The Bengal Annual: A Digital Exploration of Non-Canonical British Romantic Literature


Beauty, in the traditional Romantic sense, is the manifestation of superficial pleasure. It is oftentimes in opposition to the Sublime, which is meant to evoke deep, intense emotions.

During the Romantic period, the notion of Beauty and the Sublime were oftentimes intrinsically linked. Beauty was found in the Picturesque, the natural state of the world, and the deeply ingrained emotions these images evoked within those who applied their thoughts with pen to paper for others to consume. As John Keats once claimed in his Odes, “what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth.” Among male Romantic writers—specifically poets—beauty as it pertained to the imagination and the truth this brought to the poet was transcendental in quality; a quality that trumped scientific musings on the natural world. Additionally, beauty was not only sought out in the natural world—it was also tied to the concepts of “truth and goodness,” traits that were highly valued among those of a higher social class. For poets such as Keats and William Wordsworth, “Beauty” in the “traditional” Romantic sense is tied to essential freedoms: freedom as it exists in the conscious and unconscious mind, freedom of enlightened thought, and freedom of authorial expression.

For a number of authors published in The Bengal Annual, beauty, the image of the female body, and desire are also intertwined concepts. Most notably in such as “The Sage and the Nymph,” “To—,” “The Handmaiden’s Dream,” and briefly in “The Seven Ages,” the figures of women are painted as desirable objects, framed within the lens of the male (author’s) gaze. This idea gains far more layers when one begins to incorporate the bodies of women of color, which are viewed in an alternative means through the colonialist perspective. This is most apparent in The Oriental Annual's short story, “The Rajpootni Bride,” which features a young, mystical woman of nature whose body is gruesomely distorted by an ancient, Indian burial tradition at the story’s close. 

As such, the concept of beauty is not a universal truth among all Romantic writers in The Bengal Annual and outside of it, particularly for female writers, writers of color, and works that feature these voices. For Mary Wollstonecraft in A Vindication of the Rights of Women, the idea of beauty is not tied to the natural world, but in the way women are to present themselves in a society that demanded their demureness, purity, and obedience. In that sense, the Romantic aesthetic of beauty was quite different; it was somewhat liberating, but in an almost entirely different sense. In Charlotte Smith’s case, her Elegiac Sonnets became a way for her to model and explore the many positive traits that were associated with her male contemporaries—traits that many believed women did not possess, such as level-headedness, the capacity for deep, reflective self-examination, and the ability to control their emotions.

Note: A stark difference between The Oriental Annual and The Bengal Annual is their publication location: London for the former as opposed to Calcutta for the latter. The question of audience or "imagined community" comes up with this difference in geographical location, readership, distribution, and printing process; the question of access to popular British authors and experienced printers, engravers, and booksellers also comes up -- all queries that we didn't have time to address but invite others to take up. 

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