THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB.
ONE alleviation to the slow torture of the small tea-party, from which my callow boyhood suffered, was the Annuals on the centre - table. The small tea-party was an especial trial when I was too young to be left at home, and too old to be sent to bed at sunset. I was not a desirable interlocutor in the general conversation. I was still less so in the dialogue unter vier Augen, which chanced when an unmatched guest, in default of other partner, turned to me. In short, I was that unhappy little pitcher whose long ears it was expedient to keep closed, and that enfant terrible whose tongue it was expedient to bridle. I knew that I must not talk when so inclined, for little boys should be seen and not heard. I was not disposed to speak when I was spoken to, having had painful experience that questions put to me had a concealed sting in their tails, and might lead to unpleasant revelations as to school-standing and to a disadvantageous display of ignorance. Whether pert or shy, I felt sure I should be so in the wrong place.
The small tea-party also involved distressing preliminaries. There was the enforced prompt return from afternoon school (those were the days of two sessions) ; the loss of play, and the reproaches of the other fellows, who could not understand why home should be reached before the sixo’clock tea - hour. Then came the ablutionary trial, the distressful combing and brushing of rebel locks, the misery of being dressed in my best suit at a time of life when fine raiment was a care and a nuisance. There was the loss of an evening which might have been given to naval construction, or the pasting of the next Saturday’s kite. All this was also the prelude to a banquet sure to be more or less Barmecidal, since Benjamin, as the youngest guest, was helped last, but not in any fivefold proportion, and propriety, bashfulness, and maternal precaution combined to shut down the floodgates of appetite.
But when the meal was over, and the company had returned to the parlor, after a little while the talk became lively and general, and then the small boy could sidle up to the table on which lay the Annuals.
What was the Annual ?
That part of the community born “ since the war ” has no knowledge whatever of the article. It has been relegated from the centre-table to the bookcase, from the bookcase to the spare-bedroom closet, from the closet to the garret, and from the garret to dusty oblivion.
The Annual was a gift volume which appeared at Christmas and New Year’s tide. It was beautifully bound in the most expensive and ephemeral style of splendor. The more delicate specimens were often inclosed in a sort of pasteboard coffin, and were extracted by the aid of a strip of ribbon which it was a fearful joy to handle. It was filled with steel engravings of the finest sort, and with literary matter of varying degrees of merit. Readers familiar with the history of Arthur Pendennis, Esq., may remember that his first success in authorship was the production of a poem to go with a picture in one of these volumes.
These books were known as Tokens, Keepsakes, Atlantic Souvenirs, Landscape Annuals, Gems, Oriental Annuals, Books of Beauty, The Pearl, The Amethyst, and by other titles which have faded from my memory. Great writers were for a time ready to lend their names to these enterprises. Titled authors shed the lustre of their coronets on their pages. The pictures were of a really high order. If one could make a full collection of these forgotten books, it would be possible to get admirably executed engravings of pictures by Turner, Clarkson Stanfield, Stothard, Sam Prout, J. Skinner Prout, Martin, Frank Stone, Westall, Wilkie, Mulready, Landseer, and others of the best British artists of those days. The letterpress was by no means contemptible. Leitch Ritchie wrote for the Annuals he edited several very clever stories, which he afterward expanded into three-volume novels, the watered stock of which was not improved by the process. Miss Mitford and the Howitts contributed some capital sketches, Byron and Southey, Alaric A. Watts, T. K. Hervey, Tom Hood, Barry Cornwall, Haynes Bayly, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Abdy, Praed, Macaulay, Charles Swain, and others did not disdain the Annual. One device was to give illustrations from the Waverley novels, Pilgrim’s Progress, Don Quixote, Shakespeare and Milton, but to have these written up to by nameless and inferior authors The Oriental and Landscape Annuals were works of real merit. For instance, the Oriental would contain very striking views of Indian landscapes, and a connected and lively outline of some of the great reigns of the emperors, Baber, Aurung-Zeb, or Jenjis Khan. The Landscape Annual took some Continental region, — France, the Rhine, Switzerland, Italy and Spain,—and devoted its letterpress to legends, historical associations, and descriptive travel. The English Annual had its counterpart in this country. The American volumes got their pictures from across the water, but employed home writers : Catherine Sedgwick, Hawthorne, N. P. Willis, Percival, Peter Parley, Lewis and Willis Gaylord Clark, Isaac McClellan, Fitz-Greene Halleck, Grenville Mellen, President John Quincy Adams, and possibly Edgar A. Poe. From a complete series of Scott’s novels, a very nice set of illustrations might be gathered. I remember the scene from Waverley where Alice gives Waverley the letter ; from Guy Mannering, the smugglers’ attack on Woodbourne ; from Rob Roy, Diana Vernon and Frank in the library ; from the Heart of Midlothian, Jennie Deans in the barn with Madge Wildfire; the post-office scene in The Antiquary ; the tournament of Ashby-de-laZouche, and Ivanhoe and Rebecca in Front de Bœuf’s castle.
Through these books, English and American, were scattered brief stories which still linger in my memory: The Bear of Carniola, The Marsh Maiden, Iola the Heroine of Suli, The Smugglers’ Isle, Count Egmont’s Jewels, some of Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, which the world has not let die, and others whose titles I cannot recall, but which I should gladly reperuse.
Sir Walter wrote for the Keepsake The Laird’s; Jock, My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror, and The Tapestried Chamber. The illustration to this last — I forget whether Scott wrote up to the picture, or the picture was drawn for the story— was one that for years had a weird fascination for me. In boyhood’s breezy hour I used to linger over the volume which contained it, half hoping that I might stumble upon it unawares and feel the shock and thrill, and well remember how I used to turn page after page till I came as near to it as I dared, and then, with a hurried dash, skip several leaves at once, so as not to behold that awful spectral face ! Charles Lamb did the same thing with the picture of Saul and the Witch of Endor in Stackhouse’s family Bible. At any rate, my friend Colonel Percy Osbaldistone, who in the late war led many a gallant cavalry charge, owned to me, in our college days, that the picture affected him precisely as it did me.
The Annual flourished at about 1830. Then the fashion was at its height. But it went out as rapidly as it came in. The specimens of its last days were deplorable, both in art and in literary matter. It became in some way “ infra dig.” for the larger lights of literature to appear in that galaxy, and when Sirius, Aldebaran, Altair, and the planets go out, fifth and sixth magnitudes do not long stay in. The coronets grew tired of the business, — Lady Blessington was one, — or else hankered after the wider work of full-grown novels, just as water-color beginners secretly pine for oils and canvas. I fancy there were unpleasantnesses in the parlors of publishers. It was no easy matter to ask a peeress kindly to contribute, and then to “ decline with thanks,” and put in her place a stop-gap from Grub Street ; and then the publishers found that they could no longer afford to ruin themselves by extravagant bindings and costly engravings. So the fad vanished as it came. But for a season it was the correct thing for Damon to send Phyllis “the gem of the season,” and it cost Damon something less than jewelry and flowers cost him to-day.
The Annual filled a place which wanted filling. There was no cheap literature to speak of, in those days. No magazine had taken up the pictorial dodge (it would have been better for literature if none had done so), and there were no heavy “ duffs ” palmed off on the public by the array of pictorial plums stuck over them. There was no cheap-novel stand in the railway station, and hardly any railway stations in which to put them. People then bought books to keep, and not to read and fling away when the day’s travel was done.
If I remember rightly, the stories of the Annuals were shorter than they would be in the magazine of to-day, which is ever crying for new hands and short stories, while sticking fast to noted names and diluted serials. I am tempted to say, “Messieurs Editors, you pay by the page, and you get — pages. But real ability shone out in those narrower limits. A truly first-class story is all the more striking for being condensed into close quarters.” One is nowadays tempted to remember the sarcasm of Wamba when Athelstane Said he should tilt in the mêlée, and that “ it was better to be the best man in an hundred than the best man of two.”
To return to the theme on which this improvisation was begun, I recall with a Sad pleasure the boy’s deep delight over those books which soothed the weariness of what the late Nicholas Biddle described as “ milky talk and watery tea.” From them the boy won a love of letters of high-bred style and finished surroundings which did him good in after years. For these books, whatever their defects, were such as could lie conspicuously on drawing-room tables and be found in the virgin bower of beauty, and were studiously free from the slightest taint of impropriety, from aught that savored of the lack of refinement. Their morals might not be deep, but they were sure to be clean and clear.
There is another charm which prompts the longing for those old volumes. They showed the costumes and the manners of a bygone day. Almost every one had portraits of celebrities of the hour, of noble patrons, of distinguished beauties. In fact, the Books of Beauty and Flowers of Loveliness were devoted to this cult, and one would be glad to compare with Du Maurier’s lanky aristocracy, his Maypole jeunesse dorée, and his belles of “ long standing ” the pretty and petite figures In gigot sleeves and raven locks, high towering in bows and puffed curls, with their short waists, their bellshaped skirts, and their tiny slippers just showing the cross-tie above the instep, which I remember in the Annual’s pages.
These were not strange then, for so were arrayed the dames and demoiselles who sat around the tea-tables of my youth. The fair visions of the book were only a glorified and idealized presentment of the common life. How oddly would they look now, could one hunt them up on the dusty back shelves of the second-hand bookstore ! I fear this quest would be in vain, though if my Manilla galleon escapes Lord Anson’s buccaneers and the Chilian cruisers, and brings me in a goodly invoice of Acapulcan ingots, I shall certainly try it.
They were not books to be resold. They had their brief day. A last year’s Annual was not to be thought of as a present, however attractive in itself. Its date betrayed it. They were gifts, and often treasured up as the faded rose and the ivory Malbone miniature of her bridal days are treasured in the matron’s cabinet, because they were haunted with the secret and subtle fragrance of bygone memories. If an old Annual could tell its own life-story, and if I could write it down as it should be written, what pages I should proudly aspire to in the best American periodical ! But I fear that they are gone, and that my dream of filling a college library shelf with a complete collection of them is only a dream. I write these lines in the lingering hope that, like the sibyl’s volumes, a remnant may be brought back from the burning. I think I would gladly pay her the original price of asking, would she vouchsafe me even the third portion.