A happy half-century and other essays/The Accursed Annual


THE ACCURSED ANNUAL


Why, by dabbling in those accursed Annuals, I have become a by-word of infamy all over the kingdom.—Charles Lamb.


The great dividing line between books that are made to be read and books that are made to be bought is not the purely modern thing it seems. We can trace it, if we try, back to the first printing-presses, which catered indulgently to hungry scholars and to noble patrons; and we can see it in another generation separating "Waverley" and "The Corsair," which everybody knew by heart, from the gorgeous "Annual" (bound in Lord Palmerston's cast-off waistcoats, hinted Thackeray), which formed a decorative feature of well-appointed English drawing-rooms. The perfectly natural thing to do with an unreadable book is to give it away; and the publication, for more than a quarter of a century, of volumes which fulfilled this one purpose and no other is a pleasant proof, if proof were needed, of the business principles which underlay the enlightened activity of publishers.

The wave of sentimentality which submerged England when the clear-headed, hard-hearted eighteenth century had done its appointed work, and lay a-dying, the prodigious advance in gentility from the days of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to the days of the Countess of Blessington, found their natural expression in letters. It was a period of emotions which were not too deep for words, and of decorum which measured goodness by conventionalities. Turn where we will, we see a tear in every eye, or a simper of self-complacency on every lip. Moore wept when he beheld a balloon ascension at Tivoli, because he had not seen a balloon since he was a little boy. The excellent Mr. Hall explained in his "Memories of a Long Life" that, owing to Lady Blessington's anomalous position with Count D'Orsay, "Mrs. Hall never accompanied me to her evenings, though she was a frequent day caller." Criticism was controlled by politics, and sweetened by gallantry. The Whig and Tory reviewers supported their respective candidates to fame, and softened their masculine sternness to affability when Mrs. Hemans or Miss Landon, "the Sappho of the age," contributed their glowing numbers to the world. Miss Landon having breathed a poetic sigh in the "Amulet" for 1832, a reviewer in "Fraser's" magnanimously observed: "This gentle and fair young lady, so undeservedly neglected by critics, we mean to take under our special protection." Could it ever have lain within the power of any woman, even a poetess, to merit such condescension as this?

Of a society so organized, the Christmas annual was an appropriate and ornamental feature. It was costly,—a guinea or a guinea and a half being the usual subscription. It was richly bound in crimson silk or pea-green levant; Solomon in all his glory was less magnificent. It was as free from stimulus as eau sucrée. It was always genteel, and not infrequently aristocratic,—having been known to rise in happy years to the schoolboy verses of a royal duke. It was made, like Peter Pindar's razors, to sell, and it was bought to be given away; at which point its career of usefulness was closed. Its languishing steel engravings of Corfu, Ayesha, The Suliote Mother, and The Wounded Brigand, may have beguiled a few heavy moments after dinner; and perhaps little children in frilled pantalets and laced slippers peeped between the gorgeous covers, to marvel at the Sultana's pearls, or ask in innocence who was the dying Haidee. Death, we may remark, was always a prominent feature of annuals. Their artists and poets vied with one another in the selection of mortuary subjects. Charles Lamb was first "hooked into the 'Gem'" with some lines on the editor's dead infant. From a partial list, extending over a dozen years, I cull this funeral wreath:—

The Dying Child. Poem.

The Orphans. Steel engraving.

The Orphan's Tears. Poem.

The Gypsy's Grave. Steel engraving.

The Lonely Grave. Poem.

On a Child's Grave. Poem.

The Dying Mother to her Infant. Poem.

Blithesome reading for the Christmas-tide!

The annual was as orthodox as it was aristocratic. "The Shepherd of Salisbury Plain" was not more edifying. "The Washerwoman of Finchley Common" was less conspicuously virtuous. Here in "The Winter's Wreath" is a long poem in blank verse, by a nameless clergyman, on "The Efficacy of Religion." Here in the "Amulet," Mrs. Hemans, "leading the way as she deserves to do" (I quote from the "Monthly Review"), "clothes in her own pure and fascinating language the invitations which angels whisper into mortal ears." And here in the "Forget-Me-Not," Leontine hurls mild defiance at the spirit of doubt:—

Thou sceptic of the hardened brow,
Attend to Nature's cry!
Her sacred essence breathes the glow
O'er that thou wouldst deny;

—an argument which would have carried conviction to Huxley's soul, had he been more than eight years old when it was written. Poor Coleridge, always in need of a guinea or two, was bidden to write some descriptive lines for the "Keepsake," on an engraving by Parris of the Garden of Boccaccio; a delightful picture of nine ladies and three gentlemen picnicking in a park, with arcades as tall as aqueducts, a fountain as vast as Niagara, and butterflies twice the size of the rabbits. Coleridge, exempt by nature from an unserviceable sense of humour, executed this commission in three pages of painstaking verse, and was severely censured for mentioning "in terms not sufficiently guarded, one of the most impure and mischievous books that could find its way into the hands of an innocent female."

The system of first securing an illustration, and then ordering a poem to match it, seemed right and reasonable to the editor of the annual, who paid a great deal for his engravings, and little or nothing for his poetry. Sometimes the poet was not even granted a sight of the picture he was expected to describe. We find Lady Blessington writing to Dr. William Beattie,—the best-natured man of his day,—requesting "three or four stanzas" for an annual called "Buds and Blossoms," which was to contain portraits of the children of noble families. The particular "buds" whose unfolding he was asked to immortalize were the three sons of the Duke of Buccleuch; and it was gently hinted that "an allusion to the family would add interest to the subject";—in plain words, that a little well-timed flattery might be trusted to expand the sales. Another year the same unblushing petitioner was even more hardy in her demand.

"Will you write me a page of verse for the portrait of Miss Forester? The young lady is seated with a little dog on her lap, which she looks at rather pensively. She is fair, with light hair, and is in mourning."

Here is an inspiration for a poet. A picture, which he has not seen, of a young lady in mourning looking pensively at a little dog! And poor Beattie was never paid a cent for these effusions. His sole rewards were a few words of thanks, and Lady Blessington's cards for parties he was too ill to attend.

More business-like poets made a specialty of fitting pictures with verses, as a tailor fits customers with coats. A certain Mr. Harvey, otherwise lost to fame, was held to be unrivalled in this art. For many years his "chaste and classic pen" supplied the annuals with flowing stanzas, equally adapted to the timorous taste of editors, and to the limitations of the "innocent females" for whom the volumes were predestined. "Mr. Harvey embodies in two or three lines the expression of a whole picture," says an enthusiastic reviewer, "and at the same time turns his inscription into a little gem of poetry." As a specimen gem, I quote one of four verses accompanying an engraving called Morning Dreams,—a young woman reclining on a couch, and simpering vapidly at the curtains:—

She has been dreaming, and her thoughts are still
On their far journey in the land of dreams;
The forms we call—but may not chase—at will,
And sweet low voices, soft as distant streams.

This is a fair sample of the verse supplied for Christmas annuals, which, however "chaste and classic," was surely never intended to be read. It is only right, however, to remember that Thackeray's "Piscator and Piscatrix" was written at Lady Blessington's behest, to accompany Wattier's engraving of The Happy Anglers; and that Thackeray told Locker he was so much pleased with this picture, and so engrossed with his own poem, that he forgot to shave for the two whole days he was working at it. To write "good occasional verse," by which he meant verse begged or ordered for some such desperate emergency as Lady Blessington's, was, in his eyes, an intellectual feat. It represented difficulties overcome, like those wonderful old Italian frescoes fitted so harmoniously into unaccommodating spaces. Nothing can be more charming than "Piscator and Piscatrix," and nothing can be more insipid than the engraving which inspired the lively rhymes:

As on this pictured page I look,
This pretty tale of line and hook,
As though it were a novel-book,
Amuses and engages:
I know them both, the boy and girl,
She is the daughter of an Earl,
The lad (that has his hair in curl)
My lord the County's page is.


A pleasant place for such a pair!
The fields lie basking in the glare;
No breath of wind the heavy air
Of lazy summer quickens.
Hard by you see the castle tall,
The village nestles round the wall,
As round about the hen, its small
Young progeny of chickens.

The verses may be read in any edition of Thackeray's ballads; but when we have hunted up the "pictured page" in a mouldy old "Keep-sake," and see an expressionless girl, a featureless boy, an indistinguishable castle, and no village, we are tempted to agree with Charles Lamb, who swore that he liked poems to explain pictures, and not pictures to illustrate poems. "Your wood-cut is a rueful lignum mortis."

There was a not unnatural ambition on the part of publishers and editors to secure for their annuals one or two names of repute, with which to leaven the mass of mediocrity. It mattered little if the distinguished writer conscientiously contributed the feeblest offspring of his pen; that was a reasonable reckoning,—distinguished writers do the same to-day; but it mattered a great deal if, as too often happened, he broke his word, and failed to contribute anything. Then the unhappy editor was compelled to publish some such apologetic note as this, from the "Amulet" of 1833. "The first sheet of the 'Amulet' was reserved for my friend Mr. Bulwer, who had kindly tendered me his assistance; but, in consequence of various unavoidable circumstances" (a pleasure trip on the Rhine), "he has been compelled to postpone his aid until next year." On such occasions, the "reserved" pages were filled by some veteran annualist, like Mr. Alaric Attila Watts, editor of the "Literary Souvenir "; or perhaps Mr. Thomas Haynes Bailey, he who wrote "I'd be a Butterfly," and "Gaily the Troubadour," was persuaded to warble some such appropriate sentiment as this in the "Forget-Me-Not":—

It is a book we christen thus,
Less fleeting than the flower;
And 't will recall the past to us
With talismanic power;

which was a true word spoken in rhyme. Nothing recalls that faded past, with its simpering sentimentality, its reposeful ethics, its shut-in standards, and its differentiation of the masculine and feminine intellects, like the yellow pages of an annual.

Tom Moore, favourite of gods and men, was singled out by publishers as the lode-star of their destinies, as the poet who could be best trusted to impart to the "Amethyst" or the "Talisman" (how like Pullman cars they sound!) that "elegant lightness" which befitted its mission in life. His accounts of the repeated attacks made on his virtue, and the repeated repulses he administered, fill by no means the least amusing pages of his journal. The first attempt was made by Orne, who, in 1826, proposed that Moore should edit a new annual on the plan of the "Souvenir"; and who assured the poet—always as deep in difficulties as Micawber—that, if the enterprise proved successful, it would yield him from five hundred to a thousand pounds a year. Moore, dazzled but not duped, declined the task; and the following summer, the engraver Heath made him a similar proposition, but on more assured terms. Heath was then preparing to launch upon the world of fashion his gorgeous "Keepsake"—"the toy-shop of literature," Lockhart called it; and he offered Moore, first five hundred, and then seven hundred pounds a year, if he would accept the editorship. Seven hundred pounds loomed large in the poet's fancy, but pride forbade the bargain. The author of "Lalla Rookh" could not consent to bow his laurelled head, and pilot the feeble Fatiims and Zelicas, the noble infants in coral necklets, and the still nobler ladies with pearl pendants on their brows, into the safe harbour of boudoir and drawing-room. He made this clear to Heath, who, nothing daunted, set off at once for Abbotsford, and laid his proposals at the feet of Sir Walter Scott, adding to his bribe another hundred pounds.

Scott, the last man in Christendom to have undertaken such an office, or to have succeeded in it, softened his refusal with a good-natured promise to contribute to the "Keepsake" when it was launched. He was not nervous about his literary standing, and he had no sensitive fear of lowering it by journeyman's work. "I have neither the right nor the wish," he wrote once to Murray, "to be considered above a common labourer in the trenches." Moore, however, was far from sharing this modest unconcern. When Reynolds, on whom the editorship of the "Keepsake" finally devolved, asked him for some verses, he peremptorily declined. Then began a system of pursuit and escape, of assault and repulse, which casts the temptations of St. Anthony into the shade. "By day and night," so Moore declares, Reynolds was "after" him, always increasing the magnitude of his bribe. At last he forced a check for a hundred pounds into the poet's empty pocket (for all the world like a scene in Caran d' Ache's "Histoire d'un Chèque"), imploring in return a hundred lines of verse. But Moore's virtue—or his vanity—was impregnable. "The task was but light, and the money would have been convenient," he confesses; "but I forced it back on him again. The fact is, it is my name brings these offers, and my name would suffer by accepting them."

One might suppose that the baffled tempter would now have permanently withdrawn, save that the strength of tempters lies in their never knowing when they are beaten. Three years later, Heath renewed the attack, proposing that Moore should furnish all the letterpress, prose and verse, of the "Keepsake" for 1832, receiving in payment the generous sum of one thousand pounds. Strange to say, Moore took rather kindly to this appalling suggestion, admitted he liked it better than its predecessors, and consented to think the matter over for a fortnight. In the end, however, he adhered to his original determination to hold himself virgin of annuals; and refused the thousand pounds, which would have paid all his debts, only to fall, as fall men must, a victim to female blandishments. He was cajoled into writing some lines for the "Casket," edited by Mrs. Blencoe; and had afterwards the pleasure of discovering that the astute lady had added to her list of attractions another old poem of his, which, to avoid sameness, she obligingly credited to Lord Byron;—enough to make that ill-used poet turn uneasily in his grave.

Charles Lamb's detestation of annuals dates naturally enough from the hour he was first seduced into becoming a contributor; and every time he lapsed from virtue, his rage blazed out afresh. When his ill-timed sympathy for a bereaved parent—and that parent an editor—landed him in the pages of the "Gem," he wrote to Barton in an access of ill-humour which could find no phrases sharp enough to feed it.

"I hate the paper, the type, the gloss, the dandy plates, the names of contributors poked up into your eyes in the first page, and whistled through all the covers of magazines, the barefaced sort of emulation, the immodest candidateship, brought into so little space; in short I detest to appear in an annual. … Don't think I set up for being proud on this point; I like a bit of flattery tickling my vanity as well as any one. But these pompous masquerades without masks (naked names or faces) I hate. So there's a bit of my mind."

"Frippery," "frumpery," "show and emptiness," are the mildest epithets at Lamb's command, as often as he laments his repeated falls from grace; and a few years before his death, when that "dumb soporifical good-for-nothingness" (curse of the Enfield lanes) weighted his pen, and dulled the lively processes of his brain, he writes with poignant melancholy:—

"I cannot scribble a long letter. I am, when not on foot, very desolate, and take no interest in anything, scarce hate anything but annuals." It is the last expression of a just antipathy, an instinctive clinging to something which can be reasonably hated to the end.

The most pretentious and the most aristocratic of the annuals was the ever famous "Book of Beauty," edited for many years by the Countess of Blessington. Resting on a solid foundation of personal vanity (a superstructure never known to fail), it reached a heroic measure of success, and yielded an income which permitted the charming woman who conducted it to live as far beyond her means as any leader of the fashionable world in London. It was estimated that Lady Blessington earned by the "gorgeous inanities" she edited, and by the vapid tales she wrote, an income of from two thousand to three thousand pounds; but she would never have been paid so well for her work had she not supported her social position by an expenditure of twice that sum. Charles Greville, who spares no scorn he can heap upon her editorial methods, declares that she attained her ends "by puffing and stuffing, and untiring industry, by practising on the vanity of some and the good-nature of others. And though I never met with any one who had read her books, except the 'Conversations with Byron,' which are too good to be hers, they are unquestionably a source of considerable profit, and she takes her place confidently and complacently as one of the literary celebrities of her day."

Greville's instinctive unkindness leaves him often wide of the mark, but on this occasion we can only say that he might have spoken his truths more humanely. If Lady Blessington helped to create the demand which she supplied, if she turned her friendships to account, and made of hospitality a means to an end (a line of conduct not unknown to-day), she worked with unsparing diligence, and with a sort of desperate courage for over twenty years. Rival Books of Beauty were launched upon a surfeited market, but she maintained her precedence. For ten years she edited the "Keepsake," and made it a source of revenue, until the unhappy bankruptcy and death of Heath. In her annuals we breathe the pure air of ducal households, and consort with the peeresses of England, turning condescendingly now and then to contemplate a rusticity so obviously artificial, it can be trusted never to offend. That her standard of art (she had no standard of letters) was acceptable to the British public is proved by the rapturous praise of critics and reviewers. Thackeray, indeed, professed to think the sumptuous ladies, who loll and languish in the pages of the year-book, underclad and indecorous; but this was in the spirit of hypercriticism. Hear rather how a writer in "Fraser's Magazine" describes in a voice trembling with emotion the opulent charms of one of the Countess of Blessington's "Beauties":—

"There leans the tall and imperial form of the enchantress, with raven tresses surmounted by the cachemire of sparkling red; while her ringlets flow in exuberant waves over the full-formed neck; and barbaric pearls, each one worth a king's ransom, rest in marvellous contrast with her dark and mysterious loveliness."

"Here's richness!" to quote our friend Mr. Squeers. Here's something of which it is hard to think a public could ever tire. Yet sixteen years later, when the Countess of Blessington died in poverty and exile, but full of courage to the end, the "Examiner" tepidly observed that the probable extinction of the year-book "would be the least of the sad regrets attending her loss."

For between 1823 and 1850 three hundred annuals had been published in England, and the end was very near. Exhausted nature was crying for release. It is terrible to find an able and honest writer like Miss Mitford editing a preposterous volume called the "Iris," of inhuman bulk and superhuman inanity; a book which she well knew could never, under any press of circumstances, be read by mortal man or woman. There were annuals to meet every demand, and to please every class of purchaser. Comic annuals for those who hoped to laugh; a "Botanic Annual" for girls who took country walks with their governess; an "Oriental Annual" for readers of Byron and Moore; a "Landscape Annual" for lovers of nature; "The Christian Keepsake" for ladies of serious minds; and "The Protestant Annual" for those who feared that Christianity might possibly embrace the Romish Church. There were five annuals for English children; from one of which, "The Juvenile Keepsake," I quote these lines, so admirably adapted to the childish mind. Newton is supposed to speak them in his study:—

Pare and ethereal essence, fairest light,
Come hither, and before my watchful eyes
Disclose thy hidden nature, and unbind
Thy mystic, fine-attenuated parts;
That so, intently marking, I the source
May learn of colours, Nature's matchless gifts.

There are three pages of this poem, all in the same simple language, from which it is fair to infer that the child's annual, like its grown-up neighbour, was made to be bought, not read.