- The Early Victorian Annual
Emerging in England in the second quarter of the nineteenth century as a new class of publication, annuals were sumptuously bound serial gift books published once a year, showcasing an eclectic modern library of contemporary poetry, short fiction, travel writing, art criticism, social satire, brief essays, and even some parlour music alongside a gallery of new steel-plate art engravings. The first appeared in time for Christmas in 1822. By the early 1830s, middle-class readers could choose from more than sixty annuals, some with print runs as high as fifteen thousand, swamping the holiday gift-giving season with upwards of 100,000 copies. Occupying a substantial portion of the book market, and at an average price of twelve shillings each, the economic and cultural impact of the annuals in their heyday was considerable.1
Yet, throughout the three decades of their existence, annuals were often mocked by the periodical press, which denigrated them as toys, butterfly books, gilded flies, glittering books, agreeable trifles, and tawdry rubbish. By the late 1840s, annual production had dropped to just over a dozen titles each year, and the entire species of publication had become extinct within a decade. Literary history, until recently, has reinforced the association of literary annuals with convention, transience, triviality, and, of course, femininity. But this is not the whole story. If media forms can be interpreted broadly as "text," the mixed-media annuals must surely strike a Victorian cultural keynote.
Early Victorian annuals represent a paradigmatic instance of new print media at precisely the moment when "media" as a concept and a term was coalescing in conjunction with mutually reinforcing ideologies of gender and empire. More than most print media of the era, annuals foregrounded sensory experience as a field for education and entertainment alike. These hybrid books provided a model of comprehensive knowledge that was different from but complementary to that found in the information industry, epitomized especially by the contemporaneous Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, the publications of which, as Alan Rauch points out, also were popular with middle-class readers but ridiculed frequently by the periodical press (57). The annuals offered a newly industrialized British culture fascinated with its own science and technology and enchanted by its post-Napoleonic expanses of empire a corporeal, sensation-based, and highly technological paradigm for reading.
Two key scenes of reading in the Keepsake (1828-1857), the longest running of the annuals, exemplify the annuals' unique cultural status.2 The first is the vignette title page for the 1829 Keepsake, "Fancy Descending Among the Muses" (fig. 1).3 The engraving reflexively incorporates the book and its readers in an endless feedback loop, not only in its privileged position at the opening of The Keepsake and the depiction of one of the muses inscribing the word "Keepsake" [End Page 13] but also in circling Fancy with a receptive audience of females. Fancy, with one hand pointing to the regions of vision and one foot apparently in touch with the earth, holds sway over an intimate and animated community of females signifying the nine muses of the ancient Greeks. Traditionally, the goddesses, the mythic daughters of Mnemosyne, or memory, and the supreme deity, Zeus, preside over and inspire learning and a variety of branches of arts and culture, including poetry, history, music, dance, and eloquence.
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If this image posits Fancy as muse of the muses, and thereby as the mediating term or mechanism for their acts of inspiration, it suggests a McLuhanesque allegory of media: the circle of multiple and serial media is supplemented at the core by yet another medium, which, as Fancy, is a sign of the mechanics of mediation, or, following Bolter and Grusin, remediation.4 With the muses in various poses of contemplation, discussion, creative production, and reception, they model a collaborative, interdisciplinary, and multimedia understanding of art. Imagination, memory, and media all appear...