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Katherine D. Harris - Forget Me Not: The Rise of the British Literary Annual. Review by Nicholas Mason

Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - 11:56

Harris, Katherine D., Forget Me Not: The Rise of the British Literary Annual, 1823-1835 (Athens: Ohio UP, 2015). xiv + 395 pp. (Hardcover, $70.00, ISBN 9780821421369; E-book $55.99).

Nicholas Mason
Brigham Young University

As we pass the quarter-century mark of the current wave of interest in book and media history, one might expect a flood of new titles to have appeared on what may very well be the premier multi-media genre of the British nineteenth century: the literary annual. Yet, despite groundbreaking work on the subject by Lee Erickson, Lorraine Kooistra, Patrick Vincent, Kathryn Ledbetter and Terence Hoagwood, and others, the authoritative studies on the annuals craze of the 1820s and 1830s have largely remained books first published nearly a century ago. Of course, scholars of the late-Romantic work of such authors as Wordsworth, Hemans, Clare, Landon, and Hogg have long grappled with how these writers adjusted to a literary marketplace increasingly driven by lyrics and tales commissioned specifically for the annuals. But, when it comes to the history of the genre as a whole, there are still surprisingly few book-length studies and, as a result, considerable gaps in our understanding of the trade in annuals, its readerships, its functions in a deeply partisan book trade, and its long-term influence on Anglo-American literature.

Katherine D. Harris’s new book is therefore both highly welcome and long overdue. Somewhat misleadingly titled after a single periodical—Rudolph Ackermann’s pioneering Forget Me Not—Harris’s study is actually a reasonably comprehensive survey of, as she terms it, “British literary annuals that achieved economic success in the heyday of the annual, 1823-32” (23). The outlier here is the concluding, argument-driven chapter on how the annuals constructed and negotiated what Harris calls a “patriarchal femininity.” Otherwise, this volume reads much like a general introduction to the genre’s early decades, touching on important figures (e.g., Ackermann, Alaric Watts, Thomas Hood, etc.), milestones (the founding of Forget Me Not in late 1822, the emergence of American annuals in 1826 and luxury volumes in the late 1820s), and obstacles (the Crash of 1826, the rising tide of critical disdain in the 1830s). Complementing these overviews are a wealth of images, several useful tables, and lengthy appendices listing major authors’ contributions to the annuals, the editors and publishers of particular volumes, and the titles of all British and American annuals first published between 1823 and 1835.

Harris brings to the topic the expertise, predilections, and idiosyncrasies of the avid collector. Nearly all of the fifty-plus images she includes bear the caption “from the Katherine D. Harris Collection,” and overall there is a certain charm to how eagerly she shows off the collection she has assembled over the years. These curatorial sensibilities carry over into the writing, which in many stretches takes the form of that close-cousin of the annual, the scrapbook, featuring long strings of favorite quotations both from the annuals themselves and scholarship on this publishing phenomenon. In one five-page span, for instance, Harris pastes in block quotes of fourteen lines from Ina Ferris, eight from Andrew Piper, thirteen from a 1936 book by Ralph Thompson, thirty-four from the Poetical Register for 1802, and twenty from the Romantic-era scholar William Taylor (106-10).

On the macro level, Forget Me Not can be seen as something of a collage of materials from and related to annuals. Not only does Harris reprint dozens of lengthy quotations and various tables and lists from earlier studies, but she also repurposes a wide range of her own occasional publications for this book. A 2005 essay on “Feminizing the Textual Body” is somewhat discordantly worked in as Chapter 7; an encyclopedia entry on Ackermann’s life becomes the core of Chapter 1; the introduction to an anthology of gothic short stories is somewhat randomly recycled as this book’s conclusion; and various tables and lists are republished or adapted from Harris’s Forget Me Not Hypertextual Archive.

All told, this study’s greatest contribution to the field of nineteenth-century British studies comes in the way Harris has collected an impressive assortment of images, quotations, and data on the rise of the literary annual into a single volume. When the book breaks from the survey genre—as it fleetingly does in nearly every chapter—it tends to offer underdeveloped and at times forced arguments about how the annual factored into discourses of nationalism, gender, and middle-class taste. Overall, however, Forget Me Not offers a much-needed contemporary introduction to an important nineteenth-century genre and should therefore function as a valuable resource for scholars working on late-Romantic and early-Victorian periodicals, publishing, and popular culture.