Research Portraits: Romantic albums, poetry, and print

In this Research Portraits series, we want to introduce you to the work of some of our Centre for Material Texts members. Today, Dr Samantha Matthews, Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Bristol introduces her current research into the literary significance of the 1820s’ British fashion for albums. This research is leading towards a forthcoming book, Album Verses: Poetry, Manuscript, Print, 1770-1850.

album title page

[Album title page] London: Ackermann and Co. [?1830-1858] John Johnson Collection: Trade in Prints and Scraps 1 (1) ©Bodleian Library, University of Oxford 2008.

My research explores the literary significance of the 1820s’ British fashion for albums: personal miscellanies of texts, images and souvenirs collected by genteel and middle-class women in blank manuscript books. I’m writing a critical study of album verses, a neglected genre of occasional lyric poetry composed for these books and their owners, designed for private circulation in manuscript, not conventional print publication. Poet Laureate Robert Southey termed this phenomenon ‘Albo-mania’. In a carnivalesque reversal of hierarchies of gender, age, and authority, young women soliciting for original album-contributions exercised power over the most famous poets of the day: Thomas Moore, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth. Male professional writers reacted by dismissing this feminine cultural force as indecorous, transgressive, even pathological.

Recently, I have been investigating the problem of albums’ origins: where did ‘albo-mania’ come from? Were these books simply DIY versions of expensive, lavishly illustrated printed literary annuals and gift-books like The Keepsake or The Literary Souvenir, fashionable in the same decade? In The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004), William St Clair describes the album as ‘a revival of a literary form of the early modern period, the manuscript miscellany or commonplace book’, but does not propose how or why the revival took place, or how this particular kind of book acquired the name ‘album’. The term does not appear in lifetime editions of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, and only becomes common currency from the mid-1780s.

I have traced Romantic albums’ origins back to this decade through a survey of late eighteenth-century pamphlets, newspapers and magazines accessible online through databases such as British Newspapers 1600-1950. Manuscript albums function in intimate and dynamic dialogue with all kinds of printed sources, but especially cheap print. Tracking allusions to an emergent album culture makes it possible to reconstruct through reception history the early life of the hybridic and varied Romantic album.

grande chartreusse

Album-keeping began as a Continental practice derived from the album amicorum or ‘book of friends’ kept by networking seventeenth-century students on the European university circuit. However, where the album amicorum was portable, the practice cross-fertilises in the eighteenth-century with the static album or visitors’ book kept at religious institutions, stately homes and inns, in which departing guests recorded tributes before continuing on their journey. The English poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771) unwittingly played a major role in naturalising the European practice. Staying in 1741 at the famous Monastery of the Grande Chartreuse on the return leg of his Grand Tour, Gray composed an Alcaic Ode for the monastery’s visitors’ book, ‘the Album of the Fathers’. Although the Ode lacks the generic conventions of later album verses, its first publication in 1775 emphasised that context: the Gentleman’s Magazine titled it ODE. By the late Mr. GRAY. Written in the Album of the Grande Chartreuse, in Dauphiny, Aug. 1741. By 1788 the Critical Review saw ‘Gray’s very elegant Latin Ode’ as primary evidence for an emergent history of the English album.

 cossey hallIn 1785 an album was started at Costessey Hall, the Norfolk country house of the Catholic Jerningham family. Although the book is lost, records of its content and use survive in the Jerningham family letters at the Cadbury Library, University of Birmingham, and in contemporary periodicals. The volume stimulated public curiosity about elite album-keeping through a long poem, ‘Lines Written in the Album at Cossey-Hall, Norfolk, the Seat of Sir William Jerningham, August the 4th, 1786’, by the baronet’s brother, the high society wit Edward Jerningham (1737-1812), inspiration for Sir Benjamin Backbite in Robert Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal (1777). First privately printed for friends only, the poem suddenly became much more visible in 1787, when it was reprinted in four newspapers and two magazines in the space of a fortnight. The poem was introduced as a unique manuscript treasure copied directly from the album on a visit to Costessey Hall; in fact it was appropriated from the private printing, then pirated by opportunistic editors. At this time it was still necessary to explain that ‘The Album is a book, in the blank leaves of which every visitor writes something’; later reprintings could rely on readers knowing very well what an album was.

‘Lines written in the Album, at Cossey Hall’ is the most widely known late-eighteenth century album poem, and made its subject the most famous English album of the time. The high profile of album-keeping is shown by it becoming the premise of a Whig political satire. Joseph Richardson’s Extracts from the Album of Streatham: Or, Ministerial Amusements (1788) pretended that William Pitt the Younger’s Tory ministry gathered at Sir Thomas Steele’s house, Streatham Park, during the summer recess. According to the Whig view, Pitt’s ministers were too vain and irresponsible to spend their spare time working hard on affairs of state and foreign diplomacy. To alleviate their boredom, the ministers start an album. The fictional Album of Streatham presents extracts from the politicians’ self-revealingly inept poems, interspersed with comic scenes from these unlikely literary soirées.

ministerial amusements

Anon, ‘The Album: or, Ministerial Amusements. No. I.’, Walker’s Hibernian Magazine, Jan 1788, p. 29. British Periodicals Online. ©ProQuest LLC, 2008

The Editor’s re-creation of the book’s beginnings shows how this bravura political parody depends on readers’ shared understanding of the conventions of album culture. Agreeing in principle ‘that an Album should be immediately opened’ was much easier than improvising a poem for real: when ‘the ALBUM was produced, a degree of anxious diffidence appeared in every face’. Vain parliamentarians are humorously presented as struck dumb with bashfulness, but readers who had been asked to contribute to albums would recognise their own trepidation and fear of failure.

By the end of the 1780s, print culture had identified the vogue for elite albums in out-of-the-way places as a lucrative opportunity. In 1789, a manuscript of inscriptions by famous travellers copied from the ‘Album of the Fathers’ became bizarrely embroiled in disputes between the business-partners of fashionable London newspaper, the World, John Bell, Edward Topham, and Charles Este. After a row, Bell left to set up his own rival daily, The Oracle. When the World published a series of extracts from ‘LA GRANDE CHARTREUSE’, boasting that they were ‘literal Copies from the hand-writing of the FIRST PEOPLE of FASHION’, Bell launched a counter-attack. The Oracle’s satirical parodies ‘LA PETITE CHARTREUSE’ or ‘Extracts from the ALBUM of COWSLIP HALL’ contrasted sublime Chartreuse with Topham’s humdrum fenland country residence.

Bell’s next publication was The British Album, a bold re-appropriation of the World’s successful spin-off poetry anthologies. By identifying his anthology with the fashionable album, Bell distanced the poems further from their newspaper origins. However, when William Gifford (1756-1826) attacked the Della Cruscan poets in his notorious verse satires The Baviad (1791) and Maeviad (1795), he targeted Bell’s British Album as a symbol of poetry’s cultural feminisation:

I was tempted to indulge in a wish that the blue-stocking club would issue an immediate order to Mr. Bell, to examine the cells of Bedlam. Certainly, if an accurate transcript were made from the ‘darken’d walls’ once or twice a quarter, an ALBUM might be presented to the fashionable world, more poetical, and far more rational, than any they have lately honoured with their applause.

Gifford’s nasty misogynistic fantasy that an Album of Bedlam would be more rational and better art than the works of leading contemporary women writers anticipates the anti-feminist satire characteristic of male commentary on albums in the 1820s.

About Katie Brown

Katie Brown is a Teaching Fellow in Hispanic Studies at University of Bristol, book-lover and translator.
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