Self-professed romance fan Nadra Rahman attended one of the Book History Colloquium events yesterday evening, titled “The Rise of the Literary Annual, Powerful Femininity, and Beautiful Books.” There wasn’t as much romance as she expected.
I was the youngest person in the room by far—the average age of attendee (of which there were six, besides me) hovered at around 60 years old. While I felt out of place, the sense of an intimate environment pervaded; speaker Katherine Harris, ready to deliver her lecture on “The Rise of the Literary Annual, Powerful Femininity, and Beautiful Books” easily chatted with guests about her work and such scintillating topics as microfilm (I imagine).
Harris, an Associate Professor at San Jose University, specializes in Romantic 19th-century British literature, the literary annual, and the digital humanities. As she started her presentation, her excitement about literary annuals–published collections of short stories, poetry, and engravings meant to be consumed by young women–was fully visible. The literary annual had been described to me as a 19th-century equivalent of Twilight, and there are certainly striking parallels, in that the literary annual catered to women and was disparaged by critics as being frothy and silly, the “‘cakes’ of literature,” according to one critic as late as 1902.
And yet the annual does differ a great deal from our popular conception of “chick lit.” The aesthetics of the annual mattered as much as what was inside, for some. Initially bound in leather, they came to have decadent, feminine silk covers. Over 100,000 were bought every year, mostly as gifts—when they were released on Almanac Day, people would rush to the stores and mill around, trying to get one for their friend or sweetheart. Interestingly enough, girls were encouraged to write in pencil on the dedication page, because they just might change their mind about the recipient of the annual (silly girls!).
Engravings in literary annuals were accompanied by poetry, most of which eschewed the conventions of honoring the war hero; instead, there was space for a different kind of poetic voice, one which articulated concerns about the failure of the government and the need for a different type of femininity. This quiet radicalism was gone unnoticed by critics, who considered the genre devoid of substance, even though all the great authors of the Romantic period, from Byron to Coleridge to Shelley, had their work published in literary annuals. In particular, they found the “poetess aesthetic” juvenile and uninteresting, no matter what insights it lead to.
Harris focused especially on Rudolph Ackerman, the mastermind behind the English literary annual and publisher of the very first one: “Forget-Me-Not.” An innovator in printing, publishing, and marketing, he is largely forgotten nowadays, though not by Harris. For the past ten years, she has visited British archives in search of his personal letters, persisting even after they tell her the work was “lost in the Blitz” (code for “we can’t find it”). For Ackerman, the literary annual was not craftsmanship, but art, and he completely changed the literary scene in England by importing the literary annual from Germany. His letters certainly would have provided some insight into what prompted his championing of the form.
If one conceives of the literary annual as a feminine body, he was one of the male publishers who struggled to make the form both proper and sexually appealing, as women readers simultaneously tried to make the annual fit into their feminine ideals. Harris asked us if looking into an annual wasn’t the equivalent to peeking under a woman’s silk skirt—an evocative question when one considers the intimacy associated with the literary annual, and the way it was so clearly gendered. Men’s almanacs, for example, differed in that they provided areas for charting and writing diary entries, while no such space for annotations existed in the literary annual (some journals for women did offer math problems and puzzles that one of Harris’s Silicon Valley engineer friends declared “advanced.”).
Perhaps most intriguingly, the literary annual facilitated real-life intimacy. Small books, they could only be read by two people simultaneously if they sat close together and pored over it alongside each other. Young men and women would thus sit on park benches reading from books together, perhaps not finding the poetess aesthetic as entirely displeasing as did tiresome critics. Harris noted that women weren’t allowed to be alone in most cases, although they were if they were going to the lending library, “because nothing bad ever happens in a library.” Whether or not this was a reference to the Butler stacks, this use of the literary annual remains dreamy and romantic.
The presentation ended with a Q&A, after which attendees were welcomed to peruse the Rare Books and Manuscript Collection, and in particular the annuals in our library collection. Energized and refreshed, the party likely marched over, ready to peek under more silk skirts, although, dear reader, I was already absent by this time. Alas!
Photo via Columbia University libraries