FORGET ME NOT: THE RISE OF THE BRITISH LITERARY ANNUAL, 1823-1835 by Katherine D. Harris, Reviewed by Vanessa K. Warne

By Katherine D. Harris
(Ohio, June 2015)
Reviewed by Vanessa K. Warne on 2016-05-11.

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Claims about the neglect of a literary genre tend to speed their own nullification. Scholars identify genres as overlooked while looking intensely at them and, as gaps in knowledge are filled and understudied areas mapped, the rediscovery and recuperation of a genre gives way to different kinds of scholarly work. This is--or at least should be--the case for literary annuals, a genre of late Romantic and early Victorian books valued by their owners but forgotten or dismissed for several generations following the decline in their popularity. This genre, which pairs literary content with engraved illustrations, has received significant critical attention in recent decades, benefitting both from early work aimed at recovering and defining the genre and more recent work focused on the content and cultural work of annuals, including important contributions by Kathryn Ledbetter, Margaret Linley, and Paula Feldman.

In this new study of literary annuals, Katherine D. Harris acknowledges the strength and diversity of existing research on annuals even while seeking to supplement it. Unfortunately, despite naming more than fifteen scholars who have published on annuals in recent years, Harris presents her book as "a starting point, an invitation or call for action for other scholars to work in the area" (23). She also states that her book "recuperates the bibliographical reputation of literary annuals" and "sets the table for further analysis of the feminine, empire, and nationalism" (23). These claims will feel surprisingly belated to scholars who work on annuals and on related topics, including the early Victorian book market, periodical culture, and Romantic and Victorian women poets and editors. While literary annuals are by no means exhausted as a topic for scholarly inquiry, Harris's book comes too late to launch work in this field and needs instead to contribute something new to an already advanced conversation.

In seven chapters, an introduction, and a conclusion, Harris usefully examines literary annuals and their relationship to generic predecessors, such as almanacs. She also makes some important points about their cultural afterlife, observing, for example, that the literary annual marks a "particular nineteenth-century moment at the same time that it becomes written over with meaning from later cultural, social, and historical moments" (11). Harris interestingly surveys the career of Rudolph Ackermann, publisher of the Forget Me Not, the annual that Harris judiciously features. Launched in 1823, as Harris explains, Forget Me Not blazed a trail for better known and more frequently studied annuals such as The Keepsake. Harris considers how "[e]ditors and publishers, Ackermann especially, marketed the annual as a lovingly assembled mass of thoughtful literary and visual renderings for quiet contemplation or studious conversation" (39). Harris also shows how another annual, the Literary Souvenir, incorporates aspects of album culture by including engravings of authors' signatures in its pages. Finally, a set of four appendices includes information on titles, contributors, and editors as well as the complete text of three poems from annuals.

To display her primary materials for this study, Harris quotes at length both reviews of annuals and prefaces written by their editors. She also provides a wealth of images. Starting with her eye-catching cover, which reworks the distinctively green-tinted cover of the 1831 Forget Me Not, she reproduces more than sixty images from the annuals-- covers, title pages, dedication plates and illustrations--and still more of this visual material appears on her website, Forget Me Not: A Hypertext of Ackermann's Nineteenth-Century Literary Annual.

Besides reproducing images from the annuals, Harris includes photographs of their textual content, but with mixed results. Photographs of engravings and covers fare quite well, and some pages from the annuals are reproduced at a size that allows us to read the text as well as appreciate the layout. But we can hardly read the Tables of Contents reproduced from Keepsake Français and The Keepsake for 1829, which have been shrunk to illegibility. Further problem arise from Harris's tables of statistics. While many of them are interesting and informative, such as those on gothic short stories in annuals (a topic she explores in her conclusion), she presents these statistics not in a chart but in a screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet, complete with cell boxes and column and line identifiers. Though the spreadsheet's labelling of its columns and lines is clear, the statistical numbers--such as the number of pages dedicated to gothic materials in the annuals--are difficult to read.

In addition, the book has not been carefully copyedited. Besides a distracting number of typographical and grammatical errors, quotations are missing key words, dangling modifiers are a too frequent distraction, and various other errors, including minor misnomers, accumulate. For instance, a list of publications by prominent Victorian contributors to annuals-- including Dickens, the Brownings, Tennyson, and Thackeray--is introduced as a list of authors "regularly studied in Introduction to Romanticism courses" (286). Harris also refers to her own book as "my dissertation" (273). Beyond misnomers, some of Harrris's analytical points are questionable. Is it true, for instance, that "the materials used in the production of magazines, periodicals, and newspapers were not sturdy enough to withstand multiple rereadings" (62)?

Likewise questionable are some of Harris's comments on poetry from the annuals, which she cites and quotes at length. In "The Brigand Leader and His Wife," published in Friendship's Offering for 1827, Felicia Hemans describes the courage of the leader's wife as she joins him on the battlefield where he will lose his life. "She will not shrink in doubt and dread" (15), says the speaker, who goes on to praise the wife for "her lone devotion" (30). According to Harris, "the brigand leader's wife witnesses and historicizes as an omniscient speaker," and Hemans allows the wife "to survive and transmit her stories of a feminized war experience" (254). But the wife is neither omniscient nor the speaker of the poem. While she survives the battle, she is not portrayed as transmitting her experience, nor is this signalled as a future event by the poem. If Harris aims to make a radical argument about poetic voice here, her argument needs clarification and a much fuller justification.

Elsewhere the book offers more than is needed on some topics and not enough on others. On one hand, Harris needlessly includes a very long history of writing and printing in human culture ranging from papyrus scrolls to codices. On the other hand, she sometimes slights the contexts needed to make specific points. For instance, while she gives several pages to George Eliot's representation of annuals and their readers in Middlemarch, she does not summarize the scene in which Ned Plymdale proudly shows Rosamond Vincy the latest "Keepsake" in a futile effort to court her. Nor does Harris cite any readings of this scene by other commentators on Eliot and the annuals.

In spite of its weaknesses, however, this book reflects "years of experience in reading, collecting, digitizing and critically analyzing the Forget Me Not," as David Greetham writes on its cover. Through her articles, her website, and now in this book, Harris has dedicated a great deal of time and energy to explaining literary annuals and their history. Radiating her infectious fascination with them, this book is a labor of love.

Vanessa Warne is an Associate Professor in the Department of English, Film and Theatre at the University of Manitoba, Canada.

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