- Psychological Crystal Palace? Late Victorian Confession Albums
The “Secret Treasury” of Autograph
When I began considering nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British autograph books, I was surprised to find that a genre with such piquant relevance to current critical preoccupations had received scant scholarly attention. What commentary there is was largely produced by American anthropologists in the 1970s, as part of the broader movement to map American regional character by cultural products. Sylvia C. Henricks, W. K. McNeil, and Robert P. Stevenson are typical in their descriptions of autograph verse as orally transmitted texts of American identity and rites of passage. 1 My aim in this essay is to read the confession album, a specialized form of Victorian printed, published autograph album, with the careful historiographic attention we are accustomed to give to literary texts. As far as I can discover, the confession album has attracted almost no sustained scholarly interest. 2 In seeking to restore the history of these specialized autograph albums to the evolving history of the book, I will explore how publishers played upon the common reader’s aspiration also to be a common writer—even an autobiographer. 3
At the root of the Victorian fascination with collecting autographs in albums and books is the potential of autograph to signify subjectivity; and the age’s spirit of innovation and enterprise sought ingenious variations on the basic genre, of which the confession album is probably the most elaborate. The confession-writers not only inscribed their autographs, but answered a series of questions about personal traits, tastes, and opinions. I will document the fortunes of this relatively sophisticated subgenre, from [End Page 125] its origins in archetypal question and answer exchanges (catechism, confession to a priest, rote learning), and the influence of fortune-telling games, religious controversy, and the significance of autograph in nineteenth-century culture, through its zenith in the 1870s and 1880s, to its brief revival during World War I.
There is an innate sympathy between confessional literature (typified by the development of confessional autobiography by St. Augustine, Rousseau, De Quincey, and others) and the function of autograph. Literary confession is self-writing, self-definition, and justification, addressed to God perhaps, but read by the author’s contemporaries. On the first page of his Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau claims that he will present his book on the Day of Judgment as a testament of selfhood: “I have displayed myself as I was, as vile and despicable when my behavior was such, as good, generous, and noble when it was so. I have bared my secret soul as Thou thyself hast seen it, Eternal Being!” 4 While we may feel entitled to question the author’s self-representation, the rhetoric of self-writing is clear; in comparison, autograph (in the general sense of the author’s handwriting, and the specific sense of the self-written name) is a comparatively opaque and democratic form of self-writing. What confessional literature does rhetorically and discursively, autograph does graphically—both gestures attempting to reveal the mystery of the maker’s identity.
Could this identification of writing and selfhood then make the confession album, as one early twentieth-century commentator phrased it, a “psychological Crystal Palace,” a formidable summarizing symbol of Victorian personality? 5 A typical novelty autograph album (actually produced in 1909, but Victorian in conception) suggests autograph’s enigmatically revelatory symbolization in the nineteenth century. Secret Signatures of My Friends is a narrow, octavo book bound in red cloth. 6 The title page identifies author and publisher in the conventional way, and an ink stamp on the reverse indicates reception by the British Museum on 6 April 1915. This is clearly a book. But what kind of book has blotting card pages, pink and absorbent on one side, white and shiny on the other, and almost no textual content? The brief preface states, “This little book is intended to be a sort of secret Treasury for the safe keeping of our Friends Signatures.” Signatures were written onto a sheet of paper, then transferred to the blotting-paper pages while wet, leaving a reversed imprint. 7 Thus the enigmatic epigraph “As in a mirror” (a translation of the...