Case 7: Lovely Ladies


Almost since the inception of the genre, literary annuals have been associated with women. As "women's reading," the genre was often criticized and flippantly disparaged by male authors. Yet, the annuals and the women who read them exerted a very real influence on the publishing market—an influence that many saw as the primary cause for the plummeting sales of poetry monographs. For example, in December 1828, Robert Southey claimed: "The Annuals are now the only books bought for presents to young ladies, in which way poems formerly had their chief vent" (Feldman, "Women, Literary Annuals, and the Evidence of Inscription" 49). Though typically marketed as entirely appropriate for the fairer sex, the genre was also imbued with sensuality. Indeed, the silk bindings of the annuals recalled the garments worn by women, and there was the suggestion that giving such a book could lead to unbounded access to what was beneath those garments. A Blackwood's review of The Literary Souvenir for 1825 suggests that if the volume is used as a tool of courtship the odds are "a hundred to one that you are a married man in six weeks or two months; nay if it be a 'large paper copy' one flesh will ye be before the new moon" (94).

Within the bindings of the annuals, the focus was also on women, and many of the engravings picture women and girls in the bloom of their youth, often looking coy and engaging the voyeuristic gaze of the viewer. The presence of women became even more important in the 1830s when prominent, and often titled, ladies began to take the editorial reins of volumes such as The Keepsake and Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap-Book. The reputations of women such as Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.), Countess Blessington, and Caroline Norton—all known for their literary abilities, beauty, and intriguing personal lives—became as essential to selling annuals as the prints of beauties inside.

 

Item No. 30: Friendship's Offering

Of the twelve engravings in the Friendship's Offering for 1834, nine of them are depictions of young, beautiful women. Such an emphasis on female portraiture is indicative of a shift in the subjects of the steel engravings found in annuals of the 1830s. The story which corresponds to the engraving "My First Love" tells of a young man's passion for a woman with skin "like polished marble" and black hair that gave "a character of the unearthly to her beauty."


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Item No. 31: Dangerous Women

Lady Blanche's idealized doe eyes and large bosom are typical of the engravings of female subjects found in annuals throughout the 1830s. Some people thought the engraved women were a threat to public morality. In a review of the annuals published in Fraser's Magazine in 1837—the same year that "Lady Blanche" appeared in the Forget Me Not—William Makepeace Thackeray claimed that the suggestive and "voluptuous" engravings in the annuals were "dangerous to look at" (see Warne 169).


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Item No. 32: L.E.L.

Contributing over 160 works to annual publications, the poetess Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known by her contemporaries as L.E.L., was one of the most influential figures in the annual genre. From 1832 to 1839, Landon was responsible for the vast majority of the "poetical illustrations" in Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap-Book. In her prefaces, and sometimes in the poems themselves, she voices the difficulties of writing poems to suit engravings. "Lily of the Valley," her romantic poem about a false lover, was clearly inspired by C.D. Wagstaff's engraving "The Lilly of the Valley."


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Item No. 33: Gems of Beauty

Along with Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap-Book, Gems of Beauty initiated a new era in annuals. Its large size (13 ¾ x 10 inches) dwarfed other annuals. All twelve engravings portray young women in the height of their beauty, and Countess Blessington's corresponding short poems are often about the lovers of the women displayed in the pictures. The suggestiveness of "The Siesta" can be seen in the reposed woman’s pleasure as her companion tickles her with a feather. The sleeping woman, we are told, is dreaming of her lover's lips.


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Last updated September 2012