An Illustration of some of the nineteenth century's most notorious women editors and writers.
An illustration of some of the nineteenth century’s most notorious women editors and writers.

Nineteenth century literary annuals receive positive attention from critics Terence Hoagwood and Kathryn Ledbetter in “Colour’d Shadows”: Contexts in Publishing, Printing, and Reading Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers. According to these authors, whereas conduct manuals restricted femininity by outlining codes of moral behavior, literary annuals allowed women to explore their sexual identities. The Keepsake was one of the more lasting annuals whose engravings depicted provocative art and images targeting women readers. Some its female models, such as “Isabel,” (1850 Keepsake) convey messages that directly oppose the image of the genteel woman promoted by the conduct manual. While I agree with Hoagwood and Ledbetter’s notion that the literary annual afforded women a means of obtaining both professional and sexual power, I have some trouble accepting the claim that the conduct manual was only an ideological construct. Though it is designed to promote middle class values of femininity, it also positions women’s desire and desirability as its central theme. Nancy Armstrong argues this in Desire and Domestic Fiction. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, for instance, is a narrative revolving around a single event – that is Pamela’s assertion and refusal to become Mr. B’s mistress. She not only manages to persuade Mr. B. to conform to middle class notions of marriage but also exercises feminine autonomy through the act of writing. It is a work that is particularly self-reflexive in regards to women’s agency in the form of her written identity. Sure, Pamela is representative of arising middle class values but she is also an undeniably powerful figure in literary history.

Hoagward and Ledbetter also extend their discussion on literary annuals to include the significance of the image of the reading woman. However, I am unsatisfied with their general conclusion that the image of reading women promoted “reading as a tool for escape as well as intellectual development (136). Their main argument is that nineteenth century literature was self-reflexive or “self-referential” (14) of the commodification of art in print culture. Hoagward and Ledbetter begin by analyzing Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s poem “The Troubadour” and its emphasis on “moving illusions (colored shadows) broadcast[ed] by the print media …which had become a big business in the modern and multinational sense” (14). If the purpose of art was to illustrate its own artificiality, then the image of the reading woman might also fit within this material frame. Their discussion of women’s reading practices ends abruptly. This might not be a shortcoming in the book but  an area I expected more from because of my own research interests.

Caroline Norton's life history continues to be a topic of interest in this biography by Alan Chedzoy
Caroline Norton’s life continues to be a topic of interest in this biography by Alan Chedzoy

Another point Hoagward and Ledbetter stress is that notoriety for women writers, and especially for editors, did not necessarily work to their disadvantage. In fact, scandal was a marketing tool that enhanced their celebrity status. Writer Caroline Norton marketed the image of the calumniated woman because she was the center of public attention when she was accused of adultery. Thus, an “editors poetic persona became an editorial tool” (92) and a form of advertisement. Lady Morgan was always under scrutiny and within the public eye but she remained a literary figure who “inspired a flurry of commentary, both positive and negative, until after her death” (65). Although Hoadward and Ledbetter claim that such writers managed to “deter the effects of moral censorship” (62) despite their scandalous personal histories, they do not explain how these women managed to dodge censorship given their fragile public images.

Overall, I found “Colour’d Shadows”: Contexts in Publishing, Printing, and Reading Nineteenth-Century British Women Writers engaging and accessible. In the beginning of the book, they approach nineteenth century poetry within a theoretical frame based on the history of books. They pursue a critical angle that adds a nuanced view to the scholarly conversation by considering how print markets and publishing contexts influence women writers and their work.