So, I’ll begin my blog by saying that I am super excited about this topic and will be spending my summer doing more research on it. I find gift books fascinating not only as symbols of Victorian consumerism, but also, as my article selection will show, in relation to women as readers, authors, and editors. The Keepsake‘s close ties to women is even embodied in the book itself, as it is bound in red silk dress fabric and uses a rubber backing made from the same material used in corsets. Furthermore, besides offering women the opportunity to get involved as editor and author, especially after publishers realized that male literary celebrities were not the draw for their women readers, these literary annuals also contributed to educating women about art through their engravings; as Terence Hoagwood and Kathryn Ledbetter write in Introduction to the Keepsake, “The Keepsake was at the center of this popularization process [of fine art], educating women and providing them with engravings of elegant paintings by famous artists form the Royal Academy . . .”
However, what I find most fascinating about the Keepsake is perhaps its least “book history” aspect: the content of the stories. Considering the intended audience of these gift books, the content discussed in Ledbetter’s “Domesticity Betrayed: The Keepsake Literary Annual” seems both shocking and apropos. As Ledbetter discusses, these more subversive stories related a reality that was in opposition to the ideals of domesticity, thereby allowing women readers who could relate to this reality to feel that “they were not alone” (16). These authors offered their readers support by writing about women’s real, rather than ideal, experience of love, marriage, family, and society. These subversive stories also allowed women to live out their fantasies as either independent and courageous women or angry and murderous women, making their submissive domestic reality more palatable. In these instances, it would appear that the censorship Hogg experienced when submitting a story to a children’s annual was not as strict regarding the Keepsake, and I can’t help to wonder if there isn’t a correlation between women editors and more subversive stories (especially considering Lady Blessington was no paragon of virtue). Furthermore, I find it interesting that several of the authors discussed by Ledbetter as writing subversive stories published anonymously, perhaps to keep their reputation free from any taint associated with these tales? In addition, two of the authors Ledbetter discusses, L. E. L. and Caroline Norton, lived rather scandalous lives, L.E. L. as a single woman providing for herself by writing was often associated romantically with various men by the press while Norton, as Ledbetter discussed, was divorced. Did the Keepsake, and perhaps other literary annuals, provide an outlet for more subversive/scandalous writings to be published and circulated to middle-class women readers?
Also, as a relatively unrelated final note, the illustrator/engraver seems to develop quite a role in the production of the gift books, especially when one looks at the prices they were paid for their work. Authors, while also paid (at times) extremely well to seduce them to contributing, seem to lose some authority over their work, whether by being told to “illustrate” an already pre-commissioned engraving, publishing anonymously, and/or by losing any rights to the story after publishing. Meanwhile, the editors had the power to censor, select contributors, and arrange the book as they pleased. My question, in bringing all this up, is: Who actually had the power when it came to arranging gift books? Who has the most say? The power relations in the production of these gift books seems to be awfully skewed from what we would normally think when looking at editor, author, and illustrator/engraver . . .