour but to put an end to such hopes and projects”—are borne out in Cecil’s failures.

The highly politicized world of the opera box and the operatic stage interpenetrate in silver fork novels for the brief duration of reform excitement, from the early 1820s to the early 1840s. Disraeli, Lister, Bulwer, Blessington, Bury, and Gore all exploit a pre-existent, publicly perceived connection between the opera house as a site of power and the natural site for the politics of display. Bury and Gore, however, also embrace the plots of the operas as narratives for probing contemporary politics and social change. Gore maximizes this approach in The Opera (1832), but Bury’s highly contrived, opera-inspired plots point in the same direction. For all these silver fork writers there is the strong sense that history is in the making, that Whig ideology is in the vanguard, and that Great Britain’s future, as well as the future of the aristocracy, hangs in the balance.

Cecil’s 1841 elegy for The King’s Theatre, “Yet, after all, there is something sacred in the old den!” (I, 264), speaks to the loss of political relevance for The King’s Theatre, recalling a time and era when Italian opera and the opera house appeared linked to the nation by public issues of great significance. Cecil mourns the devaluation of “the old den” with characteristic cynicism, however. Taking note that business speculators had made a fortune by turning the mast of the Victory into snuff boxes, he pens a fittingly contemptuous elegy for the trifling embourgeoisement of the aristocratic old opera house: “What might not be expected, as a speculation,” he writes sardonically, “from the conversion of the boards of the Queen’s Theatre (Victoria is on the throne) into articles of domestic furniture?” (I, 270). As Cecil’s bitter mockery shows, the silver fork authors saw “history” and “progress” as far more ambiguous concepts than their Victorian descendants. In fact, the ironic tragedy of The Great Reform Act for silver fork novelists was its most baleful revelation, that society was as much an imagined construction as an opera.