British Literary Annuals

Literary annuals are bound compilations of short fiction, poetry, and illustrations. They were hugely popular in Britain from the 1820s through the 1850s, and include the Forget-Me-NotThe GemThe Literary Souvenir, and The Keepsake.

The first annual, Forget-Me-Not, was published in 1822, and two more appeared the following year (Friendship’s Offering and Literary Souvenir). In 1831, just eight years later, 62 annuals were available to buy. The popularity of annuals declined through the 1840s and 1850s, however. Sixteen titles were published in 1846, and only three by 1857 (Harris).

Annuals were designed as gift books, and were therefore beautifully bound in luxurious materials such as leather, velvet, and silk. Many included an illustrated presentation page where a note could be inscribed to the recipient (Feldman 8).

Inscription page, 1829 Keepake.

Annuals were marketed to a middle-class female readership, but were expensive; the average price for one was about 12 shillings (Feldman 8). In spite of their high cost, annuals were extremely popular, some selling 15, 000 to 20, 000 copies each year (Hoagwood). Consumers spent an estimated 100, 000 pounds on annuals each Christmas at their peak of popularity in the 1830s (Ledbetter, “BeGemmed” 235), and the profit from all annuals sold in 1829 was 90, 000 pounds, according to one estimate (Hoagwood). The success of the genre benefitted all tradespeople involved in the production of annuals: not just the editors, authors, artists, and engravers, but also the binders, printers, and paper manufacturers (Hoagwood). The marketplace for annuals was very competitive, and publishers competed for the best names in literature and art (Hoagwood).

Because annuals were so expensive and lavishly decorated, they were important social markers. Owning a copy or giving one as a gift was an indication of social status. Annuals are therefore significant in the context of print culture as well as literary studies, being “a concrete embodiment of social aspiration” (Feldman 9–10).

However, annuals were also considered low-brow, even trashy, partly because they were so popular and partly because they were aimed at middle-class women readers. They often contained writings about religion, morality, love (requited or not), marriage, and family life. Because they were intended as family reading, controversial social issues, improper language, and scandalous or political themes were generally avoided (Ledbetter, “BeGemmed” 236). In spite of the poor reputation of annuals, many well-known, canonical nineteenth-century authors published works in them, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Robert Southey, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Feldman 8, 17­­–21). Although some authors, such as Wordsworth, contributed to annuals out of financial necessity, they were anxious that their reputations would suffer (Hoagwood).

The engravings in annuals were just as important as the writing, perhaps even more so. Engravings were often commissioned first, and then authors were approached to write a piece to accompany them (Feldman 20). In terms of cost, engravings typically cost about twice as much as literary contributions (Feldman 24). They tended to show fashionable or aristocratic men and women, landscapes, and scenes of romance or travel (Hoagwood). Annuals reproduced works by some of the leading artists of the day, such as J. M. W. Turner, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Edwin Landseer, Thomas Stothard, and A. E. Chalon (Hoagwood; Feldman 24). Most readers of annuals would have had no other means of viewing or owning fine art; making art accessible to middle-class readers, in addition to literature from leading authors of the day, was therefore an important function of annuals (Ledbetter, “BeGemmed” 236; Feldman 7).

Many annuals, beginning with the 1825 issue of Forget-Me-Not, used the relatively new technology of steel-plate engraving. The copper plates that had been used previously were softer, so they did not allow engraving as detailed as steel. Copper plates also wore out faster and had to be replaced more often, making them more expensive to use (Hoagwood).

The Keepsake
The Keepsake was the most popular and longest-running literary annual, running from 1827 to 1856, and it exemplifies the genre. It was launched by Charles Heath, an engraver himself and son of engraver James Heath (Hoagwood). William Harrison Ainsworth was the first editor, but there were several throughout the run of the annual, including several women (Hoagwood). The Keepsake had a distinctive binding of scarlet dress silk, with gilt edges and lettering (see
Sales estimates indicate the popularity of The Keepsake. According to an industry publication, the first issue, published in 1827, was sold by subscription and became a bestseller, selling between 12, 000 and 15, 000 copies. The 1829 issue is reported to have sold 20, 000 copies in a single month (Hoagwood).

Since Heath was an engraver, he was able to secure illustrations from some of the best engravers of the day (Feldman 23). Its beautiful engravings were a signature selling point of The Keepsake, and were regarded by some critics as its best feature (Feldman 15). Interested buyers could purchase the engravings alone in a separate volume, which was larger and much more expensive than the issue itself (Hoagwood).

Title page, 1829 Keepsake

Including works from respected authors allowed The Keepsake to be marketed as more “literary” that its competition. Heath and Frederic Mansel Reynolds, the editor for the 1829 issue, aggressively pursued desirable authors for contributions. They offered hundreds of pounds for single contributions from the most famous authors (Feldman 18–22). In later years, however, Heath changed tactics and sought contributions from aristocratic and women authors instead of pursuing literary celebrities (Hoagwood).

Works Cited
Feldman, Paula R. Introduction. The Keepsake for 1829. Ed. Frederic Mansel Reynolds. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006. 7–32. Print.
Harris, Katherine D. “Chronological Index of British Literary Annual Titles.” “Forget Me Not: A Hypertextual Archive of Ackermann’s 19th-Century Literary Annual.” 28 January 2007. Poetess Archive. General Editor Laura Mandell. 6 October 2013. Web.
Hoagwood, Terence, Ledbetter, Kathryn, and Jacobsen, Martin M. “Introduction to The Keepsake.” “L.E.L.’s ‘Verses’ and The Keepsake for 1829. Edited by Frederic Mansel Reynolds: A Hypertext Edition.” Romantic Circles. Ed. Neil Fraistat and Steven E. Jones. University of Maryland. 12 September 2013. Web.
Ledbetter, Kathryn. “‘BeGemmed and BeAmuletted:’” Tennyson and Those ‘Vapid’ Gift Books.” Victorian Poetry 24.2 (Summer 1996): 235–245. Web.
—. Tennyson and Victorian Periodicals: Commodities in Context. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Print.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s