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Samantha Matthews Album Verses and Romantic Literary Culture: Poetry Manuscript, Print, 1780-1850 (Oxford UP, 2020). Reviewed by Kacie L. Wills.

Monday, May 10, 2021 - 05:21

Samantha Matthews, Album Verses and Romantic Literary Culture: Poetry Manuscript, Print, 1780-1850 (Oxford UP, 2020). 304pp., 24 illus. (£60, ISBN: 9780198857945)

Kacie L. Wills

Illinois College


Samantha Matthews begins Album Verses and Romantic Literary Culture: Poetry Manuscript, Print, 1780-1850 (Oxford UP, 2020) with a definition of what she terms “albo-mania” or the “collective enthusiasm, usually short-lived” for the album in the 1820s and 1830s. As with other manias, Matthews alludes to the inherent disorder, the “excess” and “pathological passion” this term incites. In its efforts to recuperate album poetry, Matthews’ book examines the personal and institutional, the fashionable and pathological, the amateur and professional, the creative and authentic, and, ultimately, the complicated gender dynamics that characterize the album in this period. In her examination of these various facets of “albo-mania,” Matthews seeks to debunk the assumption that album poetry is “bad” poetry, that it is unoriginal and derivative in its form and content. Instead, Matthews suggests, album poetry is “distinctive and creatively enterprising” in its participation in aesthetic, intellectual, and literary culture (3). 


While the emphasis on albums of aristocratic women with literary connections might seem limiting, Matthews rightly situates her work within an overarching concern for understanding album poetry within the Romantic poetic tradition; to this end, her choice of subject is apt. Within this population, Matthews is able to bring to light a wide range of Romantic poets beyond the canonical male authors to include amateur writers, women, and even anonymous writers. The intersections of writers both famous and obscure illustrate the social value of the album and its promotion of other aspects of Romantic literary culture, such as celebrity.    


The book is divided into two parts, the first half of which illustrates the album’s incorporation through various hybrid forms into the elite fashionable life of British women. The second half, through an examination of reception history and case studies of Charles Lamb’s album verses and those of the Wordsworth circle, reveals the distinct practice of album verse in the 1820s and 1830s. 


In the first chapter, Matthews argues for the significance of the album of the Monastère de la Grande Chartreuse in the development of Britain’s album culture and its distinct poetic and inscriptive practices. This album specifically illustrates ways album culture exists at the intersection of manuscript and print; through looking to the responses of the London newspaper, the World, Matthews demonstrates the methods through which the press remediated the album and shaped the commercial and aesthetic value of album poetics in the late eighteenth century. Matthews explores questions of value placed on inscription, on what is inscribed and transcribed and by whom, and demonstrates how mass print interpreted and commodified these inscriptions through a process of remediation. Examining also how the album is parodied in other publications, Matthews highlights the gender politics involved in the appropriation of manuscript by print and print’s role in transforming the album and its Britishness into a brand (50). The trajectory Matthews follows in this chapter highlights not only the domestication of album culture in Britain but also the transition of album-making from a male-dominated practice to one dominated by women. Tracing this trajectory through the practices of daily print culture and the intersections of manuscript and printed poetics sets the stage for the gendered critiques of album making in the nineteenth century. This narrative reveals the ways album poetics intersects lines of originality and forgery, of authenticity and transcription, of the whole and the fragmented; album poetics as we come to see it manifest in the 1820s and 1830s, emerges from these conflicts between the personal and affective in the manuscript, and the re-framed and commercialized in print. Situating album verse thus illustrates its value beyond acts of imitation.


The second chapter performs an experimental reconstruction of the Cossey Hall album through its reception history, exploring the album’s influence, what it reveals about the very public nature of album verse, even amid the domestic setting, and the role of Lady Frances Jerningham in the album’s production. As Matthews notes, the contributions to the Cossey Hall album reveal how “album poems provide a framework for expressing difficult sentiments, even as they prompt the writer to shape a public self and voice” (59). This chapter demonstrates the role this particular album played in shaping the conventions of album poetry. Matthews claims, “Album poems bear the material traces of moments of inscription, granting access to a sense of immediacy and intimacy, but also transience” (59). Within this chapter, Matthews successfully demonstrates the specific visual and emotional associations carried with album poetry, the sense of place and materiality of the album itself. The Cossey Hall album is a key example of the ways that the album and its contents can have personal significance to a particular family, as well as a broader public significance via print publication and social networks. This chapter is fascinating in its reconstruction in such a material way of an album that has vanished from material record--we are left only with its traces. 


In Chapter 3, Matthews examines the Regency albums of Lady Jersey as “overlooked technologies of power, influence, and creativity in Regency social and literary networks” (89). She explores how Lady Jersey used these albums for self-fashioning and self-reflection, as a space increasingly seen as an extension of her own identity and in which she participated in a sort of self-mythologizing. Through the case study of Lady Jersey’s transition from commonplacing to album-keeping, Matthews demonstrates the shift in album culture from a social and political practice of the aristocratic elite to a commercial enterprise (92). Jersey’s albums illustrate the continued development of album poetry as a popular and distinct poetic practice, evolving from including print cuttings to original poems, and the conflicts between notions of amateur and professional authorship that that evolution elicited. Jersey’s adoption and adaptation of poems to reflect her own experiences, as well as her figuring of Byron prior to his autograph contribution, reveal her hand in the shaping of identity within the album, the moments when she had to cede control over the contents’ meaning, and the ways that the personal intersects at varying degrees with the public and the published. In the later books within Jersey’s collection, Matthews notes a distinct shift in the verses from Lady Jersey to the album itself being a subject and source of reflection, demonstrating “a growing awareness in the mid-18102 of the album poem as a distinctive genre” (125). 


Chapter 4 addresses the “albo-phobia” provoked by the popularity of albums in the 1820s. The harsh criticisms of album verse and its publication by male professional writers reflect other pervasive fears about the declining quality and originality of poetry, the feminization and de-professionalization of literary culture, and the participation of women and the middle classes in aristocratic practices. Published album verses were particularly geared toward a female audience with album-keeping designated as a feminine practice. Harsh criticism of the album as feminized and as a representation of “vacuous repetition” and the decaying and amateurish quality of literature became normalized and perpetuated (135, 140). Importantly, Matthews provides examples in this chapter to counteract this seemingly pervasive albo-phobia. She offers a reading of an anthology which employed the strength of the album’s appeal to women to raise social awareness, encourage friendship, and promote album verse as a harmonious and idealistic poetic form (156).  


In the fifth chapter Matthews re-visits the letters by Charles Lamb used as evidence against the literary and aesthetic value of album verse in order to examine what they reveal about Lamb’s theoretical approach to and practice of album verse. Matthews illustrates not only Lamb’s ambivalence about the cultural value of album verse, but also how his own desire to bring Romantic ideals of goodwill and sociability into a space where inauthenticity and incivility were often perpetuated. Matthews refers to Lamb in his late career as a “posthumous character,” included with a renewed attack upon the Cockney School, whose album verses written for strangers exemplify the use of album poetry to reflect upon the album itself and the “formal, ethical, and affective questions generated by the album transaction” (165). Within these album verses Lamb often found a means of reflection and the possibility of sympathy and relationality. Lamb’s later publication of many of these private poems illustrates the complex and intersecting relationship of album verse to both the domestic and the private and public print culture. Matthews also examines the ways that print can efface the “particularities of visual and verbal album poetics” (191), illustrating how print often obscured the poem’s context within the album itself. Matthews contends that Lamb’s album verses show him to make a deliberate move to identify with the “femininity, domesticity, juvenility, and triviality” connected to albums in order to eschew “the brutalist masculinism of conservative critical discourse” (184). This chapter productively develops scholarship on the Cockney School of poets in relation to album verse. 


In the final chapter, Matthews explores the hybrid character of a number of the albums created by the younger women of the Wordsworth circle, namely Sara Coleridge, Edith May Southey, and Dora Wordsworth, all the eldest or only daughters of the Lake poets. These albums not only reflect the individual relationships of each girl with their father, they also include work by well-established writers, as well as by amateur poets and friends. Over all contributions, however, lingers the legacy of the work of their fathers and the hostility the three famous poets expressed toward album verse. The expectations associated with the names these women shared with their  literary fathers and the access this provided to their literary networks resulted in albums that further blurred the separation of private and public, amateur and professional, feminine and masculine. Matthews, referring to Sara Coleridge’s comments on “The Triad,” as Wordsworth poetically depicted the girls’ friendship, examines the ambiguity and the tension present in the portrayal of these daughters and their fathers in the albums from the 1820s and 1840s. During this period of time, the women matured and their fathers aged, and albums declined in popularity. Matthews explores the intersection of the three women’s varied relationships to professional authorship with the creation of the albums, demonstrating how Sara Coleridge’s album-keeping occurred alongside her development as a poet and woman of letters (209). Matthews’ reading of Maria Jane Jewsbury’s poem, “The Bridal Band,” written for Sara Coleridge on her wedding, is particularly fascinating. The connections Matthews points out in the poem to Sara’s father’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and its indications of his “ghostly absent presence” resonate in not only the description of her wedding day but also in her album. Matthews’ examination of the three women’s contributions to one another’s albums, the self-consciousness and authority they exhibited over their album verse and curation, and the varied relationships their albums exhibited with canon-building and professional authorship develops a complex picture of Romantic poetry and its legacies.


In this book, Matthews creates a “shadow-history of Romantic poetics” (6) across chapters that illustrate the many different embodiments of poetry and poetic practice in the period and album poetry’s negotiation of the spaces of creation and invention at its origins. Album verse, as Matthews contends, was and should be considered a valid poetic subgenre. The study of these albums has been facilitated by increased digitization of this source material and accompanying scholarship. Employing a historically-situated methodology of location, reconstruction, and re-examination, Matthews explores the evolving relationships of popular culture with the album, and the gendered power dynamics that shape the album’s formation and the poetic response by emerging female authors of album verse. 


Album Verses not only uncovers the origins of the album, but it also exposes its role in circulating poetry during the Romantic period and its contributions to the way people thought about the intersections of print culture and the manuscript. Matthews further complicates artificial divides between the latter portion of the 18th and the 19th century, illustrating the confluence of Romantic poetry with many key aspects of 18th century culture and the influence of the “elite, European, gendered” connotations of album practices on its 19th century iterations (9). She examines different types of poems, different forms, and borrows from other subgenres and forms of commonly transcribed items; album verse makes its distinctiveness known through its materiality and draws us into a meditation on the writer/reader relationship, on the book itself, on the act of writing, and on the Romantic sociability entailed in these interactions (14-16). Album Verses explores the shifting nature of the album over time, particularly as it transitions from the masculine professionalism of the eighteenth century into a form infused with Romantic sentiment and sociability and, of course, femininity. 


Scholars working on print culture may find Matthews’ examination of the complexities of the album’s remediation--the autographic medium and the interplay of print and manuscript culture-- an exciting contribution to print and media studies. This aspect of Matthews’ work is in step with recent scholarship in Romantic ephemera as a technology of mediation, such as Gillian Russell’s The Ephemeral Eighteenth Century: Print, Sociability, and the Cultures of Collecting (Cambridge UP, 2020).


Importantly, this book continues the work of broadening the scope of Romantic literary scholarship. Through bringing album verse to the forefront of conversation about Romantic poetry, Matthews lays the groundwork for further investigation into the ways we have defined Romantic poetics, its relationship to manuscript and print culture, and the voices we have considered to be fundamental in shaping its aesthetic form and value.