Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Remembrance of Things Past: Literary Annuals' Self-Historicization

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Remembrance of Things Past: Literary Annuals' Self-Historicization

Article excerpt

Literary annuals and gift books, the lavishly illustrated, richly bound anthologies of poetry and prose fashionable in England during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, attracted readers by their combination of text and pictures inside a pretty package. They typically appeared at the end of the year and were meant to be Christmas presents or tokens of remembrance between friends and family members. The first one, Rudolph Ackermann's The Forget-Me-Not for the year 1823, was inspired by the ladies' pocket-books and almanacs of the eighteenth century--themselves a development of manuscript common-place books owned by men and women since the Renaissance (1)--and the first number actually contained a diary section. The blank pages, however, disappeared within two years, and from then on The Forget-Me-Not and all the many competitors launched following its success adopted the formal features for which they would become so desired: exquisite bindings, beautiful engravings, and a miscellaneous collection of literary matter. (2)

The annuals' presence on the literary scene began to subside after the mid-thirties: by the 1850s there were only eleven left and by 1860 they were basically extinct, (3) replaced by illustrated periodicals. The shift from steel engraving to wood engraving had made picture reproduction increasingly more affordable, so by mid-century annuals could no longer compete with the more modestly priced quarterlies or monthlies. (4) In addition, as Bradford Booth has suggested, their "amazing proliferation" might also have been instrumental in their collapse: "Public support and the fecundity of British literary talent might have served a dozen volumes,--perhaps even a score,--but when sixty-odd fought for attention, the deserving were buried with the undeserving. It was a free-for-all with nothing barred, and when the smoke cleared away, all the combatants were prostrated" (p. 8).

But even as they replaced annuals, illustrated periodicals did not quite match their allure-an allure that, as this essay will show, rested to a great extent on their self-fashioning as cultural heritage and which distinguished there from other anthologies. As several studies have stressed, anthologies--which proliferated after 1774 with the defeat of the attempt to establish perpetual literary copyright--have been considered instrumental in having fomented the very concept of an English national literature and the consequent emergence of a canon, the emblem of the country's cultural heritage. (5) And while this notion has been somewhat qualified by critics such as Richard Terry and Trevor Ross, the late eighteenth-century continues to be regarded as the time when anthologies began to participate in the ideological work of establishing a national culture, especially once they adopted a "genealogical arrangement of the canon into a history of the national literature" (Wright, p. 360n4). (6) Despite being anthologies, however, that was not the role performed by the annuals. Since they published new work rather than compiling already known texts, they remained peripheral to the nationalist, ideologically determined process critics have seen in contemporary anthologies of "great works." Nonetheless, in their self-presentation--from titles to prefaces and puffs--annuals cast themselves as important historical artifacts of the then-present and hence serve as records of the literary aesthetic shift from Romantic to Victorian in process during the 1820s and 1830s. As I will argue, annuals can be seen as emblems of that time of literary transition (7)--a transition that also reflected, and in part depended on, wider transformations in printing technologies and in social class organization. Attending to this important aspect of the annuals' cultural role reveals that their allure rested to a great extent on the ways in which they appropriated and embodied the contemporary preoccupation with memory and relic. (8) It indicates, furthermore, that their greatest impact in the second quarter of the nineteenth century goes beyond the literary: as a genre, annuals influenced and reflected one essential cultural aspect implicated in the formation of early-nineteenth-century middle-class identity--namely, the legitimization of the class's claims to taste and refinement. …

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